Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


Daylight Saving

10/04/2007

From earliest times Kiwi colonials were interested in the clock. How did our time relate to Greenwich Mean Time in Britain from whence most had come? From 1868 till 1929 our official clock was eleven and a half hours ahead of Britain's. After 20 years of private members' bills by the Dunedin MP Thomas (Summertime) Sidey he finally got our clocks moved forward to 12 hours ahead of GMT in 1929. There were brief experiments with daylight hours during the depression and World War Two, but from 1946 to 1974 we stuck religiously to 12 hours ahead of GMT in summer and winter, wasting many daylight hours in summer. Dairy farmers in particular opposed daylight saving because it meant they rose in the dark all the year round to milk their cows. But the urban portion of the population kept increasing, and support for daylight saving grew. In 1974 the then Labour Minister of Internal Affairs, Henry May, pushed the Time Bill through Parliament. That allowed cabinet to set summertime hours by regulation. A bare 18 weeks of daylight saving, or slightly more than a third of each year, applied from the end of October 1974 until the end of February 1989.

May's move was popular, although at the time he received some amazing letters of protest. One indignant woman complained that her curtains were fading faster, another that her hens weren't laying as well as they had been. As an MP I took an interest in the issue and gradually realized that cabinet hadn't gone far enough. When I became Minister of Internal Affairs in August 1987 I was in a position to do something about the wasted morning hour of daylight from the end of September until the end of October, and the missed hour of evening light in March.

However, the announcement of another six weeks of daylight saving from the spring of 1989 came about by accident. At the end of September 1988 Prime Minister David Lange and his Finance Minister Roger Douglas were constantly at each other's throats, and their policy spat dominated the news. Mike Moore bowled into the Cabinet Policy Committee one morning with the words "We need a diversion!" Ministers played with several ideas. Then I told them I'd checked the law and knew we could change the regulations covering daylight saving. "Yes!" said my colleagues in unison; they couldn't comprehend the war between Lange and Douglas, but realized my suggestion would divert attention for awhile. I called a press conference and announced that the government was considering extending daylight saving by six weeks - four in the spring, and two at the end of summer. The announcement dominated the news for a few days; sadly the Lange-Douglas fight lasted for the better part of another year. I received about 900 letters on daylight saving, many from women's divisions of Federated Farmers in protest. Opinion polls, however, told another story: an overwhelming majority wanted extra daylight hours. We duly approved the regulation in early 1989 and the new dates applied from early October that year.

I realize now that I didn't go far enough. We could still add another five weeks to daylight saving without making the mornings too dark in September or March-April each year, and it can be done by the stroke of a pen. Support for the idea is even stronger than in 1989. As a general principle we need to recognize that many set out for work and for school before 7.30am, and it is preferable that they do so in at least partial daylight. Two more weeks in spring would have daylight saving starting on the third weekend in September. Another three would take the close from the middle of March till the second weekend in April, meaning that we'd have 29 weeks each year, which compares with North America and Britain. Arguments have been mounted for extra daylight saving, including that it saves electricity. I suspect there is little evidence to support this. Savings in the evening will be compensated for by use in the morning. Besides, lights don't use much power.

Because of the need to give adequate notice of a change in dates for airline and other timetables, it would be pushing things to start daylight saving this coming spring. But we could have the extra three weeks added at the end of next summer. As I proved, it's an easy change to make, will be even more popular than in 1989, and ought to commend itself to this government that is constantly looking for diversions. I'm astonished they're making such a meal of it.