profile considers the Australia Card and the 2006 national
government services Access Card, abandoned in December
It covers -
overview on this page
- making sense of cards, registers and identifiers
- national registration and identifier schemes in Australia
prior to 1986
1980s Card - the emergence of the Australia Card
scheme and the shape of support
- opposition to the card, the 1988 federal Privacy
Act and development of the Tax File Number (TFN)
and other sectoral identifiers
2006 scheme - an introduction to what has variously
been hyped as the benign 'smart card' for access to
government services and damned as the 'Australia Card
- making sense of hyperbole and hysteria among ID card
advocates and opponents
- can a national ID card scheme be costed?
- recent developments overseas
- non-government use (and misuse) of the Access Card
- what will be on the card
- the Access Card Register and the registration process
- the Unique Health Identifier and Individual Health
ABN and other identifiers - the public and private
sectors already have your numbers?
- access by federal/state police forces and other law
- what do responses to the schemes say about Australian
perceptions of privacy, responsibility and risk?
- will we see a 'national identity card' in future?
- questions about the 2007 government services Access
& reports - pointers to academic studies, government
reports, industry papers and other writing about the
1980s Australia Card, national registration schemes,
ubiquitous identifiers, security and health management
- a detailed chronology of the Australia Card and developments
profile supplements other resources on this site, including
discussion of Privacy,
Security & InfoCrime,
Identity Theft and Forgery
It is complemented by a note identifying major government
registers and personal
People tell stories to make sense of the past, to impose
an order on the presence and to shape the future. Stories
are useful for reinforcing a group's identity and damning
its opponents. It is thus unsurprising that much of the
writing about the Australia Card and subsequent developments
has taken the form of hero-tales.
One narrative has featured the emergence of an unprecedented
peril, with a small band of prescient activists valiantly
gaining the attention of the media and a sleepy community
in what becomes a successful crusade to defeat opportunistic
politicians, ambitious bureaucrats and greedy technology
vendors who treat privacy as a low-value commodity.
In that tale the Australia Card is vanquished but the
danger remains: vigilance is necessary if sinister identity
cards and data-matching initiatives are not to rise from
A counter-narrative, which has not had the same acceptance
by the mass media, featured the Australia Card as miracle-worker
or hero. Proponents of the Card argued that it was an
essentially benign and evolutionary initiative. It would
address a plethora of evils such as tax and welfare fraud,
usher in a new era of improved health service delivery
and have collateral benefits such as reducing identity
fraud in the private sector.
Although the initiative was defeated by unfounded suspicion
- even hysteria, in some versions of the narrative - proponents
claim that sound public policymaking will eventually triumph.
That triumph will be incremental, with community acceptance
of surrogates such as Tax File Number (TFN) identification,
comprehensive health networks and cards that address security
The following pages of this profile suggest that neither
narrative is wholly convincing.
Rather than being unprecedented, the 1987 Australia Card,
proposals in 2005 for an Australia Card II and development
of an Australian government services Access Card (aka
'Australia Card Lite') are situated in a history of registration,
personal identification and data collection within both
the public and private sectors. Much of the rhetoric against
the 1980s Card - and the vision of immeasurable benefits
- was as american as apple pie, as was concentration by
its critics on government rather than commercial data
Activism against the Card was important for establishment
of the 1988 Privacy Act.
However, that legislation reflected overseas developments:
establishment was arguably a question of when rather than
Triumphalism in bureaucratic accounts of incremental adoption
of the TFN, 100 Points identity verification under the
Financial Transaction Reports Act 1988, Australian
Business Number (ABN) and other schemes is also problematical.
It is unclear whether most benefits claimed for those
schemes have indeed been achieved and whether recent identification
initiatives on the 'electronic frontier' such as the 2004
Maritime Security Identification Card are in practice
much more than placebos.
Demonisation of biometrics and RFIDs
- an idee fixe afflicting some online policy
fora - is inappropriate. However claims from some enthusiasts
that once a smart healthcard is in place
can add Medicare details, tax file number, driver's
licence and police data, superannuation details, all
aspects of social security – the basis of a truly
multifunction card. It will rapidly become an apolitical
issue, and it will not be a very difficult task to convince
society on the question of civil liberty.
that an Australia Card II will prevent terrorism are as
romantic as the pronouncements of some info-anarchists.
Official announcements about the 2006 Access Card have
been disingenous and will impede community acceptance
of identity card schemes.
From our perspective a salient feature has been the narrowness
and self-serving (or even self-indulgent) nature of much
of the debate, reflected in both the weakness of post-1988
privacy legislation and its application.
Schweik Action Wollongong for example lamented
in 1995 that it was unfortunate that the Card was defeated
the Australia Card had become law, almost certainly
there would have been civil disobedience and an escalating
struggle, which would have mobilised the population
even more effectively in defence of privacy protection
and civil liberties ...
cannot, it seems, have too much struggle. Schweik continues
Australia Card was a potent symbol. At first it was
a symbol of the government's attack on tax avoidance.
But, due to the efforts of many individuals and groups,
it became the symbol of government snooping into the
lives of Australians. The campaign against the Australia
Card was an amazing success, especially in bringing
together people from different parts of the political
Although the campaign was diverse, it never penetrated
the government bureaucracies. Therefore, the same bureaucratic
pressures for comparing computer databases remained.
Furthermore, the campaign did not create a strong continuing
organisational base. It was, perhaps, too successful
too soon. When the symbol of what it opposed was removed,
the campaign dissolved. The enhanced tax file number
scheme was introduced without much controversy.
they suggest, should accordingly 'maintain the rage'.
A revisionist account would question the supposed potency
of the symbol in the wider community (the ALP was for
example re-elected after the Australia Card legislation
provided a trigger for a Double Dissolution) and suggest
the need for action regarding a federal Bill
of Rights or other mechanism that addresses concerns
about privacy protection and redress in both the public
and private sectors.
Australian identifiers in a global economy
From an international perspective the 1987 Australia Card
(and subsequent developments) is of interest because it
has been recurrently highlighted by overseas observers
as an example of successful opposition to a national identity
Activists, vendors, journalists, government officials
and politicians have listened to different accounts of
the same events or adopted different interpretations.
Those conflicting versions include -
shows that Britain and other states should not (and
need not) establish a national identity card
of the Australia Card is not significant, as the Australian
government has achieved many of the objectives (albeit
at perhaps greater cost) on an incremental basis and
can continue to do so through measures such as the 2006
government services 'access card'
of the Australia Card is an instance of 'Australian
exceptionalism' akin to the unsuccessful referendum
on establishment of a republic
Card was a victim of poor marketing, unlucky timing
and "political jellyback" - it would have
succeeded if wrapped in the flag and linked to the 'war
against terror' (eg after the Bali Bombing)
of the Card was a manifestation of citizen wariness
about government intrusiveness or a sign of political
was instead a sign of the vitality of government, with
citizens perceiving that they can influence public policy
(whereas they are powerless to contain most private
sector privacy dangers) and politicians appropriately
responding to their calls.
a national identity card?
The Howard government went to some pains to emphasise
that the government services Access Card would not be
"a national identity card".
That is correct if a 'national identity card' is taken
to be the equivalent of an internal passport, a proof
of indentity document issued to all citizens, that must
be carried by all citizens and must be produced in dealings
with agents of the state.
Government disavowals (including the Human Services Minister's
bizarre claim that the Access Card will be "an anti-Identity
Card") were, however, somewhat disingenuous.
Most Australians were to be enrolled in the national Access
The Card was likely to replace drivers licences as the
de facto standard national proof of identity
document in private
There would not be a single, central and comprehensive
database covering all aspects of an individual's interaction
with government. Irrespective of civil society concerns,
such a database is not necessary, as use of a common identifier
would underpin matching of information in databases maintained
by the competing bureaucratic empires in Canberra. It
would complement existing identifiers such as the TFN
an informed debate
Debate about the Australia Card was inhibited by polemic,
opportunism, unwillingness to grapple with issues and
incomprehension. Sadly, we did not see much more informed
and reasoned debate in 2007.
One health sector contact lamented that
1987 again ... technologists are defining and driving
project development, ministers and their advisers are
looking for and being given a basket of silver bullets,
community advocates are waving the privacy version of
the red flag, journalists are quoting sound bites without
much understanding or just much sense and yet again
we're all fixating on the bit of plastic rather than
is of concern given what appears to be
of privacy, functionality and cost challenges within
the federal government and parts of the technology community
regarding the Access Card
willingness to uncouple system development from meaningful
consideration of policy objectives and regulatory needs.
is also of concern because that card is likely to be a
major step towards integration of disparate government
The Australian government Access Card Consumer & Privacy
Taskforce in its June 2006 discussion paper (PDF)
indicated that consideration would be given to ways of
preventing the card "evolving into Australia Card
The paper commented that
the card will be voluntary, and some people will not
need to have a card. However, most Australians are eligible
for Medicare, so even those who do not make regular
use of Medicare services are likely to find that at
some time in their lives - when they start a family,
reach a certain age or degree of infirmity - they will
need to access Medicare. To this extent, at least, the
Taskforce recognises almost every Australian will need
a card and as such will need to be registered.
of December 2006 it was unclear whether national enrolment
and data use would be embedded within strengthened public/private
sector data protection legislation and practices. Government
planning for the Card seemed entirely isolated from the
Australian Law Reform Commission's major examination of
the Australian privacy regimes.
In December 2007 the Rudd government announced that it
would abandon the Access Card project, closing the the
Office of the Access Card and shuttering its website.
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