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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 1763

Senator WATSON(5.51) —Let me continue my contribution to this debate with the following quotation:

There are cheaper and more effective ways of coping with the problem that arises from tax evasion and tax avoidance.

These were the words of Frank Costigan, QC, who is probably this country's foremost authority on organised crime. He made this comment when referring to the Hawke Government's proposal to introduce a national identity card. Other groups that have not endorsed the identity card proposal include the Department of Social Security, the Australian Federal Police, the Law Society of New South Wales, emeritus Professor Martyn Webb of the University of Western Australia, and the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, to name but a few. The Joint Committees of Public Accounts, which I remind the Senate is an all party committee and which in fact it has a majority of Australian Labor Party members on it, examined the social security fraud matter something like two years ago. In its conclusions the Committee actually dismissed the idea of an identity card as being able to rectify the problems in the area of fraud in an efficient way, and said that another or alternative approach would be much more desirable. I remind the Senate that this was the Joint Committee of Public Accounts, the largest committee of the Parliament, and a committee that is most concerned about fraud maximising revenue from illegitimate sources. In fact the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card also recognised that such an ID card was not necessary. Even if we go across the waters to the United States of America, we find that studies on the imposition of a national identity card concluded with the comment that:

Organised crime would take advantage of any national identity system because of the presumption of validity surrounding such a system.

Now, faced with two parliamentary reports, faced with comments from distinguished lawyers investigating organised crime, such as Frank Costigan and Douglas Meagher, QC, and faced even with disunity within its own ranks and severe criticism from the national and State Council of Civil Liberties, faced with I think overwhelming national opposition to an identity card, faced with reports from overseas countries rejecting national identification card systems and faced with the plain and simple fact that it is actually wrong, the Hawke Government nevertheless continues to ignore this chamber's previous decision not to put this foolish and ill-considered proposal into the statute books.

I think it is unfortunate that we are pursuing this legislation in the knowledge that even if it does pass, there are going to be amendments in the future. At one stage the Government was prepared to bring in an amended Bill to recognise many of the shortcomings of a Bill which has already passed the House of Representatives and a Bill which the Government hopes to pass in the Senate. A number of bodies will be affected by this proposed identity card legislation and the Government has not taken their advice. In time it will be forced to recognise some of the unintended consequences of this Bill and it will be forced to put before this House, if the Bill passes, amending legislation. I believe that we have enough examples of ill-considered legislation passing through this chamber, and shortly after having to be substantially amended. I submit that if this Bill passes the Senate it will be required to undergo further massive amendment to avoid, as we have so often found with legislation introduced by this Hawke Government, its unintended consequences.

I hope that you, Mr Acting Deputy President, are not one of the Fabian elements in the Australian Labor Party because I think this Bill is an insidious example of perhaps this Fabian element actually tightening its grip and forcing out the moderates to what I believe is to the great long term-not the short term-detriment of the Labor Party. I believe there are very few in favour of this identity card system, except this present Federal Government which is really so keen to try to stoke up the furnaces of a burgeoning bureaucracy and which has very little interest in the protection and privacy of ordinary individuals.

The Hawke Government has put forward what we call this insidious identification card system, which is euphemistically named the Australia Card and which is coloured green and gold, our national colours. If ever there was manipulation of patriotism, the naming and the colouring of this card must take the cake. We are all justifiably proud of the colours green and gold when our athletes go to the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games. We find that these colours have been insidiously selected and therefore our patriotism has effectively been manipulated by this Government by the colouring and the naming of this card.

The fact of the matter remains that the identification card will unfortunately not be a foolproof method for establishing identity, for the following reasons: Guidelines established for the issue of cards will not stop the creation of false identities. I believe this to be one of the great weaknesses of the card, apart from a number of onerous impositions that it places on people, organisations and businesses. In order to be listed on the Australia Card Register an individual must produce at least one of the following sound documents as proof of identity: An original birth certificate, a passport, a marriage certificate, a citizenship certificate or apprenticeship papers. We are really getting down the line with apprenticeship papers. Honourable senators can therefore well understand that the value to be placed on such documentation-on any one of these-depends on one or more people telling the truth. It is as simple as that. It would not be an extraordinary obstacle for someone wishing to establish a false identity to obtain, for argument's sake, another person's birth certificate or apprenticeship papers. In some cases the provision of personal details, such as name, year of birth and parents' names, together with reasonable explanations for requiring it, will obtain another person's birth certificate. Having presented such fraudulently acquired documentation, an application for an Australia Card can therefore be made. The Government's claim that the photograph, signature and digitalised strip will make the card hard to forge, has no bearing on the fact that the card can be obtained in the first instance on the basis of fraudulent information. I believe that this is one of the weaknesses. Having obtained the card in such a manner, in such fraudulent circumstances, the individual would be in possession of what then can be regarded as proof of his or her identity. In such cases the Australia Card will really legitimise the illegitimate, given that it will be the public expectation that these cards will provide guaranteed proof of identity.

The provision under clause 36 of the Bill for the use of certificates of identity as substitutes for the card also opens avenues for fraudulent representation of identities. The use of such a certificate will mean that a piece of paper, which does not have the security devices of the card and which shows only what purports to be a particular person's signature, may be used for identification purposes. As can well be imagined, the possibilities of producing forgeries under these circumstances will be great, and their existence will greatly undermine the alleged value of the identity card in providing sound proof of identity.

The visitor ID card is another area where false identification may occur under the system, and I think this is one of the shortfalls. As a number of my colleagues will obviously be aware, the identity cards will be issued to anyone entering the country for a period in excess of six weeks. As photographs and relevant information are not to be obtained at the point of arrival, certain risks of falsification are inherent in such a process. There is no obligation to return a visitor's ID card on leaving the country. I believe that a scenario which could quite easily be imagined even at this time is that a person, having visited Australia and obtained a visitors identification card, could easily hand it to a friend of similar appearance, who then enters the country under a false identity. Despite the Government's stringent claims of the soundness of the card, the creation of false identities will be quite possible. Given that the aim of the legislation is to establish an accurate national system of identification, the many opportunities that really exist for falsification of identity greatly undermine the whole foundation on which this legislation before us rests today.

Let us now look at some of the costs which will be involved. They simply do not equate to the supposed benefits which will flow from it. As we said before, there are cheaper and more effective solutions to dealing with the problems of tax avoidance, social welfare fraud and illegal immigration which the identification card legislation purports to answer. The problem is that this Hawke Government refuses these alternatives in its rush to implement a policy that presents the very real possibilities of the invasion of the privacy of all Australians.

What about the cost to government of the Australia Card proposals? The original estimate was put at $1,046m over 10 years. This figure was quickly revised downwards to $733m. Whatever figure we are to accept is nearer the mark, it must be remembered that cost estimates have an uncanny tendency to blow out. My colleagues who have attended Estimates committee meetings this week would be well aware of this, as would anybody who has looked at a government proposal involving a major capital acquisition. The Government's Australia Card proposal would involve the employment of in excess of 2,150 new public servants. I wonder how this really fits in with Prime Minister Hawke's pledge this week to slash spending in 1987-88 to demonstrate his Government's commitment to fiscal restraint. Existing Medicare branch offices will have to be upgraded and 42 new offices will have to be opened. All this is being done, I suppose, in the name of fiscal restraint. I believe this notion fits rather uneasily.

Many costs have been omitted from the Government's estimates. There has been no allowance for the replacement in this time frame of capital equipment, and no costs are included for private sector compliance. We now have a private sector that is already reeling under the heavy burden of taxation which this Government has forced upon it. As we see from the bankruptcy and solvency figures, many businesses are already going to the wall and many others are operating under very marginal conditions at the moment. All these additional costs could well prove to be the straw that broke the camel's back for many of these businesses that are finding it difficult at the moment. Yet we are still asked to accept this proposal as a solution to the many economic woes which have been brought upon the Australian people by this Hawke Government.

Let us look at some of the benefits. As the costs of implementation of the scheme are a matter for some dispute, so too are many of the alleged benefits. Most of the expected revenue is to be gained from tightening up on tax evasion. However, if we further examine this, revenue estimates relating to the expected gains from the implementation of the Australia Card received from the Australian Taxation Office are highly questionable. It has been revealed that these estimates were made on a qualitative assessment of how tax evaders operate. On this premise I ask therefore: Is this a sound foundation upon which to base our estimates? The answer must surely be no.

Instead of wasting valuable resources on bringing the Australia Card into operation, the Government should be taking up some of the recommendations of the report of the Costigan Royal Commission on the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union and the report of the Senate Select Committee on an Australia Card. Having set up this expensive Committee, the Government should be taking up its very important recommendations. I will refer to some of them. There should be greater communication between banks and relevant law enforcement agencies about suspected fraudulent activity and more efficient use of the wealth of information that the Tax Office already has in its possession. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure has already drawn attention to a lot of techniques that are not being used in order to maximise collections in a number of areas, including failure to check on group certificates.

A third recommendation was the introduction of up to date technology designed to counter tax evasion. The 1984 report of the Auditor-General stated that the Australian Taxation Office had failed to take advantage of technological advances available to it in minimising tax evasion. In other words, the Auditor-General has acknowledged that the Tax Office is not using all the avenues within its power or taking advantage of all the technological resources to ensure that maximum collections are made, particularly from those people who are trying to minimise or evade their tax obligations. There should be stricter rules for identification when opening bank accounts.

All these are very positive measures which could be introduced without the need to implement the Australia Card, with all its attendant buildup in bureaucracy, huge expenditure and civil liberty issues. Similarly, the tightening up of the identification requirements and information update strategies in the Department of Social Security and the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs would significantly enhance their ability to cut down welfare fraud. Let us look at the current situation. The Department of Social Security relies on birth certificate extracts, which may be easily obtained by fraudulent means, or in some cases documents such as drivers licences. Must we go from this extreme to the other of issuing every Australian with an identity card to solve these problems? I hope not.

Let us look at another problem. There is no guarantee that the identity card uses which are presently mentioned in this Bill will not be extended. In this identity card legislation I believe we are faced with little more than a wolf in sheep's clothing, something like the Fabian attitude to things. We have nothing more than this Government's doubtful assurances that the Bill's provisions will not be extended. We can remember many of the election promises of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and his subsequent disregard of them. I remind the Senate, for example, of the attitude to capital gains tax and the Prime Minister's disregard for many such assurances.

When faced with this identification legislation many people will doubt the Prime Minister's assurances in this area, too. We could yet see another slick performance which is designed to manipulate public opinion of what is in the best interests of the Prime Minister or the Labor Party. In one of the earliest documents on the Australia Card, the Government was issued a warning by the Health Insurance Commission that many Australians would reject the concept of an identify card. A number of my colleagues have quoted from the Health Insurance Commission's statement and it is important. It says:

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

This advice came from the Health Insurance Commission. Is this legislation at hand the first instalment of a scheme by this Hawke Government to introduce a general purpose national identification system?

Senator Gareth Evans —No.

Senator WATSON —I thank the honourable senator for his assurances. We might hold him to them in a short time. But that is not much use to use. We held the Prime Minister to his assurances that he would not introduce capital gains legislation, but he was not in office very long before this concept of a capital gains tax was introduced. In fact, I remind Senator Evans, as he has interjected, that this capital gains tax is the highest capital gains tax in the world so far as the disposition of a right is concerned, because it taxes us at the maximum marginal rate without any off-set for cost and an inflation adjustment. Despite the honourable senator's assurance that he will not extend this identification card system and the numerals on it to get additional information, one could be forgiven for thinking that he will not be right on this occasion because once this card is implemented the chances of it being extended are very real.

In 1976, as a response to the growing discontent of the Swedish people with regard to their national identification card, what did the Swedish Government do? It investigated the abolition of the personal identity system but found that the cost was too high. In other words, there was some dissatisfaction even in that advanced democracy of Sweden. This identity card will have 50 separate items of information on every man, woman and child in Australia. Before the Bill was passed like a hot potato from the Attorney-General (Mr Lionel Bowen) to the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) it was proposed that 17 authorities would have access to the databanks. Now Dr Blewett has temporarily got this number down to only four. I emphasise that he has temporarily got this number down because, despite the assurances from across the road, it can be-and I believe it will be-easily extended to a greater number or the original 17 or even more than that. As I said, this number could be increased by the stroke of a pen.

We believe that Australia is still a democratic society and in such a free society people should scrutinise the Government-not the Government scrutinising the people. I therefore submit that there is very little in favour of the Bill. It has been acknowledged that five Ministers in the Hawke Government and many of the Labor back benchers oppose the Bill but were forced into line by the rules of Caucus and solidarity. No other Commonwealth country has a similar compulsory national identification system. Those of course are democratic countries, but countries such as Albania, the Soviet Union and East Germany have these sorts of restrictions on personal liberties. The card will be enormously costly. It will be insidious and, despite its proposed name, will be most unAustralian. It is nothing more than a system of computerised surveillance of the Australian people. As such, I believe it should be deplored and soundly rejected again by this Senate.