Identity cards are no prophylaxis


‘Identity cards’ have slithered back onto the political agenda. We are reconsidering them as both a potentially benevolent way to protect vulnerable people like Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon from ‘mistakes’ by police; immigration, prison and detention centre authorities, or gate-keepers on access to state mental health services: and as a way to protect us from being blown up by potential suicide bombers riding Melbourne trams or Sydney trains as anonymous soldiers in the ‘war against terrorism’.

Let’s have that debate, then, but test each proposition according to reason and observable facts. This is no time for slippery rationalisations.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

One: The young men who blew themselves and scores of others apart in London on 7 July carried their de facto ‘identity papers’ – the cards we use daily to claim our entitlement to cheaper public transport; drive a car; access social services; use a gym or a library, an ATM or get credit. They were fished out of the middens they made. Their intimates knew who they were: family-oriented, educated, social and sporty British blokes. But that wasn’t who they were on 7 July.

Two: There was plenty of official information about the identities of the two Australian women who were wrongly treated as illegal immigrants. Vivian Alvarez Solon, badly injured, managed to tell immigration authorities repeatedly exactly who she was and that she had a visa. Someone decided instead she was a beaten-up illegal ‘sex worker’ from the Philippines. Child welfare authorities were looking for the mother who abandoned her son at a child care centre. Nobody asked. Cornelia Rau was reported missing by her family, well known to local police and the psychiatric hospital she walked out from, and was an officially ‘missing person’.

Nobody troubled themselves to get it: they had an identity – single, middle-aged, ‘difficult’ and damaged ‘foreign’ women – ascribed to them.

Three: Those who made these decisions had enormous power. They could arrest, detain, discipline and deport ‘suspects’ without restraint, and were encouraged by their superiors, the culture of their agency and by our political leadership – on both sides – to use their vast discretions ruthlessly: to the point, Palmer found, of ignoring their own administrative guidelines and the letter of the very law that gave them that power. Personal judgments about their character and future intentions made within a punitive, ‘process rich’ and compassion -impoverished, administrative culture, determined their ‘identity’.

Four: We should not underestimate the probability of institutionalised discrimination, an obvious factor in Rau and Alvarez Solon’s maltreatment. Both were disturbed, hurting, friendless ‘ethnic’ women. Neither was young, companionable or acted as ‘good’ women are supposed to. Rau told obvious lies about her name, origins and intentions, ‘behaved’ disruptively and was ‘difficult to manage.’ Alvarez Solon was an obvious foreigner who annoyingly, consistently claimed that she had the right to be in Australia. Neither was taken seriously. If we wonder why these factors are obvious. Men in possession of great power don’t bother to be courteous or kind to or even to seek to put at ease women who ‘present’ as angry, assertive and are middle-aged, and therefore ‘difficult’- especially those without articulate, confident male relatives or partners. But that’s just my experience.

Five: Rau and Alvarez Solon were locked up and ill-treated not because their identity was unknown but because their presentation of ‘self,’ of who they really were, was not acceptable. What mattered to them, didn’t matter and wasn’t relevant to those looking out from the warm living room of ‘normal’ society, around whose bright windows they had been fluttering like moths for months or years. Since Cornelia Rau regained a voice, she has told us exactly who she thinks she is, of her own unique existence and identity. She told lies to protect that Self from being identified on others’ terms, as a sick refugee from a group that had already rejected her. She was judged and her ‘behaviour’ found wanting by powerful men who invented their own fictitious identity for her.

When Rau argued recently that those making immigration policy should be ‘ethnic’, she was at a deep level, right: they did not comprehend what it means to experience ‘otherness’.

Six: Identity papers define ‘self’ on criteria thought important by others and give them power over people. Their lack or theft or loss locks people out of human society – an academic friend, researching the lives of intellectually disabled women in central Europe where identity cards are common, recently learned that their ‘cards’ were automatically cancelled when they were diagnosed and treated. Is this how we ‘protect’ human beings?

Seven: Australia has already travelled carelessly, far down this road. We don’t get far without carrying our driver’s licence, Medicare card and the plastic keys to social systems: a tax file number or an ABN and ‘photo identity’ to get into public buildings.

Eight: Identity cards are no prophylaxis against the misuse of power over or by individuals. They can at most work within and for organisational engines that collect and use data that is useless without perfect conformity.

The bombers’ true identities were their inner agents, the ‘self’ that directed and controlled each of their functions, motives and desires; the watcher who reflected on events in the outer and their inner worlds; on the totality of their personal experiences and values, and in their actualisation of their goals. The state collected data that was useless to detect their ‘identity’ determined by their beliefs and choices.

For Alvarez Solon and Rau, nobody was watching their watchers; nobody had a duty and the authority to point out, once power over their lives had been totally taken, that their treatment contravened the department’s procedures and standards, let alone the women’s human rights and civil liberties. Even after the Petro Georgio amendments to immigration law, there will still be no-one, unless some (carefully excluded) third party contacts an ombudsman: there is still to be no obligation to inform of their rights, or right of judicial review.

What do ‘identity papers’ record? Not who we are, but what others think are important: our name, date and place of birth; our marital status; where we live and whether we work; our nationality, citizenship and rights to social benefits such as public education, medical treatment, housing or income support. They can’t record what we believe and long for, with whom we are linked and the constant state of flux that is identity.

Montaigne wrote that, ‘Every human nature is always midway between birth and death, offering only a dim semblance and shadow of itself, and an uncertain and feeble opinion. And if by chance you fix your thought on trying to grasp its essence, it will be neither more nor less than if someone tried to grasp water: for the more he squeezes and presses what by its nature flows all over, the more he will lose what he was trying to grasp and hold.’

If we do not understand this, or share common values about human personhood; if we retreat to the ‘certainty’ promised by tangible ‘proofs’ of public identity, the sole remaining protection of a human being’s self-possession becomes the intuitive values, competence, diligence or laissez-faire attitudes of particular public servants and our political leaders, who have already shown themselves unfit for the responsibility.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.