Australia's Founding Ideals: The living wage and economic justice


Professor Marilyn Lake draws on her recent research for Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform to discuss the Australian living wage.

Start Date

9th Aug 2018 6:00pm

End Date

9th Aug 2018 7:30pm


Law Lecture Theatre, Grosvenor Crescent, Sandy Bay campus

RSVP / Contact Information

E.; T. 6226 2521

A visiting scholar lecture presented by

Professor Marilyn Lake AO

Professorial Fellow in History, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies
University of Melbourne

and chaired by

Professor Kate Darian-Smith

Executive Dean and Pro Vice-Chancellor, College of Arts, Law and Education
University of Tasmania 

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When challenged by employers about the cost of wage increases for Australian workers, HB Higgins, the distinguished President of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration and author of the pioneering idea of a ‘living wage’ (articulated in 1907) replied that if employers could not afford to pay workers a ‘living wage’ they had no right doing business in Australia. The new Commonwealth, he made it clear, was setting higher standards.

In his famous Harvester judgment, Higgins stated that workers were no longer to be treated as commodities – as ‘coolies’ or ‘slaves’. Rather they must be treated as human beings living in a civilized society – with human needs and human rights.  When Alice Henry, the Australian journalist recruited to work in Chicago with the American National Women’s Trade Union League paper, Life and Labor, wrote an editorial to explain to US workers the meaning of the new concept of the ‘living wage’ she wrote: ‘Most people’s notion of a minimum wage is based upon the slave-owner’s idea, enough to keep the worker alive and fit for work’. But it meant so much more than this. It meant, she said, ‘Food wholesome and appetizing, clothes comfortable and graceful, and education broad and adequate, not forgetting the primal need for recreation’. Indeed the idea of a living wage was revolutionary: ‘It means more than humanity has ever asked for before. It is a noble, a dignified demand, something at least worthy of humanity. For it means more than life, it means the right at last for all to be human ....’. Higgins’ humanism was more inclusive than most. When challenged by pastoralists about his directive to pay Aboriginal workers a living wage in 1917, Higgins responded: ‘It is argued that this is a patriarchal industry, unfit for the hard lines of rights; but I have yet to learn that in patriarchal times those who did labor were reduced to the condition of these men, without any right in respect of land or stock ... The truth is that these employees on stations have the normal needs of a human being as much as employees in the cities ... ‘.

In my new book, Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and TransPacific Exchange Shaped American Reform, to be published next January by Harvard University Press, I show how influential Higgins’ ideas of economic justice were not just in Australia, but also among leading Progressive reformers in the United States such as Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr and Florence Kelley. Today his ideas are more relevant than ever. As wage theft becomes ever more shameless and economic inequality deepens it seems both timely and important to remember Australia’s founding ideals and HB Higgins’ role as a pioneering theorist of social democracy. As he explained: ‘a growing sense of the value of human life’ informed new laws regulating labor, ‘a growing conviction that human life is too valuable to be the shuttlecock of the game of money-making and competition ... ‘. Today as penalty rates are systematically abolished, wages stagnate and labor exploitation is rife, perhaps it’s time to invoke Higgins’ view that if employers can’t afford to pay workers decent wages they have no right to do business in Australia.

Marilyn LakeAbout the speaker

Marilyn Lake grew up in Tasmania, where she completed her undergraduate and Master's degrees in History. She moved to Melbourne in 1976 and enrolled in a PhD degree in History at Monash University. During that time she gave birth to two daughters, Kath and Jess. Marilyn subsequently held academic positions at Monash University, The University of Melbourne and La Trobe University. Marilyn held Visiting Professorial Fellowships at Stockholm University, ANU, the University of Sydney, the University of Western Australia and the University of Maryland. Between 2001 and 2002 she held the Chair in Australian Studies at Harvard University.

Marilyn Lake was elected Fellow of the Academy of Humanities of Australia in 1995; and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia in 1999. She is currently President of the Australian Historical Association.

Several of her books have won prizes: The Limits of Hope: Soldier Settlement in Victoria 1915-38 won the Harbison-Higinbotham prize and was short-listed for the Age Book of the Year in 1987; FAITH: Faith Bandler Gentle Activist won the HREOC award for non-fiction in 2002; Creating a Nation which Marilyn wrote with Patricia Grimshaw, Ann McGrath and Marian Quartly also won the HREOC prize for non-fiction and was shortlisted for the Adelaide Writers' Festival Prize; Drawing the Global Colour Line which she co-authored with Henry Reynolds won the Ernest Scott prize, the Queensland Premier's Prize for History and the Prime Minister's Prize for Non-Fiction in 2009.

Refreshments from 5.30pm