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Wednesday, 1 April 1987
Page: 1651

Senator SHORT(8.03) —Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. I welcome your ruling. Earlier this afternoon the Government announced that it had abandoned its cynical and opportunistic flirting with an early double dissolution election, for which the Senate's rejection for the second time of this Australia Card Bill 1986 was, of course, to provide the trigger. It is therefore all the more remark- able and deplorable that the Government is now subjecting the Australian taxpayer to enormous further expense in order to rush this Bill to a vote in the Senate this week, and at great inconvenience to all senators, their constituents and to parliamentary staff.

Senator Robertson —What are you talking about? We are sitting. It is our normal sitting time.

Senator SHORT —They are not our normal sitting times. Why is this legislation being rushed? Why is the taxpayer yet again being slugged to pay for the disgraceful irresponsibilities of this Government? I will tell honourable senators why. It is because this Government is totally incap- able of managing its own affairs, just as it is incapable of managing the affairs of the nation. This Bill contains one of the most important and sinister proposals ever to be put before the Australian people. It is a scandal that it should be steam-rolled in the Senate, as it was in the House of Representatives last week, in this extravagant yet opportunistic way.

Senator Robertson —What? With 37 speakers? For goodness sake!

Senator SHORT —Go back to dinner, Senator Robertson. It also indicates just what disregard the Hawke Labor Government really has for the substance of the Australia Card Bill. The Government has claimed continually that the Bill is essential in order to curb social welfare cheats and tax fraud. The Bill will be defeated in the Senate later this week. If the Bill is so important why did the Government not accept any of the amendments put to it by the Opposition or which it thought of itself to make the proposal less unacceptable? It did not because it wanted the Bill to provide the double dissolution trigger. That is the only reason that it has introduced the previously rejected Bill without any amendment whatsoever and why it has treated the Bill in such a cavalier manner within the Parliament.

It has now backed away from the election option. If the Bill is so important surely it should be mandatory for the Government to go to an election over it. The Government has now said it will not do so. Why? There is only one logical explanation, and that is that it does not believe that it could win an early election, and that assessment is correct. What cynical political opportunism! No wonder the people of Australia have lost all confidence and faith in this Government. At the very least, if the Government really wished to have the Senate pass or look seriously at an Australia Card Bill it would now be introducing amendments to remove the worst features of the proposal and be seen to be being serious about the exercise. In many ways I regret that we will not be fighting an early election with the Australia Card as one of the key issues because I would welcome going to the people of Australia and telling them why the Liberal and National parties have rejected this intrusive, socialist Government's plan to impose on every Australian a major and costly invasion of his or her privacy or his or her civil liberties. I would certainly have a wide range of support and company in doing so. I would have the support of a vast range of organisations and individuals across the spectrum of community involvement and interest and political thought in this country.

Senator Aulich —Every tax dodger in the country would support you.

Senator SHORT —That is interesting because I would have the support of, for example, several of the major trade unions in Australia. I would have the support of the Law Council of Australia, the Australian Catholic Welfare Commission, the Council of Small Business Associations of Australia--

Senator Aulich —Tax dodgers.

Senator SHORT —Are they tax dodgers? Also the International Commission of Jurists, the councils for civil liberties in every State and Territory, the Australian Retired Persons Association, the Australian Computer Society, the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party and the ALP's national legal and administrative policy committee? Are they tax dodgers, too? I would have the support of the Confederation of Australian Industry, the Real Estate Institute of Australia, the Australian Associated Stock Exchanges, the Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission in Western Australia and many more organisations of responsible and concerned people.

I would have the support of such eminent Australians as Frank Costigan, QC, a person who, probably more than any other Australian, has led the fight against organised crime, including tax fraud, in this country. I would have the support of His Grace the Rt Rev. Michael Challen, the Anglican Bishop of Perth; Mr Justice Michael Kirby, former Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission; Law Professor Geoffrey Walker; leading business people such as Hugh Morgan; author Frank Moorhouse and countless thousands of other individuals. I would also have the support of the National Youth Council of Australia and the majority of the members of the Parliament's Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card which was established in November 1985 to examine the Government's proposals and which reported in May last year. As the honourable senator is well aware, the majority of the members of that Committee rejected the Government's proposals. The members of the Committee making up that majority included members from every political party in this Parliament-the Liberal Party, the National Party, the Australian Democrats and the Labor Party.

Senator Aulich —One Labor Party person, and it was a political vote, and you know that. You were whipped into line.

Senator SHORT —I take important parliamentary committee reports on their objective merits and this was one in relation to which all members of the political parties in Australia joined together in supporting a majority recommendation. (Quorum formed)

The Opposition opposes this legislation for four main reasons. First, the card would not solve the problems of tax and welfare fraud, both of which generally involve people whose identity is not in question. Secondly, the card does not address serious administration failings and operational deficiencies in the Australian Taxation Office that have been revealed by the Commonwealth Auditor-General and remain a major cause of failure to collect revenue due to the Government. Thirdly, we oppose it because the costs of the ID card have been grossly understated and the benefits grossly exaggerated. Fourthly, the details of the proposal will constitute an unprecedented and unjustifiable intrusion into the individual privacy of all Australians and will greatly damage our civil liberties.

I make the point at the outset that not one country in the world with a common law system like Australia's has a comprehensive ID card system such as that proposed by the Hawke Government. The Government first floated its ID card proposal at the National Taxation Summit in July 1985. It then promoted it as a major element of its tax reform package and there was little or no comment on the card's potential for attacking social security fraud. An amazing feature of the Government's handling of this ID card proposal since day one has been that the ministerial responsibility resides with the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett), not with the Treasurer (Mr Keating), who has the responsibility for taxation, not with the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) and not with the Attorney-General (Mr Lionel Bowen) or the Special Minister of State (Senator Tate), who are responsible for fraud detection and prevention. That is an extraordinary situation when one observes what the Government claims are the reasons for this legislation.

Under the Government's proposal every Australian will be forced to have an ID card. The card will look rather innocent and innocuous. It will simply contain a person's name, identity number, card expiry date, photograph and signature-not much different from a driving licence. But there the deception begins because the card would be required to be produced on a very wide range of occasions, including dealing with banks and financial institutions, land transactions, initiating investments and transactions with cash management trusts-a very common event nowadays-employment, admission to hospital, claims for Medicare benefits when required by the Taxation Office, primary producers transacting business with stock agents and marketing authorities, investing in shares in public companies and dealings with the Department of Social Security.

Not only that, but the Government proposes massive fines for failure to produce the ID card on such occasions. Most of those fines are $20,000. For bodies corporate the fines are up to $100,000. To give just a couple of examples: A householder who gives casual employment to, say, a cleaning lady for a few days a week without sighting the lady's ID card and notifying the Taxation Office is guilty of an offence. Penalty: $20,000. A farmer who during the fruit picking season takes on a young itinerant looking for a few days work who does not have his ID card with him will have committed an offence. Penalty: $20,000. A small businessman giving employment to young people or pensioners without sighting the ID card is guilty, and without trial is liable to a fine of $20,000. So it goes on.

As well, there are loopholes. For example, there is a loophole in clause 36 of the Bill which makes it possible to forward through the ordinary mail a so-called certificate of identity in place of the ID card. That is a sensible idea for all those engaged in transactions involving the requirement of identification when the two parties are separated by distance. But just think of the scope for theft, loss or forgery of these certificates in these circumstances. Yet the Government is trying to tell the Australian people that the whole system is virtually guaranteed against forgery or duplication. What absolute nonsense. Even the ID card will be forgeable. Experience around the world with identity cards, passports, drivers licences and similar identification documents has demonstrated beyond any doubt that no system is foolproof against forgery and fraud. A recent letter to the Melbourne Age summed the situation up very neatly. It was a letter from someone who had gone through the identity card requirements of Hitler's Germany and the processes in Holland during the war. Amongst other things, he said:

The introduction of the Australia card will most probably give rise to a flourishing forgery industry. The Australia Card will only be effective after we have managed to remove all crooks from our society, but then we won't need the card any more.

It is indeed possible that the introduction of the card will legitimate a false identity which will aid and abet the criminal element in our society and which may well encourage tax and welfare fraud. The Government's stated objective for the ID card, according to the Minister's second reading speech, is to fight tax avoidance and evasion and social welfare fraud. The Opposition, of course, fully supports those objectives. Our concern is that the ID card will not achieve these objectives. So far as tax evasion is concerned, evidence produced to the Parliamentary Select Committee indicates that it is very doubtful whether tax evasion would be seriously restrained through the use of an ID card.

Mr Costigan, QC, the former royal commissioner who was famous for his investigations in the late 1970s and early 1980s into tax fraud in Australia, has said that the card would not have prevented the criminal tax fraud he found in his inquiries. It is universally accepted that the existence of the cash or underground economy poses the biggest single threat to our tax base and is the largest source of tax revenue leakage. An ID card will not solve the problems associated with the cash economy for the simple reason that cash economy transactions will not be identified by the card. Indeed, it is arguable that the existence of the ID card would actually increase the size of the cash economy by encouraging more people to engage in it.

The Government has given the impression that the ID card will hit hard at social welfare fraud. But the facts indicate overwhelmingly that that is simply untrue. The primary way in which an ID card might be able to reduce social welfare fraud is in the area of false identities. But the Department of Social Security, in its evidence to the parliamentary Select Committee, said that false identities were not a major component of social welfare fraud. The Department said that less than one per cent of social welfare fraud, less than $1 in $100, results from the use of false identities. The major form of social welfare cheating comes from people falsifying their circumstances, not their identities. The ID card would have no direct effect on this form or other forms of welfare fraud. So the overwhelming weight of evidence is that the Government has grossly overstated the extent to which its ID card proposals will improve the exchequer by reducing tax revenue losses and fraudulent social welfare payments. In other words, the benefits side of the cost-benefit equation on a national interest basis is very thin indeed.

What about the costs side of the equation? The Government has not come clean on the costs side. It has produced confusing, contradictory, and incomplete figures. The Government claims that the total cost of introducing and operating the card would be $759m over the first 10 years. Note the accuracy. How on earth could one come to a figure such as that? What we do know, however, is that as a minimum 2,150 additional public servants will be required to administer the scheme and more than 300 Medicare officers will either be appointed or relocated and upgraded. The Government has made no allowance for the cost to State and local governments of their compliance with the requirements of the ID card system. Nor do the costs include the costs of compliance by the business sector. On the basis of calculations by the Government's own Business Regulation Review Unit, the cost to the business sector could amount to $2,000m to $3,000m over the next 10 years, a staggering additional burden to impose on a business sector that is already reeling under a massive onslaught of government-imposed taxes and charges.

It is beyond dispute that the financial costs of the ID card would be enormous but there are other, non-financial, costs that must also be considered and in the longer term they may well be of even greater significance. The non-financial cost of the greatest concern is the cost to the privacy of every Australian and the cost to our civil liberties. The ID card, because of its common number, inevitably would provide a centralised data base. It is just not possible to guarantee that access to that data base would be restricted to the degree the Government suggests. Unauthorised access would always be a major threat. Other dangers exist too with centralised data bases including the danger that the data may be incorrect. No system would be able to overcome those problems, problems which have been very well outlined by witnesses to the Parliamentary Committee including members of the Department of Social Security who are experts in computer matters.

Senator Tate —So you have got to be able to correct it.

Senator SHORT —They are not correctable; the honourable senator knows that as well as I do. The privacy problems are of enormous potential. We would need to be absolutely convinced of the overall advantage of the introduction of ID cards before subjecting every Australian to this threat to privacy. Rejection of the ID card proposal leads to the legitimate question: What would the Liberal and National parties do instead to reduce tax evasion and social welfare fraud? We would take several actions which would be much more effective, less costly and not have the dangers which are inherent in the Government's proposals. First, we would force the Australian Taxation Office to be much more efficient in its collection activities. The House of Representatives Expenditure Committee produced reports in 1986 of five inquiries by the Auditor-General into the operations of the Taxation Office and it found:

. . . taxation revenue losses through non-detection of total taxpayers incomes could conceivably amount to several billion dollars each year . . . in large measure it can simply be attributed to Australian Tax Office's internal inadequacies.

The Liberal and National parties would act immediately to rectify this disgraceful situation and improve the efficiency of the Tax Office. In government we would also attempt to do much more to stop the tax drain through the cash economy. It is certainly a very difficult task but one which is not being tackled at the moment and the ID card proposal does not address it at all. We would also strengthen the reporting requirements of banks with respect to interest income, an area generally agreed to be the major source of tax revenue loss.

In the area of social welfare fraud, we would introduce a requirement whereby persons in receipt of the unemployment benefit would work for that benefit. We would also tighten the existing identity requirements for social welfare recipients. That is a very important problem. In 1981-82 the ratio of unemployment benefit recipients in the Australian Bureau of Statistics survey estimate of unemployed persons seeking full time employment was 94:100. It is now 116:100. In other words, what that means, according to ABS statistics, is that for every 100 persons seeking full time employment 116 persons are actually receiving unemployment benefit.

What this debate on the Australia card really boils down to is this: Do we want to see the introduction in Australia, at great financial cost, of an identification card system which the overwhelming weight of evidence indicates will not achieve its laudable objectives of reducing tax and social welfare fraud? Do we want to introduce an identity card system which is an open invitation to some government at some future time to turn Australia into a virtual police state? That the Bill now before the Senate is merely the thin edge of the wedge is totally clear from a confidential document from the Health Insurance Commission which has responsibility for the Australia Card proposal. The document said that when the present proposed uses of the Australia Card have been introduced and accepted by the public, extra, more controversial, data and uses could be introduced. Let me quote just one paragraph from the Health Insurance Commission's report.

Senator Tate —That is totally opposed to Government policy, and you know it.

Senator SHORT —I stress that the Health Insurance Commission is the body which Senator Tate's Government has charged with administering and operating this scheme.

Senator Tate —Yes, but what date was the document?

Senator SHORT —It was a 1985 submission.

Senator Tate —Before the Bill and before the Government announced its policy.

Senator SHORT —But it does not alter this issue one iota. Let me quote just one paragraph from the Health Insurance Commission report which states:

It will be important to minimise in advance public reaction to implementation of the system. One possibility would be to use a staged approach for implementation, whereby only less sensitive data is held in the system initially with the facility to input additional data at a later stage when public acceptance may be forthcoming more readily.

Have honourable senators ever heard anything more sinister, more underhand, more Orwellian, or more like Goebbels's propaganda machine in nazi Germany?

Senator Tate —That is why we rejected it.

Senator SHORT —Senator Tate has not publicly rejected it. It defies belief that in a democracy any government, even this socialist Government, could contemplate such action. What further evidence could we possibly need to demonstrate that the Hawke Labor Government is determined to propel itself ruthlessly forward another huge step towards turning Australia into a big brother state where the daily lives of every Australian are constantly monitored, oversighted and controlled? Those are the reasons why the Liberal and National parties totally reject the Australia Card Bill. We are not prepared to see the introduction in Australia of an identification system which is positively unAustralian, contrary to our history, our traditions and all we stand for as a free, open and civilised society. The Opposition is not prepared to contemplate a system which is more enveloping and intrusive than any other identification system in any other common law nation.

Senator Crowley —Rubbish.

Senator SHORT —The honourable senator will have her opportunity to tell me where I am wrong. We are not prepared to see Australia take any step which could lead to the destruction of democracy and the potential establishment of a totalitarian state in our nation. The Australia Card Bill is a step in this direction. It must be rejected and it will be rejected. (Quorum formed)