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Tuesday, 18 May 1993
Page: 676


Senator NEWMAN (10.53 a.m.) —I rise to address two important Bills before the Senate—the National Health Amendment Bill 1993 and the Health Insurance Commission Amendment Bill 1993. My colleague Senator Patterson will be speaking at some length on the National Health Amendment Bill, which the coalition will not be opposing. I should point out that it is largely due to the work of Senator Patterson and Senator Walters that this Bill appears before us today. On behalf of the coalition, they have been pursuing the Government on the issue of the retention, retrieval and destruction of personalised information held by the Department of Health, Housing and Community Services and the Health Insurance Commission since 1989.

  As Senator Patterson discovered, the Government had no policy on this issue. While the Health Insurance Commission does now have a policy of deleting files after a period of five years, it is still not being applied in practice. It seems that this policy will finally be put into practical effect in July.

  In amendments to the National Health Act in June 1991, the Privacy Commissioner was required to provide guidelines for the conduct of the Medicare and pharmaceutical benefits programs. Guidelines had been prepared prior to the Government being forced to drop its plans for a new computer link between the Health Insurance Commission and pharmacists to check on eligibility for pharmaceutical benefits. Following this backdown, new draft guidelines were prepared in February 1992.

  However, rather than presenting these guidelines to Parliament, the Privacy Commissioner made a report to Parliament indicating that he had decided not to issue guidelines by 1 April 1992 as required. The concern of the Privacy Commissioner, based largely on the advice of the Office of General Counsel, was that the guidelines would not be valid under the provisions of the Act. In particular, the Privacy Commissioner suggested that if his guidelines were to be tabled, the Parliament ought to clarify its intention with respect to three issues: firstly, the limited re-identification of claims information after five years; secondly, that the guidelines should apply only to patient claims information; and thirdly, that the guidelines apply to claims information collected before their introduction.

  In essence, this Bill amends the National Health Act so that Parliament's intentions are clear on each of these three issues, thus allowing the Privacy Commissioner to issue his guidelines. As I said earlier, the coalition is not opposing the Bill. Senator Patterson will be addressing the Bill in greater detail in her speech.

  I wish to turn now from a Bill that sets out to strengthen privacy provisions to one that represents a potentially important step in the violation of the privacy of a great many Australians. I refer to the Health Insurance Commission Amendment Bill 1993. The Bill itself would seem quite straightforward. It is seeking to extend the charter of the Health Insurance Commission so that it is able to plan, establish and administer the Government's proposed child-care cash rebate scheme. However, as with many proposals this Government puts forward, it is not nearly so straightforward as it may seem at first. While the Bill leaves it entirely open as to what administrative system the Health Insurance Commission may develop, the decision has already been made. The Government, yet again, wants to extend the use of the tax file number.

  The Government's intention is that child carers provide their tax file number to the Health Insurance Commission, which would then pass it on to the Tax Office for checking purposes. Not only does this violate past assurances of the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) on the extent to which the tax file number would be used in Government activities but it also violates a specific assurance made by the Government during the election campaign. In other words, the Government has once again been playing fast and loose with the truth.

  After the Government launched its child-care policy during the recent election campaign, briefings were provided to selected child-care organisations. The Minister's office also provided advice to the Australian Privacy Foundation. Why, one might ask, would the privacy foundation be seeking advice on the Government's child-care policy? The answer is that the privacy foundation had heard reports that the Government was flagging the use of a tax file number in the administration of its proposed child-care rebate scheme. Not surprisingly the foundation was alarmed at such a prospect and sought clarification from the Minister's office.

  After initially being told that a tax file number would be used, at the end of the day the foundation was provided with a clear assurance by then Minister Staples's private staff that a tax file number would not have to be provided to the Health Insurance Commission. This assurance, as I say, was provided by an adviser to Minister Staples, speaking on behalf of Minister Staples. But only two months later Senator Crowley has told the Senate that as part of the new scheme it is the Government's wish that a tax file number be provided to the Health Insurance Commission. Clearly, there has been a deceptive and highly misleading campaign run by the Government during the election on the proposed use of the tax file number.

  The Vice-Chairman of the Australian Privacy Foundation has appeared on national radio on this matter and has written a letter to Senator Crowley outlining his anger at being lied to by Minister Staples's office. This is what the vice-chairman has told Senator Crowley:

I would like to draw to your attention that Mr Gration, who was at the time explicitly speaking as Mr Staples' representative, stated unequivocally to me on Friday 26 February that the rumour that the HIC would acquire the TFN was entirely unfounded, and that the HIC would not gain the TFN. I stressed to him that I was writing his words down, in order to quote them in my interviews with the media, and read them back to him.

In the Senate on 6 May Senator Crowley said that to the best of her understanding false assurances had not been made by the Government on the use of the tax file number, but nonetheless undertook to check to see whether it was the case. It is now nearly two weeks since that commitment was made and Senator Crowley has yet to report back to the chamber.

  That false assurances were made is, as I have demonstrated, pretty clear. While there can be no confusion on this point, there has been some confusion on the part of the Minister and her department about exactly what decisions have been taken. For example, at an Estimates Committee C hearing last week the First Assistant Secretary to the Family and Children's Services Division, stated:

The decision has not actually been taken that it—

that is, the child-care rebate scheme—

will be linked with the tax file number.

Later, at the same committee meeting, Senator Crowley said that it was the Government's policy that `people would provide their tax file numbers to the Medicare office'. Despite the obfuscation of the department, it is clear that the Government has made up its mind that it wants to further extend the use of the tax file number. I believe this is a stunning and an outrageous decision. The Government has made a number of assurances regarding the use of the tax file number. For example, on 25 May 1988 the Prime Minister, then Treasurer, said that the only purpose of the tax file number:

. . . will be to make it easier for the Tax Office to match information it receives about money earned and interest payments.

On 1 September 1988, Mr Keating said:

No other government or non-government agency will have access to the Tax Office file number registration system, nor will it be able to use an individual's tax file number for any registration system of its own.

As I have already recounted, assurances were forthcoming from the Government during the election campaign that the tax file number would not be linked to the child-care rebate scheme. Of course, the tax file number is now being used by many government agencies for matching and eligibility checking purposes: for instance, by DSS and DVA to detect duplicate payments; by DVA for superannuation fund information; by DSS and the Department of Finance; by DSS and the Health Insurance Commission; by ATO and the Australian Customs Service; by DSS and the Australian Electoral Commission; by DSS and the Child Support Agency; and by DEET and the department of immigration. There are more examples. The list goes on and on, and it is growing all the time. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Senator Crowley had no doubt that the use of the tax file number would become widespread. In April 1987, showing remarkable prescience, Senator Crowley said:

The tax file number differs not much at all from the Australia Card . . . it would be aiming to do exactly the sorts of things that the Australia Card will do.

There is an acknowledgment. Senator Crowley in 1993 is out to prove the wisdom of her words in 1987. To propose an extension of the tax file number in the way that she has is to propose a de facto Australia Card. When asked on national radio what the danger was with the latest proposal, Roger Clarke, the Vice-Chairman of the Australian Privacy Foundation said:

The danger is that the Government is the possessor of a vast amount of information about individuals, that currently that information is kept by a large number of different government agencies.

Each of those government agencies identifies members of the public using different identification mechanisms. As soon as all of those agencies or even all of the principal agencies use the same identifier, it's possible to have what we call technically a virtual single data base—a single national data base which may run on different machines, but which can be combined at any time that the Government wants it to be combined.

When asked whether this represented a de facto Australia Card, Mr Clarke responded, `It's exactly a de facto Australia Card'. This latest proposal is unprecedented in two important respects. For the first time, service providers, as opposed to benefit recipients, will be required to provide their tax file number. The Government is attempting to cross yet another bridge in its assault on the privacy of Australians. If child-care providers are required to provide a tax file number, how long will it be before doctors and pharmacists and other service providers are required to do the same?

  The second way in which this latest proposal is unprecedented is that it allows the Health Insurance Commission access to both Medicare claims information and tax information. For Senator Crowley to be advocating this position is remarkable. It illustrates the extent to which members of this Government are prepared to compromise themselves. Back in September 1987 when defending the Australia Card, Senator Crowley said:

Medicare information will remain separate and secure. . . Tax information will stay with the tax office. . . Medicare information will stay with Medicare.

In other words, she was specifically recognising the importance of keeping Medicare information and tax information separate. Yet now, in an astonishing reversal of this position, Senator Crowley is arguing for the Health Insurance Commission to have access to both Medicare and tax information.

  I challenge the Minister to explain just how it is that she can reverse her position on the integrity of personal information and retain any credibility at all. I challenge her to set out clearly why it is that the Government has chosen a policy for the administration of its child-care rebate scheme which advocates an extension of the use of the tax file number. What other options has the Government considered and why have they been judged to be less preferable to an extension of the tax file number?

  I direct the Minister to page five of the coalition's child-care policy for the details of a simple and effective means of checking the eligibility of those seeking rebates for care provided by a legitimate care provider. I ask the Minister: what consideration was given to the coalition's proposal and why was it not taken up?

  The Australian Privacy Foundation has endorsed the coalition's proposed system as a sensible one which gets around the problems raised by the use of a tax file number. Why was it not chosen? One can only say that, given the Government's track record, it is clear that the tax file number option has been chosen over other better options in order to further the Government's real agenda to develop an Australia Card by the back door.

  Let us not forget: the Australia Card was overwhelmingly rejected by this Parliament and by the people of Australia. The Australia Card was rejected because it represented an encroachment upon the rights and freedoms of all Australians. It was judged by the people of Australia whom we are here to represent to be a threat to individual privacy and civil liberties. It represented something contrary to everything that this country has represented and stood for. Back in 1987 when the Australia Card was in its death throes, Senator Puplick on behalf of the coalition said:

We will vigorously oppose any attempt to turn the tax file number system into a de facto Australia Card.

I put the Minister and this Government on notice that we will not stand by and see that happen. In the planning that is about to take place as a result of this legislation, the Opposition's position will need to be taken into account because the child-care legislation amendments will come before us as a result of that planning in the Budget sittings.

  The Opposition's position should not be ignored because, although we are prepared to allow the Health Insurance Commission to expand its role to plan for the introduction of the Government's promised child-care rebate scheme, we are not prepared to support the extension of the tax file number system in the way that is being detailed to us at this stage.

  In detailing the Government's duplicitous and capricious extensions to the tax file number and its plans to catch child carers in its big brother network, I have not yet commented on the deficiencies inherent in the Government's child-care policy. When it was released in February, the Government's policy was widely and accurately perceived as being a child-care policy for millionaires. Under the government rebate scheme as promised, no means test is to be applied, so that two-job families enjoying very high incomes will be the main beneficiaries. This is an extraordinary policy outcome in the economic circumstances currently facing Australia. It represents a gross distortion of priorities. To be actively directing government assistance to those in well-paid employment while we have a million people out of work—370,900 of whom have not had a job in 12 months or more—makes a mockery of the social justice pretensions of this Government.

  I can say a great deal more about this but, given the time limits that are imposed on us all now, thanks to the views of the Government and the Democrats about speeches during second reading debates, I intend to bring my speech to a close. We will have an opportunity for debating these issues further when the child-care legislation comes before us in the autumn sittings.

  The Health Insurance Commission Amendment Bill 1993 does not set out the program details of the child-care rebate scheme. As I said earlier, that will be achieved in the changes to the Child Care Act in the autumn sittings. So, for this reason, the coalition will not oppose this particular Bill. However, in allowing this Bill to pass I would put the Minister on notice that she cannot assume the support of the coalition for the changes to the Child Care Act which are to follow later, if they include the tax file number provisions.

  The coalition will act in the best interests of Australians when that legislation is brought forward. If it threatens the basic freedoms and liberties of Australians, and if it disregards legitimate social justice principles, the coalition will have no part of it.