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Wednesday, 28 February 2007
Page: 123


Senator BRANDIS (Minister for the Arts and Sport) (6:10 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

I have great pleasure in introducing the Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007.

As its name makes clear, this Bill is about providing a better, simpler and more secure way of delivering health and social services and payments to the Australian people.

The Australian Government provides over $100 billion dollars worth of taxpayers’ money each year in health and social services and payments. Australian taxpayers have a right to expect that their money is spent in a way that ensures that only those individuals who are entitled to benefits receive them - and that individuals only receive what they are entitled to.

The Bill that I am introducing today will provide Australians with an upgraded Medicare card.  This card will replace up to 16 other cards and vouchers and will make dealing with Government easier, faster and less complex. 

This Bill is the first part of the legislative package to establish the framework to support the upgraded Medicare card - or access card.  It will put some certainty around some of the issues that are of most interest to the community.

Later legislation will deal with the review and appeal processes for administrative decisions, further elements of information protection and legislative issues relating to the use of the card, including in relation to dependants.

In particular, this Bill incorporates many of the recommendations that were made by the Access Card Consumer and Privacy Taskforce, led by Professor Allan Fels AO. 

The Government has, and will continue to adopt, a highly consultative approach in developing and implementing the access card and associated legislation.  To date:

  • the independent Consumer and Privacy Taskforce has undertaken over 160 consultations and has received more than 100 submissions;
  • the access card website has received over 500 email comments from members of the public;
  • an access card information hotline has received over 1800 calls; and
  • there have been ongoing briefings to stakeholder groups and the media.

As part of the commitment to involve the public in this process the Government released an exposure draft of the Bill for public comment on 13 December 2006.  More than 120 submissions were received from non-government organisations and individuals, as well as from state, territory and federal government departments and agencies in response to the exposure draft.  Every one of these submissions has been considered.  Appropriate suggestions from the submissions have now been included in this Bill.

Many of the comments received on the exposure draft related to matters that are proposed for subsequent legislation.  Consultations are continuing on a range of these issues, such as the use of the card in dealing with dependants.  The Consumer and Privacy Taskforce has been asked to continue its consultations and provide advice on a range of these issues, including in relation to appeal mechanisms.

This Bill introduces a transformational change to the delivery of Commonwealth benefits. It proposes an evolution in Australia’s health and social services system. The changes proposed in this Bill will take this system from the technology stone age to a modern, simpler and more secure way of delivering health and social services.

The scaremongers will say the access card is an ID card. It is not a national identity card.  And it is not the Australia Card that Labor introduced in 1986.  Under the Australia Card Bill, you could not conduct your normal affairs without having to produce your card. You could not open a bank account, buy a house or get a job without producing your Australia Card. You could not withdraw money from your savings account, send money overseas or buy shares without producing your Australia Card.  Labor’s Australia Card was a true national identity card and was rightly rejected by the Australian people.

The access card established by this Bill has none of these features and has limited uses which are clearly circumscribed by the Bill. The card:

  • will not be a national identity card;
  • will not be compulsory for every Australian;
  • will not be an electronic health record;
  • will not record your financial details;
  • will not be required to be carried at all times;
  • will not be required to transact normal everyday business;
  • will not be required to be shown to anyone other than for the provision of health and social services benefits provided by the Australian Government and to confirm concession status.

What is being proposed in this Bill keeps Australia aligned with developments in the rest of the world, where service delivery, using smart card technology, is being used to improve the convenient, secure and efficient delivery of services to citizens and, importantly, to reduce fraud.

Over the next 10 years this Government will be distributing almost a trillion dollars in health and social services benefits. That significant sum of money provides enormous risks for - to put it simply - Australian taxpayers to be ‘ripped off’.  KPMG has estimated that the Government will save $3 billion dollars over the next ten years by introducing this upgraded chip-based Medicare card.

Leading-edge smart card technology will be used in the access card. The current technology, including cardboard cards and simple plastic cards, is outdated and has proven highly vulnerable to improper copying in a way which exposes the system to fraud.  Better and more advanced technologies are now available that can replace and improve the 23-year-old technology that our Medicare cards are built on.

Medicare cards were introduced almost a quarter of a century ago.  Back then, cars did not have safety and security features like air bags or engine locking systems.  We upgrade our cars to make full use of modern security features to protect ourselves and our families.  We should now be doing the same with our Medicare cards.

The Medicare card is cheap and easy to fraudulently copy.  Recently the Australian Federal Police estimated that Medicare cards are involved in some way in more than 50 percent of identity fraud cases.  In a recent speech to a Counter Terrorism Summit, the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, estimated that identity fraud costs Australians anywhere between $1 billion and $4 billion annually.

To give just a few recent examples:

  • A doctor in Queensland used 21 stolen identities involving Medicare cards to obtain 19,650 narcotic medicines worth over $2 million. 
  • In a recent case, a Centrelink customer had meticulously created false identities for 18 non-existent children. The customer had used fraudulent birth verification forms and forged letters to falsely claim benefits for nine sets of twins worth $623,000 in taxpayer funds.

In each of these cases a false identity was created.

With the new access card, the registration process for the card will require people to provide robust proof of their identity through substantially improved procedures. 

Unlike the current arrangements, the new system will detect people trying to register under two identities.  We will be able to catch fraudsters before it costs Australian taxpayers large, unrecoverable amounts of money.

While this Bill may be opposed by some on the other side of politics - the “friends of fraud” - it will respond to the concerns of hard working Australians who are sick of people cheating the system and getting away with it. 

Apart from the clear benefits the card will provide in combating fraud, it will also play a significant role in streamlining the current cumbersome and time consuming system for delivering health and social services benefits.

  • It is estimated that around 580,000 people each year make a trip into a Centrelink office and join a queue—only to find they must go home to find the right documents and start again every time they want to apply for a new type of benefit;
  • There are multiple registration points with some people having to provide the same information to different agencies and often having to provide the same proof of identity information to the same agency if they want a different service;
  • Each year some 50,000 letters are sent to individuals who have incorrectly filled out their name and/or address on their Medicare claim form.

The new access card will mean that consumers will only need to register once for a service and only notify participating agencies once of changes in circumstances, such as change of address.  The services include those now provided by or through the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs and Human Services (including the Child Support Agency and CRS Australia), Medicare Australia, Centrelink, Australian Hearing Services and Health Services Australia.

The measures in this Bill will reduce time spent filling out forms and waiting in queues and will provide customers with greater options to access their benefits. The new card may well represent the most significant reduction in red tape for individuals that Australia has seen.

One of the many benefits of the new access card is that it will be able to be used for emergency payments in situations such as occurred in March last year in Innisfail after Cyclone Larry left the town isolated and without electricity. Centrelink officers were required to work innovatively with banks and their customers to ensure people had ready access to money to buy food and other essential items.  The new access card will make it easier to assist people in such emergency situations as it will enable them to use their new card to access government assistance immediately.

Some opponents of the access card have argued that the register that will be established under this Bill will be a centralised mega database.  The register will not be amalgamated with the databases of existing participating agencies. It will be established separately from participating agency databases and will not contain medical or health information. It will not contain transactional records.  Detailed customer records will continue to be held separately by Centrelink, Medicare Australia, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and other participating agencies.

As to the card itself, it will only have limited information on display - less than all State and Territory driver’s licences do now.  The Bill provides that the only mandatory information on the card will be a photo of the card owner, the owner’s name, his or her digitised signature and the card’s expiry date and number.  A future Government will not be able to require any further details to be added to the surface of the card without full debate in this Parliament and an amendment to the legislation.

This is probably the first time that a card issued by the Government will be owned by the card holder. This gives greater choice to individuals about how they use the card other than for health and social services purposes. The card belongs to the card owner and he or she can use the card for whatever lawful purpose he or she chooses.

The Bill sets out a number of offences to protect the card and card owners.

There has been some concern expressed about the possibility that businesses would be able to demand the production of the card as a form of identity. This Bill creates new offences with significant penalties to ensure that this does not occur.  The Bill makes it an offence, punishable by a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment or $55,000 (or both) for any person - and up to $275,000 for a company - that requires a card owner to produce their card for any purpose except for the provision of Commonwealth health and social services benefits or to verify concessional status.

Similarly it will be an offence, punishable by a maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment or $13,200 (or both), for a person to make a copy of, or divulge, a card owner’s  photograph, signature or card number unless it is for the limited purposes of the Act or with the owner’s consent.  That amounts to up to $66,000 for a company that commits this offence.

The measures in this Bill will substantially reduce the opportunity to set up false identities; reduce fraudulent claims for benefits from Centrelink; reduce claims for Medicare and pharmaceutical concessions and the safety net based on inaccurate concession information; and prevent a person using someone else’s card to claim an entitlement.

This is significant and necessary legislation that will ensure future generations will be able to have access to a generous health and social services system.

The only people who will be opposed to the measures in this Bill will be the vocal minority who take a blinkered view of the world and who will oppose any reasonable measure to stop people ripping off the system. These “friends of fraud” do not represent the silent majority of Australians who expect their Government to act on their behalf to ensure that their taxes only go to help those who truly need assistance.

Ordered that further consideration of the second reading of this bill be adjourned to the first day of the next period of sittings, in accordance with standing order 111.