Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Why ID cards will not work in Australia

or not work as intended.

In 1985 the federal government accepted a proposal from the public service to introduce an identity card for all Australian citizens. The aim was to prevent fraud in taxation, welfare and immigration. The card was named the "Australia Card" and heavily promoted.

Initially most political parties supported the idea: the governing Labor Party and the opposition parties; the Liberals and the (conservative) Nationals. The only party opposing was the Democrats, a minority centrist party. Labor held government and a majority in the House but lacked a majority in the Senate, being only able to pass legislation with the support of the Democrats.

Under the plan, federal databases were to be merged to supply a single source of data on individuals. This was to be named "the register" to avoid the term "database". Both the card and the register were to hold a black-and-white photograph of the individual (fingerprinting was considered but rejected). The register was to be administered by the Health insurance Commission (the national health care system), rather than the police.

At first 70% of the population supported the idea, but a grassroots campaign soon grew to oppose it, helped by a split in goverment ranks. The Labor Party is highly factionalised on ideological lines. The (social democratic) "Centre Unity" faction supported the Australia Card while the (democratic socialist) "Steering Committee" faction opposed it. Sensing a political opportunity elements within the Liberal party effected a change in party policy to oppose the card, and were also able to swing the National Party around, despite their previous strong support for the card. The bill was defeated in the Senate.

Even before the vote, however, the government had discovered numerous serious difficulties with implementation and had lost enthusiasm.

The government task force given the job of implementing the Australia card had discovered that identity cards work in European countries because:
- there is a long history of their use, and therefore acceptance;
- national governments have detailed centralised records of all citizens;
- until recently there was little immigration, making record keeping easier;- until recently the population was not mobile - you died in the village or arondissment you were born in.

By contrast, in Australia:
- records are decentralised, with some being kept by federal and others by state, city or shire authorities;
-many Australians come from towns where records have been destroyed in natural disasters such as bush fires and floods;
- 21% of the population was born overseas, with many not having English as a first language. Many Asian and European governments (Greece is a good example) consider emigration and the taking of foreign citizenship an act of disloyalty and will not assist migrants to establish their identity in their new homeland;
- many migrants come from nations where government records have been destroyed by war or civil conflict;
- some migrants are refugees whose re;atives and friends remain in their homeland. These people have every reason to conceal their identities;
- there are 20 million Australians and at any time between half a milion and one million are travelling or working overseas, often for lengthy periods. Is the person who arrives in Australia the same one who left?
- the Australian population is highly mobile, frequently moving to where the jobs are. I can name one school on the NSW central coast where none of the students who enter in Year 7 are present in six years time when Year 12 graduates;
- while 93% of the population live in a few large cities, the rest of the population lives in very isolated areas. It is quite easy to "walk off the map" and vanish;
- it is not an offence under the laws of most states to go by an alias and individuals often take advantage of this to begin a new life in a new place;
- Combine this with out-of-date addresses, mispellings and variants on names and tracking an individual can be very difficult.

You could, of course, impose an ID card but there would always be some doubt as to identity - not much of an ID card.

No comments: