page considers the 1980s Australia Card scheme.
introduction - an overview
of the Australia Card scheme
- why it arose
developing the Australia Card
- the interaction of parliament, officials, industry
and the community
shape of the scheme - key features
of the Card, databases and information handling
The Australia Card scheme of the mid-1980s might more
appropriately have been characterised as the Australia
It embodied a national identification number for each
Australian. That number - a unique identifier - was to
provide the basis for national health insurance, taxation,
income support and other transactions between government
agencies, individuals and service providers such as hospitals.
The number was to appear on a plastic card issued to each
adult and child, replacing the medical services and other
cards highlighted on the preceding page of this profile.
Proponents suggested that inclusion of a photograph and
other features would support use within the private sector,
in particular replacing the drivers licence as the standard
form of personal identification within Australia.
The scheme attracted increasing criticism on grounds that
was inconsistent with the OECD data protection principles
was unlikely to significantly reduce identity
theft, service recipient fraud or other abuses
was technically and administratively over-ambitious,
with for example a flawed reliance on information of
uncertain quality and transaction processing by a single
in the Senate, exacerbated by drafting flaws, led the
Government to withdraw the Australia Card legislation
prior to implementation of the scheme.
In the following year the federal Privacy Act was passed,
articulating national privacy principles and providing
broad regulation of information handling by most federal
government agencies. At the same time some of those agencies
moved forward with a surrogate national identifier, the
Tax File Number (TFN). Increasing use of the TFN in a
range of transactions was complemented by Australian Business
Number as part of the Goods & Services Tax (GST),
a universal value added tax marketed with many of the
same claims made during debate about the Card.
Emergence of the Australia Card was not an Australian
aberration but instead reflected administrative, social
and technological developments in most advanced economies.
A bipartisan commitment to taming inflation and to fiscal
rectitude (manifested through large-scale privatisation
and reduced employment in a public sector often characterised
as innately inefficient) complemented -
about winding back 'unaffordable' income support programs
(pensions, unemployment benefits, health services)
about welfare fraud, large-scale tax evasion and offences
such as money laundering
about the cost (in some instances the underlying legitimacy)
substantive basis of much of the rhetoric and anxiety
is uncertain. Egregious examples aside, the seriousness
and prevalence of welfare fraud during the early 1980s
does not appear to have been greater than during the preceding
decade; improved resourcing of existing enforcement mechanisms
might indeed have substantially reduced offences.
However, claims of widespread abuses and a systemic 'crisis'
in payments by/to government gained acceptance in the
mass media, with recurrent witchhunts against 'dole bludgers',
'double-dipping pensioners', overbilling by doctors (particularly
by high-profile 'medical entrepreneurs') appear to have
gained general acceptance.
That was reinforced by publicity about personal and corporate
tax avoidance, avoision and evasion - with some voters
being surprised by news that some of Australia's richest
individuals pay little or no income tax.
One response to those concerns was movement towards establishment
of a universal value added tax (VAT), applied to all financial
transactions. The VAT was proposed at a national tax summit
in 1985 under ALP auspices, stalled amid arguments that
it was regressive or would not recoup 'missing' revenue
from the rich, and was finally introduced as the Goods
& Services Tax (GST) in 2000.
Another response was movement towards establishment of
a national identity card - wrapped in the flag as 'the
Australia Card' - that would
streamlining of service delivery, particularly through
replacement of counter and back office staff in government
more effective identification of and action against
abuses (eg through comprehensive data matching)
existing government investment in data processing and
the expertise of key agencies such as the Health Insurance
Commission (HIC) and Australian Taxation Office (ATO)
provide a standard form of identification for all adults
and thereby reduce identity theft beyond transactions
with the public sector.
reflected enthusiasm within governments - indeed within
most bureaucracies - for ICT as a tool that would enable
organisations to cut costs, improve quality, enhance accountability
and consistency, and improve the timeliness of service
It also reflected the mindset of major solution vendors
and major government clients - evident since pioneering
e-government projects in the late 1960s - with a single
master register being used by a range of agencies and
accessed by their peers.
developing the Australia Card
Much of contemporary and subsequent writing about development
of the Card has an almost conspiracist tone, with suggestions
that federal agencies were in agreement, "acted in
stealth" and eagerly embraced an opportunity to "achieve
an objective they had had in mind for some time"
in the face of community indifference and misleading or
merely seducing cynical politicians.
Contrary to some triumphalist accounts, development appears
to have been more complex.
That is evident in disagreement within the Government
and within the bureaucracy, with few signs of a coherent
master plan consistently supported by all major actors.
There were corresponding disagreements within the Opposition,
apparent in the mix of opportunism and principle at the
time and subsequent action in implementing the GST. Overall,
government may be seen as responding to perceived pressures
from the community rather than independently driving development.
What was the balance between 'push' and 'pull'? We will
not have a full sense of the relationship between Ministers,
their advisors, policymakers within the various government
agencies and technical experts until records are available
under the Archives Act and more memoirs have appeared.
Identification of an administrative framework for the
Card was initially undertaken, as with similar projects,
by an interdepartmental working group that included representatives
from the ATO, HIC, Finance Department, Attorney-General's
Department and other key federal agencies.
Initial emphasis on income support services (and wariness
about the failure of some large-scale greenfields IT projects
over the past decade) was reflected in expectations that
the HIC - responsible for maintenance of the existing
national health insurance database - would maintain a
central database with 'lifedata' (including a new national
BDM register) and financial transaction information.
The database would be accessed by a range of agencies
and interact with their specialist systems. It was envisaged
that the Card number would be used as an identifier in
many transactions, including claims for and receipt of
age and disability pensions, taxation claims, billing
by medical service providers, payment of some federal
charges and receipt of education allowances.
People would not be required to carry the card at all
times or to provide the number in response to any request,
although provision of the number would be a prerequisite
for accessing some services.
A model for distribution of individual cards was provided
by initial rollout of the Medibank card; proponents of
the scheme noted that distribution was a welcome opportunity
to "clean up" numerous registers.
Agency investment in new hardware, software and process
reengineering - much support within particular agencies
was associated with claims that introduction of the Card
would force an overdue review and enhancement of the agency's
practices - was expected to be recouped through efficiencies
over the following decade.
Estimates of spending varied, from upwards of $820 million
over seven years. Crucially there was disagreement between
and within agencies about costs, risks, savings and responsibilities.
That disagreement increasingly moved out of offices into
the public arena.
Implementation of the scheme involved changes to a range
of federal legislation and thus involved a new enactment.
Announcement of plans for the Card and introduction of
draft legislation were initially welcomed, with strong
editorial support, endorsements by media commentators
and some policy experts (eg health service specialists),
positive comment in fora such as talkback radio and strong
support (typically around 65% in favour during early 1987)
in opinion polls.
That support is unsurprising, given -
that the scheme would reduce - indeed stop - "cheating
on tax, child support, unemployment benefit and other
that the Card would cut the overall cost of government,
minimise errors and reduce time spent by citizens waiting
in queues or dealing with paperwork
awareness in some parts of the community about privacy
issues and the preparedness of some people to commoditise
their privacy (apparent in dealings with the private
sector today) in response to claimed financial benefits
or heightened public safety
the shape of the scheme
The Australia Card scheme centred on five major components
national register covering Australia's population
new national register of births, deaths and marriages
electronic exchange by government agencies of information
through what proponents characterised as a 'network'
national data protection agency
national register, to be maintained by
the HIC, was to encompass all Australians (including children)
and non-Australians who had sought/received particular
Information on that database was to include -
unique number identifying each data subject
person's name at birth (or on arrival in Australia)
name (eg reflecting changes through marriage or by deed
of birth (with cross reference to the state/territory
register of births, deaths & marriages and to the
new BDM register)
of death (with a cross reference to BDM registers),
enabling verification of identity and denial of services
in instances of identity fraud
including notation for gender reassignment
and recent residential and postal addresses
card was to feature a unique identification
number, the bearer's name/s, date of birth, photograph
and signature in a non-machine-readable format. It was
envisaged that the card would feature other information
in an electronic format, initially as a magnetic stripe.
The new national births, deaths & marriages register
- to be maintained by the HIC - would apparently draw
on the existing state/territory BDM registers. It would
be 'born digital' (eg not be paper or microfilm based)
and provide verification information that would be accessed
by the Australian Taxation Office, migration and passport
agencies and other bodies.
The two registers would have an ongoing linkage through
the network to databases maintained by
other federal agencies, with provision for linkage to
state/territory agencies (eg those issuing driver’s
Agencies using the network would be required to notify
each other when information on their systems changes,
in principle allowing ongoing updating and identification
of discrepancies such as an individual improperly receiving/seeking
benefits from two agencies. Use of the national register
as a hub reflected a move away from 1970s visions of a
'master system' with centralised data processing, consistent
with technological realities and competition between the
Those agencies would maintain discrete databases and information
processing systems. For them salient advantages of the
scheme would be use of a single identifier
databases within organisations
information exchanged with or accessed from other agencies
information provided by state government and private
reducing data capture costs and facilitating official
data matching/analysis activity.
The Data Protection Agency (DPA), a federal
statutory body, was to oversight administration of the
scheme. Critics expressed concern about formal constraints
on its powers and - as seriously - the potential impact
of under-resourcing, since a watchdog must have both the
will and means to bite. Those deficiencies were unfortunately
embodied in the subsequent Office of the Federal Privacy
It was envisaged that the legislation would be complemented
by a broader Privacy
Act, covering the information practices of nongovernment
entities such as banks, retailers and direct marketers.
As discussed in the following page of this profile the
Government was perceived as concentrating on development
of the Australia Card scheme at the expense of broader
privacy protection. That concentration was arguably incorrect
but understandable, given subsequent private sector resistance
to effective privacy law and practice.
Embedding the Australia Card within a comprehensive national
privacy regime was important because many uses of the
number involved interaction of the card bearer, government
agencies and commercial entities.
Individuals would be required to 'produce' the card (including
provide a government agency or business with their number)
for a range of reasons, including -
accounts and subsequently engaging in transactions with
financial institutions, including receiving/sending
in investment transactions and financial futures trading
receipt of income, including money from property rental,
primary production (agriculture, fisheries, forestry)
and some trusts
safe deposit box transactions
and prescribed payments
and receipt of health insurance benefits
unemployment, disability, aged pension and other social
were obliged to demand the number for those activities,
with sanctions applying if the card/number was not produced.
Although it was expected that most activities would involve
a one-off provision of the number (eg when setting up
an account) there was scope for government agencies and
their private sector partners to require the individual
to produce the card on request for the purpose of verification.
Graham Greenleaf pithily commented that
legislation did not make it possession/use legally compulsory:
it simply makes it impossible for anyone to exist in
Australian society without it, because they will be
unable to carry out normal activities such as the receipt
of their pay taxed at the normal rate, operation of
bank accounts or the receipt of social security or health
Private sector entities were required to report data to
the relevant government agency at the time of transaction
or thereafter, with an expectation that the number would
feature in commercial databases and that information would
be maintained (and therefore accessible on request by
government agencies) for periods specified in banking,
taxation and other legislation.
The legislation as presented to the federal parliament
did not provide for effective restrictions on the use
of data within nongovernment entities. In practice the
use of a national identifier would have greatly facilitated
matching of data collected/held by different commercial
entities within Australia and overseas.
next page (opposition
and the TFN)