February 2009


Public goods & pipe organs

By John Hirst
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

If a town hall has an organ should it also have an official town-hall organist? I thought I took a wide interest in public affairs but until I met Professor Ian Harper, who was in charge of refurbishing the organ in the Melbourne Town Hall, I had never turned my mind to this question. When I did I found I was warmly disposed to the idea of a town-hall organist as a proper recognition of a merit in a pleasing archaic mode, like having a Master of the Queen’s Music. Ian Harper taught me that an official organist is a threat to the public good.

Ian Harper is an economist, a free-market man, and best known as the first head of the Fair Pay Commission, a body established by John Howard to take over from the Industrial Relations Commission the task of setting the minimum wage. I was initially not warmly disposed to him because I have a lingering attachment to the commission as a founding institution of the commonwealth when it was the social laboratory of the world, and to Justice Higgins and his Harvester judgement which first set a federal minimum wage (the Basic Wage, as it was then known) in 1907.

Soon after his appointment Professor Harper paid a courtesy call on the president of the Industrial Relations Commission. He suggested that since he was now to set the minimum wage, the commission’s research records on this matter would be more usefully housed at the Fair Pay Commission. “Professor Harper,” the president said, “what makes you think that there are any such research papers here? I am afraid you don’t understand how the judicial process works. It would be utterly inappropriate for the bench to inform itself with its own research. That would compromise the independence of the commission.”

I knew the argument that the Industrial Relations Commission had made industrial relations worse because disputes were created in order to get the commission involved, but until Professor Harper reported on this momentous encounter between official wage-fixers old and new I had never seen the oddity of using the adversarial procedures of English law to determine the minimum wage. The commissioners sit through weeks of ambit claims and the nurturing and destruction of witnesses, keeping themselves totally ignorant the while, and then they come up with the answer of a $12-a-week increase. But that verdict carries the full dignity and impartiality of the law, which works very strongly on Australians who will not be bossed around by anyone except an umpire.

Professor Harper had the double disadvantage of not having the cover of law and having been appointed by John Howard as part of the WorkChoices initiative. He proceeded to set the minimum wage by conducting his own research, receiving submissions from stakeholders, and wide consultation. The economists are more willing to talk to him than they were to give evidence before the Industrial Relations Commission where counsel would bully them: “You are an expert: will inflation go up or down with this wage setting? No prevarication: yes or no.” In the modern way, his commission runs focus groups where the low-paid and the unemployed are gathered to be coaxed into opinions on work, wages and finally the Fair Pay Commission itself. Sometimes Professor Harper himself is standing behind the one-way glass watching and listening, and then if the participants consent he steps forth to mingle with them. Is this just a ritual? I ask. “No, no,” he says: he likes talking to people. He always finds someone worth listening to. One man said, “If I was setting the minimum wage I’d make it a $1000 per hour, but then I suppose I wouldn’t have a job; but it can’t be too low, because I have to eat.” “Then,” says Professor Harper, “I swan in and the man says to me, ‘Mate, you’ve got a terrible job. How do you work it out?’“

He and his commission have given general satisfaction, though some of the stakeholders on the union side will say so only off the record. In truth there is not much room to manoeuvre on the minimum wage: too high and it will create unemployment; too low and it will remove the incentive to work, given a generous dole. The new body works more expeditiously and cheaply than the old – Harper and his fellow commissioners are all part-time and their payment amounts to less than the salary of one Industrial Relations Commissioner. Harper respects and admires his minister, Julia Gillard, who is always well briefed and courteous. He will lose his job shortly, when the task of setting the minimum wage reverts to the reinvigorated Industrial Relations Commission, but in a victory for John Howard and Ian Harper the commission is no longer to operate in adversarial mode when setting the minimum wage. Julia Gillard likes Harper’s approach of basing decisions on research, which is what she is attempting in the business of funding schools.

Harper’s free-market friends rib him about his job: what’s a liberal economist doing setting a minimum wage? Better a liberal economist, he replies, than anyone else. But he is rather bemused by how little Australian employers of the low-paid believe in the market. They rely on him to set and alter their wages. They are mostly happy to pay a decent wage but they want to be told what that is and they don’t want to be undercut by a rogue employer; nor do they want to be ahead of the pack in the wages they pay. In Perth during the mining boom, employers found it difficult to get staff. “Put up your wages,” said Professor Harper to a coffee-shop owner, “and charge more for your coffee.” But the owner preferred to cut back on his business, to open fewer hours and not wait on tables. When Professor Harper raised the wage the owner paid it cheerfully and put up his prices. As did all the rest, preferring to move in lock-step. Not being a free-market economist, I was more pleased than otherwise at this.

Harper is a good talker and performer; he tells of his work in public policy as drama, playing himself and all others verbatim, with full inflexion and gesture. He calls himself an academic economist but the skills he most enjoys using are political. He likes settling conflict, hearing both sides sympathetically, prodding antagonists to see a common purpose, finding a route beyond an impasse. He is an economist but not a labour economist, yet he was charged with fixing a minimum wage where he could use his skill in reconciling employers and employees. His work on the Town Hall organ was in the same way political.

It was at his school chapel in Brisbane that Harper was first blown away by the pipe organ. Then in St John’s Cathedral he knew “spine-chilling grandeur” when the organ played. He is a true aficionado, acquainted with all the organs and their capacities in his adopted city, Melbourne. He knew the town-hall organ was in bad shape and after meeting the CEO of the council on a hospital board offered his services if the council resolved to fix it. He was given the job and then learnt that there had been a previous attempt which had failed because the conservationists and modernists in the organ community reached an impasse. Here was a situation tailor-made for him. He found the middle course and believed in it: the restoration should be respectful but the organ in a town hall had to be large and multi-talented, able to meet the musical tastes of the whole community. It should be able to play ‘Moonlight and Roses’ for the Rose Show, ‘Zadok the Priest’ for the speech night of Mac.Robertson Girls’ High and be the backing for a rock concert. It was easier for Harper to overrule the hardline conservationists when he learnt that the organ was the last work of an English company in decline and was far from being the best instrument of its era.

It is all right, Professor Harper assures me, for a free-market economist to believe in public goods. He cites Samuelson on latent demand in justification. But if there are public goods, they must be truly public; they must not be monopolised by a portion of the public. Hence there should not be a town-hall organist, for inevitably they will come to think of the organ as theirs. Instead Harper wanted all accredited organists to be able to play the organ. So a register exists, and those on it can book and play the organ free of charge. There should also be public tours of the organ, to allow which gantries thread their way through the refurbished organ; and if an organist is not on hand the instrument will play itself – a modernist touch, along with the mobile console which can sit on the centre of the stage like a concert grand. There must also be public concerts to cater for all tastes.

The concerts are free. At one of them, when Harper was present, the organist delighted the many children in the audience by playing the theme songs of AFL clubs and inviting them to shout out the club’s name. After the concert the children crowded around him on the stage and any child who could pick out a tune was allowed to play. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Harper speaks ecstatically to me and my tape recorder of his feelings at that moment. “Somewhere out there, there will be one child at a concert, perhaps only one child a year, who goes like this” – and his hands go up and his eyes pop in wonder.

I was delighted to find a free-market economist who was so ebullient and warm-hearted, and chastened, as an old social democrat, to discover that his free-market principles made him highly creative about the proper use of public goods.

John Hirst

John Hirst is a historian, social commentator and emiritus scholar in the history program at La Trobe University. His books include The Australians: Insiders and outsiders on the national character since 1770, Freedom on the Fatal Shore: Australia’s first colony and The Shortest History of Europe.

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