The upcoming election could prove a fatal blow to the government's Access Card plans, with privacy advocates encouraging a voter rebellion on the issue and Labor promising to drop the project if elected to government.
The Access Card, the controversial project that would see welfare payments, health and other government services tied to a nationally administered smartcard, has been put on the backburner by the government after Prime Minister Howard called an election for 24 November.
The government is unable to enter into new contracts while in caretaker mode, stalling any new efforts to pass legislation supporting the project or sign any further tenders.
In newspaper reports yesterday, human services shadow minister Tanya Plibersek stated that the ALP would not proceed with the Access Card project if elected.
The ALP's "apparent backflip" has drawn some criticism from the Democrats, who accuse the opposition of fence-sitting in the lead-up to the election.
"Despite genuine privacy and security fears being raised at every stage of the project, the Opposition took the politically convenient line that its support for the project would depend on whether the contracts had been signed prior to the election," said Democrat Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja.
David Vaile, vice-chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation, says he believes it would be dangerous to suggest that the Access Card is all but dead.
"It has been given a zombie shot and is in a state of suspended animation," he said. "But it has not definitively been abandoned or rejected."
"If re-elected, the government is likely to proceed with its re-introduction, especially if it again has a majority in the Senate."
Vaile said Australians need to give the Access Card issue a greater amount of scrutiny during the poll. He accused the government of being selective about what information it makes available about the project.
"A lot of key information has been kept under wraps," he said. "There hasn't been the proper consultation a project of this size should require."
Australians still have no idea as to the extent to which a proposed Access Card would be used by government as well as private businesses, he said.
"From what limited information we have been given, the design of the system seems to be in complete conflict with the [government's own] National Privacy Principles," he said. "The privacy principles suggest that you can collect information for a specific permissible use, but strict limitations for use beyond that original reason the data was collected.
"The problem with the Access Card project is that it involves collecting the data first, connecting systems, and then deciding what to use it for."
Vaile said the Access Card draft legislation -- the case for which was unanimously rejected by a coalition-dominated Senate Committee -- seems to be "on the same trajectory" as the ill-fated Australia Card proposed by the ALP in the mid-'80s.
"The Australia Card was initially quite popular but was eventually abandoned in embarrassment, as it was so controversial and had so many legal and technical flaws, it became a dead duck and nobody wanted to touch it," he said.
A recent report by the government's audit office (ANAO) found that document-based welfare fraud doesn't exist at any level that justifies the proposed cost of the Access Card project.
Vaile also argues that the Access Card plan as it stands could be an IT project management nightmare.
The Democrats' Stott-Despoja urged privacy advocates to stay the course on the Access Card issue.
"While the government may be languishing in the polls, there is still a real chance that the Coalition will be returned to government and proceed with this flawed project, which the Democrats consider is an ID card in disguise," she said.
"I urge anyone concerned about the Access Card to make an informed decision and not become complacent in the face of the election."