In addition to this loss of economic output, there is another matter to consider. Let’s be honest, anyone who does have to work this Monday is probably going to feel pretty shirty about it, resulting in what economists call “presenteeism”. Present for duty, but not really on the job.
It’s hard to quantify the precise hit to economic output from both absenteeism and presenteeism combined, but it’s there. Not only are we suffering those losses, which vary every year, the current fixed-date Australia Day also regularly misses out on the opportunity to guarantee all workers a long weekend.
In a world of 24/7 media and constant smartphone disruptions, the need to unplug for a sustained period has never been more important. More rested employees generally make more productive employees in the long run.
Tourism and hospitality industries benefit, too, from a guaranteed long weekend which gives people the chance to get away for a decent chunk of time.
So, as we continue our almost ritualistic annual debate about changing the date of Australia Day, let me follow in the footsteps of the late Nationals MP Tim Fischer and advocate for Australia Day to be decoupled from the 26th and changed to a floating-date public holiday. Fischer said make it the last Friday of every January. I say the last Monday, to ease the transition back to the working year with a blessedly short four-day week.
What better way to elegantly bookend our sacred national time of rest between Christmas and the working year? This is what Australia Day is really about these days, anyway. Not the supposed birth of our already ancient nation when some rickety boats arrived on shore, but the grand finale to our summer season of camping, fishing, road-tripping and generally lazing away the first month of the year in a haze of barbies, tinnies and suncream.
For anyone still resistant to this new concept of Australia Day, let’s chuck in an extra public holiday on the Friday, too, and officially rebrand Australia Day to the Australia Day Long Weekend, more akin to Easter. Who could argue with that?
Well, business for one. They’d have to pay another day of penalty rates to employees. Business groups have opposed the slow creep of state government-awarded public holidays – such as Victoria’s AFL Grand Final day – on this basis, and on the basis that ad hoc state holidays create inconsistencies for cross-border businesses.
It would be better, they say, if employees were granted extra annual leave instead, or at least the ability to bank public holidays and take them at a later time, allowing employers a smoother rostering of time off.
And yet the Productivity Commission, in a recent review, conceded: “There is … empirical evidence that more shared days of leisure enrich the relationships of people with their friends and acquaintances, which then improves the quality of leisure on other days, such as weekends.”
Too right, mate.
Longer term, I’d like a bigger discussion about the appropriate level of annual leave for the modern age. In Finland, they get six weeks. In France, it’s five. Our last annual leave increase – to four weeks – occurred under the Whitlam era.
Economic evidence certainly suggests the richer individuals or societies become, the more they tend to prefer more leisure over more income. It’s called the income and leisure trade-off.
Once a certain level of material wellbeing has been achieved, it’s time to reconsider what we’re working for anyway. More money to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t really like, as money guru Dave Ramsey has summarised? Or more time to enjoy the things we already have with the people we love?
Of course, granting workers another public holiday or more annual leave is a de facto pay rise, allowing you the same pay packet for less work. Given the relative decline in worker bargaining power, it’s hard to see it happening. But if we’re not getting any pay rises any time soon, maybe it’s time to ask.
In the meantime: change the date of Australia Day to the last Monday in January, Scott Morrison. And while you’re at it, chuck another public holiday on the barbie.
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Jessica Irvine is a senior economics writer with The Sydney Morning Herald.