The exciting world of measuring stuff
Doubtless, last Wednesday night you were struggling to get to sleep.
Having marked May 20 on the calendar weeks in advance the sense of anticipation can be intense when there is just one sleep to go. For me, circadian rhythms stood no chance in the face of the sheer excitement of Thursday’s dawn: the dawn of World Metrology Day.
For those who measure things this is a very important anniversary. World Metrology Day commemorates the signing of the Convention of the Metre in 1875 and the birth of the modern international system of measurement.
At the heart of this system is the very basic tenet, that in order for trade to be effective, it has to be carried out to an agreed set of standards.
Thomas Jefferson, the first US Secretary of State, regarded his signature achievement in that role as establishing a system of weights and measures for the new American Republic. Trade measurement is an essential part of the economic infrastructure of any developed economy.
Trade measurement has had an important role in Australia’s economic history from the earliest of colonial times.
Efforts to bring in a standardised measure in the United Kingdom very nearly sparked an explosive situation on the Hobart docks in 1826. Without the knowledge of rum importers in the far-flung penal outpost, the Winchester gallon was replaced by the Imperial gallon. The 20 per cent difference in volume translated to a 20 per cent hike in customs duty payable when the liquor crossed the wharves.
Tensions ran high until an administrative solution was struck with all the speed that the leisurely communications system of the time allowed.
It’s a great example of how taking a systematic approach to chaos can yield a measured calm. The imperial measures of the 1820s did this and the Metre Treaty of 1875 did the same internationally.
In 1901, the Australian Constitution assigned responsibility for weights and measures to the Commonwealth. Despite this, trade measurement remained with the States and Territories as ‘weights and measures’ matters were considered, in the early years of the Federation, local issues in our sparsely populated continent.
Around eighty years on from Federation in 1985 a review recommended taking a uniform approach to trade measurement legislation which was agreed to by State and Territory ministers in 1990.
But the uniformity of the legislation was compromised through differing interpretations. Different amendments were passed in different jurisdictions at different times.
So in 1995 it was recommended that a national trade measurement system be created to overcome existing inconsistencies in rules and practices.
On 13 April 2007, the National Trade Measurement project began with the agreement of all States and Territories at the Council of Australian Governments. The legal framework to give effect to the COAG agreement was laid in 2008 with amendments to the Commonwealth National Measurement Act.
Which brings me to the way I spent World Metrology Day 2010: launching the awareness campaign for the new National Trade Measurement system which will come into effect on 1 July this year. For after 109 years, the Rudd Government is fulfilling the promise of the Australian Constitution by placing weights and measures under the responsibility of the Commonwealth at last.
Australia’s trade measurement system is one of the most pervasive and significant regulatory regimes in the economy. It’s estimated that each year, we rely on one form of measurement or another in trade transactions worth around $400 billion.
A degree of faith is always involved in the conduct of trade transactions. Consumers and businesses alike reasonably expect that goods sold on the basis of measures such as length, weight and volume, are accurately represented. After all, it’s a purchaser’s absolute right to receive 250 grams of a product if that is what has been purchased.
The economy as a whole requires a trade measurement system that establishes and maintains both a national and international reputation for accurate trading.
Having one piece of legislation, one set of rules, and one administration will at last deliver one national trade measurement system for Australia. The system will be administered by one agency – the National Measurement Institute – which in turn will become a one stop shop for all measurement matters for everyone from an expert in industrial scales to the ordinary Australian consumer
So this year certainly was a big World Metrology Day. What on earth will we do next year? Only 358 sleeps to go.
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