Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 9 December 1986
Page: 3608

Senator ROBERT RAY(5.01) —The Government first considered the introduction of a national identification system arising out of the White Paper produced in the middle of 1985. One of the most compelling things about the White Paper, apart from its listing of a whole variety of avoidance schemes which have subsequently been tackled by this Government, was that it again raised the question of tax evasion. It estimated that the loss to revenue each year was somewhere in the order of $3 billion and furthermore that other estimates of draining of government expenditure, of the order of $150m to $450m a year, have been attributed to false claims in the social security area. It is out of those major concerns that the Government has moved to introduce the Australia Card Bill 1986 into both chambers of this Parliament. The operational cost of the Australia Card per year will be $55.6m, less any clawback through salaries and taxation on those salaries; so in fact it will run at less than $55m a year.

Let us look at the increased revenue that the Government will derive. It has been estimated by the most accurate figures that I have seen that something like $932m in increased revenue will result each year. That, when one takes into account the operational costs, will mean a net gain of $877m a year to the revenue. They are minimum figures and they do not take into account any increase to revenue from penalties or from the discovery of people who have had prior understatement of income in these particular years. These are minimum figures I am talking about. From the moment this card is introduced to 1995-96, we estimate, an extra $4.7 billion will be added to revenue. When one considers the future problems that this country is likely to encounter in the economic area, imagine how much easier it will be to get the deficit down by bringing in those sorts of revenue figures.

What is more important is that it places a lot more equity into the tax system. One of the reasons tax systems break down is the perception of inequity that exists in Australia's past taxation history. The average person out there says: `Look, this system is not equitable; why should I comply; why should I not cheat on my taxation when I have a belief that everyone else is cheating on their taxation?'. The greatest area of cheating in this country today is tax evasion.

No one in this chamber supports tax evasion. We sling insults around from time to time about our attitude on tax avoidance, but when it comes to tax evasion I have never heard anyone in this chamber get up and support tax evasion or say anything that could be construed as supporting tax evasion, because it flouts the very laws that we are all put here to protect. We must get a system that does away with this sort of evasion and we must try as quickly as possible to get that system.

A side benefit of the Australia Card has been alluded to by several senators-that is, that it will do much to crack down on the incentive for illegal immigration into this country. I will not spend a lot of time on this point but, as Senator Aulich said, what it does is put disincentive into the system to people coming into this country illegally in the future. It will not do much to detect those who are here illegally now-although it will make their lives much more difficult-but it will put a future disincentive into the system. In this chamber we all acknowledge, I hope, that we can have no more amnesties. We have had two and if we continue to have them it will mean that everyone will jump the queue and come to this country in the belief that there will be some future amnesty. Therefore, the introduction of an Australia Card will do much to discourage those who jump the queue and who stop the 60,000 other people who could have come to this country, but who had the honour and integrity to wait their turn in the queue.

I turn to the point about the majority report of the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card. That report is often quoted by honourable senators opposite in support of their arguments. But we have heard a very damning indictment of that in the course of the speeches of the last two Liberal senators. They are repudiating the views of the majority report, not just the minority report--

Senator Peter Baume —What rubbish. Come on.

Senator ROBERT RAY —Well, Senator Baume came in here and said that there would be no real gain to revenue because the whole thing would cost more. That is what he said. Yet the majority report supported a tax file number. What are the views of Senator Baume on a tax file number now? Suddenly the matter of a tax file number has disappeared. That was the recommendation of the majority report, based on evidence given to the Committee that there were problems in the tax evasion and social security areas. Suddenly the tax file number proposition has disappeared from the Liberal lexicon. I understand that it has not disappeared from the views of the Australian Democrats and I understand that at a later time they will at least be consistent and move an amendment along those lines. We have a situation that is almost like a black hole. That recommendation has suddenly disappeared. Yet it was accepted by the majority including Senator Puplick, who will speak later, Mr Porter and Mr Blunt-if you like, the creme de la creme of the Opposition--

Senator Gareth Evans —My God!

Senator ROBERT RAY —Well, there is not much to be creme de la creme about. All these people supported the proposition for a tax file number and then suddenly in a coalition shadow cabinet meeting it disappeared and I do not know where it has disappeared to. I can understand why it disappeared because there is no doubt that if we just had a tax file system in this country it would not be of high integrity and there would be no large revenue benefits from it. It is little wonder that the Australian Taxation Office rejected this as a realistic proposition.

While we are on the subject of integrity, we have heard a couple of comments that anyone can just go out and buy one of these cards off the street. Senator Messner mentioned American social security cards, and I understand that Mr Downer wandered around Times Square at midnight earlier this year and found that one could purchase all sorts of cards there. But I bet he could not purchase a Visa card with a hologram on it. Technology is in existence today, through laser cards and through holograms, which gives a card enormous integrity and makes it very hard to forge. It is a little like a gambling system. There are gambling systems that work. The fact that one needs $50m, $60m or $70m to start off and the returns are very low means that it is about as worthwhile as forging high integrity cards. One would need the machinery and about $70m or $80m to buy that high technology machinery before one could start forging the card. Quite frankly, most of the crims out there in society who have $70m or $80m would probably invest it in areas other than forging ID cards.

There is an interesting absence of argument from the Opposition benches about computers. Four weeks ago we had this bushfire going about how easy it would be for hackers to get into the system. That argument has been dropped. One does not hear Opposition senators now quoting the Australian Computer Society and its ridiculous claims. One did hear those claims four weeks ago but they have been decimated now because they were based on false information and premises. They have subsequently been destroyed by the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) and they have disappeared off the agenda. A lot of things have disappeared off the agenda as the Opposition has tried to light a whole range of spot fires so that it would not be engulfed by the bushfire of public opinion on this issue. As we put more and more of those spot fires out, Opposition members merely change ground and develop different arguments.

I wish to go to some of the facts of the case. It will take two years to implement this scheme and it will be run by the Health Insurance Commission. It will result in one interview for each Australian at which each person will be required to have a photograph taken and provide a signature. What will appear on the card? There will be a person's name, a unique identifying number, an expiry date, a photograph, a signature and probably a hologram at the top. That will be the sole amount of material on the card. It is not compulsory for the card to be carried. It is only compulsory for it to be produced when certain transactions are being undertaken and those are specified financial transactions, employment and the receipt of or application for Commonwealth benefits or pensions, such as unemployment benefit. I reject the statement made by Senator Peter Baume earlier that this will be an internal passport. That is really taking the argument too far and I do not think even he believes that particular statement. It will not be an internal passport; it was never intended to be an internal passport and it never will be because there is no police function for the card and that distinguishes it from some of the other internal passports which exist around the world. It is true-I support this fact-that it can be produced voluntarily if the owner wishes to do so. There are some circumstances in which people would like to have a card that they can produce in order to do certain things in society and to furnish evidence. But it is up to them. Any policeman who demands the production of the card will be committing a crime. That is not permitted under the Bill and anyone who does demand it will be prosecuted. It is ridiculous for honourable senators to come in here and say that the card is an internal passport.

It is true that concerns relating to civil liberties are always raised on the question of identity cards and the Government has gone out of its way in this Bill and in its suggestions to protect civil liberties. It has done this first by the establishment of a data protection authority. I refer the Senate to the comments of Senator Aulich when he mentioned the degree of lack of protection which exists now in data protection. All sorts of databanks have material on us at present. We can all pull out our wallets and go through our American Express card, our Bankcard or our Visa card and all the rest of the cards which contain an enormous amount of information on us at the moment. There is a need to protect that information. I have not heard honourable senators opposite get up and moan about civil liberties in relation to those particular cards.

Let me run through the functions of the Data Protection Agency. Firstly, it is empowered to review all decisions by the Health Insurance Commission; secondly, it will issue guidelines and directions to ensure that information kept on the Australia Card Register is accurate and confidential; thirdly, it will inquire into complaints that the guidelines have been breached; fourthly, it will supervise the way in which the HIC keeps the Register and the separate births, deaths and marriages registers; fifthly, it will also publish records of all Commonwealth databases containing personal information and I would have thought that that would enthuse everyone in this chamber. It is also to research and monitor developments in computer technology and its effects on privacy and undertake educational programs to promote the protection of individual privacy. Finally, it will perform those functions conferred upon it by the Privacy Bill which we are debating in conjunction with this Bill. That is the purpose of the Data Protection Agency. It will be a welcome acquisition to civil liberties in this country.

The second major objection to the Australia Card concerns the question of who will have access to the Australia Card Register. Quite simply, some public servants will have access, but to get that access they have to give a reason and put in their own identifying number. Therefore the individual concerned will know who has had access to his or her file. Within this legislation we give the right to every Australian citizen to have access once a year to his or her file in order to see who has had access to it. That is something that does not exist at the moment, or not as freely as it should. If I, as an individual, want to know which public servants have had access to my file, it is simply a matter of going along and finding out. If I want multiple accesses I have to pay a small fee, but that is only if I want it more than once a year. We have also moved for a national register of births, deaths and marriages. I understand that no one in this chamber opposes that. I think it is a welcome advance and I will not say anything further about that.

It is interesting to note how many Opposition senators have attacked an identity system as a gross attack on civil liberties. When I look at a lot of the countries in the world that have adopted a similar system but with far less protection of civil liberties than this Government has introduced through this legislation, I wonder whether they are really non-libertarian societies and just brush civil liberties aside. Countries with similar systems are Canada, the United States, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, France, Denmark, Israel, Belgium and West Germany. None of those systems, I repeat, would be as protective of civil liberties as the Australia Card proposition, but none would I describe as authoritarian countries. All have differing systems, maybe for differing reasons, but none, one could argue, are authoritarian societies. Many of them have a passionate commitment to civil liberties.

Earlier Senator Peter Baume went through a list of people who oppose the Australia Card. I thought I might go to some documentation showing some of the people who have supported it and put it on the record. Let me turn first to Mr Ray Braithwaite, the member for Dawson, at that time shadow Minister for Social Security. On 16 May 1985 he said:

What we need in Australia to effectively fight all forms of abuse is a proper identification of each Australian with a number, photograph and even a fingerprint . . .

We do not go as far as that.

Senator Maguire —What party is he from?

Senator ROBERT RAY —He is from the National Party. To continue:

This will identify each of those who are on the employment register or the taxation records, or those who are social security recipients and receiving health and education subsidies or any form of government assistance. We need a policeman to safeguard the public purse. A plastic policeman would be the most effective in preventing this abuse.

Let us look at another National Party leader, Mr Ralph Hunt, who on 5 June 1985 said:

The proposed national identification system offered dual benefits to the Australian people . . . The use of plastic cards for an effective means of identification would streamline the collection of tax revenue, imposing a greater accountability on the small minority of taxpayers who seek to evade their responsibilities to the community . . .

He continued.

The second major benefit would be to cut down on fraud affecting Government outlays, especially social welfare payments . . .

I will be making representations to the Government strongly supporting this aspect of the `White Paper' proposals.

Well, if you are listening, Mr Hunt, we are still waiting for your representations. Let us look at Mr Charles Blunt, who on 8 June 1985, before Mr Sinclair nobbled him, put these views on the public record:

The introduction of a national identification system, using ID cards, offered benefits to the Australian people, which outweighed any civil liberties considerations.

The use of plastic cards as a means of identification would streamline the collection of tax revenue, imposing greater accountability on that small minority who seek to evade their responsibilities to the community by not paying taxes.

Another majority benefit would be a reduction of fraud affecting Government outlays, especially social welfare payments . . .

They are three leading members of the National Party putting their views on this matter. Let us look at a less savoury character probably, Mr Nick Greiner, currently the seventh leader of the Liberal Party in New South Wales in the last 11 years. Of the ID cards he said:

They are in the interests of the community. Only people who were acting dishonestly had anything to fear.

I would not go so far as to say that those who oppose the card have something to fear. Maybe that was a little exuberant on the part of Mr Greiner. Let us look at the comments made by Professor Peter Groenewegen as reported in the Age on 25 March 1986. He said:

Its purpose in this context . . . relates to improving the effectiveness of taxing labour income, interest, dividends, rental income and in a number of other forms of transactions to facilitate more effective taxation where evasion has been a problem. In all these cases, the Australia Card approach is seen as the preferred alternative.

I could go through many other individuals and many of their comments, but I shall just refer to Mr Len Spencer of the Australian Society of Accountants who at the National Taxation Summit in July 1985 said:

To fight evasion the Society favours national identity cards with appropriate safeguards.

I would argue very strongly that the appropriate safeguards are in this legislation. I turn finally in support of the case to an Age editorial of Tuesday, 18 November 1986, a paper with a long history of civil libertarian tradition going back to its founder, Syme. The conclusion in that editorial was as follows:

On balance we believe, the honest citizen and conscientious taxpayer has much more to gain and little to risk through the introduction of the Australia Card and its strictly controlled identity register. Mr Howard's contention that the proposed identity card meant treating `all Australians like cheats and criminals' is nonsense. Only cheats and criminals have reason to conceal or falsify their identity when it is properly required for taxation and social security purposes, and they are robbing the community of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Those are the views of a few other citizens of this country. The one criticism made by those opposite that would always be a concern to any Australian is the thin end of the wedge argument-that this card, although at the moment containing the appropriate protections, could in future be used for an inappropriate purpose by an authoritarian government. But I look at the traditions of Australia and I have never seen one of those authoritarian governments, no matter how good or bad governments in the past have been. It would need somebody to capture control of this chamber with an absolute majority. How I wish that my Party, or at some future date maybe even the Opposition, may have a majority in its own right, but I do not know that I will live to see it as long as I am in this chamber. I know that, given the civil libertarian traditions of my own Party, the Australia Card would not be abused by my Party. The only alternative at the moment, if members of the Liberal-National Party coalition are saying that this will be abused in the future, is that those opposite are saying that their own parties will abuse it. I tend to think a little higher of the end results of those parties-that they will not abuse it. I tend to think that all those rumour mongers who talk about the New Right taking over the Liberal Party are probably wrong, and I do not think we have much to fear in that regard. But if it is the thin end of the wedge and an authoritarian government gets control of both chambers, whether we have an Australia Card or not will not stop it being authoritarian. I point to the example that many people oppose plebiscites because they were a favourite tactic of the fascists in Spain, in Portugal and in Germany. Plebiscites also have an honourable history, in the same way that identity cards can have an honourable history.

Having gone through quotations from a variety of coalition functionaries who have previously supported the Australia Card, I ask myself why they now oppose it. First, there is the question of civil libertarian concerns on the part of certain members of the Liberal Party. As I have said, I think that there are enough protections in the Bill, but I shall be gracious enough to recognise that those concerns are real. I also think that there is an element of reluctance in the Liberal Party in trying to enforce tax laws. It is an area Liberal members have not taken seriously enough. I think, more importantly, there is the desire among those opposite to deprive governments, especially Labor governments, of potential income because in many ways that creates a pressure cooker situation where, the more income one deprives governments of, the harder the Expenditure Review Committee's task is and the more cuts in community areas have to be made, with the consequential benefit of the garnering of votes for the Liberal Party from alienated groups.

I think most members of the National Party support this proposal. Mr Sinclair does not, though I cannot imagine why he would object to having his photograph and signature on an ID card for financial purposes. It escapes me. I think the National Party view is: `Well, let us leave it to our smarter brothers, the Liberals. They know what is going on. This is a bit complex for us. We will just let our candidates in the marginal seats that we do not hold run around supporting the card'-as is already happening in Calare and a number of other seats.

As for the Australian Democrats, I am not surprised that they oppose this proposal. We all know that the Democrats favour spending Government money. It does not matter what project comes up, it does not matter how rat bag it is or how much money it costs, they are in favour. Every time a revenue proposal comes into this chamber, we know that they will always be opposed to it. They are opposed to raising revenue and in favour of spending money. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that they do not support this proposal. Also, given the fact that the Australian Democrats is a minority party, the Democrats believe that there are votes in them thar hills-not a majority of votes. They do not face the same dilemma as the Liberal and National parties in trying to get 50 per cent of the vote; they are after 10 to 12 per cent of the vote. So they target disaffected people in the community who do not like a particular government action and concentrate on them as much as they can. It does not matter if they alienate another 80 per cent; they are not in the business of getting 50 per cent plus one. Why do a majority of Australians support the Australia Card? It is not for the reason Senator Haines advanced, which is a very patronising view, that most Australians do not understand it and they think it would be good to have the card to produce in a pub to prove that one is 18. Do not underestimate Australians. It is because Australians are sick and tired of having a tax system that lacks equity.

In conclusion, I should like to comment on two or three of the points made by Senator Peter Baume. He said that Hugh Morgan, Mr Garrett and Mrs Coxsedge all support this proposal and how amazing that is.

Senator Peter Baume —They oppose it.

Senator ROBERT RAY —They oppose it. How many other times in this chamber has Senator Baume supported the views of Mrs Coxsedge, Hugh Morgan and Mr Garrett? On this occasion he is supporting their views only because of opportunism, because that whole bunch in the political spectrum-for whom I have very little time in general-support him on this matter. I look forward to Senator Peter Baume telling me in this chamber how brilliant Mrs Coxsedge's views are on the Middle East; or how brilliant Mr Garrett's views are on nuclear disarmament; or what he thinks of Mr Hugh Morgan's attitude to industrial relations. Of course, Senator Peter Baume quoted those individuals in the hope of demonstrating that a wide spectrum of people oppose the ID card. What he is saying is that a wide spectrum of the fringe groups in the community oppose the card.

Senator Peter Baume said that he wanted the Australian Taxation Office to do more, that the Tax Office is at fault. He is suffering from his normal political amnesia. His Party was in government from 1949 to 1972 and from 1975 to 1983. Is he saying that there was some sort of Alice in Wonderland situation in which there was no tax evasion in those years? Why did the Liberal Party in government not tackle tax evasion in those years if it was simply a matter of telling the Tax Office to do it? At the beginning of Senator Peter Baume's speech he stated, as he has many times before, that he has a commitment to liberalism, to liberty, to less government interference in people's lives. I have heard all that before. People who make pleas for such things regard society as being very benign. A more accurate view of Liberal philosophy was evinced by Mr Everingham in a speech in which he acknowledged:

Adventurers, authoritarians, opportunists-even scoundrels and blackguards-have contributed more than we might like to admit to our country's past success.

He then went on to say:

. . . I suggest, the turnaround in our fortunes will be brought about by the time honoured instincts of competitiveness, personal ambition, rivalry and profit seeking that survive in all of us . . .

That is the other side-the darker side, if you like-of Senator Peter Baume's philosophy, one he does not like. When there is no government interference all sorts of avaricious characters try to oppress others. We have government in this society so that it will intervene to protect those who are not in a position to protect themselves. That is particularly true in the economic area; it is true in a whole lot of areas of society. It is very easy to come into this chamber and to quote Mill and all the other great libertarians of the world, but if it means having a laissez-faire approach to society in which there are some winners and many bad losers we on this side of the chamber reject that approach. The Government will persist in its support of the Australia Card because it will be a revenue raising measure. There are ample protections for civil liberties for every Australian in this proposal and it will mean a more just and equitable society. The fact that this chamber will once again reject a vital piece of Government legislation says less for this chamber than for the proponents of the scheme.