BA (Hons), BCom (Melbourne), PhD (London), Hon DEcon (Monash), Hon DCom (Melbourne), Hon LLD (Macquarie), Honorary Fellow (LSE)
Celebrated academic and public servant emeritus professor Joseph Isaac died on 17 September 2019 at the age of 97. He was one of the most influential contributors to both academic scholarship and public policy in Australian industrial relations for more than 60 years.
He seamlessly linked the theory and practice of industrial relations, thereby influencing wage legislation and facilitating the marriage of economics and law in Australia. His dedication to economic analysis has had a long-lasting impact, transforming academic scholarship and public policy in Australia's industrial relations.
Joe was born on March 11, 1922, in Penang, in British Malaya. His father was a merchant, trading mostly with British India and the Dutch East Indies. Joe spent his early years in Java where he experienced a multilingual environment, including English at home, Dutch at school and Bahasa Indonesia in between. Returning to Penang after primary school, Joe showed his outstanding intellectual abilities by topping the Cambridge School Certificate for Penang, Malaya and Singapore and the London Matriculation Certificate in the following year.
In March 1941, Joe began studying for a bachelor of commerce at the University of Melbourne. At his father’s direction, he studied accountancy instead of medicine, his own wish. Melbourne’s strength in accountancy, a feature of the BCom as designed by Douglas Copland, was its attraction.
At the end of his first academic year in late 1941, Joe returned to Penang for the summer vacation. However, events overtook him. Japan entered the war against the British empire, with amphibious assaults on southern Thailand and British Malaya on December 8, co-ordinated with the attack on the US navy fleet at Pearl Harbour. The Japanese forces advanced rapidly, capturing Penang on December 19. Before that, Joe and his family left Penang. Joe returned to his Melbourne residency at Queen’s College. His family went separately, their progress unknown to Joe until they arrived safely in Perth, Australia.
Joe found accountancy boring and, after two years of working in an accountancy firm, he accepted a tutorship at Melbourne in economics. And, economics became his life-long absorbing interest.
In 1947, Joe went to the London School of Economics to do a PhD. He chose LSE over Cambridge, which, at that time, was the destination of choice for Melbourne economics graduates, on the strong suggestion of Queen’s College tutor Richard Heyward, subsequently an executive director at UNICEF. Heyward argued that LSE was far superior, having good graduate courses in economics. Joe never regretted this decision and was the first of a succession of Melbourne economics graduates who went on to do PhDs at LSE.
At LSE, Joe’s supervisor, Henry Phelps Brown, suggested he study systems of wage regulation rather than the theoretical topic Joe had in mind. This more practical application of economic theory obviously suited Joe – it remained his area for the rest of his life.
Before going to London, Joe married Golda Taft. They enjoyed 70 years of happy marriage, bringing up three children. While in London, Golda, a botanist, worked as a research assistant at the London School of Tropical Medicine.
In London, they saw Richard Strauss, born 1864, conduct. An intriguing overlap of two very long lives.
Following completion of his PhD Joe returned to the University of Melbourne to take up a lectureship in economics. Industrial relations was an increasingly important area. Joe took advantage of a Rockefeller travelling scholarship to visit Harvard, Berkeley and Yale where he learnt from the leading US academics in industrial relations.
Back in Melbourne, he continued to write articles on industrial relations and labour economics. He was active in setting up the Victorian Industrial Relations Society of Victoria (IRSV), to brought bring together academics and practitioners. At the IRSV’s 50th birthday, in 2013, former prime minister Bob Hawke articulated a warm tribute to Joe, describing him as a great academic and contributor to public policy.
In 1962, he was appointed professor of economics. In 1965, Joe moved to the Monash University. At that time, Monash economics was eclipsing Melbourne, and this was a strong pull factor inducing Joe to move. There was a slight push factor, as well, due to some tension with Wilfred Prest, the dominating force in the administration of economics at Melbourne. Notwithstanding this tension, for Joe the move was accompanied by some feelings of guilt and disloyalty – there was rivalry between Melbourne and Monash, and Joe felt a debt to Prest for his help when a student and a new member of staff. He did, however, return to Melbourne as an honorary professorial fellow on his “retirement” in 1987, a position he held for nearly 30 years, packing up his room at the age of 94.
Joe relished being able to combine practise with academia. In 1957, Harry Bland, secretary of the Department of Labour and National Service, granted his request to spend a month in the department. This turned out to be auspicious. Joe continued his interaction with the department, and in 1965 was appointed to report on an airline dispute followed by appointment to the Flight Crew Officers Industrial Tribunal. And then, to his most satisfying appointment, as deputy president of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in 1974.
In 1974, the Australian labour market was in turmoil, with working days lost due to strikes and a record rate of wage inflation. Joe’s appointment to the commission was a departure from previous practice – he was the first economist appointed, breaking the exclusive use of lawyers on the commission. In 1975, the commission got the trade unions to accept an indexation of wage increases to price increases, and the rate of wage and price inflation slowed.
At the time, people argued with fervour for reductions in real wages. There was, in the language of the time, a real wage overhang. Joe’s position, in arguing for indexation, which would not actually reduce real wages, was at variance with the views of friends and colleagues. I asked him once whether this caused him anxiety, to which he responded: “No, I was right.”
The commission also advocated tying wage restraint to tax reductions, such that post-tax real wages did not fall. The government, under Malcolm Fraser, showed no interest in supporting the commission in this endeavour. Much to Joe’s exasperation, the government reduced taxes anyway, thereby losing the opportunity in Joe’s view to seek a further correction of the labour market.
At the current time, the situation is the reverse. Trade union power is weak and real wages relative to productivity are low. Last year, at the age of 96, Joe gave a public lecture and published an article on sluggish wage growth. Joe advocated measures to strengthen union power.
Would this lead to a return to the 1970s? In Joe’s view, an important change since the 1970s had been the opening of the Australian economy to international competition. A closed economy had facilitated the increase in inflation. Firms would accede to union wage demands knowing they would get protection from the government. Now, Joe argued, only a few industries are protected – he named the building industry and transport.
Joe was no ideologue – his reasoning led him to advocate a degree of regulation justified by the circumstances.
He served as president of the peak bodies in his area: IRSV (1963), the Economic Society of Australia (1969) and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (1985-87). He was awarded the Distinguished Fellow Award by the Economic Society in 2016. In a valedictory speech in the Australian Parliament on September 18, 2019, Andrew Leigh described Joe as “one of the pre-eminent economists in Australia’s post-war economic history”. Lucky for Australia that Copland included such a strong suite of accountancy in the Melbourne B.Com.
Joe was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1989. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Monash (1991) and Melbourne University (2001). In 2003, he received a Centenary Medal.
For a decade, the University of Melbourne and Monash University collaborated to recognise and highlight his outstanding contributions by creating the annual Joe Isaac Symposium, which provides contrasting perspectives and challenges in the field of employment regulation.
International recognition came through ILO contracts for reports on wages policy in Ghana (1962) and Indonesia and Timor Leste (2002-08). In 1985-86, he was a member of the OECD high-level committee on labour market flexibility.
Joe loved art, music, food and wine. He had an excellent collection of paintings and donated paintings to Monash University and the University of Melbourne. He set up the Monash University Art Committee. He was an excellent cook and was forever trying out new wines.
In music, Joe particularly loved the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. A few years ago, he became a fan of Benjamin Zander’s commentaries on Mahler’s symphonies. Zander did the sixth and the fourth, but Joe’s particular favourite, the second, did not appear. Joe wrote to Zander, praising his commentaries and asking him about the second, pointing out that he [Joe] was very old and did not have much time left. Whether this is what caused Zander to get a move on I don’t know, but the second did appear, much to Joe’s enjoyment.
Joe loved people. His warm expression of joy when one met him was wonderful. He treated people and their views with the utmost respect.
Joe and Golda brought up a marvellous family of similarly warm-hearted people. They had a strong family orientation, dining as a family on Friday evenings. A Jewish custom they filled with warmth and love.
Written by Ian McDonald (with input from Ross Williams, a Monash University obituary, Greg Bamber, John King, Brooke Young).
1997-2015 Professorial Fellow, Department of Management and Marketing, University of Melbourne
2002-2008 Consultant, ILO, Jakarta on Indonesian and Timor Leste wages policy
1991-2001 Chair, General Insurance Claims Review Panel.
1988-90 Chairperson, Qantas Pilots Grievance Board
1988-89 Member, Higher Education Review Committee, Western Australia
1985-87 President, Academy of Social Sciences in Australia
1980-88 Deputy Chancellor, Monash University
1985-86 Member OECD High Level Committee on Labour Market Flexibility
1978 G A Miller Visiting Professor University of Illinois
Since 1977 Honorary Fellow, London School of Economics and Political Science
1974-87 Deputy President, Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission
1974-76 Member, Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration
1971-72 Overseas Fellow Churchill College, Cambridge
1969 President, Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand
1965-73 Professor of Economics, Monash University
1964-65 Foundation President, Industrial Relations Society of Victoria
1962-64 Professor of Economics, University of Melbourne
Jubilee Medal 1978
Centenary Medal 2003
Honorary Fellow, London School of Economics, since 1977
Fellow, Queen’s College, University of Melbourne since 1964 -2007
Melbourne Graduate School of Management Medal, 1977
Medal in Recognition of Contribution to the Australian Public Service on its Centenary 19 June 2001
The AIRAANZ Vic Taylor Distinguished Long-Term Contribution Award 2008
The Industrial Relations Society of Australia Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contributions in the field of industrial relations presented at the International Industrial Relations Association World Congress 2009
Economic Adviser, Municipality of Maanshan, China, 2011
The Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne, 2012 Alumnus of Distinction Award
2013 Living Treasure, Sir Richard Kirby Archives
Patron, The Economic and Labour Relations Review
2015 Jubilee Fellow, ASSA
2016 Distinguished Fellow, Economic Society of Australia