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Wednesday, 1 April 1987
Page: 1592

Senator RICHARDSON(12.30) —This morning when I entered the chamber I took the liberty of picking up a copy of the Bulletin and glancing through it. I saw yet again further evidence of what the Australian community thinks of the Australia Card Bill. It is not surprising to see a poll that says 69 per cent of Australians say yes and 27 per cent say no. It is not surprising because that has been consistent all the way through. Two-thirds of Australians have consistently said: `We want an Australia Card'. But I think the significant part of the survey is to look at what Liberal Party of Australia voters think of an Australia Card, because 57 per cent of Liberal Party voters surveyed also wanted an Australia Card.

Senator Walsh —They are not as silly as their parliamentary representatives.

Senator RICHARDSON —Well, nobody could be as silly as some of their parliamentary representatives. I would like to make the point that the reason the Liberal Party has got itself into all the difficulties of the last few weeks-and if one has been reading the papers one might have noticed just a few of them-is that it has totally lost touch with public opinion. I can think of some reasons for that. One of them, of course, is that opposition takes practice. If one wants to be good in opposition, one has to have had plenty of practice. The Liberal Party has not had enough practice in the last four decades. Fortunately, in the next four I can see it getting a great deal more.

The community obviously-as I said, not just on the basis of the Bulletin survey, but on the basis of survey after survey now for several years-has accepted the Government's arguments for the need for a card to enable the Hawke Government to govern fairly and effectively, with the full understanding that it will financially catch the tax avoider, the fraudulent welfare seeker and the illegal immigrant. The community obviously realises that the Australia Card is part of an overall tax package, one that is now placed in danger by Liberal-National Party intransigence and by the Australian Democrats once again seeking to frustrate and delay. If the benefits of the tax cuts are to flow through to the community, obviously we have to put the brakes on tax avoiders and tax evaders. But every time in this chamber in the last four years that this Government had attempted to put a brake on the activities of tax avoiders and tax evaders, what has happened? The Liberal and National parties band together-even if it is one of the few things they can get together on these days-to protect those tax evaders and tax avoiders every single time.

Besides these special practical considerations, of course, there is the ethical responsibility; that we, as citizens in our democracy, have obligations as well as rights. It is the duty of government to make sure that taxpayers' funds are not misused and that a fair share is paid by all. Australians already carry many forms of identification. We do not have only our licences-some States now have photographs on their licences; I notice that my own State of New South Wales is moving in that direction as well-we carry Medicare cards; many of us have credit cards, much to our own cost at times; many agencies have records and details of our personal lives; the Australian Taxation Office has records of our finances; the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs has details of our passports; the Australian Electoral Office has 10 million names and addresses; State governments know if we own a car or if we have a licence; and legally all births and deaths are registered.

It appears to be something of an illusion to think in Australia today that the details of one's private life can be kept only to oneself. Already agency after agency carries intimate details of our every day lives. In fact, I believe that the Australian people, the community at large, realise that the Australia Card we have offered, with all its checks and balances, is quite acceptable. They are prepared to give it a go in an effort to restore some equity to the taxation and welfare systems and justice to our immigration system. Once again, I can only repeat: In the latest survey 69 per cent of people support the Australia Card. To fly in the face of that smacks not only of irresponsibility but of stupidity.

Let us look at the history of the Australia Card and that Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card that I saw battle on for some months before it came down with its final report. There was the view of the majority of members, and a minority view. Both reports supported the Government's belief that the problems of tax evasion, social welfare fraud, in particular--

Senator Puplick —You wouldn't have let that happen if you had been Chairman, would you?

Senator RICHARDSON —If I had been the Chairman, I am sure that I could never have done as good a job as Senator Aulich. It was a superb performance by Senator Aulich, as was his speech earlier in this debate. I am proud to have put that on record. As I said, both the majority and minority reports supported the Government's belief that we needed some sort of unique identification numbering system. Both reports, as far as I can recall, supported the view that there would be massive savings from the introduction of such a system, although I noticed today that several speakers have attempted to walk away from that point. Senator Knowles in her contribution certainly did. The Government and the majority report, as far as I can see, agreed in principle, but disagreed as to the best way to achieve the end result. So we were in agreement about what we were attacking; we just disagreed about how we would get there. That is very different from what happened in regard to the report of the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation, when we disagreed about everything.

Senator Puplick —But you had the numbers.

Senator RICHARDSON —I often try to, Senator. There was agreement also with most of the 12 recommendations, subject to some modifications. As far as I can recall, some were even referred to relevant Ministers for consideration and report to Cabinet. Let us look at the areas of agreement between the Joint Select Committee and the Government. In regard to inequities in the tax and welfare systems affected by lack of proper identification processes, it was agreed that they should be attacked by the introduction of a unique numbering system. It was agreed that current birth, death and marriage registries were inadequate. It was agreed that the Commonwealth should provide mechanisms and finance to computerise those inadequacies. Let us look at the agreement in regard to civil liberties concerns. There was no disagreement, apparently, about the fact that a data protection agency should be established to control the collection and use of personal data. Again, there was no disagreement about the fact that privacy legislation was needed, incorporating the information privacy principles. The right of the individual to have access to and correct personal data on a database under the Freedom of Information Act was agreed to. The Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, it was agreed, should upgrade the quality of its records, and all records should be transferred to a computer database as a matter of urgency. There was only one main area of disagreement-the type of identification system that was needed. So we all knew what the goal was; we just disagreed about how we would get there.

The Government, of course, opted for the Australia Card, not simply because most Australians want, demand and cry out for it, but because we believed it was the most effective system to help to restore fairness and equity to our tax and welfare systems. At the same time we supported the protection of individuals and of their civil liberties. The Australia Card system, when fully operational, would provide savings to the Government of almost $1 billion a year. I think that $880m was the actual figure used. This meant that by 1995-96, in that 10 year period, savings would reach almost $5 billion-about $4.6 billion. It is an extraordinary and enormous amount of money. No government, be it a conservative or a Labor government, could afford to knock that back.

The majority proposal was for a tax file number identification system. The net total savings under that system would be about $280m annually, which is $600m short of the savings under the Australia Card proposal. By 1995-96 there would be a saving of $1.6 billion-$3 billion less than what could be saved under the Government's Australia Card proposal. How long can the Liberal and National parties go on kidding anybody? The reality is that at some stage of the game even the Liberal Party, which knows no shame, must give up protecting tax avoiders and tax evaders. That $3 billion it wishes to allow them to continue to evade over the next decade could do a hell of a lot for Australia's poor, for our education system and for all sorts of areas that can suffer in times of restraint. Both reports cited the need to restrict access to an absolute minimum. Both reports agreed that there should be access to only three departments-the Health Insurance Commission, the Australian Taxation Office and the Department of Social Security.

If one looks at the Opposition's stance on this matter, one would have to say that it is in disarray. That is a word that we have used a lot lately in looking at the Opposition's stance on anything. It does seem to have its difficulties. The confusing, contradictory somersaults it has done over this issue make even John Howard's performance on taxation, as evidenced in the paper this morning-he has once again backed down to the National Party-look like that of a piker.

In May 1985 the Australia Card was enthusiastically supported by a range of Federal and State Opposition members-even by senators-as well as party officials around Australia. In 1985 the Australia Card was very popular amongst the Liberal and National parties. Ray Braithwaite, Charles Blunt, who was then, or subsequently became the spokesperson on social security, Ralph Hunt, the Deputy Leader of the National Party, no less-at least for the time being, until Bjelke-Petersen has his say-Nick Greiner, Leader of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, Eda Ritchie, the President of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party, all supported the Australia Card. I noticed that Senator Knowles referred to `this stupid and idiotic card'. I hope that she would not refer to her leader, Mr Howard, as stupid and idiotic.

Senator Walsh —Why not?

Senator RICHARDSON —Because it would make him cry. He is in enough trouble on his own at the moment. On 15 September 1985, when the Leader of the Opposition was asked where he stood in regard to the proposed ID card, he answered:

I personally see some merit in having an ID card providing the civil liberties concern . . . can be looked after . . . the United States has had a social security card for generations.

That was what John Howard said. Yet, as in so many cases, the Liberal Party, that once great party in Australian politics, from November 1985 to November 1986 switched, somersaulted, and turned around again. It now wants an alternative identification numbering system-that is, an expanded tax number.

Charles Blunt, Jim Porter and Senator Puplick all signed the majority report of the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card supporting the introduction of an upgraded tax file number identification system for tax and social security purposes. The Senate should remember that this is the only substantive point on which the majority and minority reports disagreed-the actual form of the ID system, not whether there should be one. But now the Opposition has apparently amended that stance and has abandoned its support for either the Australia Card or the tax file number. That means that it has dumped Senator Puplick. He is used to that. It also means that it has dumped the Opposition spokesman on health, Mr Porter, and Mr Blunt, who had supported the tax file ID system. The proposal was dumped despite their support and despite the recommendation of an all-party report entitled `A Taxing Problem' by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure, which stated:

With or without the adoption of the Australia Card the Australian Taxation Office take the necessary steps to establish a high integrity ID system which would ensure maximum taxpayer compliance.

In the last debate on this legislation the Opposition opposed an amendment by the Australian Democrats to introduce a tax file number ID system-the very thing for which the Opposition had opted only a couple of months earlier. The breathtaking pace with which members of the Opposition can change their minds is staggering. Perhaps that is because, as I said, they have not had much practice in opposition. Under their present leadership they bend and change at the will of the National Party, or some of its members, at such a bewildering pace that no one in the Liberal Party knows what to expect anymore. The published alternative policy of November 1986 fails completely to come to terms with the necessity for any high integrity form of identification.

Let us look at the need for a security numbering system and a card. The present tax file number has very low integrity. No proof of identification is required before the assignment of the number. The tax file option proposed that taxpayers with continuous tax records of more than five years be accepted as genuine unless normal audit, over time, revealed otherwise. That sort of system is wide open. How many would be subject to a normal audit? Only a tiny percentage. All the built-in abuses that have crept into the tax system over years and years would continue unidentified.

Debate interrupted.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2 p.m.