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Wednesday, 10 December 1986
Page: 3708


Senator TATE(3.37) —It was very consoling to hear Senator Crichton-Browne's rhetorical flourishes at the end of his speech on behalf of democracy and on behalf of the common law. Of course this proposal to establish an Australia Card identity system is not one easily embraced by, I think, any parliamentarian in this Australian Parliament. But the fact is that I believe this democracy is being undermined at the moment by a failure on the part of many people to contribute to the sinews of government, to make their fair contribution to the revenues which government, democratically elected, needs to fulfil the programs for which it has been elected. It is entitled, having faced an election of the people, having set down certain programs which are to be implemented during its term of parliament, to have those taxation measures which are fairly voted upon and imposed on the Australian people implemented in possibly a begrudging but somewhat co-operative spirit on the part of those who fall within its terms.

The fact is that there are many occasions on which the ordinary, honest taxpayer in Australia finds himself or herself something of a mug if he or she pays the tax which is due, whereas others find ways to avoid or evade their taxation obligations. There are quite a few instances where that taxation obligation is avoided because the person who ought to be a taxpayer assumes a false identity. Multiple identities are quite common where people hold down several jobs, and of course they do so in order to take advantage of the tax threshold arrangements in relation to the taxation which the employer ought to deduct.

There is quite a difference, of course, if the employer knows that it is a second or third job being held by that person. The same relates to the spouse rebate arrangements. The fact is that a false identity can be manipulated in a way which deprives the revenue of tax which is due to the Government and, therefore, in the absence of a cutting down of the programs for which the democratically elected government was elected to implement, leads to a further onerous burden, an additional burden, being placed on the shoulders of ordinary taxpayers to fill that gap.

Senator Crichton-Browne also spoke about the common law, et cetera. Which common law principle does he appeal to which allows people fraudulently to misrepresent their identities in order either to avoid the payment of tax which is imposed on them by lawful statute of this Parliament or to obtain a benefit from the social security or health system to which they would not otherwise be entitled? Where does the common law found that particular right to misrepresent an identity? I believe that Senator Crichton-Browne will find, going back to whichever century he likes, that at no stage has the common law recognised a right or liberty to misrepresent one's identity.

The fact is that there is a small portion-nevertheless a very real portion well known out in the community-of persons who misrepresent their identity. One has to consider the overall impact on the sense of fairness of the system which is so important for the full co-operation of citizens in their contribution to revenue and their willingness to uphold a fair social security system. The fact is that when one gets publicised, as well as it has been, instances of abuse of the social security system by persons manipulating multiple identities in order to secure benefits, that creates a political atmosphere where the ordinary taxpayers feel that they are not willing to support even a fair social security system because of the abuses they perceive. I believe that it is incumbent upon governments, acting as they do on behalf of those genuine social security recipients, to devise a system that ensures that abuses do not occur in relation to identities being misrepresented in relation to getting social security benefits, so that there can be such confidence in the system that taxpayers are willing to support the expenditures necessary to give those who are due their benefit a reasonable degree of sustenance, given their social situation.

It has been said that perhaps we do not need an Australia Card to do that, that a tax file number would do. Regrettably, a tax file number is properly described as a tax file number. That is all it is. It is a system of numbering certain sheaths of paper in a manila folder. It is a number attached to a manila folder, shall we say, in order to enable it to be more easily traced in the Australian Taxation Office, wherever it may be in a particular department or, indeed, around Australia. It is a paper processing number. It enables a sheath of papers in a manila folder to be traced. It in no way guarantees that the name of the person in the file is linked correctly to a person who ordinarily uses that name. I think honourable senators realise from evidence given by the Tax Office before the Joint Committee that the tax file number, if it is used as an identity link to a particular person, is a bodgie number. Ordinary taxpayers understand this. I believe that they are willing to see a substantial upgrading of that tax file number and that they would agree, as I have come to agree, having flirted with the idea of an upgraded tax file number at one stage, that really we have to start afresh. If one wanted to upgrade the tax file number to a sufficient degree to enable it to have real integrity in relation to the identity of the person referred to within that manila folder, one would need substantially to go through the same operations in relation to the production of particular basic documents as will be required for the Australia Card. I really think that the tax file number is not an adequate substitute.

I do believe that the Australia Card Bill 1986 does try to set down, as a fair way of overcoming the sorts of problems I have alluded to, those occasions on which the Australia Card might properly be asked for. The draconian picture that has been portrayed by some of the speakers I think is entirely unmerited. In fact, there are very substantial barriers suggested by the clauses of the Bill which this Parliament ought to adopt in order to set up hurdles against the intrusive, authoritarian, even totalitarian, structures of government which lay behind some of the more genuine fears-there are some very ungenuine motives, if I can use that term, which I will elaborate on in a moment-concerning the opposition to this legislation. For those who are genuinely fearful, let us recall that clause 167 of the Bill states:

Except as authorised by this Act, a person shall not required another person to produce a Card. Penalty: $5,000 or imprisonment for 2 years, or both.

Could anything be more express or explicit as a manifestation of this Parliament's will than that the emerging of a police state ought to be prevented, by imposing a very severe penalty by way of a fine of $5,000 or imprisonment for two years or even both on those police officers, officers of government or anybody else in society who might be minded to demand the production of this card? That is the sort of penalty they will suffer and that would be the expression of this Parliament's will in relation to the curtailing of this particular card to certain specific uses to do with the engaging in transactions, whether they be employment or property transactions or dealing with banks, which may have a tax implication, or obtaining a benefit from society's revenues which we all have to contribute to, either as taxpayers or in relation to the underwriting of loans by governments, et cetera.

I really do believe that these sorts of clauses I have pointed to help dispel some of the fears of a totalitarian-authoritarian approach lying behind this legislation. I am not saying it is a perfect Bill and I will come to some comments on that in a moment. But given the very obvious problem that I have outlined and, I believe, the straightforward approach to trying to deal with cases where false identities are offered, I ask: What is really wrong with saying to people that between late 1987 and 1989 they need to apply to the Health Insurance Commission-in effect, their local Medicare office-to obtain a form, which they then fill in with certain information, that they then present themselves to their Medicare office, have a photograph taken and provide a sample signature, and a few weeks later they get a card that enables them to engage in the sorts of transactions we are talking about? It is not as though, as Senator Crichton-Browne said, people will not be able to withdraw money from banks. They will have 15 months to verify their identity in relation to an account.

One should not forget that these are all initial verifications. When one opens an account, one shows the card. When one is engaged in employment initially, one shows the card. When one wants to obtain a social security benefit of a new type, one shows the card. One does not have to show the card on every occasion one withdraws money from the bank or every time one goes to the counter to deal with a matter in relation to a benefit. It is simply that the cardholder identifies himself or herself correctly.

The idea that this is some terrible intrusion I think is quite overstated. In Victoria if one wants to drive, one has to have a photographic drivers licence. If one wants to undertake employment or engage in a particular transaction which has taxation implications, one will have to have a photographic identity card, in the same way that, if one wishes to drive, one has to have a photographic licence in Victoria.

When I was talking with some students at the University of Tasmania, they indicated to me their rejection of the Australia Card, but if they wish to borrow a book from the Morris Miller Library for reference for their studies or if they wish to sit for an exam, they produce a photographic identity card. The fact is that such cards are not as intimidating as they used to be some 10 years ago. I believe that people find the idea quite acceptable that they should carry a card, as many people do in relation to their employment at the moment. I was speaking to the Secretary of the Hospital Employees Federation in Tasmania and he said that his members were quite happy about a card because, in relation to their employment in moving around hospitals, they must have a photographic identity card-it is part of the natural security measures undertaken within the hospital framework.

So that all taxpayers who are properly subject to the law make a fair contribution to the raising of revenue and so that all people applying for benefits are entitled to them, it is reasonable to require people to produce photographic identification. Given all that, why does the Opposition find this idea so intolerable? Even on this side of the chamber there are genuine concerns about civil liberties and invasions of privacy. I do not deny those. Nevertheless, there is a surprising unanimity on the other side of the chamber in relation to this matter. I shall not reiterate some of the previous statements and utterances from spokesmen of those opposite. That has been done as a debating technique, but given some of those expressions of support for an Australia Card identity system from the other side of the chamber, it is surprising that there is this unanimity.

The simple answer is that a much more comprehensive, cruder political objective is in mind. There is no doubt that those on the other side of the chamber would like to see this Labor Government deprived of the revenues which are essential for the carrying out of its program. They want the hundreds of millions of dollars which would otherwise flow into the coffers from the existence of a correct identification system not to go in so that the Government, if it is to maintain the programs for which it was elected, will have to impose further tax burdens, more onerous tax obligations and rates, on the honest taxpayers in Australia or will have to cut some of those programs in a politically painful way. I am convinced that the unanimity of political objective on the other side is definitely to do with stripping the Labor Government of the revenues that it needs to carry out its programs.

I emphasise that this legislation is not presented in isolation; it is presented as a package of Bills which we are debating cognately. The Privacy Bill 1986, which is part of that package, contributes to the context of the Australia Card Bill which we are considering. In this proposed Act of this Australian Parliament for the first time certain principles will be laid down-information and privacy principles as they are called-concerning the gathering, dissemination and secure holding of information by the Australian Government at all sorts of levels from Minister's offices through to the meanest and smallest of the agencies and departments of government. Eleven principles are set down which in a very comprehensive way attempt to impose on the Australian Government certain constraints in relation to the obtaining, secure holding and dissemination of information. So comprehensive are the principles that they cover three or four pages so I shall not read them out. But I emphasise precisely that the Privacy Bill is being put forward as part of the package.

Of course, the contents of the package are not immutable but I believe that this chamber ought to give a second reading not only to the Privacy Bill, which I believe the Australian Democrats are willing to support at least to the second reading stage, but to the whole package and then let us discuss the particular clauses which are still giving true concern relating to civil liberties and invasions of privacy. After all, as I said, the Committee stage is designed for precisely that. The package of Bills concerning privacy in relation to the Australia Card Bill flows from a very conscious decision of the Parliamentary Labor Party that an Australia Card Bill should not be introduced into this Parliament and should not be imposed on the society without a full affirmation by this Parliament of the sorts of principles which it wants to see government apply in relation to the protection of privacy. In fact, in the relevant Caucus committee we insisted that the Australia Card Bill not be brought into the Caucus, and certainly not the Parliament, without the Privacy Bill being a cognate part of the package.

Senator Macklin merely dismissed this Privacy Bill as an adjunct but that is far too disparaging and demeaning of the important role which I believe it will come to play in protecting citizens' privacy from possible interferences by practices engaged in by government. We have not slavishly followed the Australian Law Reform Commission report in regard to the privacy principles. I hope that we never slavishly follow any report of any commission but take on board its recommendations and try to come to a sensible implementation of the principles underlying the recommendations. I believe it can be fairly said that this Privacy Bill does precisely that in setting the overall context within which the Australian Government and its agencies should operate. Do not forget that, whereas the ALRC thought that its privacy principles should operate as aspirations or guidelines, the principles in the legislation are intended to be part of the law, binding on Commonwealth government. In fact, this legislation is binding on agencies of government. In the interpretation part of the Privacy Bill `agency' means a Minister, a department, a body or a tribunal established or appointed for a public purpose, a body established or appointed by the Governor-General or by a Minister, a person holding or performing the duties of an office established by or under, or an appointment made under, a Commonwealth enactment and so on. These privacy principles will apply in the most comprehensive way to Federal government agencies. When one sees the Australian Card Bill in its cognate setting with the Privacy Bill some of one's fears are allayed in relation to the genuine concerns on civil liberties and the interference with privacy that are said to be part of the operation and impact of this Australia Card legislation.

Much of the concern is exaggerated and the Bill contains constraints, barriers and hurdles put up against the emergence of an authoritarian regime. If there is anything that I may throw back at the Opposition from the Australian Bill of Rights debate it is the use by the Opposition of that aphorism from Sir Harry Gibbs that if society is tolerant and rational one does not need a Bill of Rights and if it is not a Bill of Rights will not save it. In this society we have a democracy which is working well and which I believe will not be fundamentally or radically altered by the mere requirement that a person engaging in a transaction in relation to which taxation ought to flow to the Federal Treasury or a person who presents himself to obtain a social welfare or Medicare benefit will have to identify himself. This requirement will not cause such a fundamental attack on the integrity of our democratic system as to lead down some authoritarian road.

The draconian picture that is sometimes painted is totally out of proportion to the reality that will emerge. Nevertheless, there may well be-it would be surprising if there were not-in legislation of such a comprehensive and new character, clauses which need adjustment, modification and amendment. Let us do that at the Committee stage, which is the proper time at which to undertake such an examination. But let this chamber say to the Australian people that we are in favour of devising a system which will lead to a fairer tax system and a fairer system of distribution of those benefits which are needed to sustain people who are in various difficult circumstances. It is in order to create and to help to sustain that fair system that I support this package of legislation.