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Trouble on the cards

By Chris Puplick - posted Tuesday, 19 July 2005

It was inevitable that the London bombings should revive discussion of a national identity card. The Prime Minister has called for a debate about the issue, something the Attorney-General had ruled out just recently.

The last time there was a genuine and informed national debate on this subject was 20 years ago. In 1985, the Hawke Government introduced legislation to establish a national identity card system, called the Australia Card. The purposes were allegedly multifold: to enhance security, to crack down on welfare fraud, to better monitor immigration cases, to eliminate tax evasion and generally to "improve" the efficiency of government services.

At the time, John Howard's opposition forced the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee, of which I was a member, to examine the proposal. Our report in May 1986 recommended against the card. The Senate's continued rejection of the legislation was the alleged trigger for the 1987 federal election won by Labor. Proposals to then force through the card via a joint sitting of the parliament collapsed when a fatal technical flaw was discovered in the legislation.


Throughout this period, Howard and the Opposition were resolute in rejecting this measure. Every claim made for the benefits of the card was shown to be false, including those related to national security.

Nothing in the past two decades has changed in that regard. The benefits of national ID cards are grossly overstated and their potential negative impacts on our freedom and way of life remain unacceptable.

Conventional wisdom says "everything has changed" since the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Bali bombing in October 2002 and the London outrages this month, the argument goes, show that the terror threat has changed the world. But has it really?

The US, after all, has had its own home-grown terrorists (Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City in April 1995: 168 dead); tourists have been murdered (Luxor, November 1997: 62 dead), planes have been blown up (Lockerbie, December 1988: 270 dead); political terrorists have killed innocent people in the UK (Omagh, August 1998: 29 dead); embassies have been attacked (US in Kenya and Tanzania, August 1998: 224 dead).

The very word "assassin" is a corruption of the name of a radical Islamic sect originating as far back as the 12th century whose members were sent out to enforce fatwas to kill the alleged enemies of Islam; although in our time the real pioneers of this policy have been the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers.

Domestically, we have had terrorist activities going back to at least 1970, when the authorities thwarted a planned attack on the Serbian Orthodox Church in Canberra but failed to stop the bombing of the Yugoslav consulate in Melbourne. In 1972, Black September letter bombs addressed to Israeli diplomats were intercepted. In 1977, the Indian defence attaché and his wife were kidnapped and wounded.


In 1978, a bomb exploded outside the Sydney CHOGM meeting, killing innocent bystanders. In 1980, the Turkish consul-general was assassinated. In 1983 a bomb was found and defused at the Lucas Heights atomic reactor. In 1985 shots were fired into the Vietnamese embassy. An assassination attempt was made on the leader of the Opposition in 1966 and a state MP was murdered in 1994.

Has Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and other advocates of an ID card really forgotten all this? What has really changed in Australia that suddenly justifies rolling over for Big Brother and undermining the protection of our civil liberties?

There are several new reasons that were not fully apparent 20 years ago, and these issues make me even more fearful of national ID systems.

To be effective, cards would need biometric identification, and anyone familiar with the privacy issues arising from the genetic revolution would have cause for concern. Identity fraud has in recent years become a major area of criminal activity - a national ID card system will only help it flourish. The data-matching power of computers has grown exponentially, raising questions of profiling of individuals without their knowledge or consent. Hacking puts our "secure" records at risk, even jury lists get into wrong hands.

Should 20 million Australians have their liberties trashed so that we might - I repeat might - detect the two or three mad jihadists in our midst? Will files now be created on the basis that people belong to a certain religion, attend particular places of worship or hold specific political opinions?

When the Queen visited the London bomb victims, she said: "Those who perpetrate these brutal acts against innocent people should know that they will not change our way of life." A national ID card system would change our way of life. I hope the Queen is proven right and that Beattie and his mob are wrong.

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First published in The Australian on July 18, 2005.

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About the Author

Chris Puplick, a former Liberal senator who served on the joint select committee on the Australia Card, was privacy commissioner of NSW from 1999 to 2003. He is now a Professor in the Health Department at the University of Wollongong.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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