In October 2014, one of Australia’s Prime Ministers, Gough Whitlam, died at the age of 98. Whitlam introduced major social reforms, many which still exist today (just). One reform he valued but was not able to achieve was a national accident compensation scheme. It is worth noting when reading of the current economic and moral arguments over workplace responsibility and over-regulation that Whitlam’s national accident compensation scheme included workers compensation.
In 1974, during Whitlam’s time as the Prime Minister of Australia, the New Zealand government established a no-fault accident compensation scheme following the 1967 Royal Commission of Inquiry into Compensation for Personal Injury in New Zealand chaired by Owen Woodhouse. Woodhouse was invited to assess the likelihood of a similar scheme being introduced in Australia. He completed his inquiry (not available online) for such a scheme and legislation was drafted. The bill was in the Australian Parliament when the Whitlam government was dismissed by Governor-General John Kerr. As a result of the political machinations of the Liberal Party of Australia, Australia missed the opportunity to have a national accident compensation scheme.
“…a national rehabilitation and compensation scheme for Australia so that all who suffer disabling injuries, whether at home or at work, are provided with adequate income cover.”
According to a background note on national workplace safety and workers’ compensation systems by Steve O’Neill, the five basic principles for an approach to accident prevention applied in the Woodhouse report were:
- “community responsibility: the community should bear the costs of the inevitable consequences of social and productive activities, not just random victims of those activities because the community at large benefits from them
- comprehensive entitlement—24 hours a day and seven days a week
- complete rehabilitation
- adequate compensation, and
- administrative efficiency.” (page 2)
The first bullet point may seem odd in the workers’ compensation context but according to Woodhouse’s report (not available online but is in some Australian libraries)
“the proposed scheme must be accepted as an aspect of social welfare: and it must be organised as a responsibility and function of the State.” (page 3)
Over the decades since, there seems to have been a concerted effort to keep workers’ compensation separate, at least in the public consciousness, from social security services but these two welfare areas have always overlapped in reality just not in a formal legal or legislative sense.
So, the dismissal of the Whitlam Government had a direct effect on the development of workers’ compensation in Australia, it put the country on a path away from a national accident compensation scheme. How different the situation of injured workers would have been if the reform had occurred? How different would have been the political debate on the James Hardie asbestos compensation? How different would business’ attitude to workplace injuries?
It may be worth ending on a quote from Owen Woodhouse’s report, when he discusses the purpose of the report:
“Social problems in the past have been handled in a piecemeal fashion. But half-measures and compromise are quite incapable of meeting the modern needs and reasonable aspirations of disadvantaged citizens. The obligations of the community should be thought through from first principles. The Report attempts to provide that analysis. It proposes a new deal for every Australian whose life has been disrupted or damaged by injury or disease.”