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Wednesday, 1 April 1987
Page: 1656

Senator MAGUIRE(8.31) —This evening we are debating yet again the Australia Card legislation following its defeat in December 1986. Every day that the Australia Card legislation is delayed, another $2 1/2m is lost to government revenue. That cost has been the result of combined actions by Australian Democrats, Liberal and National Party senators. In December, the Australia Card legislation was defeated by the votes of 32 senators-27 from the coalition parties and five from the Australian Democrats. They voted to defeat the Government's crackdown on tax evasion and welfare fraud. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost already as a result of this delay. So we have in this place 32 very expensive senators who are costing the revenue hundreds of millions of dollars-in fact, around $9m per senator who voted in that division last December.

The Liberals in particular have somersaulted on this legislation. Previously they wanted a national identification system. Today we have the revelation that Mr Howard, as Treasurer in 1979, promoted investigations into identification systems. On 31 May 1979 Mr Howard, the present Leader of the Opposition, signed a document which promoted investigations into a national identity system. I am delighted to say that the documentation was made available to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation this week. The Corporation made it available to its audience this morning. In fact, Mr Howard was the Treasurer of this nation in 1979 when Public Service officers were sent abroad to examine identification systems. He was the Treasurer when a delegation was sent abroad to look into the development of a national identification system. Mr Howard, the then Treasurer of Australia and now the temporary Leader of the Opposition, is opposing for political reasons the introduction of a national identification system-the Australia Card legislation. In 1979 the coalition parties in government launched inquiries into such a system, but now, in opposition, they oppose this legislation.

In May last year, 11 months ago, the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card, under the chairmanship of Senator Aulich, reported on that very subject. On that occasion three Liberal and National Party members signed their names to a report which called for the introduction of a national identification system in Australia. They called for the introduction of a tax file number system. Those members were Mr Blunt from the National Party of Australia, Senator Puplick from the Liberal Party of Australia, and Mr Porter, the Opposition spokesman on health. All of them said yes to a system that involved tax file numbers.

Of course, Senator Puplick's impassioned address earlier today shows his concern about his own position in the Liberal Party. As a result of signing that document last May, he is afraid that he is going to have the rug pulled from under his feet just like Senator Peter Baume did last week in this place on the question of equality of opportunity. So, while three members of the coalition signed their names to a document calling for the introduction of tax file numbers, they voted against an amendment moved in this place by the Australian Democrats on 10 December last year on exactly that same subject. They did a major U-turn in the space of seven months.

The Government has reintroduced the Australia Card Bill into this place without amendment. Earlier this year we had Mr Porter and Senator Haines, the Leader of the Australian Democrats, saying in the media that they would vote against this legislation whatever the Government did with it. They said that they would vote against the legislation irrespective of how the Government amended it in an attempt to get it through this place. They went on the record with very categorical statements saying that they would vote against the legislation. They said: `If you amend it, we will still vote against it'. If we had brought it into this place in an amended form, they still would have thrown it out. That is the reality-that is what they threatened to do with the legislation.

I heard this phoney argument retailed again by Senator Puplick during the debate today. Of course, he is trying to redeem himself over his massive U-turn in December when he voted against the Australian Democrats' amendment in support of a tax file number, having signed the document which called for the introduction of such a system. There have been more U-turns in the Liberals' attitude to the Australia Card than in Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen's road to the Prime Minister's Lodge in Canberra.

The Australia Card has the potential to save $880m annually. This amount is currently lost to the Budget in welfare fraud and tax evasion. At a time of budgetary restraint-and we are in that situation now-it is very difficult to find savings which amount to $880m a year and which would, over a decade, accumulate to $4,700m. Yet the Opposition parties and the Australian Democrats are prepared to forgo this revenue by voting against this legislation. In doing so, they show that they do not want to develop more fairness in Australia; they do not want to see a fairer tax and welfare system in Australia. They want a return to the golden age of taxation when income tax was voluntary for the wealthy.

The Liberals and the Nationals repeatedly go around this country and claim that the Budget deficit must be reduced. That is what they tell the Australian people. Yet, in this very place, they are prepared to oppose legislation which would allow the deficit to be cut by $880m annually. That is a reality. (Quorum formed) The Australian Democrats have been indicating in this place for the last year or so that they want to see increased social welfare spending in the community. But on a particular occasion in December they were prepared to reject the legislation which could raise the revenue for increased social welfare funding. The Liberal and Democrat opposition to the Australia Card has a common thread. That common thread is base political opportunism. The Liberals and Democrats are putting their own political priorities ahead of the interests of the Australian community. The Australia Card is an integral part of the Hawke Government's tax reform package and, as I have said before, it is the most far-reaching reform of the Australian tax system in the post-war period.

The aims of the tax reform package are to restore a fairness to taxation, to restore social justice in Australia and to reduce the burden of tax on ordinary pay as you earn taxpayers. It is a long overdue package, one that the Liberals and the National Party could never have delivered. The tax reform package has reduced marginal income tax rates for ordinary pay as you earn taxpayers. It has achieved reform by introducing base-broadening measures designed to stamp out the tax avoidance practices which flourished when Mr Howard was Treasurer. The fringe benefits tax, the capital gains tax, the abolition of negative gearing, the end to the free lunch-the darling of the Liberal Party-have closed loopholes and eliminated the tax rorts. We are making privilege pay in Australia. We have enabled revenue to be redistributed in the form of tax cuts. The first round occurred in December last year. The second round will occur from next July.

The Australia Card is aimed at tax evasion and welfare fraud. The use of false identities is a major contributor to tax evasion in Australia. False identities and the mis-statement of financial circumstances are also a major factor behind welfare fraud. The Australia Card will provide a unique identifier of the highest integrity to each individual coupled with a photographic card of the highest security. It is designed to combat tax evasion and welfare fraud by enabling the Australian Taxation Office to draw together financial information about individuals to ensure their proper taxation assessment occurs. I simply instance the case of a number of members of this community who are believed to be drawing two incomes in different names and therefore obtaining two tax free thresholds. The tax free threshold is $5,100, so if two thresholds can be obtained that results in an enormous saving in taxation. According to Treasury figures, a stunning 8 per cent of all group certificates issued in Australia are never claimed by the individuals involved. That gives some indication of the extent of tax evasion occurring in the community.

The Australia Card will contain a person's name, signature, a special identification number, the period of the card's validity and a photograph. In fact, having a photograph will make it something like the Victorian driver's licence, which has had a photograph on it for some time, or something like New South Wales drivers' licences will be in the future when the proposed photographic drivers' licences are introduced there. I must stress that it will not be compulsory to carry the card, nor will it be used as a means of general identification or as an internal passport, as claimed by some members of the Opposition. The relevant information in respect of the Australia Card will be contained on the Australia Card Register. That will be a centralised register which will contain only personal identifying data such as name, residential and postal address, date of birth, sex, digitised photo- graph and signature, and verifying information used in establishing a person's identity.

Contrary to the claims of the Australia Card's opponents, the register will not be a comprehensive centralised data base. It will not contain information about a person's marital status, family composition, religion, employment or political affiliation. Information contained on the register will be confined to basic identification data already existing-I reiterate: Data already existing-for the legitimate business of government departments. Much of this existing data probably contains duplications and inaccuracies which will be resolved by the introduction of the Australia Card.

Access to the information available on the Australia Card Register will be strictly limited. Only officials from the Australian Taxation Office, the Department of Social Security and Medicare will have access to the register for tax linkage purposes and for establishing identification for welfare payment purposes. So only three government agencies-I repeat: Three government agencies-will have access to the information on the Australia Card Register. Access to information on the register will need to be specifically authorised and the authorisation will have to be approved by the Data Protection Agency. That will be a new watchdog body specifically established to protect the rights and the privacy of individuals by controlling the collection and use of personal data for the Australia Card.

The Government believes that by making the Australia Card mandatory for a number of specific uses it will be possible to achieve substantial revenue gains and a reduction in tax evasion from the introduction of the system. It will also be possible to achieve greater fairness, and I suppose that is the name of this particular proposal if one were to use one word to summarise it-fairness between the members of the community in contributing towards the cost of providing government services and the distribution of government welfare assistance. The Australia Card will provide a convenient means of identification with a high level of integrity without adversely affecting honest individuals-the great majority of the Australian population.

The specific uses of the Australia Card are set out in this legislation. It will be mandatory for opening an account with a bank or a building society, the purchase of stocks and shares and the receipt of interest on invested funds. It will be mandatory also for employment purposes-an employer must sight the card-for obtaining Commonwealth benefits, allowances and pensions; for employment registration with the Commonwealth Employment Service; and for obtaining an Australian passport. The Australia Card will be mandatory for those purposes only. It will not be compulsory for other purposes. In fact, it will be an offence for the card to be requested by private sector bodies, State governments and law enforcement agencies. State police will not be able to ask to sight a person's Australia Card.

The Government has stated categorically that it will not extend the uses or provisions of the Australia Card by stealth. Any amendments to Australia Card uses would have to be made by legislation passed in both Houses of Parliament. A nonsensical claim was made by that intellectual pygmy, the shadow spokesman on health matters, Mr Porter, some fortnight ago. (Quorum formed) Before I was so rudely interrupted by Senator Messner I was referring to his South Australian colleague the shadow Minister for Health, Mr Porter, who, I think it was on 15 March last, claimed that the Government was trying to get its foot in the door on this matter and that as soon as the Australia Card was put into effect the Government would rapidly expand the number of uses to which it would be put. I immediately investigated this matter and found that Mr Porter-and it did not surprise me-was quoting from a document which was two years old. He is two years behind the times. He was quoting from a 1985 document which was written, I understand, in the Health Insurance Commission before the Government ever made a decision about the Australia Card and which was suggesting the number of uses to which the card could be put. That document was simply an initial feasibility study document and it was rejected in the process of making a decision on the matter. So there is yet another shadow spokesman, the shadow spokesman on health, who is two years behind the times-although he is a bit ahead of Mr Howard, who, of course, in 1979 was certainly setting in train in the Treasury investigations into the setting up of an identification system. Identification cards have been used overseas-with or without a photograph-for a number of years in a range of democratic countries.

Senator Kilgariff —Give us another joke!

Senator MAGUIRE —Senator Kilgariff, of course, is one of the great cards in this place. Cards, with or without photographs, operate in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain and West Germany. The list goes on. They are the countries in Europe that operate some form of identification system. Of course, we can add Canada and the United States of America. I now find that Mrs Thatcher is even considering the introduction of identity cards in the United Kingdom. Mr Howard and his acolytes, generally speaking, are slavish followers of Mrs Thatcher. (Quorum formed)

Senator Kilgariff —On a point of order, Madam Acting Deputy President: The sand had run out by 30 seconds and the House is out of order.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Giles) —At the time the Clerk informed me that the doors should be locked, Senator Colston was coming into the chamber. I call Senator Maguire.

Senator MAGUIRE —I could quote in this debate statements by three Opposition spokespersons in 1985 in support of an identification system. Mr Ray Braithwaite, the then shadow Minister for Social Security, Mr Ralph Hunt, the Deputy Leader of the National Party of Australia, and Mr Charles Blunt, the present shadow Minister for Social Security, all issued statements in 1985 supporting the introduction of a national identification card.

On 13 November 1986, despite what the Liberals have been saying in this place about the Australia Card, despite what the National Party has been saying about the introduction of the Australia Card, the Advertiser in Adelaide reported Mr Trevor Griffin, the Liberal shadow Attorney-General in South Australia-and a very close colleague of Senator Messner-as saying that identification cards with a photograph should be introduced as a means of preventing under age drinking in Australia. One of Senator Messner's very close comrades said that an ID card should be introduced as a means of preventing under age drinking in Australia. These sorts of statements show that the Opposition is prepared to sacrifice any sort of principle for short term political advantage. In South Australia the Liberals want identification cards to hit under age drinking, but when it comes to hitting tax cheats in Canberra, they will not have a bar of it.

Once again the Australian Democrats will vote against legislation aimed at stamping out tax evasion. In 1983 the Democrats blocked the retrospective elements of the Hawke Government's bottom of the harbour tax legislation. This action cost the Government $570m in lost revenue. On that occasion Senator Haines and Senator Macklin, who are still members of the Senate, were the culprits. But that figure of $570m is very small indeed compared with the loss of $880m a year as a result of the blocking of the Australia Card legislation in the Senate last December. The Australian Democrats told the Australian people that they should be elected to the Parliament to keep the bastards honest, but when it comes to cracking down on tax cheats they will not keep the bastards honest.

There are no practical alternatives which offer the same level of integrity or cost efficiency in cracking down on tax cheating as does the Australia Card. Tax evasion still imposes severe constraints on government spending programs. We cannot tolerate a situation where the Government is losing billions of dollars a year through tax evasion. Unfortunately, tax evasion has become entrenched in the psyche of significant sections of the community. It is clear that tax evaders will not be deterred by exhortation alone. Practical measures, such as the Australia Card, are essential if all Australians are to pay their fair share of tax. The Australia Card is long overdue. It is a vital weapon against tax cheating and welfare fraud. It will make the taxation system fairer for ordinary Australians. Mr Howard and the Liberals will not introduce a fairer taxation system. They want a return to the golden age of conservatism when income tax was voluntary for the privileged in the community.