CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Dangers of a national ID card
, July 30, 2005
The Howard Government has other, more effective means to fix immigration problems and to combat extreme Islam than to introduce a national ID card.The speed at which the Howard Government jumped from the damning findings of an inquiry into one of its departments to a revival of the national identity card debate has been a disturbing development.
Identity cards have been the holy grail for bureaucrats and proponents of big government in Australia and overseas for a couple of decades.
The same people seem to use any pretext, from welfare fraud to organised crime to terrorism, to argue that the implementation of national ID cards for every citizen is both necessary and urgent.
The background to the first "Australia Card'' proposed by the Hawke Government in 1987 was the preceding period of tax evasion and corporate corruption (the bottom-of-the-harbour schemes and the like).
The background this time around is 9-11 and the ongoing threat of Islamic terrorism around the world.
Indeed, the coincidental timing of the recent London bombings and the release of the Palmer Report into problems inside the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) made it easier for supporters of a national ID card to rekindle a new debate on its potential benefits.
However, technology has moved rapidly from that last serious attempt to introduce the "Australia Card'', and Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone has already warned that any new card would have to have some kind of "biometric'' data embedded inside it.
By this, Senator Vanstone meant that any new card would have to have a fingerprint or piece of DNA inside it to be effective.
Prime Minister John Howard has also changed his tune from being a fierce opponent of the card in the 1980s to someone who is now open to its benefits.
Mr Howard claimed "circumstances had changed'' since the 1980s, arguing that the card might be another weapon in the Government's armoury against terrorism.
The Palmer Inquiry into the Department of Immigration was prompted by the wrongful deportation of two Australian citizens, Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon, and revealed a litany of internal problems.
A running joke around Canberra is that the departmental acronym DIMIA should read instead: "Deport Now, Make Inquiries Afterwards''.Tragic failures
However, according to former Australian Federal Police commissioner, Mick Palmer, the department does indeed have a "culture and mindset'' which led to these and other tragic failures.
The Rau case in particular, showed "not so much incompetent management as an absence of management'', Mr Palmer concluded.
"The DIMIA management approach to the complexities of implementing immigration detention policy is process-rich and outcomes-poor," Mr Palmer said.
Mr Palmer's damning findings prompted a shake-up at the senior levels of the department, but neither former minister Philip Ruddock (who was in charge when most of the problems were occurring from 1996-2003) nor current minister Amanda Vanstone has even been censured.
Instead, the government has used the opportunity to switch the focus to a controversial ID card.
But while the ID card debate raises many questions about personal liberty, privacy and freedom, the most obvious one is: how effective would they actually be in stopping either wrongful deportation and mistreatment of people by the Immigration Department or an act of terrorism?
If German-born Australian citizen Cornelia Rau did not have her ID card with her (with or without embedded DNA) when she was picked up by DIMIA officials, she would still have been deported given the department's recent ineptitude.
And a committed terrorist would still be able to perpetrate their murderous acts, with or without an ID card.
The Labor Opposition has been calling for a Royal Commission into the department because it says Mr Palmer was limited in his lines of inquiry and that public servants at lower levels were not given immunity to give evidence.
The Government has rejected calls for a judicial inquiry on the grounds that this was not one of Mr Palmer's recommendations.
Neither was there anything remotely like a proposal for a national identity card in Mr Palmer's report.
The fact is identity cards have the potential to be misused by the very authorities which introduced them, for restriction of movement by citizens, to centralise power, to further dehumanise people and reduce them to numbers, and for citizens to be classified and corralled during periods of national emergency.
A national identity card would be a dangerous step and would further encroach on the very liberties Australia is seeking to defend in the war against the terrorists.
Hopefully, the Howard Government will resist the siren-calls of the bureaucracy and seek other more effective means to fix up the problems inside DIMIA and to fight extreme Islam.