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Tuesday, 24 November 1959

Debate resumed from 19th November (vide page 2899), on motion by Sir Garfield Barwick -

That the bill be* now read a second; time.

Mc WHITLAM: (Werriwa) [11.10].- I believe that honorable members will take great satisfaction in the fact that the Commonwealth is now to accept the same responsibility for fatalities and personal injuries caused1 by its vehicles as all States long ago imposed on their citizens, and themselves accepted, under compulsory third party insurance acts, and as the Commonwealth itself imposed on residents of the Australian Capital Territory, and accepted for its own vehicles- in the Territory under the Motor Traffic Ordinance of 1947. Because the Commonwealth has been the only motor vehicle owner in Australia that was not automatically liable for injuries caused by the negligence of persons driving its vehicles, any person bereaved or injured by a Commonwealth vehicle had to establish that the vehicle was being driven by the Commonwealth's employee in the course of his employment. Naturally the Common wealth cannot drive vehicles itself. All its vehicles have to be driven by its employees, and the onus which was cast on a bereaved or injured person- was- in many cases very difficult to discharge.

This is not an academic matter or one of slight importance. It is a highly relevant consideration, because the Commonwealth is the largest owner of motor vehicles in Australia. On 11th August last the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) told me that the Commonwealth, as at 31st March of this year, owned 31,636 vehicles.. At that time there were in Austrafia as a whole 2,639,281 vehicles. The Commonwealth, therefore, owned one in every 83 or 84 vehicles on the roads of this country. The number of accidents in Australia in 1957-58 was 39,473", and as a result of those accidents 2,146 people were killed and 52,213 were injured. It would seem, therefore, that on the average it was likely that about 700 or 800 people a year would have been injured by Commonwealth vehicles. One does not know how much damage was caused by way of personal injury as a result of those accidents involving Commonwealth vehicles, but in Australia as a whole in 1957-58 an amount, of. £14,202,000 was paid out under compulsory third party insurance schemes. One would, imagine, therefore, that, pro rata,. Commonwealth vehicles might well have, done a couple, of hundred- thousand pounds worth of damage in that year. to. his speech introducing' the bill the Attorney-General- (Sir Garfield. Barwick) said that in- cases in which- the Commonwealth has had the defence open to- it that drivers were not driving in the course of their employment, the procedure has been for the Treasurer (Mr. Harold Holt)- to examine the cases; and, if he thought fit, to- offer an injured- person an- ex gratia payment equal- to the amount that would have been payable had the Commonwealth been liable under the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Act for the injuries sustained. That would give very little comfort to. persons injured,, because the Prime Minister said, in. answer to- a question I put to> him on. 16th April last year -

If a driver is not able to pay the damages awarded- against him the Governments policy is to consider the circumstances to determine whether it should make a payment, as an act of grace, to- alleviate hardship.

I then asked the Treasurer, who at that time was Sir Arthur Fadden, the following question: -

In how many cases in each of the last five years has the Commonwealth made payments as an act of grace to persons who have been awarded damages against the driver of a Commonwealth motor vehicle but are unable to recover the damages from the driver?

The then Treasurer replied, on 15th May last year -

There have been no applications to the Commonwealth for ex gratia payments in these circumstances.

Mr Bryant - I have made one myself.

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