Australia Card

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The Australia Card was a controversial proposal for a national identification card for Australian citizens and resident foreigners. The proposal was made in 1985, and abandoned in 1987.


The idea for the card was raised at the national Tax Summit in 1985 convened by the then Federal Labor government led by Bob Hawke. The card was to amalgamate other government identification systems and act against tax avoidance, and health and welfare fraud. The government introduced legislation in the parliament in 1986, but it did not have a majority in the Senate and was repeatedly blocked by the opposition and minor parties.

In response, Hawke asked the Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen for a double dissolution, which was granted on 5 June 1987, followed by an election on 11 July. The government was returned, but still without a majority in the Senate. Nevertheless, the legislation was reintroduced, even though it was expected to be blocked in the Senate once more. Under such circumstances, a joint sitting of the Senate and the House of Representatives could have taken place, at which the legislation would have been assured of passage due to the dominance of the Labor Party in the parliament overall.

However, a retired public servant, Ewart Smith, noticed a flaw in the drafting of the legislation that nobody in either the government or the opposition had noticed. Even if the bill had been passed in the joint sitting, certain regulations necessary for the functioning of the system could be overturned by the Senate alone. Specifically, the bill contained clauses that imposed penalties on businesses that failed to require a person to produce their Australia Card, or authorised the freezing of bank account and social security payments for those who did not produce one. These clauses were deemed to come into effect on "the first relevant day", and that in turn was determined by a regulation made under the Act. Regulations require the assent of the Senate alone. Therefore, even if the bill finally passed, the Coalition could still effectively prevent it from being implemented by using its numbers in the Senate to defeat the regulations. Smith conveyed these details in letters to newspapers; John Stone, recently elected as a National Party senator for Queensland, read the letters and contacted Smith to confirm the details. Stone then told his Opposition colleagues, who were able to embarrass the government on 23 September by asking questions in Parliament that revealed they were not aware of this technicality.

It is not clear that this flaw was fatal to the scheme, but the government did at that point abandon the idea. It may well have been a convenient face-saving way out of the situation, because by that time very significant popular opposition had arisen from widely disparate groups, although the Australia Card had not figured particularly prominently in the election campaign.[1][2]

Subsequent outcomes[edit]

Following the shelving of the Australia Card, the Federal Government introduced a new identification system known as a tax file number. This unique number, in many ways analogous to the United States Social Security Number, was a means of identifying and cross-referencing benefits received and tax paid by individuals.[citation needed]

The Australia Card proposal resurfaces every so often. In the early 2000s, figures within the Liberal Party of Australia - which opposed the card in the 1980s - voiced support for a national identity card. Following the London Bombings of 2005, then-Prime Minister John Howard said The Australia Card would help the government to combat terrorism and address flaws in the immigration system.[3]

Plans to expand the capabilities of the ubiquitous Medicare card were announced in 2006 by then Human Services Minister Joe Hockey. [4] The Health and social services access card was criticised by some sectors of the public and relevant interest groups as a step in the same direction of an Australia Card. However, the Howard Government was unable to implement the scheme before their electoral defeat in 2007.

See also[edit]

  • Tax file number – its uses are restricted and it has a far more limited scope than the Australia Card would have had, despite increased interaction between welfare and tax matters.
  • Medicare card – issued to and used by almost all individuals, but just for health services and rebates, but can be used as identification in many government and private industries.


External links[edit]