Labour History

Mutualism and Labourism in the Experience of Westfund

Labour History (2017), 112, (1), 61–79.


This paper explores the dynamic by which “labourism” potentially undermines “mutualism” by examining the experience of Westfund under Australian Labour Party governments. The principle of self-help and the act of organising to provide mutual benefits have strong traditions in the labour movement. Westfund was a health fund established in 1953 by the Western District Branch of the Miners’ Federation in Lithgow New South Wales, largely to provide medical benefits to miners. Organised labour historically has also campaigned for state provision of welfare services. In Australia, the notion of “Labourism” refers to a particular approach adopted by organised labour whereby they represented their interests directly in the political sphere through the Australian Labor Party. When the labour movement achieved its aim of a more universal health care system under the Whitlam ALP government, Westfund chose to work within the system in order to survive. Mutualism and labourism co-existed. The subsequent introduction of Medicare by the Hawke ALP government brought changes which created a more threatening business environment for health funds. In this instance to mitigate the danger it posed to their business, Westfund chose to oppose more aggressively aspects of the universal health system. Westfund weakened its institutional ties to the labour movement, and became more autonomous from its roots as a mutual.

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*The authors would like to thank Labour History’s two anonymous referees. They also thank Westfund for providing access to archival materials held at their head office in Lithgow. This article is based on materials collected as part of a larger project charting the history of Westfund which was funded by that organisation. Google Scholar

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Author details

Knowles, Harry

Patmore, Greg

Westcott, Mark