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Transcript of joint press conference with the Hon Philip Ruddock MP and the Hon Joe Hockey MP: Parliament House, Canberra: 26 April 2006: Beaconsfield Gold mine; access card; Solomon Islands.\n\n



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PRIME MINISTER

26 April 2006

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL, THE HON PHILIP RUDDOCK MP AND

THE MINISTER FOR HUMAN SERVICES, THE HON JOE HOCKEY MP, PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Subjects: Beaconsfield Gold mine, access card; Solomon Islands

E&OE………………………………………………………………………………………..

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen, before I say something about matters touching on the portfolios of the two Ministers with me, I would like to express the anxiety of the nation for the three miners for whom grave fears are held at the Beaconsfield mine near Launceston in Tasmania. We can only hope and pray that they are recovered in good health. It is obviously a very distressful situation and we can only begin to imagine the trauma and anxiety of those close to them.

The Cabinet today has had a lengthy discussion of the issues of a national identity card and the introduction of what is colloquially called a smart card or an access card for health and welfare services. You will remember that after the attack in London in July of last year, I indicated that we ought to look again at the question of a national identity card. We have done so and we have decided not to proceed with the introduction of a compulsory national identity card.

We are, however, very committed to the introduction of an access card for health and welfare services, which will replace 17 existing cards. The savings will, on a conservative advice from our consultants KPMG, amount to something in the order of some $3 billion a year.* The savings will be significant in relation to fraud.

The new card, and there will be further details announced in the near future, the card will have some enhanced security features. It will contain a biometric photograph on the front. It will not contain fingerprints as another means of identification. It will be necessary for everybody who needs the card to apply for one and it will not be compulsory to have the card, but by the same token, it will not be possible to access many services which are normally accessed by people unless one is in possession of the card.

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I would expect that the introduction of this card will be very widely supported in the community. I did raise the matter with the Premiers at the most recent meeting and there seemed to be a general consent from them that this would be a good idea to be introduced on a national basis rather than allow the higgledy-piggledy introduction of these cards at a state level. I would like to thank KPMG for their work in relation to this.

I think the outcome is a very good one because the card will save a lot of money by eliminating, not eliminating, but significantly reducing fraud. I don’t think you ever completely eliminate fraud in these areas. And it will also have some enhanced identity security features which will of itself be of enormous value. There’s always a balance to be struck in these things between on the one hand having as much ease of access as possible and enhanced identity security against, on the other hand, the legitimate concern people have about the storage of information about them in one central location. We have sought to strike the balance. There’s no model around the world that immediately hits us in the face as being the perfect answer to this and we have looked around the world and there is no perfect system. And after a very good discussion I think we have struck a good balance.

The experts on the two issues, on the whole issue rather, namely the Attorney-General and the Minister for Human Services are with me and it may well be that they want to add something to what I have said and if there are any particularly difficult questions on the technical aspects of these matters I will certainly direct those questions towards those two ministers. Philip? Joe?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:

Well, I wouldn’t want to say other than that we have had a full and complete discussion of the range of issues. These are not simple issues. They require developing a balanced approach which weighs up all of the issues and in terms of the advice that was given to us the appropriate balance is that which we have struck.

We do have a national identity fraud strategy in place. I have made announcements about that before and some of you will be familiar with it. This set of announcements made by the Prime Minister today reflect the ongoing work that we have been doing and will be within the parameters to better ensure that people’s identities are secure and it will give our agencies who need to be able to make appropriate enquiries within the framework in which data sharing is possible a proper capacity and an enhanced capacity to be able to do their work.

PRIME MINISTER:

Mr Hockey.

MINISTER HOCKEY:

Well, the access card will provide significant red tape relief for individuals and families simply by being a reliable proof of identity and every time someone goes into a Medicare office or a Centrelink office they have to re-prove who they are. And certainly Medicare alone sends out 50,000 letters a year to people who have not correctly filled out their name and address on a Medicare claim form. That’s an example of the red tape that we have to go through with claims at the moment.

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The access card is not new technology; it’s in common usage around the world. Putting a smart chip into the card is not new technology, the banking system is doing it, the Queensland Government are introducing smart driver’s licences from the beginning of 2008. And the benefits to everyone who has to claim health or welfare services is significant. It’s also the case that if you don’t want to use the card to visit a doctor, you don’t have to, you can just pay for it yourself. You only need to use the card if you are claiming a taxpayer benefit. And that’s the difference.

JOURNALIST:

The extra security features Mr Howard that you referred to, is that just the photo that you mentioned or are there more beyond what you have canvassed?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s essentially the photograph but the fact that people have to, I mean of itself, the fact that you have got to apply again, you have got to prove who you are, I think that will sort a few people out.

JOURNALIST:

Will it include your address in one way or another?

MINISTER HOCKEY:

Look, yes. The fact is on the front of the card you have a name and a photo and in the chip you’ll have an address and date of birth. So it’s actually on presentation, it can’t be used to go into a pub. All it will say is, that this is John Citizen and this is John Citizen’s photo. It won’t have any of the details on the front of the card that a driver’s licence has, for example. But in the chip there will be, and the chips will have designated…

JOURNALIST:

And in the chip, are the details like those for instance that you have in your passport like, you know, height, weight?

MINISTER HOCKEY:

No.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Hockey, first of all how much will it cost and, secondly, will there be one card per family or would you have to have both parents on the card plus all the children?

MINISTER HOCKEY:

Well, there are details still to be worked out. We have got to finalise the applications and finalise the technology and we’ll talk about those details at a later date.

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JOURNALIST:

What about the money?

MINISTER HOCKEY:

That obviously has an impact on the money.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister what was the argument that won the day in terms of deciding not to go down the path of adopting a national ID card?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t think there was a predisposition to adopt an ID card. What happened in this case was that I having said, and the Government having said, we ought to look at it again in the wake of the London bombing, in the spirit of saying that whenever something dramatic like that happens you have got to look again at certain things. But it was always a situation where the added advantages of an ID card were outweighed by the disadvantages and I think in the end the Cabinet was satisfied that the access card that has all of the things that Mr Hockey has spoken of and have been talked about, but it also precisely because it is a systematic reorganisation of a system that involved a whole lot of cards. It has a biometric photograph, it does require people to reapply, I mean, it stands to reason that if you have to go through that procedure the card itself will have high identity security integrity. I mean, it’s all very well to say well it doesn’t prove this, it doesn’t prove that, but the fact that you have got to go through that process means that in the overwhelming majority of cases it is more than prima facie evidence that the person who holds the card is, in fact, the person referred to on the card.

JOURNALIST:

Will the police and other security organisations be able to have access to the data contained within the card?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:

Well, these issue are matters that are dealt with by law now under what is called data matching. And security agencies, of course, are able to get access to data for the purposes of carrying out their task of protecting our national security. And police, for investigations, are able to access a whole range of data for that purpose. Data matching is regulated in accordance with arrangements that ensure that you don’t bring all information together in one source and the Privacy Commissioner plays an important role in oversighting those arrangements. The arrangements that we are putting in place here in no way revisits those arrangements, they simply maintain the range of access that is lawfully possible now and puts limitations in the same way that the law presently puts in place to protect people’s privacy.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think it will make the task of the security organisations in fighting the war on terror easier, more efficient?

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ATTORNEY-GENERAL:

Well, the security agencies and police recognise that no system of identification is foolproof and is going to provide protection of itself. It’s a question of whether or not enhancements improve their capacity to be able to undertake investigations and find culprits and to deal with matters when there has been some dreadful incident. And what we are dealing with here are enhancements that are able to help in that task. I mean, a digitalised photograph gives you a better opportunity of knowing who it is you are dealing with than you have now otherwise you wouldn’t be going through the task of developing an access card which is robust in identification. So it has that enhancement. You could add to it by a variety of means. What you would add would give you some additional benefits but the view that we took on balance is that the benefits we obtain through what we are doing are appropriate, are a response that the Australian community would be prepared to wear and anything further is a matter that we are ruling out.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you mentioned the estimate of the savings, $3 billion annually. What was the estimate from KPMG on the cost of the card?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t know that the cost of the, the estimate of the cost is really one in the end that has got to be done by the Department of Finance. But I mean it’s going to cost, I’d be surprised if you had any change out of a billion dollars over a period of four years through its introduction. I’d be most surprised.

JOURNALIST:

And how many cards are likely to be issued, Prime Minister, I mean given the existing card base, what is your expectation of what proportion of the population is going to be covered by this?

PRIME MINISTER:

What do you reckon Joe?

MINISTER HOCKEY:

Can I tell you that there are 11.5 million Medicare cards at the moment. Half a million go missing each year - half a million go missing each year. And the fundamental point that Philip mentioned, the Attorney mentioned about photos, you need a photo now to rent a car, you need photo ID to hire a video in many places, you need photo ID to come into Parliament House. But you can get a $12,000 a year pension for life and not have to present as robust an identification.

JOURNALIST:

You’re not going to kill anybody with a pension.

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MINISTER HOCKEY:

No, but its taxpayers’ money. And if you’re claiming taxpayers’ money from any source, I think it’s understandable that you have to be able to prove who you are.

JOURNALIST:

But this is essentially going to be a card that everybody will end up, or either…

MINISTER HOCKEY:

Not everyone. No, not everyone actually has a Medicare Card.

PRIME MINISTER:

I would imagine a lot of, well a number of younger people who feel immortal and permanently healthy and so forth will not think any of this is necessary. Now there are some such people. I know a few myself.

JOURNALIST:

Given the enhanced security measures you talked about, does this provide a framework for you to later perhaps revisit a national ID card?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it’s not designed to do that. I mean this is not, how shall I put it, a Trojan horse for an ID card. But I’m not denying for a moment that it will have enhanced identity security features and that’s one of the reasons that has kept us in the direction of going down this path. But you have got to remember that the fundamental features of a national ID card, as I understand it, is that firstly it’s compulsory and secondly you’ve got to basically carry it with you all the time. Now you’ve got to carry it with you to the pictures, the movies, to the beach, to the cricket, to the pub whereas you don’t have to carry this card anywhere.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:

And you won’t be required to produce it.

PRIME MINISTER:

And you wont be required to produce it, so even with all of the, you know, enhanced security features and you would have a situation where even if some features were added to it in the future, it wouldn’t alter its fundamental character.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, did you form the view in the end that a national ID card would, in a sense, go against the ethos of Australia and the country we live in? That would have been too much of sort of Big Brother coming in to play?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well that was a factor. I mean I deliberately put it back on the agenda because I think it’s always important to recontest assumptions in relation to things like this when there’s been a change in the whole paradigm in which we’re operating. That has happened. Twenty years ago when the Australia Card was knocked over, we didn’t know of Osama bin Laden, we hadn’t had the 11th of September and we didn’t live in such a globalised world economy. Everything has changed so much. But I think what we’ve done now is to reach a very good balance between the enormous advantages of this access card, I mean there are huge advantages with its enhanced features without the, I suppose, what some people would still see as the Orwellian dimension of a compulsory national identity card.

JOURNALIST:

But there seem to be somewhat mixed messages here Mr Howard because on the one hand you’re…

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m always being accused of that.

JOURNALIST:

On the one hand you’re saying it won’t cover the whole population, Joe Hockey’s emphasising that it’s just a card about health and welfare and pensions.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, when I say it won’t cover the whole, no it won’t in the sense that not everybody will need it. But I don’t think any of us are saying that we don’t expect that in the end most people will want to have it.

JOURNALIST:

But on the other hand, surely if you’re going to have a card that is useful in fighting terrorism, it would have to be comprehensive. So what is your main message here?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, what I am saying is the fact that you will have a card which the great bulk of the population in their own interests will have, and the fact that that card will have enhanced identity security features must mean as a matter of logic that that improves our capacity to deal with bad people.

JOURNALIST:

But surely the bad people wouldn’t apply?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh no, you’d be surprised. Well you know, I think I can say without fear of being in trouble with the trial court that some of the people who have been charged with certain offences; now

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I’m not saying they are bad people, but they are in receipt of extensive social security benefits.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you mentioned that you’d discussed this with the state premiers.

PRIME MINISTER:

Not recently, a few weeks ago.

JOURNALIST:

But is there some possibility that over time, in the interest of course of reducing red tape, that the states could also use this same card for their facilities, either driver’s licences or…

MINISTER HOCKEY:

New South Wales, the states, thanks for that, the states rely heavily on Commonwealth pensioner concession cards and health cards to provide benefits such as rental assistance discounts, electricity and a range of other things. I saw one estimate alone of welfare-based fraud in New South Wales being well over $100 million a year because of unreliable use of pensioner concession cards. The thing is the pensioner card, for example, there will be say single parents who are on a pension who when their youngest child turns a certain age, they are no longer entitled to that pension. However, something like 25 per cent of the cards, pensioner concession cards, may be used out there well after the entitlement is finished. Now if you take the PBS, 80 per cent of the PBS goes to pension concession card holders. If you applied that same algorithm you would soon discover that the potential fraud in the PBS is very significant. So the states will be massive winners out of this. As the Prime Minister mentioned earlier on the rail gauge issue, there has been a risk that the states would have one rail gauge for their smartcard technology, the private sector would have another rail gauge and we’d end up with the same problem. We actually have been in discussions with the states, extensive discussions, and everyone has been committed to a single rail gauge, which is really important from a technology perspective for Australia.

JOURNALIST:

How difficult would it be to counterfeit the cards?

MINISTER HOCKEY:

Well given that you can buy false driver’s licences on the internet now, it will be a substantial, a very substantial security improvement on any existing arrangements. For example, of the 17 cards we’re abolishing, most of them are cardboard cards. So that’s your starting point.

JOURNALIST:

On the PBS, will the card include information about the drugs that people have had put on to the PBS system?

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MINISTER HOCKEY:

No, the card has limited capacity in the chip. There’ll be a whole lot of voluntary fields for individuals. So for an example an individual might want to have emergency details, they might have a particular virus or a disease or something, and they want to have emergency details that can be read only by ambulances and emergency workers. That provision is there. You know the card has a number of fields and if people want to use it for a whole range of different services they can, but there’s no compulsion.

JOURNALIST:

But how would they tell whether they reach the threshold on those sorts of things?

MINISTER HOCKEY:

There certainly will be the capacity to move from chemist to chemist in order to improve the entitlement to the PBS Safety Net and also the Medicare Safety Net.

JOURNALIST:

What’s to stop a business or other individuals scanning the chip and just accessing that information?

MINISTER HOCKEY:

The technology is well in advance of that sort activity.

JOURNALIST:

Do other organisations, ambulances, doctors offices, social security offices, all these different people can access it, so what’s to stop business then hacking into it?

MINISTER HOCKEY:

Because if you have an encryption on the reader you have the technological capacity to turn off the reader. So if the reader is stolen or it’s reported as misplaced or something, we have the capacity to turn it off remotely. You see hand held EFTPOS devices, I mean everyone’s been to a restaurant or somewhere with hand held devices, they have smart card technology in them, a lot of them already. They can be turned off, the readers can be turned off and the readers can also be encrypted to only access certain information.

PRIME MINISTER:

I knew there was a reason I brought him along.

JOURNALIST:

Now on the Solomon Islands.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

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JOURNALIST:

Has Australia been caught on the hop on developments there and where does Australia go from now?

PRIME MINISTER:

You’re referring to the resignation of the Prime Minister? No, no certainly not. We always knew as a result of the election and given that in effect in the Solomon Islands you don’t have an organised party system, it’s every man or woman for themselves, that any outcome is a possibility and that’s not something that we’re particularly surprised at. I don’t know who’s going to emerge as Prime Minister, but in a sense that’s not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to defend the integrity of the process and that is what we’re doing and quite clearly the situation has settled down. At our meeting a little while ago Mr Downer gave a report on his impressions of his visit to Honiara last weekend and I’m very pleased that he was able to go there. I can only repeat what I said last week that this is going to be a long haul. We have made a very big investment in a new policy approach to the Pacific, we changed policy very significantly about three years ago, the old hands off, laid back, let whatever happen, happen approach we changed and therefore we see ourselves as being involved there for a very long time in to the future. It’s in our interests that we do so.

JOURNALIST:

Are you concerned at the image Australian Federal Police and New Zealand Federal Police arresting members of parliament on the Solomon Islands?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think what it shows is that everybody’s accountable before the law and that’s a very sound democratic principle. I think we might call it, I think you’ve had plenty of news today haven’t you?

JOURNALIST:

Will the card hold the details of the bank accounts in to which the payments or Tax File Numbers…

MINISTER HOCKEY:

No, no, no doesn’t need to, no.

JOURNALIST:

PM will this be in the budget? Are you hoping this will be costed in the Budget, the smart card?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look don’t ask me questions about the contents of the Budget Mr Lewis, you know I can’t answer, say anything about the Budget.

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JOURNALIST:

When is it going to start though?

PRIME MINISTER:

The budget?

JOURNALIST:

No, no the smart card.

PRIME MINISTER:

The smart card, we’ll let Mr Hockey answer that to.

JOURNALIST:

Is it your intention to put it in the Budget Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

It’s a reasonable question to ask. Are you hoping to put it in the Budget?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, well look I think the Budget will contain what is appropriate to be put in Budgets and whatever is appropriate on this will be included.

Thank you.

*over 10 years

[ends]