Australia Card Resurrected


John Howard might have won the 1987 Federal election if he had fought hard against the Hawke Government’s Australia Card. Fortunately, his characteristic backtracking let Labor off the hook and the proposal was quietly buried after the election.

Now it is being resurrected as an anti-terrorist measure. My present fear is that the Labor leadership, State and Federal, is about to repeat Howard’s mistake.

I am the more anxious because I well remember how easily I succumbed in 1987 to the arguments in favour of the Australia Card. I allowed myself to be persuaded (by my dear mate Bill Bowtell, mainly) that the card was a rational response to the problems of illegal immigrants and social security fraud.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

But we have seen in recent years that it is in precisely these two areas – immigration and welfare – that the power of the State, backed by majority opinion, can be exercised most ruthlessly and mercilessly. That is to say, the very arguments I would have supported in the 1980s arouse my deepest suspicions in 2005.

The plain fact is that the whole idea of the national identity card is about a massive transfer of power to the State.

It is about a massive increase of police power over the daily life of every citizen.

It is about giving officials in the police forces and their surrogates in the security industry, the Immigration Department, the social welfare departments, the health departments, and a range of private bureaucracies in the credit and banking industries, a degree of supervision, surveillance and control, previously unknown in Australia.

Let me put it at the most obvious: if it becomes the law that each of us must possess an identity card, then each of us will be required to produce the card on demand. That is, it will become unlawful for any of us not to carry the card and to produce it on demand, and the sole arbiters of our offence will be those given authority to require its production. And, in the way these laws are always drafted, there will be a clause which says: ‘and by any such person as the Minister may designate’. And that will mean, in practice, the whole apparatus of the State and its bureaucracy.

When the proposal is being put, and when another $200 million is being spent on propaganda posing as government information on television, we will be told: ‘only the guilty have anything to fear’.

There are, in fact, a thousand good reasons why any individual may choose not to disclose his or her identity, his or her whereabouts, at any particular time.

But there is one over-riding reason: It is my right.

And my right not to disclose my identity, if I choose, is superior to the claim of any copper or any clerk to demand it.

The compromises we already make, say, at airports, only emphasise the principle. We are becoming the bouncer society.

We suddenly have all this preaching about ‘Australian values’. When Howard’s little mate, Brendan Nelson, said on 23 August that Muslim schools should teach Australian values or be closed down, he was asked to give an example. He replied: ‘Simpson’s donkey’.

Fine, except that Simpson was a Pom who jumped ship at Newcastle in 1910 and whose real name was Kirkpatrick. In other words, Simpson was an illegal immigrant who enlisted under a false name. The donkey was Turkish.

In fact, Australia has had two peace-time versions of an identity card. One was the ticket-of-leave for convicts; the other was the dog-collar acts in the various States to keep tabs on the Aborigines.

In any case, I should have thought that the one Australian value worth prizing was lack of deference to authority. The national identity card is the ultimate act of deference. It is, quite literally, the surrender of one’s identity to the State.

Worst of all, the Hawke proposal is being revived in the context of international terrorism. Yet nobody seriously argues that an Australian identity card would remotely affect the events we have seen in New York, Madrid or London, or must expect in Sydney.

Does anyone seriously argue that the card would have the slightest deterrent effect on the perpetrators of any of these atrocities, or those that are to come? On the contrary, the whole purpose of pushing through an identity card is to give these self-declared custodians of the public safety an alibi when things go wrong.

And that is my great fear, when all these Labor Premiers sit down with Howard to put the national identity card ‘back on the agenda’. They are just preparing their own alibi.

The most chilling remark I have ever heard from an Australian Prime Minister is John Howard as quoted in the Australian on 3 August 2005: ‘The first civil liberty you and I have is not to be killed.’ In this way, everything is justified.

Over the last forty years, the Labor Party has had to shed many of its shibboleths. It may be more difficult for many of us to discard the idea that State power is essentially benign. We have to recognise that State power and corporate power are now virtually indistinguishable.

The national identity card is just another device to weld them ever closer together.

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.