An Australian identity card system may be a good idea, but only if it is accompanied by increasing human rights protections. To adopt the former, without the latter, would be to undermine democratic freedoms.
Before any discussion on the merits of an ID card begins, we should dismiss the argument that such a card could prevent terrorism or a repetition of the appalling treatment of "missing person" Cornelia Rau. The reality is that an ID card will not stop terrorists from carrying out horrific and senseless attacks on citizens. Nor will such a system prevent governments meting out human rights abuse to people who find themselves in a similar position to Ms Rau.
But now that Queensland Premier Peter Beattie has let the ID card genie out of its bottle where it has been living since Bob Hawke abandoned the idea 20 years ago, it’s clear that there’s going to be a debate on the matter. Prime Minister Howard has said as much, as has his Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, who has done a back flip on the issue in the last few days. It is important that any debate be balanced and rational and take account of legitimate human rights concerns about an ID card.
There are some compelling arguments in favour of a national ID card system in Australia. At a very practical level, it would end, for example, the inefficient absurdity of Australians having to comply with the “ten point” test to open a bank account. The test where you need your passport, drivers licence, and a power or telephone bill that verifies your address. And it would reduce the inconvenience, particularly to elderly and ill Australians, of having to search for both their Medicare and pensioner concession card when they go to the doctor. It might also reduce the impact of identity theft which currently costs Australians around $6 billion a year.
A national ID card might also reduce racial profiling in Australia. As celebrated American civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz has observed, ID cards helped reduce the harassment of Black American students at Harvard University. Government officials have much less justifiable reason to harass individuals who produce their ID card, whatever their religion or race.
Then there’s the fact that law enforcement and other regulatory agencies currently, as is the case in the US and UK, have to cross check and match up information and intelligence. The propensity for such efforts to fail was a factor in the lead-up to 9-11.
On the question of privacy and the concern that a national identity card would allow governments to create a "big brother" style database on individuals, let’s remember that already the public and private sector are busily collecting information on each of us every day.
But given the fact that a national identity card system goes to the heart of core democratic values such as the right to privacy and to freedom, it is not sufficient to base its existence on otherwise arguably compelling reasons of efficiency and security alone. Nor is it adequate to allow the introduction of such a system in a country like Australia where human rights protections are so inadequate.
As the European Court on Human Rights has found, an ID card containing only a person's name, sex, date and place of birth, current address, and the name of their spouse, is not necessarily an infringement of human rights. Nor is the requirement that each person issued with such a card must carry it with them a breach of human rights.
But what is a breach of human rights is the capacity for governments to misuse information gathered as part of the national ID system, such as unauthorised disclosure of a citizen’s details, government and private sector agencies inappropriately demanding to see a person’s ID card, or keeping on file information about citizens for long periods of time.
That such breaches could become a reality under an Australian national identity card system cannot be dismissed. Only five years ago the Australian Taxation Office was selling information about individuals and businesses, and the Australian Electoral Office gave the ATO details about voters for an ATO mail-out.
Therefore, if Australia is to have a national identity card system it must also adopt a charter or bill of rights that binds the parliament. In short, our Constitution needs to ensure that every Australian has rights which the parliament cannot take away, such as a right “to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”, to use the words of the European Charter of Human Rights.
Opposition to a national identity card system for Australia would be considerably reduced if a Bill of Rights which severely limited the opportunities for misuse of an ID card system were adopted at the same time.