In a bid to replace up to 17 separate cards currently required for Medicare benefits, family tax, child-care and unemployment payments, pensions, Austudy and pharmaceutical and transport concessions, Australia is rolling out a biometric identity card plan. Persons may begin applying for the card in 2008, and they project is expected to be implemented by 2010.
While Australians will need a photo identity card within four years to receive Medicare and welfare payments but will not be forced to carry it at all times. People will be able to register for the card from the beginning of 2008 and it will be phased in over two years.
The new "smart card" will contain "enhanced security," very much like the current biometric passports, identity cards and visas currently being introduced by numerous western nations, such as the United States, Great Britain and Germany.
Australia's ID card will also be used to check identities for immigration and security purposes and to crack down on fraud. Its embedded computer chip will include at least a photograph, number, signature, date of birth and address.
From 2010 people will not be able to receive government health and welfare payments without a card. People may choose to have other information stored on the card, such as health and emergency contact details which, for example, ambulance officers could use.
Although it will cost $1 billion it is estimated it will save the Government $3 billion a year.
The Prime Minister, John Howard, said the Government had considered a national identity card after last year's London bombings but in the end it "was not predisposed to adopt a national ID card".
He denied the card was "a Trojan horse for an ID card" but acknowledged it would have "enhanced security features".
He said the security features of the smart card were one reason that a separate national identity card was not deemed necessary. Its perceived "Big Brother" features were another reason.
The Government's decision followed a number of cabinet debates. Mr Howard said it showed a balance had been struck between ease of access to government payments and enhanced security measures on the one hand and legitimate concerns about storing personal information on the other.
However some of his ministers think of it as an identity card. Before the announcement the Treasurer, Peter Costello, referred to it as just that, and then corrected himself.
The NSW Premier, Morris Iemma, whom Mr Howard consulted before the announcement, welcomed the card. He said it was possible to balance threats to security with individual rights.
However, the president of the NSW Council of Civil Liberties, Cameron Murphy, said the card would put people at risk of identity theft and fraud. "Everybody is interested in streamlining accessibility to government services," he said.
"It's really how you go about doing it and ensuring any system is safe and secure and people aren't forced to provide information that is unnecessary and exposes them to the risk of fraud."
The president of the Australian Council of Civil Liberties, Terry O'Gorman, said the announcement "marked a move towards an eventual ID card".
Business reacted suspiciously, saying it could easily turn into an identity card.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry's chief, Peter Hendy, said that although he supported clamping down on welfare fraud he was concerned that "an upgraded card runs the risk of providing government with a platform for a far more costly and intrusive Australia Card-type proposal".
The Opposition's human services spokesman, Kelvin Thomson, gave in-principle support to the card but warned of a potential cost blow-out to the Australian budget.
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