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Harold James Souter (1911–1994)

by Liam Byrne

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Harold James Souter (1911–1994), trade unionist, was born on 2 October 1911 in Adelaide, fourth of eight children of Harry Souter, coach painter, and his wife Martha Jemima, née Standley, both born in South Australia. Educated at Sturt Street Public School and Adelaide Technical High School, Harold trained as a fitter and turner. He worked as a self-employed repairman, then found a job in the tool shop at General Motors-Holden's Ltd. On 20 October 1934 he married Victorian-born Kathleen May Stanford at the Maughan (Methodist) Church in Adelaide.

At the age of twenty-eight, while working in the maintenance section of the South Australian Railways, Souter became an assistant organiser for the Amalgamated Engineering Union, rising to the position of Adelaide district secretary in 1941. During World War II he worked on secondment in the Department of Labour and National Service, assigning skilled labour to essential industries. In 1947 he moved to Melbourne to take up an appointment as the AEU’s arbitration officer, representing the union at the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration for seven years. Associates would recall that he was an impressive advocate and ‘more radical in his approach to industrial problems’ (Australian 1969, 9) than later in his career.

In 1954 the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) appointed Souter as its first research officer, in which role he compiled a productivity index of Australian industries. The ACTU executive chose him as acting secretary following the death of Reg Broadby in 1956, and his appointment was ratified at the ACTU Congress the next year, when he stood unopposed. Souter was secretary of the ACTU for twenty-one years and was known for his diligence as an administrator rather than as a public figure. He regularly dealt with wage cases on behalf of the council, making a significant contribution to improved living standards for workers, including the establishment of the forty-hour week. He cautiously supported equal pay for women, while maintaining the ACTU’s broader focus on men’s work and a basic social wage. In a time of industrial militancy, he was unafraid to defend arbitration against those who advocated direct action.

By 1969 Souter’s reputation had grown sufficiently for him to stand for election for the ACTU presidency following Albert Monk’s resignation. Souter’s opponent, Robert J. Hawke, had succeeded him as research officer, and they engaged in a tetchy contest. Souter was a traditional working-class unionist from the rank and file, and received the majority of his support from the right wing of the movement–such as the powerful Federated Ironworkers Association of Australia–owing to his moderate approach. The younger Hawke, from the educated middle class, advocated union reform and was backed by the movement’s left. Hawke recalled that Souter ‘had few intimate friends among his working colleagues,’ and that his non-drinking was ‘undoubtedly a handicap for him in the protracted leadership fight’ (1994, 46). At the congress in September, Hawke prevailed with 399 votes to Souter’s 350.

Retaining his position as ACTU secretary, Souter gave the new president his support. He served on a number of government boards and advisory committees, including the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (1974–75) and the Australian National Airlines Commission (1974–75). Appointed AM in 1975, in that year he helped establish ACTU-Solo Enterprises Pty Ltd, a joint venture with Solo Petroleum Pty Ltd, which offered retail discounts on petrol. In October a royal commission found that he had deceived the minister for minerals and energy, Rex Connor, over a deal to purchase crude oil at a government approved price; the oil was subsequently resold by ACTU-Solo at a higher price. Souter was found not to have benefited personally, and he maintained his innocence, but he resigned from several Federal government committees.

Retiring from the ACTU in 1977, Souter expressed his delight at never having been a member of a particular faction within the labour movement: ‘They’ve never pinned a ticket on me’ (Herald 1977, 14). Hawke paid tribute to Souter’s ‘single-minded commitment to the concerns of the ACTU, to his enormous appetite for work and to his integrity’ (Martin 1977, 433). In retirement, he served on the boards of Solo Petroleum Pty Ltd and the union-affiliated 3KZ Broadcasting Co. Pty Ltd, grew orchids and frangipanis, and was known for his charitable work with pensioners. He was promoted to AO in 1988. Survived by his wife, and their two sons and a daughter, he died at Malvern on 19 October 1994 and was cremated. In a tribute, the ACTU secretary Bill Kelty remembered Souter as ‘hard-working, pragmatic [and] moderate, with a deep social conscience’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1994, 9).

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘A.C.T.U. Post to Local Man.’ 18 September 1956, 5
  • Australian. ‘Souter: A Quiet Man Behind the Scenes.’ 11 March 1969, 9
  • Donovan, Barry. ‘Union Stalwart Helped Mould the Modern ACTU.’ Australian, 26 October 1994, 18
  • Hawke, Bob. The Hawke Memoirs. Port Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1994
  • Herald (Melbourne). ‘My Plans for Aged—Souter.’ 17 September 1977, 14
  • Martin, R. M. ‘The ACTU Congress of 1969.’ Journal of Industrial Relations 11, no. 3 (September 1969): 261–68
  • Martin, R. M. ‘The ACTU Congress of 1977.’ Journal of Industrial Relations 19, no. 4 (December 1977): 424–34
  • Souter, Allan. ‘Harold Souter, 83.’ Age (Melbourne), 1 November 1994, 11
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Obituary: Long-Serving ACTU Man.’ 20 October 1994, 9

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Liam Byrne, 'Souter, Harold James (1911–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012