Oh dear, Marilyn Lake

My advice to Professor Marilyn Lake is that she takes a crash course in economics before she goes any further with her research.

And of course she doesn’t mention that Deakin and Higgins were wealthy toffs, dispensing their version of noblesse oblige irrespective of the personal costs in the form of higher unemployment.

H.B. Higgins, when President of the Conciliation and Arbitration Court, was more than happy for BHP to close its mine rather than allow workers to be paid less than the minimum wage.  Good one, Henry.  Were the workers better off?

But note also that the Basic Wage was established when there was no government-provided safety net.  This has not been the case for many years.

Read the piece and weep:

The recent call by the Institute of Public Affairs for the abolition of Australia’s minimum wage has been framed in terms of the dignity of work and the flexibility of workers (The Age, April 7). But can work truly have dignity if workers are reduced to penury? If labour is thus degraded so are the labourers who perform it. It was precisely to secure recognition of the dignity of workers as human beings – and their needs and rights as human beings – that Victoria introduced the first legal minimum wage in the world in 1896. In 1907, as President of the Arbitration Court, H.B. Higgins defined the minimum as a living wage, sufficient to meet the variety of needs of a person living in a civilised community.

It was one of Australia’s great democratic innovations and recognised as such around the world. Visitors came from Britain, China, France, Germany and the United States to see the new laws regarding wage-fixing machinery in operation. A minimum wage was gradually adopted by most other countries and inscribed as an international convention by the International Labour Organisation in 1928. On all sides the advent of the minimum wage was hailed as a crucial marker of modern civilisation. Why?

The idea of a minimum wage recognised workers as human beings and equal citizens, rather than treating them as commodities or mere units in the cost of production. It came at the end of a century in which workers had been slaves, or treated as slaves, coerced into contracts that denied their freedom, forced into unpaid or underpaid labour. When Alfred Deakin, a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1896 and soon to become one of Australia’s great Liberal prime ministers, spoke in support of the introduction of a minimum wage, he said it was not only a matter of social justice, but essential to our equal dignity and mutual respect as Australian citizens.

We were not joined simply by economic transactions. Citizenship entailed a duty of care and relations of reciprocity and mutual obligation. It would demean us all, said Deakin, if those who made our food and clothing or tended to our comforts and wellbeing were treated as inferior beings, unworthy of our care. The leading feminist journalist, Alice Henry, made a similar observation when she returned from working for the National Women’s Trade Union League in Chicago in 1924. The United States had yet to introduce a national minimum wage. That would come with President Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1938.

Travelling back to Australia, Henry felt proud, as she wrote to an American friend, that the Australian seamen who manned her ship and those who attended to her comfort were not treated as menials, but enjoyed decent working conditions and were paid good wages. They were her fellow citizens and she would have been ashamed if their work had not been remunerated at a level that allowed them to live with dignity. “I do feel a deep sense of self-respect,” she wrote, “in knowing that those who are contributing to my welfare and my comfort are just as well off as I am.”

Today, 90 years later, thousands of workers who contribute to the welfare and comfort of others, including many who work in hospitals, childcare centres and aged care homes, traditionally the work of women, are demeaned by being paid a pittance. Research into the situation of Victorian childcare workers has found that their very low wages, that recognise neither the importance of the work they perform, or the skill and experience of the workers, feel demoralised and humiliated, akin to social outcasts. Rather than raise their wages and provide the government support that would make childcare more affordable, some commentators have suggested we should import childcare workers and pay them $200 a week. Surely Australian self-respect demands that we support campaigns for decent wages and working conditions, here and elsewhere, not collaborate in the exploitation of contract labour, forcing workers into destitution.

Australia led the way in defining the minimum wage as a living wage sufficient to enable workers to live in comfort in a civilised community. Its leading architect, H.B. Higgins, was, like his fellow Liberal Alfred Deakin, a member of the Victorian Parliament in 1896 that saw the introduction of this world-historic reform, hailed internationally as the most notable experiment yet made in social democracy. When Higgins visited the United States in 1914, he was besieged by reformers, keen to seek his advice. The question of the minimum wage was in the air, as one activist noted, and everyone looked to the Australian example.

The question of the minimum wage is in the air again. It is to be hoped that those keen to destroy it recognise that it is more than a safety net below which wages cannot fall. It is a symbol of the values that Australians once held dear and our mutual regard as citizens. Its history reminds us that it was a proud Liberal achievement, one that present-day Liberals should also be proud to acknowledge and uphold. It is an Australian tradition worth preserving.

Marilyn Lake is a professor in history at the University of Melbourne, researching the international history of Australian democracy.

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30 Responses to Oh dear, Marilyn Lake

  1. james

    Reading Ms Lake pontificating on how Australians should do everything she wants because patriotism is comedy gold when read alongside one of her annual diatribes denouncing Anzac day.

  2. Token

    On all sides the advent of the minimum wage was hailed as a crucial marker of modern civilisation.

    No it wasn’t.

    Therefore the rest of the arguments built of this incorrect premise are nullified.

    What a failure.

  3. Big_Nambas

    Well having a minimum wage may not in itself be a bad thing, but having a minimum wage that is substantially higher than that of our major trading partners and competitors IS. Australians need to wake up to the effect of our high minimum wage, everything is very expensive in Australia when compared to Canada, USA and most of Europe. If Australian wages fell to Canadian and US levels our economy would leap ahead.

  4. stackja

    Marilyn Lake is a professor in history at the University of Melbourne, researching the international history of Australian democracy? She seems ignorant of the basics.

  5. Walter Plinge

    having a minimum wage that is substantially higher than that of our major trading partners and competitors IS.

    Plus having a minimum wage that is higher than the contribution of less-skilled workers at the margin.

  6. Empire Strikes Back

    Numbskull economics aside, it’s sad day when a professor of history can’t get the basic history right.

    Deakin was not a “Liberal” when he first became PM. He was a Protectionist. The Commonwealth Liberal Party he later formed and represented should not be confused with Menzies’ LPA. They are not the same beast.

    Epic fail.

    Moving right along, mandated minimum wage is contrary to the interests of the most marginalised in society. There is no debate to be had. It prevents the low skilled and inexperienced from improving their lot and causes unemployment to be higher than would otherwise be the case.

    Professor Lake is advocating for keeping the lowest of the low at the bottom of the barrel. Her attitude disgusts me. What sort of person wants the poor to stay poor and dependent, forever?

    A leftist, that’s who.

  7. Squirrel

    I may have missed it, but Professor Lake’s piece seems to overlook a crucial factor – tariffs and other protections for Australian workers and their jobs, which existed then, but not so much now.

    I wonder how many of the people who nodded approvingly as they read that piece would be happy to see the tariff wall re-applied to all those lovely things which they get from overseas, particularly the items produced by very, very low paid workers in developing countries? Would they also like to see Australia cut off from the internet so that products (physical and virtual) and services cannot be purchased directly from overseas by Australian consumers?

    Without a balancing dose of inconvenient and unpalatable facts, it is difficult to see this as anything more than another in the steady stream of articles aimed at pandering to the selective social consciences of the latte set. Rather than an opening serve for the IPA, a more realistic and balanced approach would have been “spare a thought for those who make your privileged life possible”.

  8. Token

    Of course Lake chooses tactically to ignore the fact that the minimum wage would never been possible if the controls on flows of population which were central to the White Australia Policy were not in place.

    Which parties pushed through the WAP? The ALP and Protectionist Party.

  9. Johno

    Unbelievably, gobsmackingly stupid.

    If she doesn’t even know what Party Deakin lead, why would you trust her history.

    As for her economics, she should be made to recite twenty times a day ‘minimum wage laws make it illegal for an employer to hire a low skilled worker for a wage the worker is prepared to accept.’

    Minimum wage laws make low skilled workers second class citizens by denying them the opportunity to work on terms and conditions of their own choosing.

    Once again, Leftist dogma trumping worker’s rights.

  10. cuckoo

    When Alfred Deakin…spoke in support of the introduction of a minimum wage, he said it was not only a matter of social justice, but essential to our equal dignity and mutual respect as Australian citizens.

    Well he would, wouldn’t he? He might well have believed something like this, or thought he did, but it’s the kind of thing politicians can say in their sleep. So to quote it as if it meant something shows the kind of historian Prof Lake is.

  11. Pyrmonter

    That would be …

    Alfred Deakin … soon to become one of Australia’s great Liberal prime ministers

    and the man who moved the legislation giving effect to nationwide white Australia. True liberal?

  12. Natural Instinct

    Research into the situation of Victorian childcare workers has found that their very low wages, that recognise neither the importance of the work they perform, or the skill and experience of the workers, feel demoralised and humiliated, akin to social outcasts. Rather than raise their wages and provide the government support that would make childcare more affordable,

    I am all for that economic policy. Pay me more, more and more. I like the sound of $1M p.a.
    And then when my employer can’t sell their products to a god damn selfish Customer, the government should step in and subsidise my wages for my employer. No problems at all.
    .
    I am sure it will all work out in the wash, like some perpetual motion machine: I earn more, I pay more income tax, the govt get more ‘revenue’, thus it can give more to my employer… and so on.
    .
    Ms Lake is a genius. Judith is just upset she did not think of this idea.

  13. M Ryutin

    Lake is a lot like many academic theorists today. Their loving view of the ‘downtrodden’ or even the ‘heroic working class’ is in the abstract merely; they know nothing of the real world of these same workers they idealise in print and speech.

    One example is the sob story about child care workers, these well-overpaid, over-burdened with irrelevant certificates, unable to perform ‘child care’, glorified by Lake who has forgotten (or didn’t know) the unaffordable, unworkable mess they are dragging ‘child care’ down to.

  14. Notafan

    Marilyn Lake, child care workers as social outcasts? Outcast by who, exactly. the DSP recipient, the new start allowancer, the single parent pensioner, the retail assistant, anybody else holding a TAFE qualification, or no tertiary qualification (me included) ? If you’re too good to look after pre schoolers then try another profession. Humans have been looking after toddlers (without qualifications) for thousands of years,
    Credentialism

  15. JohnA

    I tried to read, but gave up after this clanger:

    “If labour is thus degraded so are the labourers who perform it.”

    That isn’t even valid psychology, let alone ethics.

  16. Baldrick

    “The future belongs to Gillard, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Bill Shorten, Greg Combet, Mark Dreyfus and others with talent and forward vision. It also belongs to politicians who care about more than themselves and their careers, who care about climate change and the environment, as Combet does, who care about disability insurance, as Shorten does, who care about the state of our hospitals, as Plibersek does, and who care passionately about access to education as our Prime Minister does…”

    MARILYN LAKE, National Times 26 March 2013

    I need to know nothing more of Ms. Lake after reading this piece she wrote in 2013. Anything else she writes is of no consequence.

  17. Mr Rusty

    These are the blatherings of a pre-pubescent starry-eyed idealist Year 6 looking for a 10/10 in her SOSE essay aren’t they?

    “Oooh da poory hard werking peeples needies more monies or they get sad and cry. Lets giv dem all lots and lots of monies, da Guvymint can just make more monies with their magical money machine and we can all live happily ever after with smiley sunshines and unicorns jumping over wainbows.
    Da End”

  18. Rabz

    “Oooh da poory hard werking peeples needies more monies or they get sad and cry. Lets giv dem all lots and lots of monies, da Guvymint can just make more monies with their magical money machine and we can all live happily ever after with smiley sunshines and unicorns jumping over wainbows.
    Da End”

    Egads – it’s the official ALP platform that will be adopted at their next national conference!

    Rusty, you are a genius and a prophet.

  19. Boambee John

    It’s early April, so look out for the annual diatribe from Profs Lake and Henry Reynolds on how evil the whole Anzac thing is, as it is all male chauvinist and anti-ethnic/indigenous people and nationally exclusionist and and … It should be in Fairfax in the next week or so.

  20. John Dawson

    Typical academic thinking

    It’s nice to have a good wage – mandate it!

    AT WHOSE EXPENSE?

    Duh – dem people!

  21. Simon

    I thought the minimum wage was invented as an attempt to keep some of the wealth from mining, fishing, logging etc. in the hands of Australians in a time when bullion and cash were easily exported without government knowledge. It was a sort of price for doing business here, policed by the locals when the powers that be were unable or unwilling to directly intervene. Like heritage furniture, comforting to own but gets in the way if you modernise the home.

  22. jupes

    I need to know nothing more of Ms. Lake after reading this piece she wrote in 2013. Anything else she writes is of no consequence.

    But this is the bizarre world we live in Baldrick.

    No matter how wrong people are, or how often they are wrong, their opinions are still sought and published by the MSM. Tim Flannery is not an outlier.*

    * Though he is an out and out liar.

  23. nerblnob

    The international hailing doesn’t seem to have spread to usual poster-boys Scandinavia: Europe minimum wage map.

    Note, with the exception of Italy, the countries with no minimum wage are the most successful and high on things like “equality indexes” .

    None of them have a MW in the same ballpark as Australia.

    Germany does have plans to introduce minimum wage next year

    Lastly, is there anything that rings a falser note than some ivory-towered academic prattling on about “Australian tradition” ?

  24. Rococo Liberal

    Lake is a lot like many academic theorists today. Their loving view of the ‘downtrodden’ or even the ‘heroic working class’ is in the abstract merely; they know nothing of the real world of these same workers they idealise in print and speech.

    It’s called “folk-marxism”

  25. Gab

    Their loving view of the ‘downtrodden’ or even the ‘heroic working class’ is in the abstract merely; they know nothing of the real world of these same workers they idealise in print and speech.

    Yes becuase it’s all about them, their ego and how thoughtful and compassionate they appear to the world. It has nothing to do with any real concern for those they claim to “care” about. Moral poseurs lacking substance and original thought.

  26. Blogstrop

    Cry me a river, Ms Lake.

  27. James Hargrave

    You really should all have seen the gushing prose with which this near-superannuated ‘Great Australian Historian’ was welcomed by the Head of Melbourne University’s School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, an entity known as SHAPS (as in mishaps?). Of course, that inconsequential individual has won over his colleagues so much that he is known by some as T Rex; another description of him from within alludes to a resemblance to a caricature East End partaker of spiritous liquor in a British ‘B’ picture of the 1950s…

  28. Fisky

    Yairs, Australia was such a progressive country in 1901. White workers of the world, unite! (wasn’t that actually a Marxist slogan at the time?)

  29. John Dawson

    Professor Lake, (as is the way of leftist professors) will eloquently rationalise her way to any conclusion that fits the politically correct academic fashion of the day. In 2003 she had a problem in regard to Aboriginal women. On the one hand she wanted to look after the women’s liberation view of being downtrodden by men throughout history, but on the other hand she wanted to look after the multicultural view that the colonisation of Australia was bad news for Aborigines of both sexes. So what was she to do when confronted with the way pre-European Aboriginal Aboriginal men treated Aboriginal women as slaves? Could it be that white men improved the lot of Aboriginal women?

    The good prof. came up with a novel solution to avoid that heresy. She “discovered” that:

    “recent anthropological and historical writing suggests that Aboriginal women’s physical strength and capacity for labour was empowering rather than degrading; and that Aboriginal women’s autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency may more accurately be read as a source of status and self-esteem rather than as subordination.”

    So gentlemen, if you want to liberate and empower your women with autonomy and self-esteem – make sure they don’t shirk their muscular duties in the kitchen farm or garden! They’ll thank you for it.

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