One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has reportedly proposed that every Australian be required to carry a national identity card. The rationale? The card will supposedly significantly reduce fraud by non-citizens who are resident in Australia. The proposal may be good politics – a timely diversion from Hanson’s very public tendency to lose candidates – but it is unviable.
The defects of the proposal may not prevent it being embraced by Peter Dutton, Christian Porter and officials looking for a quick policy fix. It is however likely to be questioned by the cost/benefit hardheads in the Department of Finance and successfully challenged in the High Court if there is a move to establish a ‘must carry’ regime.
What would the Hanson Card look like? At this stage its operation is unclear, other than it would apparently involve a fingerprint, would supposedly solve entitlement fraud problems and would have to be carried by all Australian adults for scrutiny by police, officials and other entities. A sceptic might be forgiven for thinking that we have yet another One Nation policy soundbite without the responsibility for identifying legal and administrative issues. No duty, it seems, to ‘please explain’ when you are seeking headlines.
A national biometric based card would involve all adults registering their fingerprints with the Commonwealth government. Under current law that requirement appears unconstitutional. The data would presumably be shared with the state/territory police forces and other non-Commonwealth agencies. The ‘must carry’ requirement – taking the card when you walk the dog, go to work, visit granny, pop down the shops or do other things to which you are entitled – likewise appears to be unconstitutional. We are not at war and few people will be happy with the idea that they could face criminal sanctions if they forgot to carry the card or refused to show it to a range of officials.
Would the card work? Aside from the affront to human dignity, such a card is unlikely to substantially reduce the incidence and severity of entitlement fraud (eg unemployment, disability, health and other fraud by citizens and people who are pretending to be citizens).
Saliently, the cost of national registration and other the database/s and data sharing mechanisms required to set up and maintain the card would dwarf the fraud likely to be identified and recovered. The Commonwealth, like the UK, has not been very good at establishing population-scale systems (recall the recent Census debacle, revelations about major problems with Centrelink and the obfuscation about the national e-health scheme that saw the PCEHR become MyHR). The Department of Finance – whose precursor killed off the Australia Card two decades ago – is likely to be wary about costs, the inevitable project creep and the ambitions of competing Departments. Finance, along with the Productivity Commission, has a healthy disrespect for silver bullet proposals.
What about ordinary Australians? Some may be comforted by the idea that everyone is required to carry – and display – a biometric card. Others will either be disillusioned or relish the thought that the magic card is a tool for a variety of scams. When we read the court reports for example we can see that crooks are just as good at manufacturing birth certificates, credit cards and driver licence cards as the organisations that are responsible for those identity documents. Many business will weigh risk, choosing convenience over the costs of rigorous authentication. Few Australians have substantial forensic skills. We’ll accordingly see quite a few fake Hanson Cards if the One Nation scheme gets off the ground.
It will be a card that you have to carry but don’t want to. A card that will not be an indelible signifier of identity. A card that fundamentally erodes privacy and a card that eats public revenue without commensurate results.
Bruce Baer Arnold is Asst Professor | School of Law & Justice, Faculty of Business, Government & Law, University of Canberra