Coinciding with the centenary of the Harvester judgement handed down by Justice Henry Bournes Higgins on 8 November 1907, this thematic section highlights the rich history of Australian working-class experience as revealed in the transcripts of Commonwealth and state industrial arbitration proceedings. The transcripts record the intensively unfolding and changing patterns of work and enterprise, and provide a powerful record of the immediacy of human experience, not least in working-class demands for recognition and justice. The thematic articles illustrate how arbitration transcripts may contribute to a richer appreciation of the development of Australian working-class life, business enterprise and the labour process. Articles also focus on how the transcripts may be brought to bear on the history of Australian liberalism, and labour movement relations with the liberal state. In recognition of the Harvester centenary, this introduction reflects on the meanings that may be yielded from the transcripts by reference to Higgins’ practice as president of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in the period 1907–21.
We all make mistakes, and we have to learn by our mistakes. The man who makes no mistakes, it is said, generally makes nothing. Industrial tribunals are doing their best for human life, the only wealth. It is the noblest objective. We work and learn. Henry Bournes Higgins.This thematic section highlights the rich history of Australian working-class experience as revealed in the transcripts of Commonwealth and state industrial arbitration proceedings. The publication of these articles in Labour History coincides with the centenary of the Harvester judgement, handed down by Justice Henry Bournes Higgins on 8 November 1907. Harvester clarified Higgins’ intention to use the Court to play a role in Australian nation building and to uphold managerial prerogative while acknowledging a selective range of rights for a predominantly white male workforce, an approach that was followed by Higgins’ successors in the Commonwealth and state jurisdictions. In recognition of the Harvester centenary, this introduction reflects on the meanings that may be yielded from the transcripts by reference to Higgins’ practice as president of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in the period 1907–21.
The Harvester judgement’s symbolic role in establishing the terms of work and citizenship in the new Commonwealth of Australia cannot be underestimated. Since Macarthy’s pioneering 1967 reconsideration of Harvester, where he argued that by the 1920s Higgins’ Harvester formula had become ‘the starting point for all calculations of the Basic Wage’, historians have accepted the decision’s powerful influence on the terms of Australian industrial relations and politics. Stuart Macintyre argues that ‘The Harvester judgement was quickly established as a landmark of Australian social democracy’. Higgins’ biographer John Rickard described Harvester as ‘the rock on which he built his Court’ and ensured ‘the immutability of the basic wage’. Charles Fahey and John Lack stress that the Harvester hearings provided a space for the agency of working-class men and women.6 Harvester provided these men and women with an unprecedented opportunity to express their demands for justice and the hardships of their working and family lives in the public sphere, and before the seat of Commonwealth authority.