(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, November 11.)
Let me take you back to 1974.
New Zealanders were driving Holden Kingswoods, Morris Marinas and Hillman Hunters. Police cars were painted battleship grey.
An ailing Norman Kirk was prime minister and Sir Denis Blundell was Governor-General. The president of the Federation of Labour, Tom Skinner, was one of the most powerful men in the country.
Popular TV shows included Happen Inn and Upstairs, Downstairs. Philip Sherry and Bill Toft were reading the news and viewers were enjoying the novelty of colour, introduced just in time for the Christchurch Commonwealth Games. Television transmissions ended before midnight and there was no advertising on Sundays.
Flares, platform shoes, glitter and Afro hairstyles were all the rage. John Hanlon was topping the charts with Lovely Lady and Blazing Saddles was showing at the movies, along with The Towering Inferno.
Men still did most of their drinking in smoky public bars before staggering home to the missus. They drank Lion Brown and DB Draught because there was little else available.
McDonald’s hadn’t yet arrived in New Zealand and licensed restaurants were expensive places you went to for special events such as 21st birthday celebrations or wedding anniversaries.
Andy Leslie was captain of the All Blacks and rugby’s image was still untarnished by the 1976 Olympic Games boycott and the 1981 Springbok tour.
Feminism was in its infancy. The domestic purposes benefit had just been introduced and abortion was illegal.
CDs and DVDs hadn’t been invented and the internet, if anyone had thought of it, would have seemed the stuff of wild science fiction.
New Zealand had a highly protected economy that had been largely dependent on trade with Britain. We had not yet felt the full impact of the 1973 oil price shocks and the chronic inflation that was to follow, or the pain from Britain’s decision to abandon us by joining the European Economic Community.
It was the last year in which we enjoyed the same per capita income as Australians. New Zealand farmers, encouraged by generous taxpayer subsidies, had 56 million sheep compared with 34 million now. Milk – also generously subsidised – was four cents a pint.
It would be another 10 years before the government of David Lange, forced to take drastic action because of New Zealand’s dire economic predicament, pushed through a radical programme of deregulation that transformed the country.
You get the picture? New Zealand in 1974 was a very different place than it is now. It was, quite literally, a lifetime ago.
It was in this context that the accident compensation scheme, or ACC as it became known, was introduced. The concept of a universal, no-fault accident compensation scheme was a world first, and New Zealanders were proud of it. But the world moves on.
What’s intriguing about ACC is that because it seemed a good idea in 1974, many people insist it must still be a good idea now.
Flared trousers, Gary Glitter, Morris Marinas, import restrictions and lousy beer didn’t seem bad ideas in 1974 either, but no one is clamouring to reinstate them. So what’s so precious about ACC that it must be frozen in time, presumably as a permanent reminder of a warm, fuzzy era when a paternalistic state bandaged our knees and kissed us better?
The comparison with flares, beer and crappy British cars might seem frivolous, but you can see what I’m getting at. Nothing is permanent in a turbulent, dynamic world, and what seemed entirely appropriate and even visionary in 1974 may be hopelessly inefficient and anachronistic in 2009.
In 1974 we felt economically secure and we placed our trust in mummy state. That was even truer in 1967, when the Woodhouse Commission first proposed ACC.
At that time we enjoyed one of the world’s highest standards of living and probably felt we could afford a gold-plated accident compensation scheme that was, essentially, the biggest extension of the welfare state since the 1930s.
Not only have economic circumstances changed radically since then, but politicians have bought electoral support by weighing ACC down with ever greater responsibilities, usually in response to the special pleadings of aggrieved groups which exist in numbers unimagined 35 years ago.
On top of that, ACC exhibits all the usual symptoms of cumbersome bureaucracies that face no competition and therefore little pressure to perform. These symptoms include perversely paying long-term compensation to freeloaders and malingerers while simultaneously fighting tooth and nail to deny compensation to deserving cases, of which almost every New Zealander knows at least one example.
Yet whenever anyone dares to suggest the scheme should be modified or (horror!) exposed to competition, the opinions of Sir Owen Woodhouse, the architect of the scheme, are trotted out as if he remains the Oracle.
Sir Owen naturally feels proud of his baby, but with respect, he’s now 93, and though he’s still clearly as sharp as a tack, he should accept that New Zealand is a different country from the one in which he embarked on his ambitious social experiment.
ACC’s five principles – which included “community responsibility” for accidents, comprehensive entitlement regardless of what caused the accident, and compensation at 80 per cent of previous earnings – were in tune with the collectivist mood of the time. But they haven’t aged well in a society which has learned to its cost that many people will happily take something for nothing, and which has grown intolerant of people who expect others to pay for their own failure to behave safely or responsibly.
Sir Owen and his many supporters talk about these “principles” as if they are sacrosanct, but very few things are sacrosanct and institutions such as ACC should certainly not be regarded as permanently cast in stone. A radical overhaul of the entire accident compensation regime is long overdue.