Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 22 September 1987
Page: 496


Senator JENKINS(8.07) —Listening to this debate, what is obviously very clear is that everybody here is after the same goal. We all want to see the tax rorts and the welfare cheats done away with. Nobody would disagree that this is what must be done. The Special Minister of State, Senator Ryan, in her second reading speech introducing the Australia Card Bill 1986 [No. 3], said:

Honest Australians should not be subsidising those who are operating dishonestly within the tax and welfare systems. Honest Australians have a right to expect Government to protect the community as a whole from fraud and abuse against the tax and welfare systems. They have a right to expect that the Government ensures as best as it can that everyone contributes their fair and reasonable share of tax. They have a right to expect that welfare benefits are paid only to those who are truly entitled to those benefits.

I do not think that anybody in this chamber could possible disagree with those statements. So the question in hand is: How can we best achieve that? When the Australia Card was first thought up as a way to combat tax fraud and social welfare cheating in 1985, the Treasurer (Mr Keating) put out a White Paper which contained the germ of the idea. This was entitled `Reform of the Australian Taxation System'. But what has happened is that the idea has gone overboard, so to speak. We do not want to be a country like South Africa and in trying to have some controls cause imprisonment without trial. We do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. There is a very easy way to cure a headache; that is, to cut your head off. But I do not think anyone would suggest that that is the best cure for a headache.

There are many oddities in this Bill that I would like to discuss. The first oddity is that, if it comes to fruition, the Australia Card will be administered by the Department of Community Services and Health. That is typical of the rather muddled thinking that is being proceeded with in the attempt to achieve these goals. Once the idea of an identification card had been mooted, the Government agreed to the establishment of the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card to look at all the possibilities. The Committee had eight members, from both Houses and from all parties. The Committee examined 129 submissions and many witnesses and took a great deal of evidence, which was just about measured in tonnes. In May 1986 the Joint Select Committee reported to the Parliament. The Committee did not want the Australia Card, according to its majority report. On the evidence collected the majority said no. I remind honourable senators that the evidence included the Government's own 300-page submission, `Towards Fairness and Equity', as well as the Health Insurance Commission's final planning report. This report is rather like a telephone directory. It contains all the possible ways of administering an ID card, with some colour plates in it of what it might look like, with photograph, without photograph, adults, children, resident, visitor and so on. But the majority of the Committee still said no.

The majority consisted of Liberals James Porter and Senator Chris Puplick, National Party Charles Blunt, John Saunderson from the Australian Labor Party and Democrats Leader Senator Janine Haines. The majority represented all parties, including the Government's Party. Three members of the Committee, all ALP members, put in a dissenting minority report: Senator Terry Aulich, Bob Brown and John Brumby. The Committee, which said no to the ID card, did, however, make a number of recommendations. It recommended a computerised register of births and deaths which should be restricted to a few government departments, notably the Australian Taxation Office. The Committee recommended the establishment of a data protection agency to control the collection and use of personal data. Above all, it recommended that the Government introduce a series of measures, which are generally referred to as option B and which relate to ranking and taxation and an upgraded tax file number. This was felt by the Committee to be necessary to combat tax and social security fraud.

The Committee proposed that the use of the tax file number be extended to cover all the financial transactions proposed in the Government's submission for use of the Australia Card number by the Australian Taxation Office as well as for social security purposes. It is most unfortunate that Senator Ryan in her speech should describe this as the shoddy alternative. I do not think that a parliamentary select committee from both Houses should have its solution termed the shoddy alternative.

The Committee also decided that Medicare should continue as a separate entity with a separate numbering system. The problem here, as would be the problem with the proposed Australia Card, is one of low integrity documents. Birth certificates as issued now are low integrity documents. Even with option B, tax file numbers would have to be investigated over a period of years. But this could be done. The Committee's recommendation was that it should take about five years and that the Department of Social Security should progressively review proof of identity of all existing pension and unemployment benefit beneficiaries to bring them within the system of controls based on tax file numbers.

It is very important to note that at this stage the Committee had not seen the proposed legislation, the Australia Card Bill, as it stands now. It simply did not exist. The Government had the idea of the card and set up the Select Committee to look at the options. But then it ignored the Committee's recommendations and went ahead with the card anyway. The Bill was introduced into the other place. The Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) gave the second reading speech in October last year. The Bill was then defeated in this place. When it was defeated the second time, in December last year, it nominally became the trigger for the Federal election. But we all must admit that it really was not an issue during the election campaign. It was not a campaign issue at all. I would like to ask why the Government was so silent on the issue during the election campaign.


Senator Reynolds —The Prime Minister announced it.


Senator JENKINS —Yes, but as an election campaign issue it was not a hot issue, shall we say.


Senator Reynolds —Ask the Opposition why that was the case.


Senator JENKINS —The Opposition was also quiet, I agree. So were the media. The media were very blase about the whole subject. The Democrats certainly tried to raise the issue. In our Party's national journal we carried a major article on why we opposed the card, written as early as December last year. Time and again during the election campaign the Democrats Leader Janine Haines spoke out against the Australia Card, particularly on talkback radio, all over Australia asking the hard questions about the card. Those questions were: `Is it necessary?', `Is it a threat to civil liberties?' and `Will it work?'. But as I said, the issue did not get picked up. The ID card did not become a hot election issue. Because of that I ask: does the Government really have a mandate, as the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and Senator Ryan claim? The issue certainly was the trigger for the double dissolution, but what actually is a mandate?

The Government has a mandate to govern according to its published policy platform. The Government has a mandate not to reintroduce tertiary fees. The Government has a mandate to introduce land rights. The Government has a mandate not to sell uranium to the French. But I do not believe that the Government has a mandate to impose numbers on the Australian people, to bulldoze legislation through the Parliament or to ignore the clear wish of the majority of Australians with the thin promise that the legislation will be amended after it has been passed.

As I said in my inaugural speech only yesterday, democracy functions only if the electorate understands what is going on. I do not believe that the electorate understood the full implications of the proposed Australia Card legislation. The details of the Bill were not spelt out to the electorate. Most people also thought-I have spoken to a number of people about this-that once the Bill was defeated that would be the end of it, even if it caused a double dissolution. Out in the electorate people just did not understand the full implications of the double dissolution and of a proposed joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament.

The Constitution says that, in the event of a joint sitting, the same Bill which was used as a trigger for the election has to be used. In other words, the Bill cannot now be amended. We cannot even take out its more objectionable parts. It is a straight yes or no situation, take it or leave it. We cannot change the Bill at all. I hope that we can try to change the minds of Government senators so that the Bill can be referred to a Senate committee of inquiry.

Honourable senators will recall that the original Joint Committee never actually studied the legislation. Until recently, when we started to publicise the details of the Bill, members of the general public had no real idea of the consequences of the proposed law. There is no doubt that people are changing their minds. One has only to look at the polls reported in today's Australian. In June 1986 the total number of people in favour of the Australia Card was 68 per cent, as polled. But in September 1987 the number was down to 39 per cent. In June 1986 the people who believed that we should have no identity card at all numbered 29 per cent of the population. By September 1987 this had risen to 57 per cent. That is a remarkable increase and it must reflect a change in public opinion since the details of the Bill have been made public.

When the Bill was first introduced a few law students and people in civil liberties organisations, some, but not all, Australian Democrats and quite a few people who had come to Australia from left or right wing totalitarian states objected to the card, but now this objection has snowballed as people start to look at the whole thing. Public meetings have been held all over Australia. An organisation in Western Australia called `People Against the Australia Card' held a meeting in the South Perth Civic Centre. More than 2,000 people turned up. The hall seated only about 600 to 700 people, which meant that some people were standing up around the sides and in the foyer and even outside in the car park. This has been the pattern throughout Australia. There have been newspaper editorials against the card. Trade unions, first in South Australia and now everywhere, and Labor lawyers provide all the traditional support that the Government usually relies on, but that support is slowly slipping away. I appeal to Government senators to listen to what is going on, to listen to the community and to realise that people do not want this draconian legislation.

The Government claims that the Australia Card is being introduced to combat tax fraud and social security fraud, but unfortunately this legislation goes much further than that.


Senator Beahan —How?


Senator JENKINS —I will come to that in a moment, Senator. Mr Hawke said on the Willesee show that he would amend the ID card legislation, when passed, if it were to the benefit of people. That is an admission that this legislation should be changed before rather than after the event. There is another problem in that statement made by Mr Hawke. If the card can be amended to the advantage of the people after it has been passed, it can also be amended to their disadvantage.

I believe that we are all here to represent ordinary people. At least I feel that I am, and I presume that the Government senators feel the same way. For the most part, ordinary people are fair and willing to pay their fair share of tax and do not want to cheat the welfare system. They are willing to see that tax and welfare cheats are brought to justice. The problem is that the Australia Card will not necessarily do that. The Government says that it will, but a vast number of people in the community are not so optimistic. Computer societies around Australia are also unhappy with the card. Senator Nick Bolkus, who should be on the Government's side, wrote a penetrating paper on the Australia Card in which he demonstrated that, far from making tax fraud harder, the card would make it easier. It is telling commentary on the way the Government functions that Senator Bolkus has been rather silent on the issue ever since.

The Health Insurance Commission has admitted that more than 20,000 duplicate Medicare cards have been issued and that many have been used to defraud the Department of Health. In a recent Four Corners program on Australian Broadcasting Corporation television, Frank Costigan, QC, the man who gave his name to the royal commission investigating tax fraud, stated that the problem was simply not one of identification. He said that tax fraud is a matter of clever operators finding loopholes, setting up bogus companies and operating at the bottom of the harbour. An ID card is not going even to touch the big operators. Neal Blewett, in his second reading speech on the Bill, said:

I would urge members of both Houses to read the Bill with care, and not to reject it on the basis of a Luddite distrust of technology, or on the basis of unexamined assumptions about the threat to privacy.

But far from having a Luddite distrust of technology, it is because we and the computer organisations understand the possibilities of technology that we distrust it. That is why computer experts such as Professor Jennifer Seberry distrust it. At the recent Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science conference Professor Seberry said:

It is frightening just how little security exists to protect computer data from the curious . . .

She said that the Australia Card could lead to an unprecedented invasion of privacy. So much for the Government's stance that the innocent have nothing to fear. As the Law Council of Australia argued in its submission to the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card:

Honest people would remain honest but encumbered by the card; dishonest people will remain so-unaffected by the card, yet having it available as an additional tool.

It is precisely the innocent who have the most to fear and who can be manipulated.

I now turn to Senator Beahan's point. Nobody objects to having an identity-to being someone. Most of us do not object to carrying cards associated with that identity. We all have Bankcards, library cards and driving licences and taxpayers all have, or should have, a tax file number. But where the Australia Card legislation goes overboard and far beyond any of these other cards, is that it links all the information into one great computerised centre. There will be one number for each citizen, and that number will give access to the citizen's tax records, health records, the date of marriage, birth and death and address and occupation of the citizen. At the moment there are 35 separate bits of information proposed for the central databank on each citizen. But the legislation is open-ended. More can be added as the Government requires. Who has access to all of this information? A whole army of bureaucrats from different Government departments have access and, after that, it is anybody's guess.

I recently spoke to a person who used to work in the Taxation Office, but I am happy to say that he does not work there now. He said that the first thing he did when he started work there was to look up all the taxation records of his friends, just out of curiosity and with no malice in mind, and he was able to do that quite easily. I put it to honourable senators that bureaucrats will automatically have access to information to which they have no right.


Senator Beahan —They have now.


Senator JENKINS —Yes, but at least there is no cross-referencing. At least the taxation records are limited to taxation. That is the whole point. Senator Ryan has repeatedly claimed that the system will be secure. I refer her to the computer section of today's Australian for an account of how enthusiastic and sophisticated amateurs in West Germany had three months access to the supposedly secure National Aeronautics and Space Administration network in nine countries. I put it to honourable senators that Senator Ryan's secure system would provide an exciting challenge to hackers. I wonder how long it would take them to crack the code. Yet the greatest danger to the security of the system is, as I have just said, probably the small army of public servants who would have some legitimate access to the system.

I mention a subtle but important philosophical point. Under our free democratic system, a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The onus of proof is on the state. Yet the ID card proposal effectively reverses this presumption. Here I am, a free person in a free society, and I do not need a card to tell anyone that I am a free and and innocent citizen. Let me quote from a recent editorial in the Australian Financial Review. It is a fairly unlikely ally, perhaps, but its editorial of 28 August made some very important points:

There is no requirement in Australia that anyone follow a particular religion or even a particular style of government other than one which is obviously subversive of a free system. Yet it is all too obvious that even today various authorities and police forces hold different views. The notion of `freedom' is not really well entrenched in this country, let alone given legal protection. If Australia's social freedoms become established around a formal `identity card', it is hard to believe that they will not be weakened.

The Australian Financial Review went on:

The role of a self-styled reformist government such as that led by Mr Hawke should be to reinforce the bulwarks of democracy and not to destroy them.

It is simply obscene to use revenue arguments (`we can make more money out of the Australia Card') as support for authoritarian impositions rather than take the road of broadening national freedoms.

Very well then, but would it work? Some people might argue that we have to give up some of our freedoms in order to live in a reasonable society-we all drive on the same side of the road, we conform to all sorts of rules and regulations-but would the centralised databank actually have an effect on tax fraud? Well, have a look at some of the countries which have something of the sort-Sweden, and Italy and other European Economic Community countries. The black market in Italy is estimated to be between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of that country's economy. It just flows around the official, regulated market. The same is true in the rest of Europe. In Sweden, where the databank system is most sophisticated, and which the Australian Government is looking at as a model, there are further and darker ramifications. The Swedish black economy is thriving but, at the same time, so is the level of electronic snooping by the Swedish Government. That country's databank agency was established with the same sort of optimism as Neal Blewett has when he talks about the Australia Card. But quite recently, Jan Freese, the Chairman of the Swedish Data Inspection Board, actually resigned from the Board because of what he saw as a serious misuse of the collected information. He was deeply pessimistic, he said, about a `computerised future' and the existing abuse of interlinked information systems. This was the system, remember, which is the model for the proposed Australian system.

If one tries to find out about the card itself, the actual piece of plastic, one comes across a curious vagueness. There is something called the Australia Card Secretariat, attached to the Department of Community Services and Health. But my understanding is that no actual work on the administration of the card took place after the first defeat of the Bill last year. There are various mock-ups in various Government reports. There are also some worrying reports of a so-called `smart card', which is a wholly different can of electronic worms.

Right at the beginning of the Bill it is stated that no one is compelled to carry the card. But, to quote Neal Blewett:

If people wish not to carry a card, they'll just have to recognise they will have that particular inconvenience . . .

What sort of inconvenience? Under clause 49 (2) it is an offence for an employer to pay a non-card-carrying person; under clause 49 (1) a cardless person may not be hired anyway. Widows and the sick, supporting parents, the aged and invalids cannot expect to be paid their pensions or benefits without a card. Under clause 40 (2) cardless citizens will not be able to get at their own bank accounts; or have access to money in a trust or other financial institutions; or sell or rent a house; or claim Medicare benefits; or perhaps even receive hospital treatment. All of this is in the name of tax fraud. This is why I say that this legislation has gone overboard. And remember that the Bill states that no one will be compelled to carry the card-that is, if they do not mind the inconvenience of becoming a non-person in their own country, not being paid through their bank accounts and not receiving social security benefits.

`Strange bedfellows' is a political cliche. We do not all oppose the Australia Card for the same reasons, but in this chamber we are all in very good company. The card is opposed by honourable senators from three political parties and, I believe, the independents as well. Only the Australian Labor Party's rigid and undemocratic Caucus system prevents us counting among us many on the Government side of the chamber who are on record as being privately opposed to the Bill but who will not buck the system.

Finally, I would just like to add that 200 years ago the First Fleet brought 1,000 people to Australia in chains. But these people were in iron chains which could be struck off with a hammer, and they were. Australia became a free nation of free citizens. But the chains imposed by the Australia Card are more subtle. They will entrap a whole nation, and no one knows where the captive nation will be led in future. All we know is that the new chains have been forged by a deceit. I do not believe that it has been deliberate; nonetheless, I believe that that deceit is there. In the past many of us have taken up the struggle against wrong laws. We have taken up the struggle in the streets and taken it to the people. We have protested at the Vietnam war, blockaded the Franklin River, and we have walked against war. I certainly support the amendment that has been moved. I say: let this Australia Card legislation go before a Senate committee of inquiry; let the debate continue; let it be put to a referendum of the people of Australia. (Quorum formed)