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
Wednesday, 16 September 1987
Page: 123


Mr COBB(11.28) —Once upon a time the Australian Labor Party was a fierce critic of any whiff of a suggestion of an identity card system. This was so even in wartime. When the then Minister for Defence and honourable member for Corangamite, Mr Street, introduced the National Registration Bill in May 1939 the Labor Party attacked it bitterly. That Bill was mild compared with what is proposed today. It merely proposed to use the Bureau of Census and Statistics to record on a register some basic information on the males in the population aged between 18 and 64 years. This would be done so that the Government would know what manpower resources Australia had for the war effort. It is instructive to read in Hansard this statement by the then Leader of the Opposition and later to be Prime Minister, John Curtin, about that proposal:

. . . this is a land in which personal liberty is still a cherished possession, and that there are limits to the coercive authority which the State may exert upon the individual lives and liberties of the people. There is no hypocrisy about the determination of the Australian people to defend democracy. It appears to be a little absurd for us to be asking the people of this country to defend democracy in remote parts of the world, while, at the same time, we seek to sacrifice some of the fundamental principles of democracy here at home in the process.

Another Australian Labor Party member, Frank Forde, who also went on to become Prime Minister, used even stronger language when he said:

In those countries which Hitler and Mussolini rule with ruthlessness, such a register is likely enough, but why should it be necessary to compile one in this country?

He continued:

I have no doubt that the Government is tending towards fascism.

Another Australian Labor Party member, Ben Chifley, who became Prime Minister in 1945, took action to abolish the identity card system when he came to power. Goodness knows what these men would say if they could see this monster of a Moscow card that the Government is trying to foist on us today.


Mr Nehl —They would turn in their graves.


Mr COBB —They would. They would see that in 1987 it is against the will of the people. I guess the deterioration in attitude of the Australian Labor Party to individual liberty since the time of Chifley, Curtin and Forde-a concern for liberty and privacy so eloquently expressed by Curtin back in 1939-can be shown by the regard the present Ministers have for privacy in 1987. As an example of that let me quote from a report of a speech of the Minister who originally introduced the Australia Card legislation into the House last year. Let us compare the view of the then Minister for Health, Dr Blewett, with that of John Curtin. The Minister said:

Let me say, as a socialist, that it is the interests of the community that should come before the individual right . . . We shouldn't get too hung up as socialists on privacy because privacy, in many ways, is a bourgeois right that is very much associated with the right to private property.

Lenin would have been proud to have written that.


Mr Tim Fischer —Even Duncan is embarrassed by it.


Mr COBB —I have no doubt that the Minister for Land Transport and Infrastructure Support is embarrassed by it. Many people, even some members on this side of the House, were attracted to the idea of an identity card when they first heard that the Government was to introduce it. As was the previous speaker, the honourable member for Calare (Mr Simmons), I was attracted to the idea because I thought that it might have merits. People were told that an identity card would stop welfare fraud-an appealing proposition; stop illegal immigrants taking jobs; stop tax cheating; replace the Medicare card; and cut a swathe through organised crime. I think we all approached the matter with an open mind. At that time the opinion polls were running 85 per cent in favour of the card. However, when we looked at the legislation, saw that it was not going to work and saw the draconian proposals contained in it, we soon changed our minds. We opposed the legislation from day one. I compliment the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) and the Leader of the National Party of Australia (Mr Sinclair) for taking that courageous stance at that time.

The next poll showed that only 75 per cent of people were in favour. I think that the figure was down to 67 per cent at the start of the election and had dropped to 55 per cent in favour at the end of the election. It is now running between 14 and 40 per cent, according to what poll one takes. As people become aware of what is contained in the legislation they are turning against the card in droves. At present I have in my room 500 petitions to present to the Parliament. I guess that with any new legislation such as the Australia Card Bill, which contains hundreds of pages, or the Bill of Rights Bill it takes some time-perhaps six or 12 months-to sink in with the media and the general population. But when they become aware of what is involved, just as they did with the Bill of Rights Bill, they turn against it. It is to be hoped that the Government drops this Bill just as it dropped the Bill of Rights Bill. I am sure that the Minister in charge of the legislation, the Special Minister of State (Senator Ryan), does not have her heart in it.

One of the main reasons why we of course oppose the Bill is that it simply will not work. As far as stopping welfare fraud is concerned-a matter which attracted many of us in the first instance-we are told by the experts in the Department of Social Security that only 0.6 per cent of such fraud is due to false identity. Even if that percentage is pitched a bit lower than the actual figure, it is a very low figure. The Bill will have little impact in this area. Some 61 per cent of social welfare fraud is due to changed economic circumstances. For the Australia Card to work it would need weekly updating.

The card will have some impact in the tax area. Basically the card is a tax gathering card to catch up the small operators; the large operators will go untouched. Of course, the cash economy will go untouched too. The Government freely admits that. It is the Government's intention to pick up the smaller operator in tax fraud, but there are cheaper alternatives which the Liberal and National Party Opposition would support. There have been four or five reports now on the Australian Taxation Office and the inefficiencies that exist there. Those reports have pointed out how these inefficiencies could be rectified so that tax fraud could be picked up. Of course central to that would be upgrading the integrity of the tax file number. This would have virtually the same effect and could be carried out much more cheaply, and people in Australia today who wish to remain anonymous, for whatever reason, could continue to do so. Their tax details could go straight to the Tax Office and not be swapped with any other department. Of course no photograph would be used.

As far as illegal immigration goes, the Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs itself could not substantiate any of the Minister's original claims, and anyhow illegal immigrants often work for cash at lower rates. The Government's other claim is that it would cut a swathe through organised crime. The one person who has fought organised crime diligently in this country, namely Frank Costigan, before the Government cut him off at the knees, opposes the card. He believes that it will be useless and perhaps even counterproductive. So much for organised crime.

The card is clearly not cost effective. It will cost upwards of $1,000m of taxpayers' money to implement; it will cost business perhaps something in the vicinity of $2,000m to implement; and it will mean the employment of an extra 2,150 public servants. There are better and cheaper ways of doing it.

We in the Opposition are also concerned about the dangers associated with this card, first and foremost being the computer linking of departments that contain information. One has only to look at the information that will be contained on the Australia Card Register. Already we have seen problems of information leaks in this country, examples of which have been given here. The classic example of information leaked for political purposes is that involving doctors' incomes during the dispute in New South Wales a year or so ago. I refer to the information to be listed on the Register, as referred to in just one of the eight categories in schedule 1 of the Bill: a person's Australia Card number and the documents used to establish identity; a person's name and his recognised name; date of birth, signature and sex; current residential address and postal address; any title of the person; the person's status as an Australian citizen; his eligibility or otherwise for Medicare benefits; his record of right to obtain employment; and his previous names and previous addresses. The list goes on and on. All 16 million Australians will have to turn up for an interview and have their photograph taken.


Mr McVeigh —You must be talking about Russia.


Mr COBB —One would think so. The logistics of that sort of thing are mind boggling. The mere fact that sick or elderly pensioners will have to turn up physically will lead to difficulties.

Apart from that, this legislation turns around the attitudes we have had in this free country-and there are not too many around the world-that we are born with rights. As soon as we have landed on the doctor's table we have inherited rights, but now the Government wants to grant us the right to exist. If it does that, it does not take much logic to extend that to the Government taking rights away. If it takes one's card away there will be many things one will not be able to do.

The Government says people will not have to carry the card with them. Whilst that is true, there will be many things people cannot do unless they have the card on them, including normal day to day activities such as: opening a bank account or an account with a building society or credit union; continuing to operate existing accounts after the legislation is enacted; investing with any government body, any solicitor trust account or any interest bearing deposit; and investing with any cash management or property trust. Without the card a primary producer cannot open an account with an agent or be paid by a marketing authority. One must have the card if one wants to have anything to do with rent or wants to get a job, and if any government payment comes to a person such as happens with doctors and chemists. One must have the card if one wants to buy or sell land, operate a safety deposit box, buy shares, buy or sell futures, and if one enters a hospital, collects Medicare benefits or is a pension receiver, whether it be a Department of Social Security pension or an old age pension. One must also have the card if one wants to get an Australian passport. The list goes on and on. The card has to be presented for all these things.

The practical examples of how this may not work have already been listed. The honourable member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey) suggested that if someone bought some shares he may open an account with a stockbroker who would record his identity card number. The legislation says clearly that the stockbroker cannot keep it for any great length of time-that is vague enough as it is-and I suppose the number might be destroyed after 2, 3, 5 or 10 years. However, we all know that a person who buys, say, BHP shares might put them in his drawer and forget about them. Then someone rings him up many years later and says, `Look, Holmes a Court has pulled the plug. Sell your shares because they are going to collapse'. So the person rings up his broker, who says, `I am sorry, we have to sight your Australia Card number'. It will take two days to get the card number to the stockbroker or for him to get a section 36 certificate, and by that time it is too late-the price has collapsed and the person has been disadvantaged. The card is totally impractical and it is inconvenient in many ways.

So we have seen how the card will not work and we have seen how the Australian population is swinging against it, but we also have many other concerns. One is the offences in the legislation. I think someone told me he counted up 55 instances in which one may be fined or gaoled, the penalties ranging from $500, if one loses the card and does not report it within 21 days, up to $100,000 for particular offences committed by business. Penalties of several years gaol may go with these fines. For example, if one defaces or alters the card there is a penalty of $5,000 or two years gaol, or both; for forging the card the penalty is $10,000 or five years gaol, or both; and if one is in possession of someone else's card without reasonable excuse-my mind boggles as to what a reasonable excuse might be-the penalty is $10,000 or five years gaol, or both.


Mr Peter Fisher —It is even worse than if you forget your tax return.


Mr COBB —It is. There are some individuals in this country who are let off scot-free if they forget their tax returns.


Mr Nehl —In this Parliament!


Mr COBB —Indeed. The maximum fine for social security cheats is $2,000, so where is the Government's heart in cleaning up fraud in this country? Even a single employer can be fined $20,000 unless he sights an employee's card. The legislation says that he is required to sight the card. To me that means that he must sight it, but the Government says that that is not necessarily so. All these sorts of legalities will be determined in the courts. The whole thing is a legal minefield.

The bureaucracies being set up or expanded also trouble us. The Health Insurance Commission is to be expanded into an administrative authority. The Data Protection Agency, which is supposed to look after the privacy safeguards when the legislation is in place, has to be set up. An Australia Card Register will be set up, containing all the central information. The Data Protection Agency Advisory Committee will be appointed and the National Births, Deaths and Marriages Register will be set up, et cetera. All the people involved with these things will have titles and salaries to match. It will all cost the taxpayers a great deal of money.

We can perhaps summarise this whole debate by saying that the Australia Card is at best a tax gathering card to hit the small operator. It will hardly touch welfare fraud and organised crime at all. It is definitely cost inefficient. There are better ways of going about curing the anomalies in our society that this legislation is supposed to be directed at. Above all else, it will change the very nature of our society. People will not be able to remain anonymous, as they have been. It is a part-this is what disturbs me-of the socialist agenda under which Big Brother can trace one's movement around the country. We have only to go back to the quote I read out from the Minister for Community Services and Health if we have any doubts.

I appeal to honourable members in this chamber to reject this plastic policeman, to stop this gross intrusion by government into the lives of ordinary Australian citizens. If by some miracle this legislation is passed we on this side of the House pledge to repeal it immediately upon return to government. The Government should at least have the decency to call a referendum on this issue to determine the true will of the people.