Some people call it the boiling frog syndrome. Put a
frog in to boiling water and it will try to jump straight out. Start it off in
cold and gradually heat the water and the frog will rationalise that it is only
a little bit warmer and stay put until the heat finally kills it. In
Britain they are calling it “function creep”.

Last October, Charles
Clarke, the Home Secretary, explicitly ruled against using planned identity cards to
store medical records saying “no medical details will be on the database”. At
the weekend, just three weeks after identity card legislation was finally passed
after a lengthy dispute between the House of Commons and the House of Lords,
Andy Burnham, a junior Home Office minister with responsibility for promoting ID
cards, said there was an “impressive benefits case” for use of the cards by the
National Health Service.

While health information about individuals would not be
visible on the cards themselves, said Mr Burnham, it would be kept on the
central identity card database. The Times reported that “pressure groups
condemned the move as ‘function creep’, while the British Medical Association
(BMA) said it was ‘sceptical’ of the benefits.”

Yesterday, Prime Minister John
Howard announced that his Government has decided to proceed in principle with a
new access card for health and welfare services. Not one of those nasty ID
cards, mind you. A friendly “access card” to “enable people to obtain Government
benefits in a straightforward, convenient and reliable way without having to
re-register and repeat the same information each time they visit a different
Government office.”

And this certainly will not be a Big Brother making
everyone carry one. It will not even be compulsory to have one. A purely
voluntary access card. For those people wanting to deal with the Commonwealth
Government. Which will be? Well, every Medicare user. And who might they be?
Well the PM did not go into details but the Australian
Bureau of Statistics puts it this way

In theory the Medicare population
base is all Australian usual residents plus non-Australian residents granted
temporary registration. In practice a variety of Australian usual residents who
are eligible to use Medicare are unlikely to do so consistently because of
access to alternative health services (for example Indigenous persons, defence
force personnel, prisoners and persons eligible for Department of Veteran’s
Affairs Health Services). Conversely Medicare’s population base is expected to
exceed the ideal population base (ie all Australian usual residents) with
regard to registrations relating to international visitors and former Australian
usual residents who have died or are now permanently resident overseas but have
not as yet been deleted from the register.

Which is a lengthy way of the ABS saying that Medicare
is so close to covering everybody that it uses the Health Commission’s figures
to estimate the Australian population between censuses.

John Howard has made an art form over ten years of hiding
his true intentions. He has learned to avoid saying where he is going or why
when it is inconvenient to do so. The man who led the fight against an ID card
back in 1987 thus now disguises his change of heart by changing the name. But
nothing he – or any other minister – does will change the reality that Australia is about
to have a virtually compulsory identity card system.