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. I like the idea a lot. But then I’m a Green voter so I would, wouldn’t I 🙂

    One of the more amusing things I’ve done in employment negotiations is ask for extra leave. I’ve never got it, but the reactions have been entertaining and at times informative. Two opposite answers are commonest: no, because everyone will want it; and no, because no-one take all their leave anyway so you’d just end up with more accumulated leave. Neither is much of an advertisement for taking the offered job.

    One weird one when they turned down a holiday-instead-of-pay-rise was later allowing me to take unpaid leave. In the contract it said we could take up to two weeks a year unpaid as of right (subject to normal leave permission rules). So no I can’t have a pay rise…. but I can take unpaid leave that cancels out the rise. Moving right along….

  2. John, Welcome to social conservatism.
    I would welcome penalty rates and more public holidays ( and the penalty rates associated with that) as something most families need. It is hard to cope with the 24/7 society we are now in. Where unpaid overtime is the norm not the exception and the family finds it very hard. I would think single parent families would find it overwhelming.

    Let us do it.

    This is where my social conservatism overwhelms my neo-liberal economic outlook.

    Did one nation support this notion? I imagine they should have

  3. The puritanical attitude to holidays is linked to the equating of “working harder” with productivity gain that is espoused by the Productivity Commission and other groups such as the BCA. The remedy is to value leisure as a consumption activity and to promote its provision as an improvement in consumption standards. And the double dividend, as you point out, is that many leisure (and cultural-educational) activities are not resource-intensive so that there are environmental gains. I agree, let’s have more holidays!

  4. Economics models the market (more strictly the monetised part of the economy) as the sphere of exchange. I think it’s more accurately the sphere that supports the social hierarchy (a pure exchange society would be socially flat). So expect as resources get tight a push for longer hours, greater monetisation, more extraction. The alternative is a diminution of the social pyramid, something hard on the bottom, catastrophic for the top.

  5. Harry the Puritans were evangelicals and thus social conservatives. Modern day Puritans like myself are utterly opposed to working right through the weekend and having no family time.

    As you say it is bad for business as well.

  6. The idea makes sense both at this point in time, with high unemployment, and also with an eye to the sensible history of reducing labour hours via the gains of technology and automation.

    There is no sense in getting a proportion of the labour force to work excess hours while there are so many unemployed. As for paying people to do nothing (public holidays), well CEOs and shareholders are paid a lot to do nothing. Shareholders and rentiers do no work for their money. CEOs are now arguably overpaid by at least a factor of 10 times so about 9/10ths of their income is essentially unearned.

    “Over the last several decades, inflation-adjusted CEO compensation increased from $1.5 million in 1978 to $16.3 million in 2014, or 997 percent, a rise almost double stock market growth.” – epi dot org “CEO Pay Has Grown 90 Times Faster than Typical Worker Pay Since 1978”.

    So, a reduction in shareholder income (via taxes of some form) and in CEO pay via legislated CEO pay limits and/or taxation would easily pay for the public holidays.

    More broadly, we need a socialist plan of the order of the neoliberal’s Omega Files from the Adam Smith Institute (first used by Thatcher). That is a to say we need a socialist plan book to completely restructure our political economy in the direction diametrically opposed to the Omega Files plans.

  7. My Dad retired just shy of 65 about 25 years age. I recall that before he retired a few of his friends retired early – some time after the age of 55. Now it seems we’re being told many of us won’t be able to afford to retire at 65 and will have to work much longer.

    I do recall when I was growing up people were saying you’d be able to retire at 55. We’re supposedly a richer country now, but the life of a working person seems to be getting worse rather than better. How did it come to this ?

  8. I don’t fear automation. But does automation mean we all spend less time working to make a living, or does automation mean more being forced into the precariat (or worse) while the benefits accrue only the richest?

    Neoliberalism has its answer and it is an evil one.

  9. @NathanA

    “So, that introduction of a public holiday on AFL grand final eve in the year of 2015 by, wait for it, a Labor Government, just passed you by?”

    From the OP “Some more progressive Labor governments, such as that of the ACT have pushed for more public holidays. ”

    I apologize for bruising your Victorian sensitivities by giving a mere territory as an example rather than an important state.

  10. One interesting thing that the advocates of working longer hours miss is that it is inefficient and can be a detriment to productivity.

    At the factory-floor level, pioneering research as far back as the 1880’s in Germany and in Britain during the First World War demonstrated that working more than 40 hours per week did not result in any increased productivity.

    Any minor gains in units produced, if there were any, was offset by increased scrap rates or increased damage to machinery (and presumably operators).

    Note that the 40 hour standard is for long term work. People seem able to sustain much higher hours for short intense bursts.

    Working very long hours (24+ hours) seems to produce cognitive impairment up there with inebriation.

    I have seen some informed comment that suggests that for more complex intellectual work, even 40 houps per week may be unreasonable.

    It may be that one of the reasons a lot of software is buggy is that the “heroic programmer” working 18 hour days and living on pizza, Jolt Cola and chocolate-covered espresso beans for weeks or months at a time is not the best model for producing good software or anything else.

  11. Yes its funny how the point behind working has been rather lost.

    And seems to be lost from the thinking of business and the economics community to judge by the mutterings of the productivity commission which seem more aimed at milking the bull as the old saying goes.

    I would be interested to know about the origins of all this such as the rise of the Productivity Commission. Though its a Howard Government beast Labor never abolished it and its creation in 1998 suggests it was already in the pipeline under Labor. And it was Labor who invented the odious ‘efficiency dividend’

    Could you clarify/correct as necessary?

  12. We ought to have an Equality Policy Commission to review our institutions and policies to see how Australia can be a more egalitarian society without compromising on long-term growth. “Growth” ought to be defined as inclusive growth, taking account of distributional outcomes.

    Either review the mandate of the Productivity Commission (and call it a Productivity and Equality Commission) or set up a separate body.

  13. hc :
    The puritanical attitude to holidays is linked to the equating of “working harder” with productivity gain

    So they only care about productivity per year elapsed, rather than per hour worked? That seems frankly stupid. Not surprising, mind.

    It may have escaped them but it’s well know in the software industry that productivity per week is inversely correlated with hours worked, and the number of major re-work incidents is positively correlated. And one bit of rework can take 100’s of hours. It’s entirely possible (even common) for a team of engineers to work a marathon series of long weeks and end going backwards. Or for that team to work an average of 20 hours a week during the design phase and end up with a design that saves hundreds or thousands of hours work. That’s not so much “define productivity” as “engineering is not intuitive, even to engineers”.

    That effect leads to the motto “do it right the first time”, which to a manager means “vociferously punish failure” but to an engineer means “it’s better to spend an extra 10 hours on the design than 1000 hours fixing problems later”. That bouncing bridge in London made headlines recently… I bet the design team were really productive in terms of “bridges designed per hour worked”.,_London

  14. One of the things I have been known to say to employers is “I work for money”. That does tend to get lost in the discussions sometimes, especially when they’ve been to inspirational workshops. All the talk of teamwork and company spirit in the world doesn’t make up for a lost weekend. Getting double my normal rate of hourly pay for the weekend might, if I can use that money to take time off later.

    I’ve seen that play out in a predictable way once: a friend kept talking about quitting, so their employer kept increasing the pay and deferred bonuses. Eventually the mortgage was paid off, the savings account was flush, and they retired early. So ever-higher pay worked really well, until it stopped working at all.

  15. @JohnQ

    I’m not Victorian, stop assuming things about me, but come on that public holiday has been a heated debate for three years now and Daniel Andrews has used all the arguments that you have, and more, to justify the holiday he created. If someone argued the Queensland Greens were taking their policy from the Victorian ALP, believing that it played well with the voters they wanted to attract on election eve, they’d have as much of a point as you do. The idea that the example of more public holidays is an example of the Greens pushing the boundaries of what is possible in political circles just isn’t a fair description of the actions of the ALP in this case.

    And I completely disagree that your comment “Some more progressive Labor governments, such as that of the ACT have pushed for more public holidays” accurately addresses the situation. Victorian Labor implemented the additional public holiday without pressure from the Greens, not just pushed for it, which matters, particularly if you’re Victorian and you get the holiday.

    Sorry, I agree with you a lot, but if you think more public holidays are a good thing (and I do) I can’t for the life of me see why you would praise an election eve promise by a minor party while dismissing an earlier concrete action by a major one. Yes, there are instances where the Greens do suggest things outside the scope of the two parties, some good, some neutral, some crackers, but this is just not a good example of that.

  16. Newtonian. It is misleading to describe the Productivity Commission as a ‘Howard Government beast’. Some (many) would think the replacement of the Tariff Board by the Industries Assistance Commission, a predecessor of the PC, one of the finest achievements of the Whitlam era.

  17. Public holidays commemorate important events and birthdays; dates that have made Australia what it is today. Suggestions:

    Warnie Day (13 September, the great man’s birthday)
    6 o’clock day (repeal of 6 o’clock closing laws, date varies by state)
    Rolf Harris Day (30 March , his birthday. I know, know, there is the obvious argument against – it could clash with Easter).
    Hills Hoist Day (19 August, date the patent application was lodged by Gilbert Toyne.)

  18. I’ve no quarrel with JQ’s plea for more leisure and shorter working years. He does not however offer any case why the leisure should take the form of public holidays rather than more days off, chosen by mutual agreement. Classical liberalism (not neo) suggests that the latter scheme will create more welfare. There are counter-arguments for simultaneous public holidays:
    1. They are far harder for bad employers to game, abuse or evade.
    2. They celebrate community values, as with the Third/Fourth Commandment to rest on the sabbath. The values there were religious, but I dare say you can make a secular, Rawlsian version of the case.
    3. Because of market externalities, it is often more efficient to open and close trading simultaneously in connected markets, from stock exchanges to shopping malls. This assumes that we reject the Gradgrind vision of 24/365 markets as dystopian, from argument 1 or 2.

  19. One striking oddity is that August 15th, celebrating the ultramontane and totally un-Biblical Catholic dogma of tga Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is a public holiday in lay and often militantly anticlerical France. I’ve not spitted leftists campaigning against it.

  20. Hi John
    The Victorian example is interesting because the Regulatory Impact Statement for the Government showed quite a poor CBA —
    “The benefit of this additional leisure time equates to between $156 million and $312 million annually (excluding any benefits associated with coordinated leisure time).”…
    ” The lost production (or economic cost) from the new public holidays is estimated to be between $717 million and $898 million annually.”

    However the soft of coordinated leisure time may be important
    (See I’d love to hear your thoughts on the RIS.


  21. @James Wimberley

    These were pretty much the arguments I had in mind. Since I’m on holidays, I was too lazy to fill in the dots, but you’ve done a good job.

    Of course, I also favor more annual leave, as I’ve said previously.

    Finally, and in line with Scott Morrison’s push for religious freedom, I’d be happy to endorse an extension of public holidays in a way that celebrates religious diversity with (for example, Eid, Diwali, Yom Kippur and a Free Thought day, selected to fill in any big gaps in the calendar).

  22. @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.

  23. @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.

  24. 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.”

  25. @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.

  26. @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.

  27. @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.

  28. 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.

  29. @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.

  30. @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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. @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.

  34. @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.

  35. @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.

  36. 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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