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Wednesday, 1 April 1987
Page: 1587

Senator KNOWLES(12.02) —The reintroduction of the Australia Card Bill, which quite frankly should be known as the licence-to-live Bill, is a monumental piece of hypocrisy. All other common law countries throughout the world have seen fit not to introduce a Bill such as this, not to have any form of national identification system-but not this Government here in Australia. I have found the debate thus far rather amusing. I made a full page of notes on some of the absurd assertions that Senator Aulich made earlier this morning. I turned over the page to make some notes on some of the things that Senator Elstob was talking about but unfortunately I have been left with a blank page because Senator Elstob, charming as he is-and he is a very decent chap-really did not make any contribution to this debate today, as he did not last December.

The fact that this Bill is here before the Senate in an unamended form is a sure indication that this Labor Government is concerned only with playing politics and giving itself an option of having an early election and not with tackling the problems of tax evasion and welfare fraud. We have yet another Hawke promise of no early election being broken in the same way in which he has broken the promises that there would be no capital gains taxes, no student fees-and on the list goes. We have had broken promise after broken promise. But as my colleagues have mentioned before, as recently as February this year the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) was quoted in the Australian newspaper as stating that the Government would reintroduce its licence-to-live Bill with a number of changes relating to the clarification of safeguards in the legislation. The Minister was quoted as saying that the Government would:

. . . take account of any legitimate suggestions for ways of improving the legislation.

While I do not necessarily believe that such foreshadowed amendments would be sufficient to remove the grave and genuine objections of the Liberal Party towards the identification card system, they would certainly have deserved consideration on their merits. Now that they have not been included and not one comma has been changed in this Bill, we can have no further consideration of this Bill because it is identical with that produced last year. But, of course, the Government wants this Bill to be identical because it is the only way to provide the constitutional grounds for a double dissolution of Parliament. It raises the question as to whether the Australian Labor Party truly wants to see this Bill passed or whether it is just a means to an end whereby the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) can achieve his stated aim of wanting to be in his high office for the Bicentenary. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Government knows the scheme is unworkable and that it now has far greater political value than any practical application. The possibility of winning an election is now more important than solving any tax or welfare fraud problems. The Prime Minister could call an election at any time but would prefer, of course, to blame the coalition instead of wasting money without having a scapegoat. We do not need an early election; it is not time for an election. The Prime Minister has admitted that in the past but seeks to equivocate on that position now.

Refusal to amend this Bill will surely disappoint some honourable senators within the Government. When we debated this legislation only in December last year Senator McKiernan expressed the hope that the concerns for civil liberties raised by the Opposition be taken into account before this Bill was reintroduced. Certainly he and others in the ALP-including, I believe, five Ministers who clearly are unhappy with the original Bill and that, of course, means this Bill-will now be extremely disappointed. We should also call to mind the reported statement by Senator Bolkus in the Australian Financial Review of 23 July last that those opinion polls that showed support for a national ID card were based on loaded questions. It would now appear that this Government wants to ask the same set of loaded questions of the Australian public in toto via the form of a costly, unnecessary and opportunistic election. If we look at the matter objectively, what real justification does this Labor Government have for making the Australia Card the basis for a double dissolution election? This Government cannot possibly claim that the Senate has prevented it from running the country. The only reason the licence-to-live Bill is being used in this way is that it is the only piece of government legislation that the Senate has rejected for quite some considerable time. Indeed last year the Opposition adopted a deliberate and responsible policy of ensuring that all legislation connected with the Budget was passed through the Senate, even when it was legislation of which it disapproved.

Senator Puplick —They broke their promise on freedom of information when we passed it.

Senator KNOWLES —The Government has broken its promise on everything. I could list a string of broken promises but we believed that this Government, in a time of economic crisis, was entitled to its revenue measures and that is why we allowed its Budget Bills to go through the Parliament last year. Was the Australia Card a major plank of this Hawke Labor Government's 1984 election campaign? Of course it was not and it cannot be claimed that it has formed part of the declared mandate of this Government. The Government mentioned nothing of the sort prior to the last election. It has just been another wild dream that has been dreamt up since the Government got into office in 1984. What compounds the hypocrisy of this Government is the fact that it could have made a similar issue in 1985 with the Taxation (Unpaid Company Tax) Assessment Bill that was rejected by the Senate. Of course the Government preferred to accept this defeat because it knew that that draconian legislation would have had a disastrous effect on business and its employees. In 1985 the Government did not want an election. That was the only real factor and the legislation meant little or nothing.

Finally, can it be said that this Bill will save or recoup revenue for the Government and so reduce the current Budget deficit? The answer is no. We have only to pick up the Bill to establish that fact clearly. Quite frankly, the exact opposite applies. The Government's figures-not only the Opposition figures-show that no money is to be saved in either the short or long term but a vast amount of money-taxpayers' money-is to be spent. For example, the Government claims that it can save $69m over 10 years in Medicare, based on the vague assumption that the benefit outgoings will be reduced. It says that this Bill will be able to achieve that by preventing illegal immigrants and also those who use multiple identification from claiming Medicare benefits. The first question that needs to be asked about that statement is: Why would it be necessary for people to use multiple identification in the first place? If the claim is accurate, why cannot the Government substantiate the assumption? Also why cannot the Government supply any factual detail or evidence as to the position regarding illegal immigrants claiming Medicare benefits? If the Government thinks or knows that illegal immigrants are claiming health benefits, why is it not, in the first instance, ensuring that they cannot obtain a Medicare card without adequate primary identification? Also why has the Government allowed twice as many Medicare cards to be issued as there are those entitled to be holders? Of course it begs the question: Will that same eventuality come about with an ID card whereby twice as many cards are issued as there are those who are entitled to hold them?

Last year during debate on this legislation I was told by a gentleman in Victoria that he had arrived in Australia on a visitor's visa and was able to obtain five Medicare cards in one week. That is how easy it is to bluff Medicare and the Government refuses to do anything about it and a licence to live will not stop that from happening either. All of these questions are obviously far too difficult for the Government to come to grips with, let alone answer. Why does the Government also claim that it can collect extra revenue to the tune of $36m by having a card with a photograph? This is yet another wild bluff that cannot be explained. The question needs to be asked: What happens to people-both men and women-who change their appearance by the colour, length or style of their hair, have surgery or whatever? Penalties are involved for anyone in this game who loses his card. What happens if he wants to change his card? He will have to pay another fee to change his card. We know that both men and women change appearance, some more frequently than others, so what does that mean? They will be trotting in and out of Medicare offices getting cards every week. What will happen to the old cards?

As I mentioned in my speech on this Bill last December, the Auditor-General's report made it crystal clear that the Australian Taxation Office has failed to collect hundreds of millions of dollars of tax on income generated by banks, building societies and the like. It is simply not good enough that the Australian Tax Office is losing between $308m and $512m each year because it has neglected to use available funds to buy compatible computer equipment. Once again the Government needs to answer the question as to why it will not move to tighten up this area first of all by ensuring that all new equipment is compatible with the existing equipment and that the information readily provided is acted upon. I suppose that is all too simple and it would not provide dossiers the Government wishes to collect on all Australians and place into a central computer for future reference. Senator Aulich mentioned that individuals are able to inspect their files once a year. This is all very well but the question may well be asked on that point: What will be deleted from those files prior to access?

The Bill promises only future revenue benefits that are highly debatable and to date totally unsubstantiated. The Liberal Party, government departments, expert witnesses and a substantial number of Government Ministers, senators and members see the fact that the ID card will be clumsy and inefficient in fulfilling its declared task of recouping revenue, quite apart from the objections on libertarian grounds. Sadly, as per usual, those government senators opposed to this Bill will not have the opportunity to vote that way because Big Brother will not allow it. Thirty-four speakers are listed to speak on this Bill and only eight government senators are even game enough to open their mouths. Does not that in itself indicate the sincerity with which some government senators are approaching this Bill? I state this fact reiterating the conclusions last year of the all party Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card.

Only in the last few weeks we have again seen confirmation of the fact that the legislation will impose immense compliance costs on the banking industry-$70m according to the Australian Bankers Association. Yet we heard Senator Aulich say a little while ago that the amount of compliance costs in the banking industry was going to be chickenfeed. All I can say is that one heck of a lot of chooks can be fed on $70m if he thinks $70m is chickenfeed. Once more the Auditor-General has issued a report questioning the effectiveness of an ID card whose cost- effectiveness has been badly understated by the Health Insurance Commission.

The Liberal Party is not opposing this legislation from a negative standpoint. We realise that there is a pressing need to combat welfare fraud and to ensure that the Australian Taxation Office fulfils its requirements to obtain information as to interest and other currently unreported payments. Where we take issue with this legislation is its reliance on a clumsy and expensive quick-fix solution when the program that we propose will produce more immediate revenue gains without the massive cost to the taxpayer and to the private sector. It is not good enough that the ATO staff, however competent and dedicated they may be-and I believe they are-are employed in an unplanned, labour intensive operation that can involve staff processing 270 returns each day or 35 returns per hour. It is small wonder, then, that out of 1.8 million returns assessed in the Sydney office of the Australian Taxation Office in 1983-84, only six were referred to the compliance branch for further investigations-six out of 1.8 million.

It is not good enough that information is not demanded as to interest payments from the Reserve Bank of Australia, which has outstanding some $50 billion in borrowings, of which up to $15m are in private holdings. It is not good enough that only 20 per cent of all interest paid is reported and only 50 per cent successfully matched. This again points to the failure to provide proper computer equipment. It is also not good enough that information that is available through the prescribed payments system-which, I might add, is a Liberal Government initiative against tax evasion in the cash economy-is not fully used by the ATO. We heard a little while ago a claim that the cash economy and criminals are going to be caught up, that the reins are going to be tightened on them, through the introduction of an Australia Card. What absolute rot! Does that mean that criminals are now going to go into a bank and open a bank account? I suppose they could if they were that stupid. They could go in and open a bank account under a name something like Mr I. M. A. Criminal. That would clearly identify them. This shows the absurdity of the Government's proposal. It is absurd to think that the problems raised by the cash economy and organised crime are going to be solved in this way.

A mass of data on possible tax evasion is being absolutely wasted. According to the House of Representatives Expenditure Committee, only 1,664 of 22,000-plus detected non-lodgers under this system have undergone tax audits. Both this Committee and the Auditor-General have presented a picture of glaring deficiencies that this Labor Government fails to rectify. A Liberal government will therefore ensure that the efficiency and the computer capacity of the Taxation Office are upgraded so that returns can be matched with information on interest payments provided by all financial institutions.

Other aspects of the problems for which the licence to live is supposedly designed will be more effectively tackled by a centralised register of births, deaths and marriages and by a tighter work test at the Commonwealth Employment Service. Only last night on the Willesee program we saw a fellow who had been offered a job at more that what the dole pays. That fellow turned the job down. The other interesting aspect of that item on Willesee last night was that that same person had bothered to apply for only 20 jobs in 52 weeks. He had not even applied for one job a fortnight, let alone one or five jobs a day as many unemployed people do. So we propose to tighten the work test. I say `tighten the work test', but as the Government is not using it at all at the moment I suppose I could say `reintroduce' it. We also propose to improve the identification procedures for obtaining social security benefits by primary and not secondary identification. We will ask for a birth certificate, not a driver's licence or a credit card. As Senator Puplick said earlier, young kids are going out and getting a number of driver's licences just so that they can drink in hotels, let alone claim welfare benefits.

Private sector compliance costs would be $75m under our proposal; they will be $2 billion under the Government's proposal. This socialist Government has, of course, refused to provide any estimation of what the licence to live would cost business and the community generally-down to such matters as employee time off for official photographs and interviews. Senator Aulich had the audacity to say in his speech this morning that people in the business community are supporting the card. I would just like to find out where the following organisations fit in: The Confederation of Australian Industry, the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia, the Real Estate Institute of Australia, the New South Wales Council of the Australian Small Business Association Ltd, the Australian Associated Stock Exchanges, and the Victorian Chamber of Commerce. The list goes on. Surely these organisations are made up of people in the business community. They are not supporting this Bill. They have indicated quite clearly and unequivocally that they are opposed to this Bill. Yet Senator Aulich had the audacity to come in here this morning and say that the business community wants this Bill.

Because the Government has refused to state what the compliance costs on business are going to be, we feel quite justified in quoting the figure of $2 billion that I mentioned earlier. The Government has not even remotely refuted that figure. It is not game to. The Liberal proposal is $2.4 billion less expensive than the licence to live. There can be no question whatsoever that it will be far less burdensome on the private sector and the individual.

We believe that our proposal to overhaul the Taxation Office will provide over $3 billion in revenue gains over 10 years. What is certain is that it will raise money more quickly than any licence-to-live Australia Card at a stage in our economy where Budget deficits must be reduced now and not in five or 10 years' time. The licence-to-live ID card will raise nothing until 1989-90, and even then it is doubtful exactly what that revenue will be. This reinforces the fact that a program under a coalition government would be far less intrusive and much more cost-effective than what this Government is trying to propose.

When as a Liberal I express concern about compliance costs to the private sector, I am far from being concerned solely for large employers, such as the banks. The people who will be massively inconvenienced by ID cards remain in particular the primary producers of Australia, who are currently being hit by everything-spiralling interest rates, charges, wage costs, and so on. They are confronted with sheer survival problems. It has been pointed out by the New South Wales Farmers Association that the licence-to-live Australia Card Bill, when law, will force 48,000 wheat growers to present their cards to seven Australian Wheat Board offices in the State capitals. This is, of course, due to the requirements of clause 43 of this legislation-that presentation of the card is necessary to receive payment from a marketing authority or an agent of sale.

Senator Walsh —Once.

Senator KNOWLES —It may well be true that they may have to produce it on only one occasion. But it is absolutely absurd that someone from the Kimberley in my State of Western Australia should have to go down to Perth for this purpose. The position of 80,000 wool growers accustomed to dealing with agents over the telephone will cause very similar headaches when they must personally make contact with their brokers. I do not believe that the people who are struggling to survive now because of the position in which they have been placed by this Government in terms of interest rates and taxation generally, should be put through the further inconvenience of having to trot all around the country to prove who they are when they have been operating in a certain way for years. The administrative costs of the changes will, of course, come back to the farmer. The New South Wales Farmers Association is concerned that stock and station agents and some marketing authorities intend charging producers an additional administrative cost. I am absolutely adamant that I will not see the rural sector go through any more hardship than it already is enduring. That reason alone would be enough not to vote in favour of this Bill.

This Bill will do a number of things, none of which is desirable. As I have said right through this debate, it will establish simply a licence to live. On the first occasion that one does anything one will have to produce one's licence to live. It will intrude into everyone's privacy. It will provide jobs for 2,000 plus more public servants. I quite honestly thought that the size of government was too big now and that we should be reducing it. But no, this Government will provide jobs for another 2,000 plus more public servants. It will create another 300 more Medicare offices. It will fine people if they dare to lose their licence to live. It will cost the taxpayer $1 billion; it will cost business $2 billion. Businesses will be fined $20,000 if they dare do business without seeing a person's licence to live. The Government will discriminate against the aged, the sick and country people. This measure will encourage the cash economy. It will assist the operators of organised crime.

Once again, Senator Aulich said this morning that it will stop organised crime. So Senator Aulich is saying that he knows better than Frank Costigan, QC, who headed many royal commissions into organised crime. Mr Frank Costigan, QC, has stated to the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card that organised crime will flourish under an ID card system because just the intrinsic value of the ID card will make it worth falsifying. But no, once again Senator Aulich knows better than Frank Costigan, QC. He says that organised crime will be stopped with this stupid, idiotic card. Do we want legislation that does all of those things and absolutely nothing positive? No, we do not.

The licence-to-live Bill, otherwise known as the Australia Card Bill, remains a gross violation of individual privacy. As I have stated repeatedly, it will be nothing less than a licence to live, despite its supposedly voluntary nature. Voluntary? What rubbish. If one tries to open a bank account or do business with anybody without one's licence to live, one cannot do it. So one cannot say `I have voluntarily chosen not to use my licence to live', because one will not be able to operate. The identity card scheme is not cost effective and has been shown time and time again not to be so. Now this Bill is being put forward as a cynical political exercise-without the justification that the people of Australia are entitled to expect-in its unamended form purely and simply to make sure that this Government, if the polls show it can win, can go to an election. If the polls and its own research show that it cannot win, it will choose not to go to an election. But the Government wanted this Bill back in this place to make sure that it had that option.

People are entitled to make sure that governments run their full terms. I make no apology for the fact that we too, when in government, had early elections. I believe this Government should be running its full term. The country is in crisis. The rural sector is in absolute crisis; the business community is in crisis; families are finding it hard to live; yet we have a Bill before us today that is saying quite clearly: `We want to give you a licence to live'. We must reject this Bill out of hand. It is an absurdity to put more restrictions on people in already excessively hard times.