The origins of the Australian minimum wage

Updated time

Last updated

20 December 2016

Pressure for the minimum wage came from two sources.  More directly, the anti-sweating leagues established in the 1890s by protestant reformers to campaign against poor working conditions, and Parliamentary inquiries into poor working conditions, led to the Victorian Factories and Shops Acts to remedy these problems.  These were associated in Victoria with political leaders such as Alfred Deakin, later the second Prime Minister of Australia. 

Secondly, indirectly the minimum wage was associated with the establishment of independent tribunals to deal with industrial disputes.  The Great Strikes of the 1890s left a widespread perception of economic damage, and social disorder verging on civil war resulting from collective labour conflict[1].  The strikes occurred at a time of drought and economic recession, which caused great suffering.  These were matters that concerned electors, the community generally, and therefore politicians seeking to be elected in the early 1900s[2]

Charles Kingston, the dominant political figure in South Australia, spoke for many when he said that given the ‘disastrous effects to society generally’ of labour disputes, the parties could not be left to simply ‘fight the matter out to the bitter end’.  He told the Constitutional Convention of 1891 that the solution was compulsory conciliation and arbitration:

‘the establishment of courts of conciliation and arbitration, having jurisdiction throughout the Commonwealth, for the settlement of industrial disputes.’[3]


[1] Keith Hancock, Australian Wage Policy, Infancy and Adolescence,  University of Adelaide Press, 2013, p.63

[2] R.Norris, The Emergent Commonwealth, Melbourne University 1975, p.198

[3] Official Report of the National Australasian Convention Debates, Sydney, 2 March to 9 April, 1891, Sydney, George Stephen Chapman, Acting Government Printer, 1891, p.688