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Tuesday, 24 March 1987
Page: 1399


Mr BLUNT(5.16) —This afternoon we are not really debating the Australia Card Bill brought in by this Government, rather we are debating the political motives of the Hawke Labor Government. The honourable member for Barker (Mr Porter) discussed statements made by the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) earlier this year when he suggested that amendments would be made to the identity card legislation before it was reintroduced to the House. I believe the Minister said-if he was accurately reported-that minor amendments would be made to the legislation to take into account the concerns of some sections of the community about the civil liberty aspects of the legislation.

A Cabinet meeting was held in downtown Calare in a valiant attempt to prop up the failing fortunes of the honourable member for Calare (Mr Simmons). Let me tell honourable members that they are failing rapidly. We have a surprise lined up for the honourable member and he might as well give up now. Cabinet members discussed the politics of this ID card and they said: `What we desperately need to do is somehow have the circumstances in front of us so we can call a double dissolution. What bit of legislation have we got up our sleeves? We have the ID card'. Someone then said: `There is a problem. The Minister for Health, good old Dr Blewett, has promised to amend it, and under the Constitution there cannot be a double dissolution unless the legislation is exactly the same, right down to the same i's and t's, the crossings and the dots on those letters. What has to happen is that Dr Blewett had to change his mind'. What do we have here now? We have the same exact legislation, word perfect.

What is the motive? It is not a desire to get the ID card implemented, it is not the concern expressed by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) to find out what the cost would be so the Budget estimate processes can be done, it is a cynical attempt to set up the preconditions for a double dissolution. We must also ask why the Government wants to run a double dissolution on an issue such as the ID card. The real answer to that question is that it is terrified of fighting an election on the real issues. We have the pretender to the job of Treasurer, the honourable member for Calwell (Dr Theophanous) wandering around this place putting up alternative economic policies in an attempt to get the Treasurer out of the mess that he has got the economy into. The Government is not prepared to debate high interest rates, or high rates of unemployment. It is not prepared to address the question of fiscal restraint and to cut expenditure. It is terrified of having to live up to the undertaking to bring in a mini-Budget on 14 May. It would do just about anything to avoid bringing down a statement on 14 May because it knows that it cannot do it. Not only has it got the abysmal support of the community now, but also tomorrow's opinion polls will say that the Labor Party is in trouble again. I invite the Minister for Health who is at the table and his paltry handful of back benchers-four of them are sitting there; that is the Government's commitment to this ID legislation, four people to put its case on the ID card-to have a look at an advanced copy of the Bulletin tomorrow, and eat your hearts out. I notice that the honourable member for Calare has left the chamber. He has probably gone to telephone a few constituents to bolster his failing support out there by trying to convince them that he is doing a good job.

This legislation is here simply for political convenience to open up the Government's options. A number of things must be said about the contribution made by the honourable member for Calare. He suggested that the ID card would not be used to store information about people. Of course it will not; it is a bit of plastic. There has been some suggestion by the Health Commission that it will have the capacity to store data additional to what the Government suggested would be on it, but I will not go into that because I am sure that other speakers will.

The ID card will provide a number for every man, woman and child in Australia-all 16 million of us. Heaven help us when we go in to the various offices to be photographed and present our birth certificates, then go back to sign and pick up the card. I would not like to be the Minister responsible for administering that mess. We should look at what happened overseas. On the Minister's political epitaph will be `the man who tried to dog-tag all Australians'. No matter what the Minister has done, no matter what mess he has made of Medicare and no matter what catastrophe he will inflict upon us with his inadequate acquired immune deficiency syndrome program, his political epitaph will be `the Minister for dog tags'.

The ID card will be used to establish a pattern of life for every Australian. The various financial activities of every Australian will be able to be linked, because that number will have to be left every time a financial transaction is carried out. The result will be that over a period it will be possible to put together a complete dossier on the financial transactions that an individual has had. The Government knows that that is what it will be used for, but it is pretending that that is not the case. The reality is: How can the Government achieve its objectives without linking the various sources of data? The Government needs the number to provide the linkage, and it tells us that, but it will not go the next step and say: `We can push the button and bring in all this data from other sources and put it all together to determine exactly what you have been doing'. The Government could know exactly what our lifestyle is, where our income comes from, where it is spent and how our wealth is stored, so that it could tax us if it wanted to introduce a wealth tax. That is what it is all about.


Dr Charlesworth —We are already doing it.


Mr BLUNT —The honourable member for Perth says that the Government is already doing it. The pity is that the Australian Taxation Office does not already do it. It is so slack that it does not even use the information it has and it cannot even use the money allocated to it to buy computers. With great fanfare Commissioner Boucher finally announced the other day that he was going to spend his allocation on computers. That is the greatest condemnation of the efficiency of a department that I have ever come across. The honourable member for Calare talked about false cards. He said that we will be able to identify a false card because as soon as the number is put into the computer it will ring `tilt' and we will know that it is a false card. He did not say that, according to the Government, the only people who will have computers are those in the Medicare office and the Tax Office and access will be restricted to the computers in those offices.

The major users of these cards will be the financial institutions. The implication of what the honourable member for Calare said was that eventually financial institutions-people will be required to obtain this card before they can conduct business-will have to have real time computers so that they can punch in the number and determine whether or not it is a real number. When will we get some honesty about this? If what the honourable member for Calare has said about identifying false cards is true, when will the Minister tell us what the requirements on the private sector will be in relation to access to the records for the purpose of validating the cards? It will have to be real time, unless the Government is to provide the financial institutions with updated records on a 24-hour basis.

If we believe what the Government has said, I could get a false card on 1 July, trade on it for 12 months, then lodge my return on 30 June and about three months later when it is pro- cessed someone might realise that the number is false and then come looking for me. Of course, if I am dishonest enough to have a false card I will be long gone and will be operating on another false card. When are we going to get a bit of reality from the Government about what the card as it is proposed will and will not do and what it is intended to do further down the track? The reality is that any bureaucrat who asks for this ID card, because it will help him or her to do the job better, is admitting that he or she is not doing the job properly at present. We know that the Tax Office has all the information and data it could possibly need to track down a lot of people who are not paying tax on undisclosed interest and dividends.

We learnt the other day that the Tax Office does not even require the Reserve Bank of Australia to provide a list of people who get interest on Australian savings bonds. Lots of small investors bought the old Aussie Bonds and the Reserve Bank gave to the Tax Office the list of people who got interest on those bonds, but the Tax Office did nothing with the information. All the computer techniques around the world are available to the Tax Office to match all this data, but the Tax Office does not do it at present because it is slack, inefficient and is living in the 1950s. The bureaucrats, the Minister and the Government know that but, as usual, when they are in trouble they ask for a bigger and bettter weapon to hit the Australian public over the head with. The bigger and better weapon this time around is the ID card.

The same thing applies in the Department of Social Security. We are told by some people that social security fraud will be eliminated with the ID card. The Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) does not support the ID card, nor does his Department. His Department has said that the ID card will not save a cent. The Department has said that it will not rely on the ID card as a prime source of identification; it will still look at other ways of identifying beneficiaries. The Department has said that less than one per cent of social security fraud and overpayment is related to false identity. The Government and the Minister know that and the people of Australia ought to be told the truth about it. They should be told that they are being sold this ID card on false pretences because it will do precious little for the Department of Social Security, which will not use it or rely upon it. We have had evidence from senior officers in the benefits control section of the Department of Social Security that they will not rely on the ID card.

The real answer to the problem of social security fraud-apart from a change of government and a new Minister-is better administration. If the Department identified its existing clients properly, by requiring birth certificates, marriage certificates or certificates of citizenship, we might have positive identification. But under this Government's administration people can identify themselves in the Department of Social Security with a driver's licence. Driver's licences can be bought in any back alley in King's Cross in Sydney. People can identify themselves with a trade union membership card or even with a school report card. What sort of identification procedure is that? It is a joke!

We are going to spend $1 billion or there-abouts identifying 16 million Australians because some of the three million people who are clients of the Department of Social Security are ripping off the system. The logic of the statement that I am about to make is irrefutable: It is cheaper and easier to identify three million Australians than 16 million Australians. Well the Minister for Health might write that down, because I would like him to tell me why it is not cheaper and easier to identify three million Australians than 16 million Australians. He knows it and the Government knows it. The reason the Government keeps running the social security argument in terms of the ID card is that it is the only thing that has any legs. The Australian community is fed up with the open door, give away policy of this Government in relation to social security. The Department almost has the motto `You breed them, we feed them' under this Government. No one enforces the checks and balances effectively, and the Department has industrial strife. The Government has come into this place and told us what it will do to stop the rip-off, but the unions have banned all the procedures, which were only a reinstatement of the procedures that existed under the previous Government.

In order to clean up social security fraud we have to recognise that there has to be a balance of entitlements and obligations. If people are to get welfare they will have to identify themselves and prove that they comply with the eligibility requirements. It would be a good idea if this Government recognised that the Australian taxpayer is fed up with funding people who are ripping off the system, and imposed on those people the obligations that are part and parcel of the welfare system. Not only should people identify themselves but also they should be required to come into the Department of Social Security to prove that their circumstances have not changed. The Department of Social Security's employees should be given the authority, power and support to enforce the qualifications for getting the benefit.

It is not well known, but I will tell honourable members, that field officers of the Department of Social Security are not empowered by legislation to ask questions of clients. They have no legislative authority to ask questions of clients. What possible capacity do they have to enforce the eligibility requirements for social security benefits without that basic right? They can put a written question to a client, but they cannot ask a question. The effectiveness of field officers in the Department of Social Security is reduced considerably by that limitation. The Government should act immediately to give them the power to ask questions-not to require answers, but to ask questions. The Government should give sufficient resources to the field staff and investigative staff of the Department of Social Security to follow through. The Government also ought to do something about the industrial relations situation in the Department, particularly in New South Wales, where every time the Government makes a move in this area the unions ban it. No checks are being made at present, as the Government told us there would be, on unemployment beneficiaries or supporting parent beneficiaries. The reason is that the unions have banned this. There is an open door policy at present.

This Government had an amnesty on social security and said to people: `If you are ripping the system off come and tell us. We will forgive you and you can keep the money'. After that the Government said it would prosecute but it is not prosecuting. It tells us it is going to take 10,000 people off the unemployment lists between now and June. Last year it prosecuted 1,900 people. What is going to happen to the 10,000 people it is supposedly going to take off social security benefits between now and June? The reality is that we could not reasonably expect the Government to prosecute them. The Director of Public Prosecutions told me that the problem is not catching social security cheats but getting this Government and the Department to have the backbone actually to go ahead with the prosecution. That is the real problem. Until we get a commitment to that there will be a continuation of haemorrhaging and theft from the Department of Social Security. As I have said, the ID card will do nothing about it because less than one per cent of fraud is related to false identity.

I would like to refer to a number of other issues in the limited time available to me. The Government says that this card will do something about stopping tax evasion. Tax evasion can be stopped if the Australian Taxation Office uses the information it has at present. The ID card will do nothing about the cash economy. If one is paid in cash and spends cash and does not put the money anywhere near a bank account the ID card will not identify that money, where one got it from or where one spends or stores it, particularly if one puts it under the bed. There is no way that the cost of another 2,100 public servants and the establishment of new Medicare offices can be justified. This card will not deliver the goods that the Government is promising and there are cheaper and better ways to deal with the problem.

The cost for business of compliance with this ID card is astronomical. In an economic climate when Australian business is already burdened by such measures as the fringe benefits tax and the heavy legislative burden of this Government, business is complaining about the cost of compliance with this legislation. The Government's own Business Regulation Review Unit considered this proposal originally and recommended against it. The Prime Minister suddenly thought that he had better do something about getting the small business vote and he set up the Business Regulation Review Unit. When it had a look at the ID card proposal it threw its hands up in the air and said: `Business cannot afford it. We recommend against it because of the cost to business'. If business thought the FBT was a problem it will think the ID card is a monumental problem.

The shadow Minister for Health, the honourable member for Barker, has previously spoken about the consequences of the ID card for that basic Australian piece of equipment, the credit card. The consequences of this legislation for those companies that operate credit cards and for those people who use credit cards as part of their day to day transactions are absolutely horrific. It is obviously an unintended consequence and I am sure at some stage the Government will be forced to amend the legislation. Why it does not recognise that this country cannot afford additional costs, I do not know. Australia does not need additional cost and the Government should walk away from the proposal right now before this turns into the greatest nightmare it could possibly imagine.

This proposal was considered at length and in detail by an all-party joint parliamentary committee, the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card, of which I was a member. The Government is very fond of saying that the honourable member for Richmond once supported ID cards. That is true; I did. But unlike many members in this House I spent about four months of my life learning about ID cards, learning about the Government's proposal, learning how flexible the costing is-it moves about $300m overnight-learning about what happened overseas when ID cards were introduced and learning about the consequences of ID cards. As a result of that I have changed my mind. I have no personal embarrassment about saying that; it is more than anybody else around here can say.

The stooges of the right wing Labor Caucus, despite the overwhelming evidence saying ID cards will not work, were under the thumb of the machine and had to bring down a minority report saying they wanted an ID card. It is a wonder they have the nerve to show their faces in this Parliament. It is a wonder they have the nerve to go back to their constituents and say `I am here to represent you', because they do not; they represent the right wing machine of the ALP. Of all the members on that Committee, a majority of representatives, five, from every party in this Parliament said: `The ID card proposal of the Government will not work, there is a cheaper and better way to do it and we recommended against it'. After more than four months of work and hearing witnesses from all around the world and after thousands of pages of evidence, the majority of the Committee from all parties-the Australian Labor Party, the Liberal Party of Australia, the National Party of Australia and the Australian Democrats-recommended against it. The majority of the Committee said: `No, there is a cheaper and better way'.

The Department of Social Security says that less than one per cent of social security fraud is related to false identity. The Australian Taxation Office admits that it has not spent the money that is available to it at present to catch tax cheats. The Government admits that the ID card will not do anything about the cash economy. And we have this ID card legislation before the House again today. It is ineffective legislation. It will not work. It is here for one reason and one reason only-to give the Government a political excuse for a double dissolution because it is terrified of the consequences of going to the people and fighting a campaign on its economic record, which is a disaster.