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Wednesday, 10 December 1986
Page: 3660


Senator SHEIL(9.35) —Perhaps I may just recapitulate on what the Australia Card might do and what it might not do. It is supposed to reduce tax avoidance, reduce social security fraud, reduce criminal activity and reduce illegal immigration. It has been adequately shown throughout the whole of this debate that, far from reducing any of those things, it is more likely to increase them, creating new vistas in crime and in tax evasion and avoidance, and a new wave of illegal migration. It is very fitting that we are debating a thing like the Australia Card on the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book. Of all the things that the card would do, the worst is the greatest invasion of the privacy of the Australian people that we have ever known.

I pointed out earlier that the introduction of the Australia Card really means the introduction of a dual system. There is the card system and the number, and the important feature is the number, because the number will represent the individual. With all other plastic card systems that we have, it is the card that carries the number and, indeed, one can have several cards and several numbers all belonging to the individual. As far as the Australia Card is concerned, that number will be the individual. It will be the key that the bureaucracy can use to lock into remote databanks full of information in various departments all round Australia so that it can get on one's trail. There will not be a need for a big central repository of information, because with that number remote databases can be quite easily linked and matched. We heard yesterday just how many departments are going to start off with being accessed by this computer key: Foreign Affairs, Health, Social Security, Medicare, and the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. Undoubtedly, the use of the card would be extended over the years. In the past, we have been to great pains to protect our privacy. If people want to find out anything about us, they have to get a search warrant. Not only that, but the search warrant has to be specific.


Senator Brownhill —This will be looking through the keyhole, won't it?


Senator SHEIL —Oh, but the bureaucrat who decides to search out one's files or records does not need a warrant and does not need to be specific about what he is looking for. He can just go on a fishing expedition and unlock all one's personal files and records. He does not have to justify his actions. They do not have to be reasonable, and he does not even have to suspect that one has broken the law. He can decide to go fishing amongst one's records off his own bat.


Senator MacGibbon —You will be before the people's court, won't you?


Senator SHEIL —Exactly, an inquisitional people's court. Also, there is no redress against the bureaucrat. No legal person will come to one's aid to stop this snoopy-nosed bureaucrat going through one's records. At the flick of a switch, he will be on one's audit trail, as he calls it. Once one's number is locked into any transaction one makes-any travel or contact where one uses one's card-that is flicked to the central computers instantaneously. It would be like booking airline tickets. We have seen the way in which terminals work in that respect. We can look at the airline tables in darkest Africa from any terminal in Australia. Similarly, all our transactions will be instantaneously translated to a central computer and there will be an audit trail.

I took out a list of the sorts of things which can be monitored-credit transactions, medical treatments, financial dealings of any sort, even telephone calls and electricity bills. It would be possible to tell how much time people spend at home from looking at their electricity bills. One's tastes, lifestyle, travel patterns, entertaining habits and the clubs and associations one belongs to will be recorded. A person who is the authorised signing officer for the Bunbury branch of the Australian Labor Party or the geranium association will have to put his or her number on the cheques signed. One's private affairs, hobbies, clubs and the political parties one belongs to will be recorded. That just goes too far. It would be possible to tell one's lifestyle, travelling, entertainment, clubs, associations, even what periodicals one buys or what bookshops one attends; maybe, one day, even the way one votes. If we have to front up to the ballot box or the electoral officer with our Australian Card to prove our identification and have our number run through a little machine--


Senator Brownhill —You would have to prove your identification.


Senator SHEIL —Maybe we would have to prove our identification with our Australian Card at the ballot box.


Senator Brownhill —If you forget to take it with you, you do not get a vote.


Senator SHEIL —Yes. The absence of such a data trail could bring one under suspicion straight away. If a bureaucrat wants to know all about a person and that person does not have a data trail so that his or her lifestyle can be checked, that could bring that person under suspicion.


Senator Boswell —It is frightening.


Senator SHEIL —It is frightening and it is inevitable that the use of the card will be extended. Once the Government's computers start chattering to each other it will be worse than a midwives picnic. The range of agencies having access to the system will be widened. If a person has ever lost a job or been refused a job, consulted a psychiatrist, adopted a child, had a child or had an abortion, all that information will be indelibly printed on one's record and it cannot be rubbed off. The information will be available at the flick of a switch. This will give the Government enormous power to manipulate, control, coerce and humiliate people, even to ruin and destroy people, just from the power of having that information.


Senator Elstob —You do not believe what you are saying, do you?


Senator SHEIL —I believe that governments are the biggest infringers of human rights in history and there is no reason to suppose that this Government is any different from any other one. The very reason we have the Constitution, fixed terms for governments, an independent judiciary, and all the institutions we have is to limit the powers of government. This would extend the powers of government beyond the bounds of tolerance in this country.

One basic principle that would be taken away from us with the Australia Card is the right to confront one's accuser and to test the weight of the evidence against one. A bureaucrat might be looking at a visual display unit with information on it which is corrupted by obsolescence, or it might be just in error or there may have been some impersonation-lots of things could be wrong with the information there. The bureaucrat can make his accusation against a person and that person has no way of testing the strength of the accusation. That is violating one of our most precious rights. The bureaucrat does not have to justify his actions at all, but a person could be compelled to divulge private information for use by remote computers and remote bureaucrats. I have heard it said by some people concerning the Australia Card: `Oh, I have nothing to fear, I am innocent, there should not be any worry to me'. That is a very unthinking proposition because it is the innocent who stand to lose the most from the introduction of the Australia Card. Innocence is a subjective phenomenon. It is a matter of opinion-that is why we have juries-and different people have different interpretations of the information shown on a video display unit. The cryptic information displayed can be misleading, and it can be misinterpreted and misused even in the absence of malice on the part of the bureaucracy. Few families can say they have nothing to hide or do not have things they do not want to be known. Somebody is sure to have made a mistake somewhere, or to have had an embarrassing problem. As I said, people may have experienced some stress or anxiety during examinations and may have had to have a few psychiatric counselling sessions. They may have been refused a licence for something, or lost a job.


Senator Zakharov —Do you think that is embarrassing?


Senator SHEIL —That can be embarrassing for people, and they might not want it generally known-especially to a snoopy bureaucrat. Remember that we can never rub out this information or cleanse our record. We cannot get at our records even if they are wrong. If a bureaucrat sees that there may be a tiny fault in the record he will not take a risk with his own career, and not take notice of it; he will take notice of it and that will take place to the detriment of the person to whom the information relates.


Senator Brownhill —Big brother will be watching him too.


Senator SHEIL —Yes. We have been concentrating on the use of the card and on the safeguards against its abuse, but submit that it is the very existence of the card which represents the great infringement of human rights. This debate should be on not whether or not the card will be beneficial but on whether or not we should have a card at all. I am strongly of the view that we should not have a card at all. Some people take comfort in the notion that only the Government will know all these things about us but I say that that is the last bit of comfort they should take. Governments are the greatest infringers of our human rights and if by some chance we let this genie out of the bottle we will certainly not be able to control it. I support the amendment and reject the concept of an Australia Card altogether.