Opposition parties and privacy groups are warning that Australians may still be forced to carry the government's controversial Access Card should the Liberal Party win upcoming federal election.
Plans to rush the legislation through earlier this year were put on hold in August following public scrutiny of a draft proposal on the Access Card legislation released in late June. According to Minister for Human Services Senator Chris Ellison, over 60 submissions regarding the proposed legislation were received by the relevant Senate Committee, some of which have been published on the departmental Web site.
The government remains committed to the Access Card project ...
Minister for Human Services Senator Chris Ellison
Nonetheless, Senator Ellison confirmed the federal government's intentions to press ahead with the implementation of its controversial Access Card, should it be returned to power in the upcoming election.
"The government remains committed to the Access Card project and I am glad to see that the community have availed themselves of this opportunity to provide input that serves to strengthen the draft legislation," Senator Ellison said.
"Over 60 submissions have been received on the draft Bill from public and private organisations as well as individuals. The Access Card will affect the lives of more than 16 million Australians and, as I have said previously, I am determined that we be responsive to their views and get it right."
However, Democrat Senator Natasha Stott Despoja rejects Ellison's assertion that the government is serious about responding to the public's concerns with a new draft bill. Instead, she suggests the government's decision to postpone the legislation until after the election was essentially driven by political expediency.
"The submissions may have played a minor role but I suspect that the decision to delay the legislation was largely a poll-driven exercise. Given the very limited ways in which the revised Bills responded to concerns of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, and the lack of regard which the Bills have to many of the concerns expressed by the public, the adverse comments in many of the submissions could hardly have been unexpected," Stott Despoja said.
... the adverse comments in many of the submissions could hardly have been unexpected.
Democrat Senator Natasha Stott Despoja
"I suspect the government is [attempting] to avoid further bad publicity of this nature by rushing through another controversial project."
For his part, Senator Ellison says he remains committed to the stated aims of the proposed legislation, and is not prepared to indicate to what extent the public response will be integrated into the legislation post-election.
"The Access Card is being introduced to prevent fraud and improve the delivery of government health benefits, veterans' and social services," Ellison said. "It will streamline and modernise the delivery of health and welfare payments, and will significantly reduce fraud. International accounting firm KPMG has stated that the introduction of the Access Card will save AU$3 billion over 10 years."
However, even these figures are being called into question by Shadow Minister for Human Services Tanya Plibersek, who is calling for the government to make the KPMG report open to public scrutiny. Reaffirming her support for the measures currently in place to prevent welfare fraud, she says the government is doing everything it can to minimise the Access Card as an election issue as it has became obvious that it is not a popular proposal.
"The government has released no evidence that shows fraud against Centrelink and Medicare is due to identity fraud," Plibersek said. "The government has refused to release information it has on fraud, including a report by KPMG, which begs suspicion that a lot of welfare and health fraud is not committed through the use of false identities."
Surfing the submissions
Responses to the draft version of the legislation were varied although the overwhelming majority of those already published on the Web site criticised the Bill in its current form, while others controversially called for the functions of the card to be expanded.
The Australian Bankers Association (ABA) is calling for the government to remove parts of the legislation which would make it illegal for the card to be used as an identifier by non-government parties.
According to the ABA, this restriction is inconsistent with the policy background driving the legislation, and is calling for an exemption in situations where "there is a legal obligation to verify a customer's identity."
Calling the bill contradictory, Senator Stott Despoja suggested that this so-called "function creep" will ultimately lead to the card becoming the de facto identity card the government has consistently said it will not be implementing.
"Our main concerns include the propensity for function creep, that despite assurances the card will become an identity card," said Stott Despoja. "Submissions criticised the Bills as being highly contradictory by, on the one hand, making it an offence to demand that the Access Card be used as identification, but on the other hand allowing people to produce the card as identification if they choose to, which will inevitably lead to the card being used widely for identification purposes."
Also at issue is the lack of clarity in the bill, with organisations like the Australian General Practice Network (AGPN) calling for more details on what information the card is going to contain, and expresses concern that its members will be expected to become Medicare-fraud police.
"Health professionals cannot be expected to refuse health services as a consequence of a Medicare Australia rejection relating to Medical Benefits Schedule eligibility; this has consequences in terms of policing of eligibility, as it is now directly managed at the front desk in a practice," Kate Carnell, AGPN Chief Executive Officer stated in a letter to the Access Card Senate Committee.
All we can do at this stage is speculate as to what the final bill will look like ...
Nigel Waters, policy coordinator, Australian Privacy Foundation
"AGPN has no issues with ensuring that the appropriate use of Commonwealth funds are directed to eligible patients, but the fact remains that a policing function will occur in the practice as an immediate eligibility will now be known."
Not surprisingly, the strongest criticisms of the draft legislation came from privacy and consumer advocacy groups such as the Access Card Consumer and Privacy Taskforce, and Civil Liberties Australia. Of a key concern, according to Nigel Waters, policy coordinator for the Australian Privacy Foundation, is that a re-elected government may present the poll as a mandate for the legislation in its current state.
"All we can do at this stage is speculate as to what the final bill will look like," said Waters. "It's entirely predictable that we will end up with an Access Card if the government is re-elected. We hope that if they do restart the project after the elections that there will be a response to the concerns raised in the submissions, but there's no indication at this stage that they listened to past responses, and there's no indication that they will this time either."