The Senate’s finance and public administration committee is conducting an inquiry into the government’s wonderfully-named Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill – the legislation to introduce a national ID card, officially known as the “Access Card”.

It’s nearly 20 years since the Hawke government called and won a double dissolution on its plan for an ID card (then called the “Australia Card”), only to find that a drafting oversight would have rendered it ineffective if passed at a joint sitting. By that stage, public opinion against the card had been aroused to such an extent that the government seemed happy to let the idea drop.

So the Howard government’s conviction that the Access Card is a vote winner (its ostensible function is to cut down on welfare and Medicare fraud) is not necessarily well founded. Issues like this can be a “slow burn”, where the initial favourable reaction, based on the official spin, turns around once the reality of the measure sinks in.

Nor is it particularly unusual for political parties to swap positions on an issue like this. Recall the referendum to abolish fixed terms for the Senate, proposed by the Coalition in office in 1977, but opposed by them when Labor proposed it in 1974 and 1984.

The government continues to deny that the current proposal is an ID card, but no-one takes the denial very seriously. Although in some ways it is more limited than the Australia Card, the advance of technology since 1987 means that the threat to privacy is probably more serious.

At a forum last week put on by Liberty Victoria, several speakers outlined the objections to the Access Card. But attention was focused on the opposition spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek.

Plibersek confirmed that Labor would oppose the current bill, but when challenged to promise, on the lines of Kim Beazley on IR, that it would “tear up” the legislation if elected, she carefully declined. If the scheme is in place and contracts have already been let, she said, it would probably have to be amended rather than scrapped.

She didn’t say that since Labor proposed an ID card last time it was in government, it could hardly be expected to dismantle one that it found ready made – but that’s probably the truth.

Realistically, the best chance of stopping the Access Card is a rebellion within the government’s ranks. Coalition MPs have already expressed concerns, but it remains to be seen how far they are prepared to take them.

Peter Fray

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