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Future Directions For Reform In Australia

This is the text of Gough Whitlam’s John Curtin Memorial Lecture on the 10th anniversary of Whitlam’s dismissal.

It was delivered at the University of Western Australia, in Perth.


Achieving Government through the House of Representatives Majority

Gough WhitlamThis is the fourth time I have delivered, a Curtin Memorial Lecture and the third time at this University.

Here, in February 1961 I spoke on “Socialism Within the Constitution”; in July 1972, also here, I spoke on “Urbanised Australia”; and in October 1975, at the Australian National University, I spoke at the height of the great crisis which culminated in my Government’s dismissal on 11 November. My topic then was “Government of the people, for the people, by the people’s house”. Now in this, my fourth Curtin Memorial Lecture, delivered in the year which marks the 100th anniversary of John Curtin’s birth, I speak on future directions for reform in Australia.

In this week of the tenth anniversary of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, it is timely to recall the manner in which John Curtin achieved office and the manner by which the first Curtin Government, one of the very great, if not the very greatest of all Australian Governments, was maintained for more than two years thereafter. It was a Government formed solely through a majority of the House of Representatives and maintained solely at the will of the majority in the House of Representatives. Neither in attaining nor retaining the Prime Ministership did Curtin ever have to consider the state of the political parties in the Senate. Thus, in the most critical time in this nation’s history, one of the strongest of our governments was sustained by the narrowest possible majority in the House of Representatives. But that bare majority was enough for the highest possible of all purposes–the security and survival of this nation. There could be no more striking proof–if proof were ever needed–of the power and absolute supremacy of the majority–even a mere majority–in the House of Representatives.

The prolonged political crisis of 1941 was about numbers in the House of Representatives. Throughout that crisis the Menzies Government and then the Fadden Government was supported by a clear majority in the Senate. But the numbers in the Senate were never a consideration throughout the turmoil. It was only because of his precarious position in the House of Representatives that Menzies sought to form a national Government with Labor participation. He wanted to build a reliable working majority in the House of Representatives. He could not do that unless he had Labor support. He failed. He resigned. The Fadden Budget was then defeated by the votes of the two Independents, Messrs Coles and Wilson.

That is–the majority in the House of Representatives changed and therefore the Government of Australia changed. And with that paper-thin majority in the House of Representatives, despite its minority position in the Senate, the Curtin Government went on to mobilise Australia and to steer Australia through the perils of 1942 and 1943. The principle that the Government of Australia is responsible to the House of Representatives, and the House of Representatives alone, triumphed. It was the key to Australia’s survival.

That was the great principle at stake in November 1975. We fought for the rights of the House of Representatives. And we now know that we were within days, if not hours, of total victory. We know that from Western Australia’s own special gift to the arts of political chicanery, Reg Withers himself. The Opposition in the Senate was about to "melt away like snow in the desert". Only the intervention of the Governor-General acting politically, acting as a partisan, prevented that inevitable victory.

Our Government was never defeated. It was ambushed. Therefore, it remains as important in 1985 as it was in 1975 that we should continue to assert the basic principle, the right of a government having a majority in the House of Representatives to govern. We must never acknowledge any validity whatsoever to the so-called Barwick doctrine, which asserts, as Barwick did in his unauthorised and improper letter of advice to the Governor-General on 10 November 1975:

A Government having the confidence of the House of Representatives but not that of the Senate, both elected Houses, cannot secure supply to the Crown.

That is an assertion breathtaking in its presumption, its partisanship, its perverseness and its sheer ignorant, unconstitutional falseness. If that doctrine had prevailed in 1941, the Curtin Government could never have been formed. And no Australian Government in the foreseeable future is likely to have a majority in the Senate.

It is true that the events of 1975 point the way to reform of the Constitution, leading ultimately to the creation of the Australian Republic. But with or without reform, we must never concede that the political crisis of 1975, and its resolution by a political coup d’état established in any way the right of the Senate to determine who shall form the Government of Australia or any right to force the House of Representatives, which alone determines the Government, to an election. The House of Representatives must never share those rights and responsibilities with the Senate. It did not in 1941. We would not in 1975. We cannot in 1985–or ever.

My own interest in constitutional matters stems from the time when John Curtin was Prime Minister. The Commonwealth Parliament’s powers were then at their most ample and it was constitutionally, if not always politically, more open to a Labor Government to carry out its policies than it is in peace time. John Curtin, however, saw that he was presiding over a passing phase. He was not content with the paradox that the Labor Party was free to enact its policies in times of war alone. Accordingly, in 1944 he sponsored a referendum to give the Federal Parliament postwar powers. His motives for holding the referendum were based on patriotism and experience. He argued the case with his full logic and eloquence. The opposition to the referendum was spurious and selfish. The arguments were false. My hopes were dashed by the outcome and from that moment I determined to do all I could to modernise the Australian Constitution.

As the fourth Chifley Memorial lecturer in 1957 I said:

The way of the reformer is hard in Australia. Our Parliaments work within a constitutional framework which enshrines Liberal policy and bans Labor policy. Labor has to persuade the electorate to take two steps before it can implement its reforms: first, to elect a Labor Government, then to alter the Constitution.

Rejuvenating the ALP Platform

I was concerned by the way in which Labor’s failure to look ahead, to attempt to find new means towards reform was shortchanging the Australian people and shortchanging the party itself. In 1957, the platform, policies and structure of the Labor Party had remained basically unchanged since the days of the Chifley Government. The party became obsessed with the idea that rather than being about renewal for the future, its purpose was to return to a more comfortable past–not renovation but mere restoration. As a result, both the achievements of the past and the hopes for the future receded equally. The party stagnated and the platform was stultified.

The Australian Labor Party’s most negative obsession was with its plank for nationalisation and equally, the frustrations to nationalisation imposed by Section 92 of the Constitution. Ironically it was Menzies, the politician who more than any other profited from Labor’s dilemma on nationalisation, who demonstrated the way in which Labor could divert its attention from Section 92 to something more fruitful. In 1955 the Menzies Government had made grants to State mental hospitals and in 1958 grants to State universities through Section 96 of the Constitution, empowering the Australian Parliament to "grant financial assistance to any State on such terms and conditions as the Parliament thinks fit".

Thus in 1961 at this University I was able to conclude:

In our obsession with Section 92, which is held up as the bulwark of private enterprise, we forget Section 96, which is the charter of public enterpriseSocialists are now more concerned with the creation of opportunities than the imposition of restraints. Within our own nation we do not have to ration scarcity but plan abundance. The National Government has as much constitutional freedom as any other national government to plan the public sector in Australia and to make arrangements with other countries. Through its financial hegemony it can create better conditions in transport, housing, education and health; it can create new industries; it can create new communities. Through international arrangements it can share in the more orderly and equitable production, distribution and exchange of goods and skills. Socialists have to play the most dynamic role in the relatively skilled and affluent community inhabiting our remote, dependent and unevenly developed continent.

This approach to the tasks of reform formed the basis of the rejuvenation of the Labor platform, the setting of an agenda for reform from 1965 to 1972. It found its philosophical basis in which I have called the doctrine of positive equality. This concept does not have as its primary goal equality of personal income. Its goal is greater equality of the services which the community provides. This approach not merely accepts the pluralistic nature of our system, with the private sector continuing to play the greater part in providing employment and growth; it positively requires private affluence to prevent public squalor.

The approach is based on this concept: increasingly, a citizen’s real standard of living, the health of himself and his family, his children’s opportunity for education and self-improvement, his access to employment opportunities, his ability to enjoy the nation’s resources for recreation and cultural activity, his legacy from the national heritage, his scope to participate in the decisions and actions of the community, are determined not so much by his income but by the availability and accessibility of the services which the community alone can provide and ensure. The quality of life depends less and less on the things which individuals obtain for themselves and can purchase for themselves from their personal incomes and depends more and more on the things which the community provides for all its members from the combined resources of the community.

Lessons for Reform

I do not tonight purport to chart a complete new program for reform. Rather, I now see my role as focusing attention on how the new reformers can benefit from the experiences of my Government. In working out its future course, the Labor Party in government or opposition, in the nation, or in the States, must closely examine the successes and failures of my Government and the way in which we conducted ourselves in discharging the responsibilities which the people and the party had entrusted to us; and I maintain that there is considerable cause for optimism provided the new reformers are not preoccupied by what went wrong to the extent that they forget what went right or ignore what was achieved.

Here I should say that the new reformers will find no better research material than in my own book, The Whitlam Government 1972-1975, launched last Monday by the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke. It is a full account of the aspirations and achievements as well as frustrations of my Government.

The lessons of The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 for the new reformers are as clear as they are instructive–the need to resist the clamour to abandon reform under the pretence of dealing with some supervening crisis, be it depression or recession, inflation or balance of payment; and the need to persist with reform in the face of all the obstruction which the entrenched interests and conservative forces can muster.

My Government was opposed with such virulence and unscrupulousness not because we were poor economic managers, as was claimed by the conservatives, but because we were good and determined reformers. In truth we made minimal attacks on entrenched privilege; we were not so much about the business of taking away privileges as of expanding and spreading opportunities. Our Australian conservatives will not only resist actual loss of privileges; they will resent, just as much, any government which makes it more difficult for them to secure more and more privileges or which, by expending privileges and enhancing opportunities for all, dilutes the comparative advantage of the special status or special privileges of the few. They resent seeing the gap between their minority status and the majority status narrowed.

In acknowledging the political frustrations of the conservative reaction to reform, I must equally acknowledge the political rewards of entrenching effective reform. Through persistence in the face of discouragement and failure, persistence that may have to survive not just years but decades of discouragement and failure, there must inevitably be success. It takes a long time to develop and sell any winning party policy and, in some cases, even longer to consummate the relevant legislation. Let me give some examples.

It took many years to introduce the reforms suggested in my first Curtin Memorial Lecture for a broader Federal role in the planning and funding of housing, roads, schools and hospitals. Some of the programs I proposed in 1961 are still incomplete. Although the Federal Government has established an Interstate Commission to rationalise transport costs and charges in Australia it is yet to nationalise the stevedoring industry or acquire all the State railways; although it has established an overseas shipping line it is yet to establish public enterprises in insurance, fisheries, newspapers or mineral resources.

The most successful of my Government’s reforms were the ones which were most strongly condemned at their inception, the ones which the Labor Party had to fight longest and hardest to muster first public and then parliamentary support. Our international policies emerged from themes in the 1950s and 1960s. Our health and urban policies were developed from speeches I made as far back as 1964, our migrant policies from a speech in January 1966 and our education policies from a series of speeches in 1967, 1968 and 1969.

On every occasion the conservatives resisted and resented all these proposals for change. One remembers Gorton’s accusation, in early 1970, that I would have "blood on my hands" through the promotion of independence in Papua New Guinea; and Santamaria’s claim that, following my visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, "Australia had gained a Chinese candidate, if not a Manchurian candidate for the Prime Ministership". Equally, I well remember Gorton’s taunt that, having placed urban issues such as sewerage on the agenda of the national Parliament, I sounded not like someone aspiring to be Prime Minister of Australia but like a shire president.

The indignation of the conservatives was no less when I challenged such pillars of faith of Australian reaction as the right of the private health funds to exploit ordinary Australians, the right of private schools to public support beyond any reasonable notion of need and the right of white Australians to discriminate against coloured persons through both their domestic and immigration laws. In all cases, the resistance of the conservatives and their puerile efforts to humiliate reform and the advocates of reform, crumbled quite suddenly, not because of their repentance, but because of our persistence. Persistence, patience, perseverance–these are the watchwords for Australian reformers as they take up their daunting task.

Achievements and Criticisms of the Whitlam Government

Let me here deal with three myths on the achievements of my Government which are dispelled in my book. First, the most common and most shallow criticism of my Government is that it tried to do too much too soon. Indeed, this is the preferred criticism of many members of the Labor Party itself. It is less common, however, for these members to make specific criticisms of particular decisions, especially in areas such as education, health, housing and welfare.

The cry of too much too soon comes from those who want to be good, but not yet, much in the style of Saint Augustine–"give me chastity and continency but do not give it yet". The cry of too much too soon comes from those who have forgotten that the great Labor victory of 1974 was based on the success of the broad range of reforms which the party had introduced since 1972, just as the great Labor victory of 1972 was based on the success of the broad range of reforms which the party had promoted since 1967. The Labor Party should realise that the lessons of my Government lie not so much in matters of careful administration and sound consultation, important as they may be, but in the means by which the party can effectively and expeditiously implement its plans for social reform.

Secondly, it has been said that the economic crisis and political drama of 1975 diminished the relevance of our program for reform. I maintain, however, that in two crucial respects, one constitutional and the other legislative, the relevance of our reforms were better vindicated in 1975 than in any other year.

The plethora of High Court cases on our legislation in 1975 demonstrated conclusively that the Australian Labor Party had overcome the constitutional barriers to reform which had earlier shackled it. No part of the program was ever invalidated by the High Court. No appeals against our legislation were ever upheld. Moreover and more urgently, in 1975 the great legislative and administrative endeavours of our first two years of government were beginning to come to fruition. Only in 1975 were we finally able to entrench the viability of our programs in health insurance, hospitals, community welfare, decentralisation, land development, urban transport, local government and in the arts. Only in 1975 were we able to consummate many of our reforms in the law and in Federal administration. We did not use economic crisis or political crisis as an alibi against reform.

Thirdly, the manner of my Government’s destruction, the extent of the Labor defeats at the elections of 1975 and 1977, have contributed to the misconception that my Government’s achievements were largely dismantled and its work largely nullified in the seven years which followed. One of my purposes in writing The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 was to remove that misconception. Any examination of the Government’s record clearly demonstrates that a great part of the work either survived intact or was sufficiently advanced when our existence was terminated to be carried on by a future Labor Government. I believe that that Government can fulfil its mission as a Labor Government, and retain continued public support, only by a commitment to genuine reform.

A conservative government survives essentially by dampening expectations and subduing hopes. We, by contrast, exist to raise hope and expectations–to lift the horizons of the people. We cannot be satisfied by merely establishing a reputation as good economic managers, important as that is. And in the longer term, if that is all we are seen to stand for, we will forfeit a large part of our public support.

Further, we must realise the limits of consensus. There can be no genuine consensus which fails to allow for the inevitability of conflict of interests and ideas. In particular, we must be careful that in the quest for consensus that what is termed the national interest is not in fact merely the conservative interest masquerading as the national interest.

A reform government can never afford to concentrate on economic performance at the exclusion of other policy interests. The Labor Party’s goals in economic policy and social policy must be pursued in tandem for, as I noted in my 1972 policy speech, "our program particularly in education, welfare, hospitals and cities can only work successfully within a framework of strong uninterrupted growth. Conversely the program will itself be the basis for strong growth." In some cases, due to international influences, social reform is made more urgent by economic performance. I give an example: just as all Western governments elected in 1973 and 1974 fell after just a single term of office, my Government suffered from the electoral consequences of an international recession which was both unexpected and unavoidable. In these circumstances it would have been remiss of my Government to ignore its opportunity for reform. Again, a Labor Government should never use economic exigencies as an alibi against reform.

Reforms under the Hawke Government

In the present economic conditions it would be difficult to embark on such expensive reforms as were introduced by my Government in the 1973 and 1974 Budgets. Nevertheless, this should not blind the Hawke Government to the benefits of those reforms which will either cost nothing or will actually save money. Changes in the electoral machinery, such as coordinating the dates of Federal and State elections, will cost nothing and changes in the insurance system, such as the introduction of a national compensation scheme, will savey money.

Equally, through planning and coordinating its existing outlays on urban and regional development–in housing, roads, higher education, office development, ports and airports–the Federal Government will save money. Other proposals such as national superannuation or the Australian Assistance plan or the reports on libraries and museums which my Government sought, the Fraser Government did not read and the Hawke Government has shelved, have a minimal cost.

The Labor Party must renew its campaign for Federal acquisition of interstate railways and Federal participation in the financing and conduct of hospitals and pre-school and child care services. It must not be deterred by clamour about State rights from our opponents and within our own ranks. Railways and hospital deficits and the emerging budget for children’s services are the cause of the financial difficulties of the States. There is no way that we shall have honest Stock Exchanges or efficient company laws until there is Federal legislation. It is as important to have one set of laws governing our ports and coastal waters as it is to have one set of laws concerning our air routes and airports. The party–Federal and State–benefit as trade unions are amalgamated and industrial laws made uniform.

In mounting campaigns for the introduction of those reforms which represent significant Budget outlays, at least in the shorter term, the Hawke Government has to learn from one of the failures of my Government. It has to convince the public that the community does not save if services and charges are transferred from the national budget to private institutions. One contemporary instance of this has been the alarming deterioration in Australia’s urban infrastructure since the Fraser Government abolished the programs initiated by my Government in decentralisation, urban renewal, sewerage and urban public transport. The Hawke Government has to convince the public that in areas such as urban and regional development the long-term social and environmental costs of deferring programs are far greater than the short-term savings in budgetary costs. It has to convince the public that under Australia’s Federal system, if a significant community function is not financed by the national Government it will be unfairly financed, inadequately financed or not financed at all.

More generally, however, the great challenge that this Government now faces is the redevelopment of a workable approach to reform, a full agenda for reform and a clear philosophy underscoring reform. It will find in meeting this challenge the rejuvenation of its direction and purpose and the restoration of its internal stability and electoral support. Let me expand on some specific aspects of the restoration of reform to the agenda of the party, the government, the nation.

Industrial Tribunals and Unions

Labor Party supporters must face up to the fact that their express links with the trade unions lose an immense amount of electoral support. Our task is not to sever the links but to enable unions to reduce the handicap involved in those links. The media never report union affairs except to disparage them. Unionists do not give up their incomes without a strong sense of grievance; yet it is only with the greatest difficulty that readers, listeners and viewers can learn what the grievances are. Once a strike occurs, readers are never informed what its real cause was.

There can be no dispute that strong unions are an essential ingredient of democracy in any industrial society. There have been powerful industrial states for 100 years but, during those years when they did not have free trade unions, they were not democracies. Similarly if the developing countries, particularly such populous neighbours as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, are ever to become democracies, they will have to have free trade unions. Further, the Australian Labor Party has kept in touch with public opinion better than some of its affiliated parties in other Western countries because it has stronger ties with trade unions. When all such allowances have been made, however, it is impossible to say that the trade unions as at present constituted in Australia make the contribution that trade unions made to industry and democracy in the Federal German Republic, Austria and the Scandinavian countries.

Trade unions are among Australia’s oldest institutions; they have not moved with the times. They inherited in the 1890s the craft organisation which had taken root in Britain. They have since been frozen by compulsory industrial arbitration systems, first Federal and later New South Wales, Queensland, South Australian and Western Australian. It is a recipe for demarcation disputes and public exasperation.

The consequences of the Australian system were spelt out on 25 February 1969 in the unanimous judgement of a full bench of the Commonwealth Industrial Court in Moore v. Doyle. The Court found that there was no basis for the belief in the Transport Workers Union that the New South Wales trade union had ceased to exist 40 years before and was a branch of the Federal organisation. The Court stated:

The above cases and the present case show that when factional differences arise in trade unions, or when it suits the interest of some litigant or litigants to do so, the Federal or State body can be attacked and its valid operation, its entitlement to assets, funds and membership, imperilled. Furthermore, the validity of membership in one body or the other may be difficult to establish in cases in which membership has to be proved as a condition of exercising jurisdiction or to qualify or enable a person to be or to be made a party in legal proceedings. The system as required to exist by State and Federal legislation and as it has evolved under the legislation in practice is technical, productive of artificialities and in urgent need of the attention of the law reformer.

The Court concluded that a system of trade union organisation was urgently needed which would enable the one body to represent its relevant members in both the Federal and State arbitration systems.

By October 1974 the Federal Labor Government had legislated as far as Federal power permitted. In December 1974 the Dunstan Labor Government made temporary legislative repairs in South Australia. Successive New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australian Governments, Labor and anti-Labor, have refused or failed to play their part. The continuing disruption of public services in power plants, oil refineries and public transport has been the inevitable result.

The unions give more money to lawyers to represent them in inter- and intra-union disputes than to the ACTU to fight employers in wage cases or to Labor to fight the Liberals in elections. Our shipping and shipbuilding industries are now overwhelmingly in foreign hands because it takes the members of half a dozen unions to load a ship in an Australian port, members of another half dozen unions to operate the ship when it puts to sea, and the members of 20 unions to build a ship. Our surface and air transport services in Australia are disproportionately expensive and inefficient but, unlike the maritime industries, cannot easily be left to outsiders to operate.

Most industrial stoppages and disputes in Australia arise between and within unions registered under competing Federal and State industrial laws. The laws cannot be changed by the unions but only by the Members of Parliament, Federal and State. Liberal and Country Party Members will not sponsor but will resist changes in the laws because they believe, as do most Labor Members, that industrial disputes harm the Labor Party. The greatest failure of Labor Governments has been their reluctance to change the laws. Neville Wran, who was one of the counsel appearing for the successful respondents in Moore v. Doyle, has more than once suggested a referendum to vest industrial powers in the Federal parliament. As a senior counsel and a senior politician, Wran knows the importance of having single industrial laws. Unfortunately Wran does not have the support of his Cabinet, his Caucus or his State party machine on this matter. At the National Economic Summit in April 1983 no speaker followed up Wran’s advocacy of a single arbitration system. The senior union official from New South Wales actually prepared a speech in which he repudiated Wran’s suggestion. The ACTU blue-pencilled the abrasive passage.

The industrial heartland of Australia is in the three contiguous States of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. After March 1983 the heads of government in the Federal Parliament and the three State Parliaments were lawyers, some with exceptional and others with at least some experience in industrial laws. To me it is incomprehensible and reprehensible that they have taken no steps to complete the Moore v. Doyle legislation or to have State industrial powers referred to the Federal Parliament.

National Companies Law

Throughout its terms of office, my Government worked towards ending the frustration and confusion caused to the Australian business community by the necessity to comply with eight different pieces of companies legislation, one in each State and Territory. The National Companies Bill was to have been introduced in Parliament on 12 November 1975. It was subsequently presented by Bowen as a private member’s bill in November 1976. The proposed legislation, ultimately rejected by the Fraser Government as an infringement on States rights, adapted in Bowen’s words:

the existing law in the form in which it appears in the Companies Ordinance of the Australian Capital Territory to make it suitable as a piece of national legislation. The changes which have been made in the process are as a result of our own and overseas experience. The essential differences between this Bill and existing legislation are that the provisions in this Bill will operate nationally on an Australia-wide basis. All companies, other than those incorporated in another country, will be deemed to be incorporated in Australia instead of in a particular State or Territory. State boundaries will be irrelevant. Companies will not need to register as foreign companies or to lodge documents with a separate administration. There will be an end to the jurisdictional problems which have bedevilled investigations and prosecutions…

As Attorney-General in the Hawke Government, Bowen is now the key figure in consummating my Government’s work in law reform.

National Compensation

One of the great disappointments of my public career has been the failure to institute a national rehabilitation and compensation scheme. On few political issues was I more consistent and more persistent. For 23 years–from 1954 to 1977–I campaigned against the inefficiencies and inequities of the existing system and stressed the need for its replacement by a universal and national system under the control of the Federal Government.

I first raised the issue at the last ALP Caucus meeting prior to the 1954 election. Dr Evatt passed debate around the party room in search of useful policy proposals for the election campaign. As one of several eager participants, I suggested that the party ought to take advantage of the broadened social security powers achieved at the 1947 referendum and promise the establishment of a national scheme for accident compensation. Evatt keenly recorded this suggestion and those of other Caucus members on his notepad. After the close of the meeting, however, the Doc left the room with his notes still sitting on the front table. The campaign strategy had already been formulated and the final Caucus meeting had been no more than a token display of party democracy. Such tokenism was somewhat typical of the Labor Party’s failure throughout the 1950s and 1960s to make accident compensation a matter of national responsibility. It was not until 1971 that the Federal Platform incorporated the promise of "a national compensation scheme to replace third party and workers’ compensation insurance and covering all disabling injuries suffered by any members of the community".

In the 1972 policy speech I undertook to establish a National Compensation Scheme. After the elections I telephoned New Zealand’s Prime Minister Norman Kirk to ask him to release Justice Woodhouse in order to head a committee of enquiry into an appropriate scheme for Australia. In 1966-67 he had been chairman of a Royal Commission which reported in favour of a comprehensive scheme for the compensation of personal injury to cover everyone in the community 24 hours a day without regard to fault or the cause of the injury. The benefits were to be related to earnings. The workers’ compensation system was to be dismantled and the right to pursue an action at common law for damages taken away. The scheme became law in October 1972. It commenced operation in April 1974.

On my visit to New Zealand in January 1973 the Attorney-General and Chief Justice arranged for me to have discussions with Woodhouse on the terms of reference of the enquiry. He visited Australia in February. The Premier, the Attorney-General and the Chief Justice of New South Wales were similarly cooperative in making the services of Justice Meares available. I announced the appointments and the terms of reference to the House on 8 March.

In the 1974 policy speech I was able to offer the following commitment:

We are determined to place the security, the welfare of those who suffer incapacity through accident or sickness on a sure and certain basis–on the basis of confidence and freedom from financial anxiety for themselves and their families. Australians should not have to live in doubt or anxiety lest injury or sickness reduce them to poverty. We want to reduce hardships imposed by one of the great factors for inequality in society–inequality of luck.

On 10 July 1974 I tabled Volume 1 of the Woodhouse Report dealing with Compensation. The judges’ report was one of the most convincing and stimulating reports ever presented to the Parliament. On 29 July, Cabinet agreed to introduce a Bill as soon as possible. On 22 August it agreed to a submission from Senator John Wheeldon of Western Australia, whom Caucus had elected to the Ministry after Grassby’s defeat at the May elections and whom I had appointed Minister for Repatriation and Compensation. On 26 September Bowen tabled Volume 2 of the Woodhouse Report dealing with Rehabilitation and Safety. On 3 October he introduced the National Compensation Bill which provided for earnings-related compensation to all people incapacitated as a result of injury or sickness and to the dependants of deceased persons. The scheme embraced injury, congenital disability and sickness and was to be introduced in four stages.

The House passed the Bill on 24 October. On 30 October Wheeldon introduced it in the Senate. At the end of his second reading speech, the Senate resolved that the Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs be empowered to consider the clauses of the Bill and report to the Senate on those clauses on or before 30 November.

In my book, I deal extensively with the manner in which this Committee was used–not least by those who describe themselves as Labor Lawyers to thwart the legislation. The Senate Committee was bombarded with submissions in order to delay consideration of the legislation. Sympathisers were encouraged to write to the Committee explaining that they wished to make a submission but that it would take a long time; they would therefore ask the Committee, in the interests of democracy, to give them a later deadline. Others were encouraged to stall, to ask for extensions of time on submission deadlines. They were aided and abetted by Labor lawyers who specialised in work for unions. The basis of their thriving practices is to charge unions for the expert advice in cases of accidents to unionists at work and on the way to and from work and at the same time to render gratuitous advice to union officials on methods to entrench themselves in office.

The strategy of overloading the Committee was completely successful. It had been asked to report by the end of November 1974. It sought and was granted extensions of time until April 1975, then June 1975 and finally July 1975, when it recommended that the Bill be withdrawn and reconsidered.

On 14 August, Cabinet decided to introduce a new Bill covering injury alone. A new National Rehabilitation and Compensation Bill was about to be introduced by Bowen in November 1975. He and I introduced it as a private member’s bill in February 1977. The Fraser Government did not allow a vote. The cost of financing and administering the present system of compensation for accidents has quadrupled since the Woodhouse Report. The procedures for victims and their dependants remain protracted and precarious.

Basically, officials have hoodwinked governments by stressing the cost of the scheme for the Federal Budget and have failed to point out that the payroll tax and excise duties to finance the scheme would cost employers and vehicle owners only two-thirds as much as they are at present compelled by State and Territory laws to pay to insurance companies. Only the Federal Parliament can produce an efficient and equitable system.

Governments subsequent to mine have quailed at the thought of nationalising an industry which is propped up by State and Territory laws and exploited by insurers, lawyers and doctors. The present system illustrates the expense and injustice caused by prolonged inaction. The Woodhouse scheme would give accident victims and their relatives complete and immediate compensation and for the first time would give them rehabilitation.


One of the most important roles and responsibilities of the Australian Labor Party is to educate the public, to lift the horizons of the people.

This is as important a role when we are in Government as in Opposition. Indeed, when we have, as we now do, Labor Governments as successful, in so many respects, as the Hawke, Burke, Bannon, Cain and Wran Governments, we have special opportunities and I believe, special obligations.

In the book on the Whitlam Government, I acknowledged two failures we had in fulfilling our educative role, in carrying our message of reform to the people, in establishing in the public mind the true nature of the cost of reform, or rather, the true cost of failure to reform.

First, we conspicuously failed to persuade unions and their advocates before the arbitration tribunals that persons on awards were benefiting more from our upgrading of community services than they ever could from increases to their paypackets. Indeed, we too often appeared to adopt at national wage cases the conservative proposition that everyone should pay for his own or his family’s standards and services by his own efforts.

Our second failure was that we did not convince the public that the community does not save if service and charges are transferred from the national budget to private institutions. We failed to convince the public that the burden to the community, either in taxes or inflation, is not increased if services or charges are financed publicly rather than privately. This is especially so when the services are universal and the charges compulsory.

The Hawke Government has been conspicuously successful in retrieving the first failure. It has not yet taken up the challenge of the second.

I firmly believe that the Australian electorate is keen to support a political party which offers workable solutions to social problems. That was the faith that sustained me throughout my public career. And therein lies the natural electoral advantage of the reform party. We must not fall into the defeatism that accepts that the Australian electorate is so naturally conservative that it will never accept real reform or genuine change. That way lies despair. Conservative parties, due to their playing down of expectations, cannot offer practical solutions to the inadequacies of our society in poverty, inequality and the public squalor of community services. Reform parties can. And reform parties must. Indeed, our successes in the 1969, 1972 and 1974 elections were based on a broad coalition of social groups who found expectation and encouragement in our policies. It was a natural choice for those who had experienced the consequences of poor urban planning, endured inadequate welfare services, lived in poor housing conditions, travelled with their families over five miles to a school or hospital, walked along muddy and unguttered footpaths and even sat in draughty outhouses on cold winter nights, to vote Labor in those elections.

If the Hawke Government is similarly able to respond to the needs and hopes of ordinary Australians–if it uses the economic strength it has achieved as a springboard for a new era of reform–it will, I am convinced, become unbeatable at the ballot box.

More important, it will, by such a commitment to reform, fulfil its true destiny as a great Labor Government; and another Western Australian will lead Australia’s revival, as John Curtin led and won our survival, more than 40 years ago.

This speech appears on the website of the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. The Library owns the copyright to the lecture.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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