Inequality of Luck: Accident Compensation in New Zealand and Australia

By Nolan, Melanie | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Inequality of Luck: Accident Compensation in New Zealand and Australia


Nolan, Melanie, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


With the Australian Labor government implementing its National Disability Insurance Scheme (2012), which will provide some people with disabilities care and support over their lifetimes, it is timely to consider earlier attempts, and failures, to implement wide-ranging compensation schemes. Most notably, Gough Whitlam's government attempted a national scheme in 1975 that followed the implementation in 1974 of the no-fault accident compensation scheme in New Zealand. In this article I consider the failure of antipodean policy transfer over this issue in the 1970s. I also consider why labour historians have neglected the topic of late twentieth century welfare state expansion of accident compensation.

Kinds of Compensation for Death and Injury

Injury and sickness are unlucky occurrences; impairment and death are as contingent as any human experience with far-reaching repercussions for the injured and their dependents. There has been a growing literature on "the people's" diseases, infections and mortality implicated in the modern demographic transition. (1) Modern methods of killing and injuring have attracted attention for the sheer numbers involved: the carnage associated with the two twentieth century world wars was most concentrated and visible. (2) Australasia had relatively high casualty rates of its armed forces during the wars: over 100,000 Australians and 30,000 New Zealanders were killed in the First and Second World Wars. (3) There has been some criticism, nevertheless, about the degree of emphasis of the wars in Australasian historiography. (4) By contrast many more Australasians were injured, incapacitated and killed in peacetime in road and workplace accidents than in the "overseas" wars in the twentieth century. (5) Production and locomotion deaths and injuries were diffuse in distribution, however, and their meaning has been rarely discussed in our historiography. (6)

Social policies on compensation for different kinds of death and injury have had separate histories, too. By World War I widows and injured soldiers were automatically compensated for death and injury. (7) Soldier welfare was a foundation stone of state welfare and has been relatively well surveyed. (8) Compensation for industrial and transport death and injury was neither as automatic nor comprehensive and has been underplayed in the analysis of the developing welfare states. While no modern society ignores the plight of those injured, incapacitated and killed by its production and transport systems, the public policy response, like the deaths and injuries themselves, however, has been mostly fragmented. Demands for systematic compensation for industrial and domestic injuries and deaths crested in the 1970s at the same time that numbers of work related and road accidents generally peaked in the Antipodes. Meanwhile the complicated three-part system of assistance for transport and industrial "accidents" victims, which had operated in the British world for most of the twentieth century, simply continued. Common law recourse in the courts--which developed in Britain from the time of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century--was based on proving an employer's negligence and left large numbers unable to find someone to blame and, therefore, unaided by this system. (9) Workers' compensation legislation was enacted in Britain in 1897 with New Zealand and South Australia following suit in 1900, and acts progressively throughout Australian states and at the federal level. (10) Workers' compensation established that, regardless of fault, employers had to accept some part of the losses their workers suffered from injuries and accidents in their workplaces. While it avoided contention and delay, this system limited the duration and levels of compensation. Social welfare provided no compensation to victims or deterrence to inadequate workplace process but provided a basic subsistence, sickness or invalid benefit, usually conditional on victims satisfying a means test. …

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