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Wednesday, 13 June 2007
Page: 78

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (3:29 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Human Services (Senator Ellison) to a question without notice asked by Senator Stott Despoja today relating to proposed legislation to establish a health benefits, veterans’ and social access card.

I am so sorry to break the mood in this place—Senator Hutchins’s good food guide in Sydney—but this is a similar matter and goes to the heart of issues of accountability by government.

Obviously, Mr Deputy President, you heard some questions today relating to former senator Ian Campbell’s appointment. My particular interest is in relation to this new exposure draft of the legislation that we have been told to expect. My understanding from the answer today in question time is that we will see such a draft over the next couple of weeks. We have been told that that process, the consultative period—whatever that may involve—will actually take about two months. So, Mr Deputy President, if you do the math, we are assuming that we will see this process completed around August, which presumably then gives the government time to refine, rewrite, amend or whatever the legislation so that they come to this place with a final Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007, also known as the access card legislation.

I am just wondering how much time that leaves for the previously promised Senate inquiry—and I take the government at its word that it will indeed refer the legislation to a Senate committee—and then of course we will have the debate on that legislation. If you do the math, recognising that we have only about four sitting weeks after we return from the winter break, presumably, before parliament is prorogued for an election campaign, and the election, it does not look like we are going to see the access card legislation in this place anytime soon. So I wonder if this is just a convenient deflection by a government that was starting to feel a little unpopular and feel a little bit of heat over a proposal that was ill thought out, hastily prepared and inadequately consulted on—something the government has now, albeit belatedly, acknowledged with this new round of consultation. The minister said today that people like me have been arguing for further consultation: you bet we have. So I commend that aspect of the proceedings.

But I am a little concerned about the implications, both financial and other, of the delayed process. In particular, today I referred to the fact that tenderers in the process are potentially—well, decidedly—being inconvenienced as a consequence of this process. I certainly note, as did the minister, today’s Financial Review story entitled ‘Angry smartcard bidders want answers’. In relation to the initial consultation, we should remember of course that the first exposure draft was released over Christmas, so only those people who could read that—or were girly-swotty enough to read that—over Christmas were able to put in their various submissions and be part of the consultation process. And the sector did. From privacy groups through to a range of technology organisations right through to community concern groups et cetera, they were a part of that process; they came up with ideas.

Then we saw the hastily drafted first tranche of the legislation enter this place. I cannot refer to a decision of the parliament because we did not make a decision, although it was referred to a Senate committee for what was a very fast process considering the complexity and the privacy, security, financial, political, social, departmental and other implications of that legislation. There were three public hearings and it went off to a committee. But it was one of the few times in this new Senate—that is, the Senate controlled by the government—that we actually saw a unanimous committee report that went to the heart of some of the concerns that we have with the proposed legislation.

Indeed, we were successful in halting the access card legislation, not by ensuring that that first tranche of legislation was withdrawn—and I wonder if the government will withdraw that legislation before it introduces a new bill—but by in fact halting that process so that the government could come back to us with some details about what the function of the card actually was, bearing in mind that that legislation had minimal privacy safeguards. It did not define ‘authorised access’ or ‘unauthorised access’, whether or not people could access their information or whether or not they could correct incorrect information that was stored about them. It did not do anything about limiting extraordinary ministerial discretion. It did not do anything about answering the concerns that people had about the fact that this register will be the first and largest register of Australians in the history of this country and, therefore, potentially one of the biggest intrusions into the private lives of Australians that this country has ever seen. It was ill-thought-out, hastily drafted law and it deserved to be quashed. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.