Hugh McKay, Legend.

bimg-mckay.jpgBefore you all snort your various beverages through your nose at the controversial title of this post, let me assure you that I refer not to the wet blanket of an ex-SMH columnist Mackay, but rather Hugh Victor McKay, inventor of the Combine Harvester, industrialist, political lobbyist and hypocrite.

McKay was the son of a farmer, but did not enjoy the repetitive and menial nature of the agricultural work at the time. He turned his energies to tinkering with machines instead, and in 1882, at the age of 17, invented the stripper-harvester.

He started production of the machine shortly after, and the Sunshine Harvester Works quickly grew into Australia’s largest manufacturing enterprise. Indeed, at it’s peak, Sunshine was the largest manufacturing plant in the Southern Hemisphere.

Like many manufacturers at the turn of the century, McKay was at the centre of the fight with the worldwide rise of the labour movement. He employed over 1300 workers at his Braybrook plant and, despite his benevolence in providing not only housing, but also many community facilities in the industrial town surrounding his factory, he was involved in frequent standoffs with unions over wages and conditions.

McKay was opposed to the regulation of wages and took the government to court over their excise on manufacturers who didn’t adhere to agreed standards of wages. He lost his case, and the verdict is now known as the “Harvester Decision”, in which the notion of the “Basic Wage” was established as “the minimum that a man can keep a wife and 3 children in frugal conditions”.

The judge at the time deemed this wage to be 7 shillings per day, as opposed to the 6 shillings per day that McKay paid his factory workers. This decision had a severe impact on the viability of Sunshine as an exporter. Despite the technological superiority of the Sunshine thresher and the later development of the Headlie Header, McKay was unable to compete with his rivals in the US and Canada in the global manufacturing industry.

Sunshine’s patents were eventually sold to the Canadian competitor Massey-Ferguson, and ceased manufacturing of Headers in Australia.

While McKay is held up by our think-tanks as a stark example of businesses adversely affected by regulation, he was himself no champion of free trade. It was McKay who lobbied Alfred Deakin for the establishment of protectionist import policies, in response to a threat by International Harvesters to dump product in Australia. Unfortunately for McKay, Deakin’s willingness to regulate wasn’t limited to imports, and he enacted the very legislation that led in turn to the Harvester Decision.

As well as a protectionist, McKay was a devout Presbyterian moral crusader, forbidding the construction of Pubs in the town surrounding his factory. In many ways, he is a much a symbol of the modern-day National Party and the country branches of the WA Liberals as he is of the free-market advocates.

Along with his own manufacturing industry, McKay’s invention of the Combine Harvester was the technological breakthrough that jump-started the broadacre cropping industry in Australia. While his industry floundered under labour regulation, the cropping industry grew to unimagined size after him. His contribution to industry, as well as politics, surely makes him one of the most influential Australians of the 20th century.

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