Identity cards and the Access Card

February 2006. Last updated 17 August, 2010

Roy Jordan, Law and Bills Digest Section

Cartoon from 'The Australian' newspaper

Cartoon: London bombers being told: '.. and make sure you've got your identity cards to be found after the bombs go off''.
Nicholson of "The Australian" newspaper:



This e-Brief provides background on the 1980s proposal by the Labor Government to introduce a national identity card (the Australia Card), its subsequent defeat, initiatives in 2005 and 2006 by the Coalition Government to consider an ID card in an effort to deter crime and terrorist activity, and the 2006-07 Coalition policy to introduce a social services access card. In a press release dated 22 November 2007 Lindsay Tanner, shadow Labor Finance Minister, stated that a Labor Government would not proceed with the access card.
Links are provided to some key documents and Internet sites, as well as background on some overseas countries. Emphasis in this brief is on the legal and privacy aspects of identity cards.

The 1980s: the Australia Card

Reports on the Australia Card

In June 1985 the Hawke Labor Government released a paper entitled Reform of the Australian Tax System: draft white paper (Canberra : AGPS, 1985. Library call no. R 336.2050994 AUS). It contained proposals for a national system of identification and estimated that ‘additional taxation of the order of $800 million might be collected from the system within three years of its implementation' (para. 3.22).

The main purpose of the Australia Card was to prevent losses to revenue through the taxation system and through the payment of Commonwealth benefits. It was argued that tax evasion would be reduced because the card would enable better matching of information and because the card would have to be produced in a range of transactions, including opening of bank accounts, investment, buying and selling real estate and applying for a job. Apart from taxation evasion and social security fraud, illegal immigrants were also a target of the scheme.

It was intended that thirteen Government agencies would use the Australia Card identity number and that there would be four main categories of use: legal identification, revenue raising, welfare/benefit protection, epidemiological and statistical purposes. It was also thought by the Government that the Australia Card would assist in combating organised criminal activity.

Two reports were issued on the proposal in 1985-1986:

  • Establishment and administration of a national identification system: the Australia Card Program: interim planning report (Health Insurance Commission, August 1985), and
  • Report of the Interdepartmental Committee established to develop legislative requirements and other aspects necessary to complete the detailed implementation of the national identity system (29 August 1985)

Both reports were published in volume 1 of the Official Hansard Transcript of Evidence of the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card, 1985-1986 (see below), at pages 4-73 and 74-116 respectively. Library call number S 328.94027 AUS.

The Government’s decision to introduce an Australia Card was announced in September 1985 in the final white paper Reform of the Australian Taxation System: statement by the Treasurer the Hon. Paul Keating (Parliamentary Paper no. 315/1985) at pages 28-31.

Features of the proposed system included:

• A card carrying a unique number and the cardholder’s name, address and signature (the initial suggestion was that the card would not include a photograph but this was changed by the time the Australia Card Bill was introduced)

• All Australian citizens and foreign nationals in prescribed categories would be required to register for and obtain a card. Cards issued to visitors and temporary residents would differ from those issued to Australian citizens and would indicate whether the person was entitled to work or to access Medicare benefits. The card would need to be produced only for taxation, social welfare and Medicare purposes, and

• Administration by the Health Insurance Commission using its network of Medicare offices.

The Government also proposed the introduction of a companion system for corporations, trusts, partnerships, clubs and associations. It was proposed that ‘the most effective companion system would be to use the Australia Card number of a relevant person associated with an entity to validate that prescribed transaction of that entity. The purpose of this companion system … was to prevent the leakage of revenue gains from individuals to entities and other non-individuals’.

In response to the Government announcement and following the introduction on 11 October 1985 of the Health Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1985 which contained provisions enabling the Health Insurance Commission to plan for an Australia Card system, Parliament established the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card in November 1985. It reported on 8 May 1986 (Parliamentary Paper no. 175/1986) and the tabling of its report in the House of Representatives and the Senate provoked some debate. The Committee rejected the proposed system and recommended improvements to the existing tax file number system. The Government did not make a formal response to the report, although the Minister for Health referred to the report when he introduced the Australia Card Bill a few months later.

Australia Card legislation 1986-87

In October 1986 legislation to introduce an identity card was introduced into Parliament. The fate of the Australia Card Bill can be summarised as follows:

Australia Card Bill 1986

An Australia Card Bill 1986 was introduced into the Parliament in October 1986 by the Minister for Health. Associated legislation was later introduced, for example, the Privacy Bill 1986. The Australia Card Bill was rejected by the Senate, with the Coalition and the Australian Democrats voting against it. The Privacy Bill also failed to pass.

Key documents

  • Text of Bill (130 pages, PDF 11 MB)
  • Explanatory Memorandum (81 pages, PDF 5.7 MB)
  • Notes on Clauses 32 to 51 (33 pages, PDF 2.3 MB). These were tabled by Dr Blewett on 14 November 1986 without explanation. They provide additional background on clauses to that provided in the Explanatory Memorandum.
  • Parliamentary Library Bills Digest (HTML) (PDF)
  • House of Representatives Debates

22 October 1986

Introduced and Second Reading

12 November 1986

Declared urgent
13, 14 November 1986 Second Reading Debate

14 November 1986

Passed Second and Third Readings by 72–55
  • Senate Debates
Introduced and Second Reading
9, 10 December 1986
10 December 1986 Second Reading defeated by 32–26


  • Australia. Parliament. Senate. Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. Eighteenth report of 1986, 19 November 1986, pp. 104-111: deals with concerns about the bill such as privacy issues and lack of parliamentary scrutiny

Australia Card Bill 1986 [No. 2]

In 1987 the Bill was reintroduced, without change. It was once again rejected by the Senate and became the trigger for a double dissolution election in 1987.

Key documents

  • Text of Bill (130 pages)
  • Explanatory Memorandum (77 pages)
  • Notes on Clauses 32 to 51 (31 pages)
  • There was no Bills Digest.
  • House of Representatives Debates
18 March 1987 Introduced and Second Reading
24 March 1987 Second Reading Debate
25 March 1987 Declared urgent and passed Second Reading
25 March 1987 Passed Third Reading by 75–58
  • Senate Debates
26 March 1987 Introduced and Second Reading
30 March, 1, 2 April 1987 Second Reading Debate
2 April 1987 Second Reading defeated by 35–27

Australia Card Bill 1986 [No. 3]

Following the return of the Hawke Labor Government at the 1987 election, the Bill was reintroduced for a third time but was laid aside on 8 October 1987.

The decision to abandon the Bill followed legal advice which said that, although the Government could have passed the Australia Card Bill at a joint sitting of Parliament held under section 57 of the Constitution, the Senate’s ability to disallow regulations crucial to the operation of the scheme would have made the legislation useless.

In both 1986 and 1987, it was the combined strength of the Democrats, Liberals and Nationals in the Senate which defeated the proposal. According to one writer the Bill was debated with great gusto. Of the 42 non-Labor Senators, 33 took an active part in the debates, all speaking against the Bill.

Key documents

  • Text of Bill (130 pages)
  • Explanatory Memorandum (96 pages)
  • Bills Digest (PDF)
  • House of Representatives Debates
15 September 1987 Introduced and Second Reading
16 September 1987 Second and Third Reading Debates
16 September 1987 Passed Third Reading by 73–52
  • Senate Debates
17 September 1987 Introduced and Second Reading
18, 21, 23 September 1987 Second Reading Debate


  • Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs report. Australia Card Bill 1986 [No. 3].(Parliamentary Paper no. 210/1987). Tabled 9/10/1987. Because the Government withdrew the bill the Committee did not consider the bill or make any recommendations.


Australia Card Referendum Bill 1987

A private bill was introduced by the Opposition Coalition parties to provide for a referendum before an identity card was introduced. The bill was not passed.

Key documents

  • Text of bill (9 pages). No electronic copy available. There was no Explanatory Memorandum.
  • Bills Digest (PDF)
  • House of Representatives Debates
15 September 1987 Introduced and Second Reading
  • Senate Debates
15 September 1987
Introduced and Second Reading


National Identification System (Reference to the People) Bill 1987

A private bill was also introduced by the Australian Democrats to provide for a referendum before an identity card was introduced. The bill was not passed.

Key documents

  • Text of bill (7 pages). No electronic copy available. There was no Explanatory Memorandum.
  • Bills Digest (PDF)
  • Senate Debates. Introduction and Second Reading 15 September 1987

Analysis of the Australia Card proposal

Identity card proposal 2005-06

The concept of a national ID card returned to the political agenda in the wake of the London bombings in mid-2005 and the release of the Palmer report into the detention of Cornelia Rau. Prime Minister Howard, who was actively opposed to the Australia Card proposal in 1987, said in a doorstop interview on 15 July 2005 that a national identity card should be debated in the wake of the London bombings and that the card might be 'one of the things that is needed to be added [to] our armour, maybe'. After the release of the Palmer report, Queensland Premier Beattie was also reported as arguing that an ID card may have prevented such an incident. The suggestion of a national ID card brought comments from civil liberty groups and others, and raises issues about its effectiveness, cost and privacy considerations. As a result of these concerns, including those from within his own party, in January 2006 the Attorney-General announced that he would consider establishing a review into the issue. The ID card proposal was one part of a whole of Government Identity Fraud Project.

On 26 April, however, the Government announced that it would no longer introduce a national ID card because the disadvantages outweighed the advantages.

Compulsory government ID cards already exist for those working in some industries. These include an Aviation Security Identity Card (ASIC) and a Maritime Security Identity Card (MSIC).


ID Card key documents and links

Major documents only are listed below, usually in chronological order under each heading. For further items, refer to the Parlinfo database and select Library for journal articles, books and library publications, and Media for newspaper articles and media releases. Search under the term "Identity cards".



Comments by political parties


Australian Labor Party

Australian Democrats


Family First

  • 2005 July 20. Lost and stolen file to tackle ID fraud. Australian. [Senator Fielding: "the debate about a national identity card was worth having, but families would have grave reservations about any identification system that included biometric information. I have very particular concerns about Australians being fingerprinted"].

Other comments

Opinion polls

Journal articles, opinion pieces etc



Major websites on identity cards

Smart card / access card proposal 2006-07

On 26 April 2006 Cabinet approved an access card to replace 17 health and social services cards within the Human Services portfolio.

The access card will have limited cardholder information on it. The card will have the cardholder’s name, a digital photograph, their signature and card number. A microchip in the card will store a photo, address, date of birth and details of any children or other dependants. The card will also provide cardholders with the option to voluntarily store other information such as emergency contact details, allergies, health alerts, chronic illnesses, immunisation information and organ donor status. Information held on the access card will be subject to strict protections and will be accessible only by authorised people.

The access card will be phased in over a two year registration period beginning in 2008. From early 2010, people will be able to obtain government health and social service benefits only if they have an access card.

On 13 December 2006, the Government released an exposure draft of the proposed 2007 Bill. On 7 February 2007 the access card bill (Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007) was introduced into Parliament but is withdrawn after privacy concerns. A revised bill was released for comment on 21 June 2007. More details are below.

Access card key documents and links


Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007 : Exposure Draft (released 12/12/2006)
Includes links to draft Explanatory Memorandum, overview of the proposed legislative package and submissions from privacy organisations and others on the draft Bill.

Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007

Legislation to implement the Access Card was introduced to Parliament on the 7th February 2007 by Hon Mal Brough and referred to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee. The Committee report of 15 March 2007 recommends that the Bill be withdrawn until privacy aspects and security safeguards are considered. In response, the Minister withdraws the Bill the same day.

Key documents

Senate Budget Estimates discussions of the Access Card 2007

Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007 : Exposure Draft (released 21/6/07)
Includes links to draft Explanatory Memorandum, overview of the proposed legislative package and submissions from privacy organisations and others on the draft Bill.

Other items

Major documents only are listed below. For further items, refer to the Parlinfo database and select Library for journal articles, books and library publications, and Media for newspaper articles and media releases. Search under the term "Access card".

Major websites on the access card

Summary of arguments for and against identity cards


• It will assist counter-terrorism and security services because some terrorists use false or multiple identities. The police claim that there is a need to check identity in a wide variety of cases—mentally ill people, dead bodies etc—and that an identity card would assist. It could also address problems of fraud and evasion in relation to Government programs, especially in relation to taxation and welfare.

• It would assist in identifying illegal immigrants and illegal workers.

• It would be superior to alternatives that have been considered to address these issues—for instance, the use of a tax file number (not of sufficiently high integrity to use as a unique identifier), use of withholding tax arrangements (these would only apply to a limited range of transactions).

• Anticipated savings to government. It was estimated that the Australia Card would save over $500 million per annum in lost taxation revenue.

• Opposition to the card ignores the fact that most Australians already carry a large number of identifying cards, such as drivers’ licences.

• There is no historical evidence that an ID card has resulted in the establishment of a totalitarian state.

• Identity cards exist in a number of liberal-democratic societies, including in Europe (in some countries use is compulsory and in others, not). Unique number identification systems have become de facto identity cards in the USA and Canada.

• There may be no compulsion to carry it at all times, rather it would only be required for certain transactions relating to taxation and for claiming Government benefits, and in connection with employment. Uses would be permitted by law (although individuals could choose to use it for other purposes).

• It would not create opportunities for computer matching because this already occurs. Privacy concerns can be addressed in legislation, setting out the conditions under which matching would be allowed and providing for a monitoring body.


• It may be ineffective if it relies on an inadequate basis for identification (for example, if it did not incorporate any ‘positive’ physiological identification).

• It may not produce the benefits anticipated by the Government in reducing crime and terrorism. It has been argued that identity cards will not be effective in reducing crime and that the biggest problem for police is linking crimes to perpetrators rather than identifying individuals. In relation to terrorism it is argued that terrorists usually move across borders using tourist visas (like the 11 September bombers), have legitimate identification cards (like the Madrid bombers) or very good forgeries.

• It may be more costly than estimated due to additional bureaucracy and private sector compliance costs.

• It would be inconvenient and create problems for members of the public.

• It would dramatically change the relationship between the individual and the State, and provide the basis for mass surveillance. Computer matching programs would effectively place everyone under surveillance, not just those suspected of illegal activity.

• It is unnecessary. The Government already has in place facilities to detect those using multiple identities to evade tax or perpetrate fraud.

• Threats to civil liberties—potential to invade privacy by enabling government and private sector databases to be linked. The UK organisation, Liberty, has argued that ‘… there is a rebuttable presumption in favour of the liberty, autonomy and privacy of the individual (and thus against ID cards). … The issue is whether the government’s proposals rebut that strong presumption'. Concerns have also been expressed about function creep, about who will be able to access the National Identity Register and the nature and extent of the personal information that will be collected and retained. Experience in the USA and Canada suggests that once such a system is established, it would be impossible to prevent legal incremental uses or illegal abuses of the system.

• The mandatory nature of ID cards would mean that if a person was unable to produce a card because it has been stolen or lost, they would be inconvenienced, treated with suspicion or denied goods or services.

• The cards would need to be issued on the basis of some other form of identification, like a birth certificate or driver's licence, and these documents could be forged or illegally obtained.

• Disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities. It has been suggested that ethnic minorities will be disproportionately targeted by police or service providers to produce their ID card.

• Accuracy and currency of information. Concerns have been raised about how accurate and up-to-date information on the National Identity Register would be. An associated question is whether individuals will have the right to check the data held on them and require errors to be corrected, as under current privacy legislation.

• Costs to individual cardholders—apparently in the UK it is proposed to recoup some of the costs of the identity card by charging individual cardholders. It has been estimated that charges for the card could range from £93 to £300.

Overseas experience

General overviews and current developments

Many countries have a system of national identity cards, some of which require their citizens to carry them at all times. Most European countries have ID cards. Common law countries such as Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States currently do not have them, although the UK has introduced legislation to implement such a system.

European Union

According to an EU press release of 25 November 2005 (MEMO/05/446) there is no EU ID scheme. It is for each Member State to determine its own policy on ID cards, and how electronic ID and authentication is to be implemented. The European Commission does not have a mandate to prescribe a specific choice but it can insist that no barriers to the internal market are created: for example in administering healthcare to citizens visiting other Member States.

Since 2004 EU residents have been able to apply for a European Health Insurance Card which facilitates healthcare treatment for residents as tourists in other member countries. While the cards initially do not contain data, they do allow access to a central server of information containing name, address and next-of-kin details. The card is to be phased in over 4 years.


According to a CBC News Outline, in 2002 the then Immigration Minister Coderre headed a campaign for a national ID card. He moved for a Parliamentary Committee to investigate the issue: Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration ‘National identity card for Canada? : interim report' , October 2003. (Joe Fontana, MP Chair). The report details the arguments against the introduction of a national biometric identity card and is critical of polls suggesting that a majority of Canadians would support such an initiative. It did not make any recommendations and a final report was never issued. Coderre finished as Immigration Minister in late 2004 and the issue has died.


Hong Kong


United Kingdom

One of the few European countries not to have an ID card, the UK passed legislation in 2006 to make those applying for passports to be compulsorily registered on the National Identity Register, while making an ID card optional for passport applicants until 2010 when it will become mandatory. With the change of Government in May 2010, the Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition introduced the Identity Documents Bill to Parliament on 26 May 2010. The Bill makes provision for the cancellation of the UK National Identity Card, the Identification Card for EEA nationals and the destruction of the National Identity Register. The identity card for foreign nationals (biometric residence permit) is not being scrapped. Source: Home Office, Identity and Passport Service


United States

Although the US does not have a national ID card, Congress passed the REAL ID Act of 2005, which mandates federal requirements for driver's licences. Critics argue that it would make driver's licences into de facto national IDs.

For copyright reasons some linked items are available only to members of Parliament.

Back to top