The Liberal Party is in a state of confusion over whether it would deploy national identifiers to keep tabs on people receiving health and welfare benefits, should it win government.
Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey told The Age today that the failure of the Howard Government's Access Card had been his biggest political regret and that he would "absolutely" re-introduce a similar scheme should his party win the election. The scheme would require "fair dinkum consolidation" of government IT agencies.
"Whether you go a card or not, I don't know. Everyone has a Medicare card already, but that's old technology. We're spending $140 billion to $150 billion a year on health and welfare, but what productivity improvements have there been in service delivery? None," Hockey told The Age.
But less than 24 hours before voters hit polling booths, Hockey spokesperson Lisa Chikarovski confirmed that Hockey had made the comments but told ZDNet Australia that an Access Card was not part of party policy.
She said the scheme — which appears to mix aspects of the government's e-health identifiers with data on welfare benefits payment — was part of Hockey's musings in his former role in Human Services, but she would not rule out introducing the plan. She refused to clarify what services the identification scheme would include.
Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop further rejected claims that Hockey's comments referred to Coalition policy.
"Joe is referring to a health ID card that we looked at previously in government, because everybody has a Medicare card and Joe was just asking whether that could be extended to some sort of electronic identification," Bishop told ABC Radio in Melbourne.
"But it is not coalition policy, and we don't have to talk only on coalition policy."
Every Australian has been assigned a number under the Federal Government's e-health scheme, but individual health records have yet to be introduced.
The controversial Access Card scheme was announced under the then-Howard Government, causing furore within privacy groups advocates. It was dumped by the Rudd Government.
The Australian Privacy Foundation expressed outrage at Hockey's comments, labelling a move to use the e-health identifier number as a conduit for the Access Card as "appalling".
Chair of the health sub committee, Dr Juanita Fernando, said: "Our submissions, [to] the Australian Health Ministers Advisory Council repeatedly warn of this event.
"The Coalition plans to use the national health identification scheme to achieve cost savings in health and welfare despite the risks to privacy, not to mention of identity fraud, to Australian citizens."
A 2007 report by the Australian National Audit Office found that the Access Card would not reduce document-based welfare crime at a sufficient level to justify expenditure, one of the benefits of the scheme touted by the then-Howard Government.
Accounting firm KPMG estimated the project would save some $3 billion over 10 years.