Amalgamated Society of Engineers v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd (“Engineers’ case”) [1920] HCA 54 | 31 August 1920

ON 31 AUGUST 1920, the High Court of Australia delivered Amalgamated Society of Engineers v Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd (“Engineers’ case”) [1920] HCA 54; (1920) 28 CLR 129 (31 August 1920).

Prior to the Engineers’ case, the High Court had held that the States had reserved powers and their instrumentalities were immune from Commonwealth interference. In the Engineers Case, the High Court held that, through a literal interpretation of the Constitution, the Commonwealth Parliament has the power to make laws with respect to conciliation and arbitration, allowing the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration to regulate the wages and conditions of employees of the State of Western Australia.

The case is significant because of the High Court’s adoption of a literal approach to constitutional interpretation. Per Higgins at 161-2:

“The fundamental rule of interpretation, to which all others are subordinate, is that a statute is to be expounded according to the intent of the Parliament that made it; and that intention has to be found by an examination of the language used in the statute as a whole. The question is, what does the language mean; and when we find what the language means, in its ordinary and natural sense, it is our duty to obey that meaning, even if we consider the result to be inconvenient or impolitic or improbable.”

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