The Labourist-Social-liberal armature
Australian Labourism was primarily articulated to Social-liberalism throughout the twentieth century. We can see and feel this articulation through the heuristic of an armature. This armature generated, protected and provided the framework for fashioning the white male productive wage earner as the citizen-subject and thereby primary object of government. It was a complex structure of feeling centred around the concepts of protection and the just wage, the driver for a set of institutional tools – centrally the Arbitration Court – and increasingly those utilities that provided education, health, and housing services through the welfare state, during the post-war period. It brought together a harmonic convergence of political actors who enacted and were emboldened by its forcefield and energy.
The Arbitration Court was the key state institution which both directed energy into the armature and was in turn driven by it. The court was given dynamic institutional weight through the Harvester decision made by the head of the court Social-liberal Henry Higgins who, in 1907, judged that employers should pay wages according to the need of the male employee in so far as such need was measured not on the bases of an employer’s capacity to pay but rather on the basis of what a nuclear family required to live reasonably: the living wage (Sawer 58-9, Castles, 2002: 44). Sawer calls this decision “the defining event of Australian social liberalism” (58).
The establishment of this court and the Harvester decision might sound like distant, minor events in the long Labor decade, but any sense of the depth of change in the long Labor decade must account for the loss that the evacuation of the commitment to this institution wrought. Combined with the Social-liberal practices of Keynesian government which dominated the post-World War II period until 1973-74 and which were articulated also to the institutions of the “New Protection” – tariffs and racially based labour migration limits – the Arbitration Court’s governance of social citizenship through industrial techniques melded Labourist and Social-liberal tenets into a forcefield that established a hegemony surviving numerous challenges until the 1970s when it began to break down.
Higgins’ 1907 Harvester Judgement and its significance for the long Labor decade was seen in the choice of H R. Nicholls for the name of a political society whose main goal was to “promote a debate on industrial relations and to promote the system’s reform”: meaning to expunge the Arbitration Court and thereby this central institution of the Labourist-Social-liberal armature from Australian political culture (Castles, 2002: 43 and Kelly, 1994: 253, 260-2). Nicholls was editor of the Hobart Mercury newspaper and won a contempt of court case against Higgins after labelling Higgins “a political judge” in 1911 (“Nicholls, Henry Richard”, Nicholls cited in Kelly, 1994: 260). A group of businessmen, lawyers, academics, intellectuals and politicians formed this New Right society in 1986; its invitation to join was co-signed by future federal Liberal Party treasurer and deputy leader Peter Costello, and it read in part: “[w]e would probably have to go back to the early days of Federation, and the debates leading up to the passing of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act, to find a precedent for this debate” (cited in Kelly 260). Ironically, Costello held the federal lower house seat named after Nicholls’ enemy, and it was Costello who earned his New Right political reputation as an industrial barrister in the Dollar Sweets case where common law was successfully used to break a union strike in 1985 (Kelly, 1994: 258). This case and others like it weakened the power of the Arbitration Commission and the Unions (255-9).
This movement in the long decade away from the institutions and forms of the armature struck at the core political arrangements that had provided the protective forcefield and framework for much of Australia’s post-federation history. These arrangements have been described by Francis Castles as composing a “wage-earner’s welfare state” (Castles, 1994: 8). Castles’ conception is, for Beilharz, based on “the relative strength of the local labor movement, linked together with a largely economic or material conception of wellbeing, [which] saw the development of political and welfare arrangements which functioned primarily in the interests of men as workers rather than of citizens as such” (Beilharz, 1994: 7).
Castles has four axioms for the Australian wage-earners’ welfare state:
occupational welfare has been more important than state expenditure [;] collective saving for social security provision has been outweighed by private saving for owner-occupied housing [ ;] the preferred model of social services financing has been progressive taxation [; and] women have had a different and lesser status than men. (12-15)
He argues that it survived into the 1980s despite the changes to its central axioms that the social movement for women’s equality, the collapse of the White Australia policy and the diminution of the role of wage regulation all brought (16). Castles notes that while “the Whitlam government flirted with more European notions of social insurance as well as beginning Australia’s disengagement from high levels of tariff protection,” the “post-tax dispersion of male wages from employment as egalitarian as any in the advanced world” remained a central pillar of the wage-earners' welfare state into the mid-1980s (16).
Writing on what he calls “the Labor decade” Castles declares any interpretation of Labor’s impact in the area of Social protection to be “paradoxical” as the government’s “policy activism” promoted managerial and economic rationalist techniques in administration which did little to change the “policy norms” in the area of social protection (17). Castles argues that Hawke-Keating Labor adapted rather than overturned the wage-earners' welfare state, with the reintroduction of universal health care and introduction of the S.G.C (Superannuation Guarantee Charge) being cases of social and industrial citizenship respectively (21). Yet the living standards of average wage earners over the Labor decade – which in a wage-earners' welfare state must be the prime metric – decreased, the use of the Arbitration Court decreased and the financialisation of the Australian economy produced forms of market-based income other than wage-earning ones (22-23). The key change, though, is in the loss of male full-time jobs due both to the steady increase of female labour force participation and to changes in manufacturing brought about by “structural reforms,” striking at the central pillar of the wage-earners' welfare state: protection of the white wage-earning male (22).
While Castles sees the wage-earners' welfare state as being “refurbished,” rather than demolished, his 1994 essay is not interested in the regimes and techniques by which citizen-subjects are themselves refurbished (25). In order to enter this characteristic of the Labourist-Social-liberal armature, and to begin to analyse how citizen-subjects were being reshaped and re-sculpted in the long Labor decade we need to bring the discussion and analysis to this level and consider industrial citizenship.