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Protection from Big Brother

By Barry Cohen - posted Wednesday, 16 September 2009

When pulled over by traffic cops, do you produce your driver's licence when asked; the one with your name, address, birth date, licence type and number, and the cadaverous photo in the corner?

When you visit a branch of your bank where you are not a familiar face, are you asked to produce that licence so you can cash a cheque?

Do you leave home without your Medicare and credit cards and other forms of identification?


Where is this leading, I hear you ask. Well, for starters, back to October 22, 1986, when Neal Blewett, health minister in the Hawke government introduced the Australia Card Bill. The thrust of the legislation was to reduce tax evasion and avoidance, social welfare fraud, illegal immigration and other abuses. It was anticipated that its introduction would yield the government an extra $724 million a year. That's about $3 billion in today's prices.

The opposition's position? Initially, as welfare bludgers had always been high on its target list, it thought it was terrific. The prospect of giving bludgers quality time in the slammer had the opposition salivating, particularly when it heard about the gentleman who received 50 different unemployment cheques a fortnight, netting him a mere $400,000 in two years. Work that out in today's prices.

The opposition was less enthusiastic about catching tax cheats, probably because some of its mates were in it up to their necks. In 1984, 57,000 taxpayers had understated their income. Illegal immigrants also excited opposition interest as 60,000 were believed to be roaming free.

The joint select committee on the Australia Card, consisting of members from all parties, had approved it, with prominent Coalition members speaking publicly in its favour. Future National Party leader Charles Blunt had this to say: "With the government's white paper on tax reform recommending the introduction of ID cards there is broad partisan support for the measure."

Their enthusiasm lasted until they realised how they could scare the wits out of everyone by claiming it would intrude into every aspect of people's lives. Blunt didn't miss anyone.

The Australia Card, he claimed, would be necessary for "transactions at banks, building societies, credit unions and stores; to get a new credit card, to make an investment, buy a new car, land or house, employ a gardener or a babysitter ... plumbers, electricians, gas fitters, handymen and other providers will have to produce their ID card when asked ... People will not be able to move very far without having their card in the top pocket or in their purse."


No opportunity was missed to frighten the punters: "Massive queues would form at every public institution, costs would balloon out to $10 billion, the private sector would be severely financially penalised." In short, "the card will be attached to just about every transaction conducted in daily life". Not surprisingly the Australia Card died in the Senate and it has never been revived.

In 1986, few would have imagined the changes that would occur even in the next quarter of a century through technology. The internet has exploded and the number of cards we carry has expanded exponentially. The amount of information available to everyone from the Australian Taxation Office to Medicare, credit card companies, banks and government bodies is mind-boggling but essential to enable us to function in an increasingly complex and technological society.

Try doing business without an Australian Business Number. Try driving a car without a licence. And what about a tax file number?

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First published in The Australian on September 9, 2009.

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About the Author

Barry Cohen was Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Environment in the Hawke Government from 1983 to 1987. He currently runs an animal sanctuary in Calga, NSW.

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