More public holidays for a sustainable society

As I mentioned in relation to their advocacy of an end to coal, the Greens occupy a position where they can put forward policies that are outside the range of possibilities taken seriously by the commentariat. Another recent example is their proposal, during the Queensland election campaign for four additional public holidays. Of course, this idea was ridiculed by the major parties, which are still stuck in a mode of thinking where “jobs and growth” are ends in themselves rather than means to a better life. Jackie Trad, for example, was quoted as responding that “the election was about jobs, and that the proposal was “populist”, while Tim Nicholls described it as “loopy”. The attitudes expressed by Trad and Nicholls are typical of the neoliberal* thinking dating back to the 1980s that still dominates much of the political class.

Before the 1980s, it was generally understood that the benefits of technological progress included reductions in the paid work time needed to achieve a decent standard of living. Over the first three quarters of the 20th century, standard working hours were reduced from 48 per week to 44 then to 40, annual leave became a standard condition of employment, increased to four weeks a year in the 1970s, and the number of public holidays was increased. The last significant move in this direction was the 38 hour standard working week, introduced in 1983. Some more progressive Labor governments, such as that of the ACT have pushed for more public holidays. That’s the exception though: the general direction of public policy has been to push for more “flexible” (that is, flexible at the employer’s discretion) hours and working conditions, fewer long weekends and so on.

If we are to move to a more sustainable economy, a shift away from ever-increasing material consumption is necessary. A reduction in the time devoted to market work and production, as well as being desirable in itself, is an essential part of this process. An increase in the number of official public holidays, and a restoration of penalty rates for holiday work, would be an important signal that the era “jobs and growth” neoliberalism, setting the alarm clock early, and so on, is behind us.

* Here. I’m using “neoliberal” in the broad pejorative sense of “bad assumptions associated with the era of market reform that began in the 1980s” rather than in reference to a coherent theoretical position, for which I would typically use the term “market liberalism”. There’s nothing inherently free-market about the rhetoric of harder work, productivity and “competitiveness”, but the empirical fact is that they go together.

43 thoughts on “More public holidays for a sustainable society

  1. @NathanA

    Apologies for snarkiness. To respond seriously

    (a) the post was about Queensland, and mentioned that Labor was better in some other states
    (b) clearly it’s good to have a governing party that can actually add one more public holiday, but it’s also good to have a party that can push the boundaries of debate by calling for four more. The relationship between Labor and the Greens is never going to be easy, but it can be productive.

  2. @John Quiggin

    I would nominate Humanism Day. This could cover any form of humanism (in the eyes of the beholders) from religious humanism to scientific humanism.

    To square the ledger, I would also nominate Environment Day ( to be held on World Environment Day which is 5th June).

    This is not to detract from your or any other suggestions above.

  3. As Marx said, ideally we could be freed from being tied to a job at all:
    “For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

  4. @jrkrideau
    The combination of grease and bile makes cooking withr rightists very problematic for ogres with our sympathies. I have tried rearing them outdoors in free-range conditions, eating acorns like Spanish pata negra pigs raised for top-grade bellota ham, but they refused the healthy diet.

  5. @Vegetarian
    Marx did not know a lot about cows. Dairy ones have been GMed by ten thousand years of selection so that they must be milked every day. That may not take all day, but the treadmill is still there. There are a lot of jobs like that. Iain Banks’ Culture can let its humans be dilettantes because the computer Minds will always show up for critical work.

  6. @James Wimberley
    Second hand info but it appears that rather than milking a dairy cow 14 times a week, one can reduce the frequency to only 13 times a week without loss of production. An evening free!

    I have no idea what happens to the confused cows who show up for milking.

  7. I am interested in learning about evidence that our current productivity level would justify a standard full-time workload of about 25 hours per week rather than 38. The federal government would have to use its legislative powers to establish this as the norm.

    Dr Steven Hail of the University of Adelaide told me that if the minimum wage had kept pace with labour productivity growth since 1966, the minimum wage would be over $30 per hour today rather than a mere $18.

    I think we need to be converting labour productivity growth into gains that are broadly shared. I advocate the use of employment policy to deliver high living standards combined with more time for family, friends, rest, hobbies, self-improvement, and active citizenship.

    For cognitively and creatively demanding work, four hours of focused, productive work per day is the most that even the highest performers can consistently manage. It seems silly to cling to the 38 hour working week thirty-four years since it was introduced.

  8. @jrkrideau
    The issue is clearer if you distinguish “productivity” from “production” – people have a habit of confusing them (bodies like the PC are particularly prone to it, which is appalling as they should know better). Productivity (“production per hour”) is indeed subject to diminishing marginal returns (as bog standard neoclassical economic theory would predict), but (at least up to an extreme point) production rises with hours worked.

    I’ve always thought the keenness of employers for lengthening the working week is prima facie evidence that the “New Labour Economics” is right – employers are generally paying much less than marginal product (that is, workers are exploited in the technical Marxist sense; there is a wedge between value produced and wages). Think about it – if neoclassical wage theory was right and the reduced production (but increased productivity) manifested wholly as a commensurate reduction in wages then the employer would be no worse off, and so should not care.

  9. @derrida derider
    I tend not to think of this in economic terms since my background is in the behavioural sciences but I think I agree generally with your analysis.

    I suspect another reason for the 38 hr (40 here in Canada ) work week is societal inertia. This is the way we have always done it blah, blah blah, making it difficult to convince employers that they will not suffer a productivity loss. From casual observation, face time is still very important to many managers.

    and much of labour, especially unorganized labour just accept the hours as “normal”. Getting a concerted political campaign going would not be easy.

  10. I take the thread point and agree, though I think the model of “public holidays” is less advantageous.

    I prefer the employment model that I created for my (very small) business in New Zealand.

    4 day 36 hour week with no public holidays (other than key days such as Christmas and New Year) and flexibility of choice of “days off”. I set the pay rate at 40 hours but paid it for the 36, this was the over award contribution. Overtime accrued on a total time rather than specific time (per week).

    I haven’t done this in Australia because my staff work casually (their choice) and have substantial flexi time even to the point of working 2 am to 8 am to avoid the heat of the day when appropriate.

  11. My other offering to bring balance to the force (market), is a new property title called a Capital Growth Restrained Property Title (CGRPT’s).

    In this special (social housing) Title property value can only grow at the rate of income growth and or the CPI, and is limited to owner occupiers. It also makes it possible for social benevolence (ie lower land price, lower building price, transaction tax reductions, grants, first home buyer benefits, etc to be permanently reflected and passed on in the value of the property. Such a title makes it possible for state governments to engage in expanded social housing programmes without financial or significant fiscal exposure.

    This is a raw idea which is expanded upon at ClimatePlus Climate Clippings 118.

  12. @Newtownian
    “Though its [the PC] a Howard Government beast …”
    No, its actually a WHITLAM government beast, although it didn’t get its current name and structure until Hawke.

  13. @derrida derider

    Actually, it’s the old Tariff Board, established in the 1920s. The shift away from protectionism began under Alf Rattigan who was appointed as chair under Menzies. But there’s no doubt that Whitlam was an enthusiastic supporter of this shift.

  14. @derrida derider

    The current name and structure was given by the Howard government, very soon after its election in 1996. It wasn’t just a change of name. The PC was formally a merger of the old Industry Commission, Bureau of Industry Economics and Economic Planning Advisory Commission though in practice it was an IC takeover. The IC was previously the IAC, Industry Assistance Commission, rebadged in 1989 to reflect the zeitgeist. The IAC had been known by the cognoscenti as the Industry Assassination Commission, which was a fair reflection of how it saw its mission.

  15. BilB :
    My other offering to bring balance to the force (market), is a new property title called a Capital Growth Restrained Property Title (CGRPT’s).

    IIRC Canada has something similar, or at least the Alberta Province did when I lived there for a while a few years ago. Some housing stock, and some portion of new developments in the small town I lived in had their price indexed to CPI or similar. Not a small issue if you have a nearby large city with a lot of oil money flowing in.

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