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
Wednesday, 10 December 1986
Page: 3711

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN(4.00) —I rise this afternoon to speak on the Australia Card Bill, a Bill which I consider to be one of the most damaging and intrusive pieces of legislation to have come up in this country. The Australia Card legislation has me extremely worried and I know that my concern is shared by many other Australians. Labor Party senators say that 60 per cent of Australians are in favour of it. After listening to the excellent speeches that members of the Opposition have made during this debate, I believe that anybody who has been listening will certainly have changed his mind. With the exception of one letter, every letter I have received has been very much against the card. I had a conversation with one of our Commonwealth drivers the other day, who said: `No, Senator, I think you will find that there are a lot of people who want this card. We had a card during the last war'. I said: `So we did, but that was a card to get your rations, if I remember correctly, and it certainly wasn't anything like this card'. Then I heard Senator Tate talking about having a photograph on a driving licence in Victoria. The latest thing is that those living in Queensland also have to have a photograph on their driving licences. Those cards are not anything like the Australia Card, whereby the Government wants all our information records to have a common user index, with medical records, taxation records, employment records and social security records being linked together.

I have no desire to protect tax cheats, illegal immigrants, the cash economy or social welfare fraud. I believe that all Australians have a responsibility to pay their taxes and be honest with the social welfare system. If they are not, I believe they should be justly punished. I am as opposed as anyone else to those who defraud this country of billions of dollars each year, but it is the way in which the Government has sought to deal with these people that really upsets me. The purported aim of this Bill is to create a national system of identification to facilitate the administration and operation of Commonwealth laws relating to taxation, social security, medical and hospital benefits and immigration, but it will do far more than that. The Australia Card is a very sinister intrusion into the privacy and freedoms of all Australians, and these of course we treasure very much. It is Big Brother alive and well in 1986.

Under Labor's proposals we will have to present our ID card to deposit or withdraw money from a bank, to be admitted as an inpatient to a hospital, to get a job, to claim Medicare benefits, and to sell primary produce to a marketing authority or agency. Here just let me say, as I heard Senator Brownhill and, I think, Senator Boswell saying in this chamber, that, if we live a long way away from a country town and want to sell cattle through Dalgetys or Elders or one of these firms, we can ring them up and tell them that we want to buy or sell. If we have to provide an identity card, does that mean that we have to go and see these firms before we can do anything? From the way I read this legislation, it certainly does. We have to have the card if we want to buy or sell real estate or if we make any financial transactions such as buying or selling shares. So, it seems to me that we will need to carry our card at all times.

What happens if we forget? We will be fined $20,000-for a mere oversight. I wonder whether the Treasurer (Mr Keating) will have to pay $20,000 for his oversight in forgetting to put in his tax return. If we lose our card and fail to report it, we can be fined $5,000. If we fail or refuse to present our card to the Tax Commissioner on request we can be fined $20,000. These seem to me to be some very clear reasons why people would not want to proceed along this Australia Card line. It is a costly and overly bureaucratic attempt to put the financial and private lives of all Australians on to a centralised data collection bank. I have not fallen for this and I am sure that many of the people of Queensland whom I represent in this place would not agree with it either.

Even the Labor Party itself is divided on the issue. A number of Labor Party members and senators have gone on public record with their disapproval of the ID card, and rightly so. Some Opposition speakers have mentioned them in the Parliament, so I will not go over them. There are other prominent Australians who have spoken out against the ID card. Mr Justice Michael Kirby said:

What is at stake is nothing less than the nature of our society and the power and authority of the state in relation to the individual.

Then I heard various senators on this side of the chamber talk about Mr Frank Costigan, who said:

There is no doubt that the introduction of an Australia Card of the kind contemplated by the submissions that I have read is a significant intrusion into individual privacy.

He also said that an ID card would have done little to assist the important matters he was looking into regarding organised crime in Australia.

Senator Peter Baume —That is important, too.

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —As Senator Peter Baume says, that is very important indeed. The establishment of a centralised data linking system will provide unparalleled opportunities for government abuse of confidential personal information held by Health, Taxation, Social Security and other departments. It has been estimated that the whole operation will cost nearly $1 billion to set up and will require over 2,000 new public servants for administration. Then we do not want to forget the costs to business and the non-government sector, which have been estimated at roughly $377m. Of course, we have to add the cost to State and local governments. The Australia Card supposedly will, firstly, reduce tax avoidance; secondly, reduce social welfare fraud; thirdly, expose organised crime; and fourthly, reduce illegal immigration.

Senator Sheil —Supposedly.

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —But it is extremely doubtful that the Australia Card will do any such thing. Actually the Tax Office cannot give accurate estimates of the amount of revenue that might be saved by an ID card. No ID card system can stamp out the major unchecked area of evasion, namely, the cash economy. The Department of Social Security has confirmed that an ID card will do little to solve social security fraud because most fraud takes the form of overpayment of benefits, not false identity. We have heard other speakers on this side speak in more detail about that. The Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs has already stated that the ID card is not likely to do much at all to prevent illegal immigration. What is desperately needed to combat social security fraud is better management of the Department of Social Security. If it followed its own identification procedures to the letter, fraud would be greatly restricted, and I feel that people who are on social security should have to report to collect their social security payments. I do not know whether it is true, but someone told me about two young ladies on supporting mother's benefit who were living in the south of France and having their money sent to them there. I cannot guarantee that that is true.

Senator Newman —Nice if you can get it.

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —It would be rather nice. The same applies to dole payments. I really think that everybody who is getting the dole should have to report before they can collect it. We hear from time to time-we did before the last Queensland State election-about all the unemployment in Queensland. So many of them are receiving their dole payments at lovely beach resorts, such as Airlie Beach, or the Gold Coast. We have so many lovely places in Queensland where they can go.

Senator Button —Now, Senator, you musn't be too commercial. Come on!

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —It is a good opportunity. I really believe that, if the Social Security Department and the Government brought in the idea that people should have to report for the dole and that they should have to work for it, that would help the Social Security Department to combat the fraud that we hear so much about. Of course, the National Party of Australia completely supports genuine efforts to crack down further on tax avoidance, social welfare fraud, organised crime and illegal immigration, but it believes that there are more effective, less costly and less intrusive ways of achieving those ends. Despite what the Government has said, the possibilities of duplication with the ID card are enormous. It has been suggested that there are tens of thousands of duplicate Medicare cards already in circulation. The fact that the ID card has to be updated every few years means that duplicate cards will be in abundance within a few short years.

I think it would be very naive for us to believe that there will be no forgery in relation to the ID card. Of course there will be. Almost all business and industry will have to change their systems and this will especially hit the small business sector. Banks will need to change their customer account systems to allow information to be supplied to the Australian Taxation Office in the form that its officers require. Many organisations have publicly announced their opposition to the Australia Card. The Confederation of Australian Industry, the Council of Small Business Organisations in Australia, the Real Estate Institute of Australia, the Law Council of Australia, the Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission, the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association, the Federated Clerks Union of Australia and the Victorian Teachers Union, have all voiced their opposition to the Australia Card.

Senator Button —You wouldn't want all of them on your side, though, Senator.

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —On this occasion I must agree with them in their opposition. I would not agree with them ordinarily on lots of other matters but I do agree with them on this matter. This proposal is not just a means of cracking down on fraud in this country; it is an invasion of our individual right to privacy and freedom of movement and association. I suppose that the next thing that the Government will want to do is put our fingerprints on the card. Only in communist countries would we find things such as identification cards. I understand that even in South Africa the internal pass system has been abolished. No matter what sort of card we introduce, there will always be those who will get around it. Unfortunately, there will always be duplicate cards. My thought on the matter is that there should be a greater tightening up of our existing systems. The Taxation Office, the Department of Social Security, the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and the Department of Health already have abundant information on our personal lives and our financial affairs. As a matter of fact, all honourable senators would realise that, at present, we all have a tax file number in the Taxation Office because every time we make out our tax returns we have to quote our tax file number. At least information on these matters should be available.

As far as the taxation system is concerned, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure reported on five of the Auditor-General's efficiency audits of the Australian Taxation Office. A book was tabled in this Senate entitled `A Taxing Problem', which puts everything in very clear perspective. The Auditor-General estimated that the amount of tax revenue forgone, because of undisclosed dividend and interest income, is in the range of $308m to $512m per annum. The Auditor-General claimed that, if the Australian Taxation Office had adopted a more active approach to demanding more information from financial institutions, in particular trading and savings banks, the appropriate information should have been more readily available. Nevertheless, even if the information had been provided, the Expenditure Committee claims that the Australian Taxation Office lacks the necessary capacity to process. The Commissioner of Taxation is reported in his evidence to the Committee as stating:

. . . looking back over those years we have not had sufficient resources to check more information than information we have got in.

In addition to the failure of the Australian Taxation Office to demand the appropriate information from the banks and financial institutions and its inability because of its failure to develop an effective matching mechanism, there is also a loophole in the Australian Taxation Office's collection powers. Whilst the ATO can demand information from banks and other financial institutions, it does not demand such information from the Reserve Bank of Australia. It is quite clear from the evidence in the reports of the Auditor-General and the Expenditure Committee that action needs to be taken by the Australian Taxation Office, firstly, to improve the information provided to it by banks and financial institutions; secondly, to ensure that all such institutions, including the Reserve Bank, report interest paid; and, thirdly, to upgrade its computerisation and to implement an effective matching system. This is what the Opposition believes should be done.

By immediately acting to overcome the serious administrative problems highlighted by five Auditor-General's reports and the House of Representative Expenditure Committee, tax evasion could be attacked with effect from 1987-88, with the full impact in 1988-89 and not 1992-93 as in the ID card proposals. These proposals would be more cost effective than the ID card and would impact immediately, not in four or five years time. Of course, another angle is that, if the taxation system in Australia were more equitable, a lot of the incentive for defrauding the Commonwealth would be diminished. Honourable senators would know of my own support for a single, flat rate of tax. Senator Button even mentioned this in the Senate just recently. The only thing is that he compared it with a flat earth policy. I do not go along with that, of course, but I do believe in a flat rate of tax because I feel that this would be a fairer way of gathering the necessary revenue for government expenditure. Half the problem for people who try to defraud the Government is that they feel that their taxes are too high and they deserve to get a bit back from the Government in any case.

I am hopeful that, when the coalition parties are returned to office, which I know will be at the next election, a much fairer taxation system will be introduced, therefore reducing the incentive for people to abuse the social welfare, immigration, health and taxation systems. The Australia Card is not the answer to the problem. Only in totalitarian regimes would we see such a system introduced. Have we really sunk so low that the Government is reduced to implementing such a radical system to stop fraud? I am appalled by this legislation. I do not support it and will vote against it. It is an un-Australian proposition which I believe is unacceptable in Australia. I am quite sure that the majority of Australians do not support it. We cannot always believe the results of polls that are taken; we found that out at the last Queensland election. All the polls said that the National Party would not win and we certainly did. I believe that the majority of Australians do not support the Australia Card. The Government will find out that it has gone against majority opinion at the next election. I support the Opposition's amendment and reject the Australia Card Bill.