H. B. Higgins

H. B. Higgins

Infobox Judge
name = Henry Bournes Higgins

caption =
order =
office = Puisne Justice of the High Court of Australia
term_start = 13 October 1906
term_end = 13 January 1929
appointer = Alfred Deakin
predecessor = "none"
successor = Sir Owen Dixon
birth_date = 30 June 1851
birth_place = Ireland
death_date = 13 January 1929
death_place =
:"For the fictional character Henry Higgins, see Pygmalion or My Fair Lady."Henry Bournes Higgins (30 June 1851 - 13 January 1929), Australian politician and judge, always known in his lifetime as H. B. Higgins, was a highly influential figure in Australian politics and law. He was born in Ireland, the son of a Methodist minister who came to Australia with his family in 1870. He was educated at Wesley College, Dublin in Ireland and at Melbourne University, where he graduated in law, and practised at the Melbourne bar from 1876, eventually becoming one of the city's leading barristers (a QC in 1903) and a wealthy man. He was active in liberal, radical and Irish nationalist politics, as well as in many civic organisations. He was also a noted classical scholar.

In 1894 Higgins was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly as MLA for Geelong. He was a supporter of George Turner's liberal government, but frequently criticised it from a left-wing point of view. He supported advanced liberal positions such as greater protection for workers, government investment in industry, and votes for women. In 1897 he was elected as one of Victoria's delegates to the constitutional convention which drew up the Australian Constitution. At the convention he successfully argued that the constitution should contain a guarantee of religious freedom, and also a provision giving the Commonwealth the power to arbitrate industrial disputes.

Despite these successes he opposed the draft constitution produced by the convention as too conservative, and in 1899 he campaigned unsuccessfully to have it defeated at the referendum in Victoria which was necessary before the constitution could be ratified. This alienated him most of his liberal colleagues, and also from the influential Melbourne "Age". Higgins also opposed Australian involvement in the Second Boer War, a very unpopular stand at the time, and as a result lost his seat at the 1900 Victorian election.

In 1901, when federation under the new constitution came into effect, Higgins was elected to the first House of Representatives for the working-class electorate of Northern Melbourne. He stood as a Protectionist, but the Labor Party did not oppose him, regarding him as a supporter of the labour movement. The Labor Party's confidence in him was shown in 1904 when Chris Watson formed the first federal Labor government. Since the party did not have a suitably qualified lawyer, Watson offered the post of Attorney-General to Higgins. He is the only person to have held office in a Federal Labor government without being a member of the Labor Party.

Higgins was an awkward colleague for the Protectionist leadership, and in 1906 Deakin appointed him as a Justice of the High Court of Australia as a means of getting him out of politics, although he was undoubtedly qualified for the post. In 1907 he was also appointed President of the newly created Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, created to arbitrate disputes between trades unions and employers, something Higgins had long advocated. In this role he continued to support the labour movement, although he was strongly opposed to militant unions who abused the strike weapon and ignored his rulings.

In 1908 Higgins delivered a judgment which became famous in Australian history, known as the "Harvester Judgement". The case involved one of Australia's largest employers, Hugh McKay, a manufacturer of agricultural machinery. Higgins ruled that Mackay was obliged to pay his employees a wage that guaranteed them a standard of living which was reasonable for "a human being in a civilised community," regardless of his capacity to pay. This gave rise to the legal requirement for a basic wage, which dominated Australian economic life for the next 80 years.

During World War I Higgins increasingly came into conflict with the Nationalist Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who he saw as using the wartime emergency to erode civil liberties. Although Higgins initially supported the war, he opposed the extension of government power that came with it, and also opposed Hughes' attempt to introduce conscription for the war. In 1916 his only son Mervyn was killed in action in Egypt, a tragedy which made Higgins turn increasingly against the war.

The postwar years saw a series of bitter industrial confrontations, some of them fomented by militant unions influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World or the Communist Party of Australia. Higgins defended the principles of arbitration against both the Hughes Government and militant unions, although he found this his increasingly difficult. Postwar governments appointed conservative justices to the High Court, leaving Higgins more isolated. In 1920 he resigned from the Arbitration Court in frustration, but remained on the High Court bench until his death in 1929. In 1922 he published "A New Province for Law and Order", a defence of his views and record on arbitration.

After Mervyn Higgins's death Higgins effectively adopted his nephew Esmonde Higgins and his niece Nettie Palmer, paying for their education at universities in Europe. He was pained by Esmonde's conversion to Communism in 1920 and his rejection of the liberal values associated with the Higgins name.

Higgins was remembered for many years as a great friend of the labour movement, of the Irish-Australian community and of liberal and progressive causes generally. He was well-served by his first biographer, his niece Nettie Palmer, whose "Henry Bournes Higgins: A Memoir" (1931) created an enduring Higgins mythology. John Rickard's 1984 "H. B. Higgins: The Rebel as Judge" partly demolished this myth, but was a generally sympathetic biography. The H.B. Higgins Chambers in Sydney, founded by radical industrial lawyers, is named for him.

Higgins is also commemorated by the federal electorate of Higgins in Melbourne, currently held by the Liberal Party's former Deputy Leader and Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello.

Aside from politics, he was president of the Carlton Football Club in 1904.

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