14 March 2019

US economist Gene Sperling calls for economic dignity to be placed at the centre of economic debates: “in the absence of that more clear focus on an economic fixed star, it becomes too easy to start to see the economic targets, political strategies, and specific policy postures as if they were the end goals in themselves—as opposed to means to arrive at a higher end goal for lifting up human fulfillment.” This is a concept that was a core part of Australian workplace law in the early years of our nation, but it has been eroded by economic rationalism over recent decades. In 1907, the landmark Harvester decision held that the basic wage in Australia should be sufficient to meet “the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilised community”; that is, enough for a worker to provide their family with “proper food and water, and such shelter and rest as they need… and clothing, and a condition of frugal comfort estimated by current human standards”. It is the restoration of this principle that underpins the ACTU’s call (lately adopted by Labor) for a shift from setting a “minimum wage” to a “living wage”. It must also underpin our social security system. Bringing humanity and economic dignity back to our economic debates should be a priority.