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

by Jack Waterford

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

Laurie Daniels CB, OBE, who died of cancer on Friday aged 78, was an accomplished and professional public servant who headed two departments, including the one which administered Canberra in the days before self-government.

He was also closely involved with the development of Medibank and the 1970s expansion of the social security system.

Most of his time at the top was with activist ministers who either had their own ideas or had drawn them from political advisers, but Daniels was 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. A strong Catholic social conscience did him no harm either.

Laurie Daniels was born in Adelaide in 1916. He left school at 17 and went to Sydney where he won, by exam, one of about 50 public service vacancies available that year. He was sent to the Taxation Department, studying accountancy, and later a degree in economics, by night.

He moved to Canberra with his wife Joyce in 1946, leaving Taxation in 1953 after 19 years.

He joined the Health Department, where he was to spend another 19 years of a public service career which totalled 47 years in all.

His speciality was health insurance and he rose to become a first assistant director-general. That was to serve him doubly well.

When health insurance was merged with Social Services to form the first mega-department of Social Security in the incoming Whitlam Government, Laurie Daniels was ranked higher than the first assistant secretaries of the other old department, and, on the unexpected retirement of the Secretary of the amalgamation, Dr Lou Wienholt, Daniels was the senior man.

The second benefit was that health insurance was at the forefront of the plans of the new Minister, Bill Hayden, to create Medibank.

Although Daniels was first and foremost an administrator rather than a policy man — and the genesis of Medibank lies more with outsiders such as Dr John Deebe, Dr Robert Scotton and Paddy McGuiness — he played a major role in bringing the ideas forward.

Daniels always had a special capacity to get along with ministers, to decomplicate issues and put a grass roots perspective on them.

The Whitlam years saw tempestuous relationships between ministers and their bureaucrats, however Daniels and his department had an easy working relationship with Hayden.

The period also saw a marked shift towards universal access to welfare, including single mothers' benefits.

There was also a major increase in the size of the department, and conscious and visible efforts, under Daniels, to give the department and its officers a human, consumer-friendly, touch.

Daniels stayed at Social Security under [Dame] Margaret Guilfoyle. His time with her saw the development of family allowances, another major change in social security.

He was also involved in the case of Green v Daniels. To save money, the Fraser Government had ordered that students not be entitled to unemployment benefits until it was clear that they were not resuming studies.

Daniels, as the person in whom discretions were vested under the legislation, ordered that the policy be implemented although there had been no change to the legislation. A Tasmanian student challenged his exercise of discretion and Justice Stephen, of the High Court ordered that he exercise his discretion according to the law, rather than by government policy.

A general reshuffle of permanent heads in 1977 saw Daniels shifted to head Capital Territory. He served under Tony Staley, Bob Ellicott and Michael Hodgman.

He was at the centre of much of the early lead-up to self-government, including the referendum at which the idea was rejected.

Laurie Daniels was no great enthusiast for self-government going beyond municipal functions.

He retired at age 65 in 1981 but remained closely involved with Canberra community organisations, particularly Marymead, sporting groups, the Manuka football team, and with the Catholic church.

He was buried on Tuesday following a funeral attended by about 400 family, friends, former colleagues, and several of his former ministers, including the Governor-General.

He is survived by his wife Joyce, eight daughters, two sons, and 11 grandchildren.

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Citation details

Jack Waterford, 'Daniels, Laurence John (Laurie) (1916–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/daniels-laurence-john-laurie-27833/text36492, accessed 19 July 2019.

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