Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Daniels, Laurence John (Laurie) (1916–1994)

by Malcolm Wood

This article was published online in 2019

Laurie Daniels, by Australian News and Information Bureau, c.1968

Laurie Daniels, by Australian News and Information Bureau, c.1968

National Library of Australia, 44788840

Laurence (Laurie) John Daniels (1916–1994), public servant, was born at Prospect, Adelaide, on 11 August 1916, eldest of three sons of Adelaide-born parents Leslie Tinsley Daniels, commercial traveller, and his wife Margaret Bridget, née Bradley, dressmaker. With Margaret’s father and her two unmarried siblings, the staunchly Catholic family lived in a lower-middleclass neighbourhood in North Adelaide. Leslie lost his job during the Depression and left to work interstate. Following earlier Catholic schooling, Laurie attended Christian Brothers’ Rostrevor College, Adelaide, for two years on a State bursary, and was dux in 1933.

Highly placed in an examination for competitive entry to the Commonwealth Public Service, Daniels moved to Sydney in 1934 to commence employment in the Treasury’s taxation branch. Studying part time over eight years, he gained accountancy qualifications and an economics degree from the University of Sydney (BEc, 1944). He married Joyce Margaret Carey, a stenographer, at St Joan of Arc Church, Haberfield, on 11 February 1943. Transferred to taxation’s central office in Canberra in 1945, and promoted in 1946, the bright young officer chafed under ‘an excess of legalism and rigidity’ (Daniels 1981). He gained promotion to the Department of Health in 1953, becoming a senior executive in 1964 responsible for health planning and legislation.

Since 1953 a Commonwealth scheme had subsidised people’s voluntary contributions to private health funds to insure against hospital and medical expenses. In 1968 the Gorton government commissioned an inquiry under Justice (Sir) John Nimmo to address the scheme’s complexity, low participation rates, and high out-of-pocket expenses; Daniels was secretary. Many of Nimmo’s recommendations were implemented in 1970, but the Australian Labor Party, then in Opposition, proposed bolder policy, which Dick Scotton and John Deeble, researchers at the University of Melbourne, had designed. In Federal election campaigns in 1969 and 1972, private health funds and the medical profession strenuously opposed Labor’s universal and compulsory health insurance policy, named Medibank—the funds to protect their industry, and the doctors to secure the privacy of their earnings data and maintain independence from government. Labor stood its ground. In December 1972 the incoming Whitlam Labor government shifted the health insurance function, under Daniels, from the Department of Health to the new Department of Social Security to curtail doctors’ influence within the bureaucracy.

Daniels was appointed director-general of the Department of Social Security in July 1973. His minister, W. G. (Bill) Hayden, was initially wary of the public service, but came to appreciate and respect his senior departmental officers, observing later: ‘The Department was transformed from being dominantly a bookkeeping manager of a well-established range of benefits to an active policy department and provider of a much wider range of services than hitherto’ (Hayden 1996, 182). Hayden negotiated with State governments, the medical profession, and other interested parties, and steered Medibank through Labor’s cabinet and party processes. Following the Senate’s rejection three times, Medibank was finally legislated during Australia’s first joint sitting of parliament in August 1974. It stands as one of the signature achievements of the Whitlam government.

In December 1975 the incoming Fraser government returned health insurance to the Department of Health and subsequently wound Medibank back. Daniels continued as permanent head of social security under Minister (Dame) Margaret Guilfoyle (1975–80). The welfare system was under strain during 1976–77, the result of a sharp increase in the number of sole parents and high unemployment. Regarding supporting mothers’ benefits, the department sought to balance the government’s desire to restrain costs with social change and clients’ rights to privacy. A High Court of Australia case, Green v. Daniels (1977), highlighted the government’s efforts to tighten eligibility for unemployment benefits. At his minister’s insistence, Daniels had directed that school leavers be denied benefits over the summer vacation. However, as there had been no change in legislation, the court ruled that such benefits could not validly be denied, and that each case had to be considered on its merits. Although Daniels’s working relationship with Guilfoyle was mutually respectful, the government resolved to present a harder line against perceived ‘dole-bludging’ and transferred him to the lesser office of secretary, Department of the Capital Territory, in August 1977.

At a time when Federal government staff ceilings and budget cuts were damaging Canberra’s economy, Daniels supported Robert (Bob) Ellicott, minister for the capital territory (1977–80), in promoting private enterprise locally. Initiatives included creating the Canberra Development Board and making commercial leasehold more investor-friendly. Daniels retired in August 1981. He had advised two Labor ministers (Hayden and John Wheeldon) and four Liberal ministers (Guilfoyle, Tony Staley, Ellicott, and Michael Hodgman), earning their respect for his professionalism. A steadfast man, he practised his Catholic religion all his life and provided valuable voluntary services to the Church and community. In retirement he continued to serve on the Commonwealth’s Administrative Review Council, and hospital, health, welfare, and educational bodies of the Australian Capital Territory, including the Health Services Council and the Gaming and Liquor Authority. He was a member of the Australian Catholic University’s Senate, which established a scholarship in his name in 1996. He had been appointed OBE in 1972 and CB in 1979.

Survived by Joyce and their eight daughters and two sons, Daniels died on 16 September 1994 at Woden Valley Hospital and was buried in Gungahlin cemetery, Canberra. He was remembered as ‘the simplifier of the great notion, the person with a good gut instinct for how something would sell, and the affable, decent and down-to-earth adviser and confidante who could get people to work together and, usually, get things to work’ (Waterford 1994, 8).

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Boxall, Anne-marie, and James A. Gillespie. Making Medicare: The Politics of Universal Health Care in Australia. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2013
  • Daniels, Laurie. Interview by Vivienne Rae-Ellis, 8–15 December 1981. Recording. National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-195209022
  • Hayden, Bill. Hayden: An Autobiography. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1996
  • Personal Knowledge of ADB subject
  • Waterford, Jack. ‘A Top Adviser with the Common Touch.’ Canberra Times, 22 September 1994, 8

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Malcolm Wood, 'Daniels, Laurence John (Laurie) (1916–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/daniels-laurence-john-laurie-27833/text35579, published online 2019, accessed online 22 July 2019.

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