Sunshine grain harvester that helped set the basic wage is restored to original glory at Quirindi | Ralph-Lauren

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Volunteers at the Quirindi Rural Heritage Village are resurrecting a machine that represents a revolution in Australia.

Not only did the Sunshine Harvester forever change the agriculture industry, but it was at the heart of a test case that set the country’s first minimum wage.

It is that link that makes it valuable to Blacktown City Council, which commissioned the restoration work.

“We have a Workers Memorial Park where we hold a Workers Memorial, International Day of Mourning ceremony on the 28th of April each year,” MP Stephen Bali explained.

A group of people pose for the camera at Blacktown Workers Memorial.
People gathered for Workers Memorial Day in Blacktown 2019.(Supplied: Stephen Bali MP)

“The significance of it is obviously being a harvester from the Sunshine company that actually had the first award wage that was established,” he said.

Members of the Heritage Village’s Men’s Shed, on the Liverpool Plains of New South Wales, are working on the 114-year-old harvester which was in poor condition when it arrived.

“There was no front wheel, all the woodwork was rotted,” shed member Bob McInnes said.

“We found another header in the district which was in worse condition and we’ve used parts off it to restore the one we’ve got now.”

A rusting Sunshine harvester sits in a paddock.
Before restoration, the body of the harvester was badly rusted and the wooden frame rotten.(Supplied: Quirindi Men’s Shed)

A landmark court case

The Sunshine Harvester was developed by industrialist Hugh McKay in 1885.

The mechanised harvester stripped the heads off the wheat, threshed and winnowed the grain then bagged it.

It saved on time, labour costs and also increased yields — grain farming would never be the same.

But while the machine cut labour costs on farm, the Melbourne factory that built it employed almost 3,000 people at its peak and became embroiled in a court case over wages and conditions.

The outcome became known as the “Harvester Judgement”.

Setting the basic wage

The court case in 1907 determined Australia’s first minimum wage.

“The Harvester decision was absolutely pivotal in setting the standard, which basically said, if employers can’t pay a decent wage then they don’t deserve to be in business, — and that became a reference point for social policy, tax policy, not just wages policy,” said Professor John Buchanan from Sydney University’s Business School.

Black and White photo of a factory floor with rows of old-fashioned mowers.
A mower assembly line on the factory floor of Melbourne’s Sunshine Harvester factory, which made agricultural machinery.(Supplied: Museums Victoria)

Professor Buchanan said the judgement came at a time when Australia was grappling with the ideals of free trade or protection for industry.

“At the time a government was in power that believed in protection — it would only get Labor party support for protection if companies that got the benefit of tariff barriers paid a decent wage,” he said.

During the hearing, Justice Higgins heard evidence from a number of employee’s wives as to the costs for supporting families and determined what was fair and reasonable for a man to support a family of five in frugal comfort.

Justice Higgins determined that amount to be seven shillings per day or 42 shillings per week which equates to $266 in today’s terms.

Reflecting the cost of labour

But Blacktown City Council is making sure the fight of workers over the past century does not go unnoticed.

When complete, the harvester will take its place at the Workers Memorial Precinct in the heart of Blacktown.

A man sits on the seat of a sunshine harvester circa 1907.
Bob McInnes is one of the volunteers restoring the 1907 Sunshine Harvester.(ABC News: Jennifer Ingall)

Local MP Stephen Bali, a former Australian Workers union representative, said it was a place of reflection for those people who have been killed at work.

“Whether it’s police officers dying on duty, or workers; unfortunately recently we’ve seen a few young apprentices falling off roofs etc,” he said.

Meantime back in Quirindi, Bob McInnes said the harvester restoration is 90 per cent complete, on track for delivery to Blacktown before the next memorial service in April.

“I’ve enjoyed working on it, but my wife says it’s taking up too much time,” he said.

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