Thursday, March 15, 2007

Like the Australia Card before it, the Access Card is dead... for now.

The government’s contentious Access Card legislation at present before the Senate is effectively dead. The Human Services Minister Chris Ellison last night agreed to withdraw and recast it in the wake of a scathing report by a Senate Committee half of whose members are Liberal Party senators.

The Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill passed through the House of Representatives last month. The government had already issued two tenders for running the scheme and had planned to roll it out early next year. It is understood to have spent millions of dollars on the scheme on the assumption that it would be passed into law.

The Bill was to have been put to a vote in the Senate next week.

In a report tabled out of session late yesterday the Senate’s Finance and Public Administration Committee recommended that the entire scheme go back to the drawing board for redrafting.

The Committee, chaired by Queensland Liberal Senator Brett Mason complained that it had been asked to approve the scheme on “blind faith” without knowing what was to be in a second related piece of legislation yet to be drafted.

In strongly critical language it said that the fact that two tenders were taking place while it conducted its inquiry could be seen as undermining its authority “by creating the impression that passage of this legislation is preordained, rendering Senate oversight superfluous”...

The committee rejected the government’s claim that proposed card would be used only for the purpose of accessing Medicare and other government services. It found that “the inclusion of a photograph on the face of the card virtually guarantees its rapid evolution into a widely accepted national form of identification”.

It recommended that to prevent the card from becoming a national identity card the government consider including no information on its face other than the cardholder’s name.

The Bill makes it a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison for any unauthorized person to require a cardholder to produce a card.

But the Committee found that while those penalties were well intentioned, they could in practice achieve the opposite result of turning the card into a de facto national identity card.

“These provisions of the bill will criminalise behaviour that is an almost inevitable consequence of this same legislation. It is logically questionable for the government to create a document that can serve perfectly as a high quality identity document, and then to penalise those in the private sector who would want to use it for precisely that purpose.”

“From nightclub bouncer to airline check-in clerk, the temptation to ask for the access card as a form of ID will only be exceeded by the willingness of individual Australian citizens to produce that same document in the face of such a request,” the committee found.

It noted that although in NSW it is technically illegal for businesses to require the production of a photographic drivers license as proof of identity the practice was widespread.

It said that after almost universal registration for the Access Card it was easy to imagine that there would be “widespread pressure from a business community that is highly dependent upon reliable identification documents to repeal the dead letter draconian prohibition against requiring the access card.”

The Committee also expressed concern about the collection of biometric facial recognition data from each cardholder. It said while biometric photographs “would no doubt greatly facilitate the work of the law enforcement and security agencies” no previous Australian government, even in wartime, has effectively
required all of its citizens to give it a physical representation of themselves, nor contemplated storing it in a central database.

All eight members of the Finance and Administration Committee supported the recommendation that the legislation be redrawn for reconsideration. Labor, Democrat and Green members submitted additional more critical comments. Only one member, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells submitted additional comments supportive of the scheme.

The Minister Senator Chris Ellison said last night that he would withdraw the legislation in its present form but that he was committed to having a new bill passed before the end of the year.


By Peter Martin
Economics Editor

The Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill is a landmark piece of legislation with incredibly widespread implications. If implemented it may well become the action for which this Coalition government is most remembered.

That is why the quality of the legislation, already passed in the House of Representatives, is a scandal.

Witness after witness told the Senate committee that the Bill was poorly drafted, had ill-defined terminology and appeared to reflect policy discussions still taking place.

The Bill was actually only part one. The parliament was asked to pass it before seeing part two which was to “deal with the review and appeal processes for administrative decisions, further elements of information protection and legislative issues relating to the use of the card, including in relation to dependents”.

Little wonder that the Senate Committee concluded that it was being asked to approve the Access Card “on blind faith”.

Among the organisations concerned or simply bulldozed by the rapid and continually evolving nature of scheme are the government’s own Privacy Commissioner, the Victorian Privacy Commissioner, the Australian Medical Association, Carers Australia, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Legacy, MedicAlert and Vision Australia.

Yet in his second reading speech introducing the Bill the Minister Mal Brough labeled its opponents “friends of fraud”.

In trying to fast track the creation of one of the world’s largest biometric information databases the government itself has defrauded the parliament. Tender documents were issued before the Bill was even introduced. When Senators asked what was in them, they were told they were not to know.

If there is a case for what the database the government is planning it should make it slowly and calmly, probably after the next election.