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Tuesday, 27 February 2007
Page: 59

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (6:06 PM) —I rise this evening to speak on the Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007. Despite its rather pleasant sounding name, this bill is all about forcing Australians, or some Australians, to carry an ID card. One would think, with a title including ‘Enhanced Service Delivery’, that this bill would deal with some of the complexities that many people face when dealing with government departments and government agencies. This bill will only make it more complex, more costly and more time consuming for members of the public. At a base cost of almost $1.2 billion we must also question whether the government is really getting any value for money either. However, the bill will allow for the introduction of the new access card to replace the Medicare card, the Veterans’ Affairs card and many other entitlement cards. It will establish a new electronic register and specify which information will be held on it. The bill also outlines the registration process for the access card and creates offences for unauthorised demands to produce the card—and, of course, for unauthorised use of the card.

Those of us on this side of the House have expressed numerous concerns about this project since it was first announced by the former Minister for Human Services, the member for North Sydney. As we have progressed through this public debate, very little information has been forthcoming from the government to allay those concerns.

Before I go into more detail on our concerns I would like to point out what I believe to be the arrogance of the government and the disregard it pays to both houses of this parliament. Once again we have seen the government proceed to a tender process, even though the legislation has not passed through either house. Those opposite, I believe, are growing more arrogant and out of touch every day. It is an affront to our processes in this place.

This government has decided to ignore the proper processes of this place and has gone ahead and called for tenders, thereby exposing Australian taxpayers to potentially huge financial risks should the tender specification be altered. I understand that this unacceptable and unnecessary financial risk was exposed only after questioning during Senate estimates hearings on the 16th of this month.

Those opposite, particularly the former minister, the member for North Sydney, have stood in this place and told us that this access card is needed to prevent fraudulent claims to government departments and agencies and to stop identity theft, yet they have provided no hard evidence on how it will do either of these things. At a cost to the Commonwealth of $1.2 billion over four years, this project represents an enormous investment by the Commonwealth. But the government cannot tell us what the financial benefits will be. For example, to pay its way, to justify the prevent-fraud argument, the access card would need to prevent over a quarter of a billion dollars worth of fraud each year, or over $5 million worth each and every day. To put it another way, the government’s current systems in relation to Centrelink, Medicare, the PBS and Veterans’ Affairs would need to be haemorrhaging over $5 million each day—if that is the base of the argument. Is the government telling us that, after more than a decade at the helm, they have let government departments become this susceptible to fraudulent claims? It is fraudulent claims they are using to justify this card. Some may say that is a long bow. But that is the evidence that is in front of me.

I have some specific concerns about the registration process as outlined in the bill. To register for the access card, every adult Australian will have to provide proof-of-identity documents. Currently, there is no way of checking the authenticity of these documents, and there will not be a working system for at least another two years, as I understand it, when the document verification system is due to come online. What is the point in having this access card if it is compromised from day one by people using false, fraudulent or simply incorrect documents to register in the first place? I understand that the member for Sydney has moved amendments in the House to address this particular problem and others. I strongly endorse her amendments. They are practical, common-sense amendments aimed at making this proposal workable. In its current form, it is far from workable.

Many people in my electorate of Canberra have serious and legitimate questions about maintaining proper privacy of information. They are rightly suspicious of anyone, including government, compiling vast amounts of information on them and of how that information may be used. The type and amount of information stored directly on the card is of grave concern. Remember, this card will be able to be read by an ordinary card reader attached to any computer. We have already seen numerous cases around the country of organised criminal groups using this very same technology to rip off credit card holders. There is nothing to prevent people’s whole identities being stolen in this way. With an unprecedented amount of personal information stored on the one card, I am concerned that this access card will become a one-stop shop for identity thieves. It is quite possible. Nowhere else would they be able to get all of this information on just one card—from just one source.

The Australasian Centre for Policing Research has produced an identity crime policing strategy covering identity fraud. It cites a case from the US where a hospital worker stole 393 patients’ identities. Given the access card will hold Medicare and PBS information, and therefore will be an instrumental part of the administration process in patients receiving health care, who of those opposite can say that this will not be possible with the access card? That report goes on to note that ‘criminals are often able to utilise new technologies to facilitate identity crime more quickly than government agencies can react.’

The government has ignored serious recommendations in relation to the information shown on the face of the card. The government commissioned the respected former chairman of the ACCC Professor Allan Fels to provide recommendations on the access card. Two key recommendations of Professor Fels to protect access card holders from identity fraud have been completely ignored by the government. Professor Fels recommended that the identifying number and the electronic signature not be displayed on the face of the card. I would welcome hearing the government’s reasoning for ignoring what seems to me to be a very sensible recommendation.

Furthermore, I am concerned about the type and amount of information to be held on the database registry that will be linked to the card. Information held on the registry will include your date of birth, citizen or permanent residency status, residential and postal address, date of registration and PIN and, possibly most dangerously of all, scanned copies of the proof of identity documents used at the time of registration. This last category of information could include birth and marriage certificates, drivers licences and other relevant documents.

Having all of this information in one location has the potential to make the access card a true one-stop shop for identity fraud. Criminals will be lining up to find a way to illegally obtain this information. Your whole identity could be stolen with one security breach—and let us not pretend that that cannot happen. Whilst I strongly acknowledge that the vast majority of public servants are fine workers with the highest levels of integrity, there have sadly been cases in the past of public servants inappropriately accessing information. In August last year, it was widely reported in the media that 600 privacy breaches occurred within Centrelink alone—600 cases where staff accessed customer records without proper cause or authorisation.

In June last year, a report obtained under FOI showed that in the Child Support Agency there had been over 400 privacy breaches in the previous nine months. I have only mentioned two government agencies here and already we have over 1,000 privacy breaches. The scope for these breaches with the access card is potentially huge. Now we have the government telling us not to worry and that the information linked to the access card will be safe and secure. History, sadly, shows us that this is not necessarily the case.

Despite the assurances of the former minister, Australians cannot realistically opt out of the access card system. ‘If you don’t like it you can opt out,’ are pretty cheap words. The former minister said that no Australian would be forced to apply for an access card. But they will have to register if they want to visit a doctor, buy a medicine listed on the PBS or claim a Centrelink or Veterans’ Affairs benefit. In other words, if they want to access a federal government service, they will need an access card—with all of the privacy intrusions that come with it.

A lot of this reminds me of a debate back in the mid-eighties, to which the member for Richmond has already referred—and I am sure others have as well—when a system called the Australia Card was being considered. There is a lot of familiarity—deja vu—attached to this debate. As the member for Richmond said, the current Prime Minister, who was the Leader of the Opposition at the time, said on 23 September 1987 in relation to the Australia Card:

The Australian people do not want it. If you try to ram it down the throats of the Australian people you will pay very dearly in political and other terms.

The question in my head that I am still attempting to resolve—though I think I am reaching a conclusion—is that the proposal back in the mid-eighties, from memory, would have included every Australian had it got up. This proposal before us now does not necessarily include every Australian. It will include only those who require a government service: pensioners, people accessing income support and other types of concessions, generally speaking. Maybe the Prime Minister was right when he said back in 1987 when he was Leader of the Opposition that ‘the Australian people do not want it’ because there were a lot of people of influence who could have convinced him that it would have been a bad decision. I do not know.

What I do know is that the people who are going to have this card put upon them by this government—not quite everybody—are the people who rely on government support and government services. There is quite a large number—many millions—but they are in a different position. Whilst it is fine for the minister at the time to have said, ‘If people don’t want it, they merely opt out of it,’ it is really a very misleading statement because it is not quite true. If you can afford to live your life with no contact with government at all, then you can probably get away with not having one of these cards, but the majority of Australians—a huge number—actually have that interaction and will therefore need these cards.

I repeat my support for the amendment. I had a junior primary school from my electorate in this building today. One of the questions I was asked was: ‘What is it like to be a member of the parliament? What sorts of things do you do in the parliament?’ I was so bold as to say, ‘We debate and argue issues. In the House, we all aim to bring out a product that will suit everybody at the end.’ I am afraid I might have misled that school group today, because if the government does not accept this amendment we are going to have a product that will not suit everybody in the end.