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Social Reforms in Federation

Peace time in Australia before 1914, -defining peace in these terms- is a very progressive period and it is really incumbent on us to remind ourselves of these progressive developments in Australian cultural and political history. For example, in 1902, Australia was the second country in the world granting women the vote, women’s suffrage being introduced at Commonwealth level whilst states were showing a bit of a checkered development, with South Australia being the first state to do so, with Western Australia, the Commonwealth, New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland following and Victoria being the last to introduce women’s suffrage in 1908. Not a proud achievement, but Victoria got there in the end… It was the result of very agitated, active and successful campaigns by women, but also by men. Furthermore we will refer to some of the women who were active in this campaign for women rights as well as in the growing peace movement at this point as well as later. Another progressive reform before 1914 in Australia was the eight-hour day, already in 1856, setting a national and international standard for acceptable working hours, defining Australian labour laws at that time and at the forefront of international efforts to bring it in across the world. Of course there was also the basic wage, introduced in 1907 through the Harvester judgement, with Justice Henry Bournes Higgins announcing what he defined as a basic minimum wage for skilled labourers: two pound two shillings per week, the amount for an average worker to pay for food, shelter and clothing for him and his family with two children. Of course, enshrined in this decision was the notion of the male bread winner, putting equal pay back somewhat, but in 1907 it was a very progressive reform. It was progressive because it identified what was fair and reasonable rather than what the employer was offering; a major social advance at that time!

In terms of these sorts of reforms, Australia before 1914 was very much at the forefront of new machinery, technology, similar to the way digital technology is now enthusiastically taken up now. From the 1880s, the Saturday half-holiday was introduced and soon the six working day week gave way to the five-day week with two days in the weekend; leisure activity was starting to be entrenched in working life. Following the 1890s Depression, a call for relief of the hardships people endured at that time went out and the old age pension was introduced federally in 1909; in 1900, NSW and Victoria had already accepted an active legislation to introduce the old-age pension for those over 65 and Queensland followed in 1907. With the Commonwealth merging, in 1909 it began to pay the pension, which was being means-tested for women at 60 years. This was extraordinary in terms of peace and social reforms, Australia leading the world in recognition of the need to support ordinary citizens. Following on from that, the invalid pension was introduced 1910, followed by other reforms, like the maternity allowance in 1912, payed to mothers to each of their children without a means test.

These kinds of reforms really point to the way in which Australia was an early innovator and led the world in terms of benefit payments for its citizens. Because of this, Australia became a focus for many contemporaries and contemporaries were very proud of these achievements, believing them to be generous and innovative. As well, successive governments thought them were necessary and at the cutting edge of the social justice. In fact, investigators from Britain, France, Germany and the US came to explore the progressive reforms introduced in what was soon being called ‘the social laboratory of the world’, that seemingly had solved financial insecurity and industrial unrest.

JD