sniping continued in Parliament yesterday, with narky noises coming from the
opposition and minor parties in the wake of the resignation of the man charged with delivering the project, James Kelaher.

The Budget
says virtually all of us will have a smartcard by 2010. There are fears about
the privacy implications of the project, announced last month, to introduce a
computer chip carrying card in place of 17 current cards – and significant
concern that the $1 billion price tag is way too optimistic.

But there’s
more to it than that. There’s more to this matter than the issue of ID cards.
This is about approaches to public administration – and governing itself.

Bartos, the director of the National Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra and former senior public servant,
recently wrote about the plethora of government regulations:

A minister who wants to do as much as possible,
when faced with constraints on how many new spending programs he or she can
introduce, inevitably turns instead to new regulation. If one end of a squishy
balloon is squeezed, the other end blows out. In the absence of institutionalised
constraints like those that apply to spending, regulation has expanded.

public administration – and, worryingly, sloppy democracy, too.

In Britain, they’re having just the same
argument over an ID – except that they’re just a few months further down the
track than we are. And in Britain last week, the Home Secretary got
dumped because of a prisoner release program that went wrong. The stirrers at
Spiked Online drew some very worrying conclusions from the affair:

Take the furore over the mistaken release in Britain of hundreds of foreign prisoners
who were supposed to be considered for deportation. There is something more
underlying this than the incompetence of individual ministers that preoccupies
media reports. It is a stark example of the paralysis of a state machinery that
seems incapable of doing anything decisive. It illustrates the problem we have
discussed before – of power without purpose. When the government lacks any
clear sense of its own mission or vision of the Good Society it is supposed to
be creating, it is generally incapable of exercising its authority in a
meaningful way. Thus New Labour can pass a law for identity cards to help keep
60 million citizens under surveillance; but it cannot keep tabs on a thousand
convicted criminals.

Instead we live under a system of government by knee-jerk, where the government
churns out an endless stream of overnight initiatives and paper targets
designed to catch headlines and, hopefully, a few votes.

It couldn’t
happen here? It is. Smart cards. Dumb politicians. And “power without purpose.”
Remember that line.