The Deceptive History of the ‘Australia Card’

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The Deceptive History of the ‘Australia Card’

Graham Greenleaf, University of New South Wales Faculty of Law
Jim Nolan, New South Wales Privacy Committee

Published in Australian Quarterly (AQ), Vol 58, No 4 (Summer 1986) 407-425

Greenleaf & Nolan The Deceptive History of the ‘Australia Card’ 25 2

The current proposal: a “limited” Australia Card 2

The Australia Card's deceptive history 3

Prehistory 3

Concern about identity 4

The first suggestions 5

The Tax White Paper 5

Caucus ‘asserts’ itself 5

The First Inter-Departmental Committee 6

The Tax Summit sidesteps Caucus 9

The ALP submits 10

The Second Interdepartmental Committee 10

The Joint Select Committee 11

The Government's submission to the Joint Select Committee 11

The Select Committee Majority proposals 12

The Government response 13

Why the proposed limitations are deceptive 14

Why the HIC? 14

Plans for expansion 15

How is the Register to be created? 16

Bogus limits on private sector uses 16

Compulsory carriage by children 17

A powerless Data Protection Agency 18

The generality of the name 18

A wolf in sheep's clothing 19

Conclusion: strategic retreats and long-term goals 19


In May 1985 Australians were treated to a rerun of the entertaining “Yes Minister” television series. One episode had the hapless Jim Hacker win a rare victory over Sir Humphrey. He prevailed against a proposal to introduce a ‘Europass’, an EEC-inspired identity card for Britain. No doubt the program got much of its comic force from the assumption that a British audience would find the very idea preposterous - a Continental impost out of keeping with their way of life.

While we laughed, life imitated art. In June 1985 the Australian Minister for Health - like Hacker, a junior Cabinet Minister and former civil libertarian - unveiled to the National Taxation Summit the “Australia Card”, a green and gold photo-identity card for all Australians. The Card would be supported by a central population register to monitor many of our dealings with the Government, and a range of tax-related and other transactions.

Potential opponents had initial difficulty in taking the proposal seriously, perhaps because the scheme was so immense in its scope, and proposed by a Labor Party regarded as normally sensitive to civil liberties concerns. Surely the ALP would quietly bury a proposal with so much potential for abuse at the hands of its conservative opponents?

A year later, the Federal Government has decided to press ahead with a national identification scheme “limited” to accomodate criticisms, despite the rejection of even such a “limited” scheme by a majority of a Joint Select Committee of Federal Parliament set up to examine the proposal. The Government has adopted in large part a dissenting report by a minority of the Committee consisting of three Labor MPs. The majority of the Committee consisted of representatives of all political parties. The Opposition parties oppose the Australia Card, and so do the Democrats, so the proposal faces defeat in the Senate.

The Government's motives in pressing ahead with legislation, despite such likely defeat, are unclear. Development of the such complex legislative proposals is a considerable diversion of resources from the rest of the Government's legislative program. The issue remains a divisive one within the Labor Party. One can only speculate on such possible motivations as a wish to paint the Opposition parties as the friends of tax avoidance; a belief that one of the Opposition parties can be induced to change its position, or that some members can be convinced to cross the floor.

Whatever the reasons, until the matter has been disposed of by Parliament, it is premature to consider the Australia Card issue dead. We examine three aspects of the proposal: just what is now being proposed?; how did these proposals arise?; and whether the history of the proposals give any reason to be reassured by the proposed limitations and safeguards offered so far.

We argue that, while the Government and the Committee minority ostensibly recognise privacy concerns, there is little reason to believe that the scheme will remain “limited” for long. Once established it will be relatively easily expanded. At least within the bureacracy, the reduction is merely a tactical move designed to lessen opposition to the scheme's introduction, with the intent that it be later expanded. This is shown both by the history of the ‘Australia Card’ and by the ‘fine print’ of the current proposal.

The current proposal: a “limited” Australia Card

The Government's current proposals are for a scheme comprising seven major elements:

  • The I.D. card: a universal and compulsory identification card, containing a person's name, photograph, signature, identification number (UIN), and expiry date of the card. It will not be compulsory to carry the card. Production of the card will be compulsory to obtain work, open a bank account, complete many tax-related financial transactions such as the sale of land, and to obtain any social security or Medicare benefits. Organisations entitled to record the UIN for these purposes may not disclose it to anyone else. It will be an offence for any other Government or private organisation to demand that a person produce their card or disclose their UIN, but it will not be an offence to request such production or disclosure or for it to be made voluntarily.

  • The UIN (universal identification number): a unique number allocated to each member of the population. The number will be the common ‘key’ to the databases of the agencies allowed to participate in the scheme, and will enable ‘matching’ of databases where authorised. The UIN will be the basis on which tax-related transactions are reported to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), to enable them to be matched with taxpayers' files.

  • The register (Australia card register): a national, centralised, computerised register of identifying details of each member of the population, operated by the Health Insurance Commission (HIC). The register “will contain nothing other than basic identifying details such as name, address and postal address, date of birth, sex, whether permanent or non-permanent resident, and digitised photo and signature”. The number of agencies with access to the register has fluctuated under various versions of the scheme, rising to a high of thirteen at one stage, but, under the current proposal, is to be restricted to three agencies only: the ATO, Department of Social Security (DSS) and the HIC.

  • The BD&M register: a national births, deaths and marriages (BD&M) register, operated by the HIC and located on the same computer as the Australia Card register. The only new Federal agencies permitted access to this BD&M register will be HIC, for the operation of the Australia Card, and the Department of Foreign Affairs, for passport issue.

  • The network (telecommunications network): a telecommunications network which allows national on-line access to the register to local offices of the participating Government agencies.

  • The 'companion entity system': a complementary identification system for corporate and unincorporated entities (eg companies, trusts, partnerships, jointly owned property). Such entities will not have a separate card or UIN, but will be 'associated' in all their dealings with the UIN of one 'relevant person' who will be responsible for their dealings.

  • The Data Protection Agency (DPA): a new agency with the function of supervising the uses to which the ATO, DSS and HIC put information obtained from the register, but not any other agencies or private organisations which are required to demand the card or UIN. Privacy legislation incorporating information privacy principles with which the DPA would be required to comply will also be introduced.
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