Sydney wakes from its six-week slumber as summer holiday ends

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 January, 2008, 12:00am

Sydney

As the sultry month of January edges to its conclusion, a curious phenomenon takes place in Sydney.

The first signs are subtle: the appearance of more BMW convertibles, the curious absence of pleasure craft on the harbour, the thinning gaggle of tourists on the steps of the Opera House.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Australia's financial and commercial hub is coming back to life after its annual six-week summer slumber.

For most Sydneysiders, work stops in mid-December and does not resume in earnest until the last week in January - just in time for the start of the new school year.

For most of the intervening weeks, life just drifts along, interrupted only by the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race on Boxing Day and the explosion of fireworks and champagne corks on New Year's Eve.

The annual migration back to the city begins, reluctantly, around Australia Day, which commemorates the beginning of white settlement and, presumably, the continent's first taste of the Protestant work ethic. Since January 26 fell on a Saturday this year, most workers got to take Monday off.

The origins of Sydney's annual hiatus can be traced back to colonial times when summer - a time of searing heat, bush fires and long, muggy nights - drove its pink-faced, buttoned-up inhabitants to flee the city in favour of the seaside or the Blue Mountains.

Post-war affluence, the advent of paid leave and the rise of the motor car consolidated the habit of shutting up shop for the summer, confirming Australia's international reputation as the 'Land of the Long Weekend'.

Sydney, in particular, with its pristine surf beaches, waterfront restaurants and laid-back dress code, is often seen as a city of loafers, where work comes a poor second to surfing, the pub or cricket.

One historian famously said there could never be a civil war in Australia because Aussies would refuse to fight on weekends.

It is a comforting stereotype, but not one supported by the facts. On the international league table of holidays, Australia is in the middle. Its annual tally of 31 days (a figure that combines paid and public holidays) is on a par with most of its Asian counterparts - Hong Kong and Singapore are both on 26 days, while Malaysians take 28 days off a year. Top of the table is Finland, whose citizens have a staggering 44 days of paid leave.

Tim Harcourt, chief economist at the Australian Trade Commission in Sydney, has made a detailed study of the country's leave patterns and says the idea that Sydneysiders are work shy is simply not true. 'The available data clearly shows that we're one of the most productive countries in the world,' he said.

'In terms of paid annual holidays, Australia is in the middle of the table, behind much of Europe and on a par with the strongest Asian economies. There is no evidence to show that we're a nation of layabouts.'

Shift worker Bev Conolly says there are plenty of people keeping the wheels of industry moving over the endless summer.

'Nobody works? Nobody except farmers, truck drivers, mail sorters, call centre workers, taxi drivers, petrol station cashiers, sales assistants, bartenders, doctors, nurses and everyone else who keeps the seats warm while the rest of the country is frolicking on the beach.'

Some experts argue Australia should adopt even more public holidays.

Andrew Leigh, an economist at the Australian National University, says public holidays play a positive role in people's ability to socialise with friends and family - an important consideration when Australians are working longer hours and taking shorter, more fragmented holidays. 'As working hours become more unpredictable, public holidays play an increasingly important role,' he says.

This will be music to the ears of the legion of tanned Sydneysiders easing their way back into work mode, but how the city's normally voluble politicians will react to the suggestion is impossible to know - they don't get back from their holiday until February 26.