Tuesday, 27 February 2007
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Human Services (Senator Ian Campbell) to a question without notice asked by Senator Lundy today relating to a proposed access card.
I do this because Senator Campbell’s contribution reached a new low for the level of arrogance displayed by coalition government ministers. I think it is a sad reflection on the Howard government that, when you combine the contentious concept of an access card with a government with an appalling record on the management of information technologies, it is quite predictable that all we can expect is a dog’s breakfast. Today the pile of mush that is the access card got a bit mushier. The minister refused to back away from extremely arrogant remarks describing MPs who disagree with him as supporting fraudsters and rorters. If you have a read of Steve Ciobo’s contribution to the second reading debate on this issue in the other place, you will get a sense of just how critical the minister’s remarks are of his own party colleagues.
I think his comments are particularly arrogant when they are seen in light of developments today—reports from the coalition party room—that the government has been forced to bend to internal pressure and has now changed guidelines relating to the access card and how old you have to be to be automatically eligible for it. We know that the bill as it stands says that you have to be 18 to get the access card. This contradicts current practice for the Medicare card, which the access card is designed to supersede, because people of the age of 16 or over are eligible for a Medicare card. This is established, sensible policy that has been in place since Medicare was first introduced.
Now, as a result of internal party pressure, the Howard government is apparently introducing guidelines to permit people from the age of 15 to have access to an access card. The problem with this is—and this is where the dog’s breakfast comes into it: how can the bill proceed when it says that you have to be 18 or over but guidelines have now been flagged, introduced or drafted to provide for people over the age of 15 getting this card? We do not know if the guidelines protect the interests of young people. We do not know whether they are going to create a regulation or some sort of administrative instrument. The government itself is clearly engaged in a process of policy on the hop that has not been thought through even within the coalition party room, let alone in a decent debate in the parliament or in the public.
That takes me to a major point throughout the debate so far, and that is the appalling arrogance with which the coalition have treated the public debate. We heard the minister today imply that there was a six-week inquiry into this access card. What rubbish! There are three days worth of hearings within an extremely truncated two-week window in which the senators on that committee have the opportunity to conduct hearings, take evidence, hear witnesses, sift through it and prepare their reports. I challenge the minister to come back into the chamber and clarify precisely how long that inquiry will be, because it is not the six weeks he implied in today’s response to questions. I think it is another sign of the government’s willingness to abuse their majority in the Senate when they inflict these kinds of decisions on Senate committees and force their way through this chamber. These are policy changes that the government have very poor form on.
We know from the debate so far that the access card’s success or otherwise is intertwined with the sorts of systems that underpin it—the software, the hardware, how that information will be accessed via the smartcard and the devices that can read the smartcard information. But I would like to remind my colleagues that this government have very poor form on IT management. I am of course referring to the IT outsourcing debacle that characterised the first eight years of the government’s time in power, where they systematically wasted taxpayers’ money and made false claims about savings on IT. The previous IT outsourcing debacle is a good analogy, I think, because here we are and the government are claiming that this card will create $3 billion in savings over an extended period of time. That savings figure has already been refuted. They are unable and unwilling to accurately benchmark current costs. The Department of Finance and Administration is running the process, and that ought to put the fear of God into every minister who has anything to do with it. The contract costs have already blown out to some $1.2 billion, leaving a mere $400 million between the estimated savings costs and the cost of the card itself. And we know, because of their poor management, that that is likely to—(Time expired)
I stand to support the views of the government and, indeed, Minister Ian Campbell on this. The key principle is this: you want to support the system that supports you. You want to acknowledge the fact that the abuse of the system means that that are other more deserving recipients who will miss out. This is a point that the Labor Party seems to neglect: it is the people across the country in families, and the old and young alike, who will miss out. They will miss out on the appropriate level of support that they deserve. That is a key principle.
This is a government for all Australians and we want to support the system that supports everybody. Minister Campbell, I must say, should be congratulated for taking up the views—he has consulted widely, particularly in recent times—of not only members of the backbench but the AMA, people in the health industry sector and the like. I want to go back a step and acknowledge the work of the former Minister for Human Services, Joe Hockey, who spent a lot of time and effort—
Thank you, Senator Mason, for that. He put a lot of time and effort into this to ensure that the Australian government saves money so that we can support the system that supports you and so that those in need can receive support. Basically, the Australian government smartcard is a good system. It is not an ID card. I was one of those who, along with many others in Australia in the late 1980s, strongly opposed the proposal by the Labor Party for an ID card. I think the checks and balances with respect to the smartcard are certainly there.
Members of the Labor Party who were here in the parliament at that time obviously supported the ID card and it is to their shame and disappointment, no doubt in hindsight, that it got so far. Fortunately, through public opinion and the like it was stomped on. But this Australian government smartcard is different. It is going to be simpler, easier and more secure for millions of Australians to access their health and welfare entitlements.
The card will replace up to 17 separate cards. It will be the key for Australians to access more than $100 billion worth of government health and social service payments. It is also going to be a reliable way to ensure that the right people get the right services and payments. Interestingly, an independent report, not a government report but an independent report by KPMG, a firm of respected accountants, has estimated that this one card will save—wait for it—up to $3 billion of fraud over 10 years. That is a lot of money in anybody’s book. That is money that can be used wisely for the people who need it most: those on welfare and those who need it for healthcare services.
I also acknowledge that there will be an ongoing review by Allan Fels and his committee, the Access Card Consumer and Privacy Task Force, and that is important. He has an important role. There will be ongoing monitoring of the arrangements. If there are some technical matters that need to be sorted out or some feedback to be offered to the minister, then of course the minister and the government will take that into account.
We have a policy in this government of continual improvement. If we can make a better, tighter, more efficient service and a simpler, easier and safer system then that is exactly what is going to happen. The other key thing about this proposal that perhaps the Labor Party and others are not acknowledging is the voluntary nature of it. I say to the Labor Party: I want you to support the smartcard proposal. Do not have two bob each way; you cannot walk on both sides of the fence. That certainly seems to be what your leader is doing at the moment—he is walking both sides of the street. Certainly, if you are on both sides of the fence, you will be in big trouble.
I rise to also take note of the answers given by Senator Ian Campbell to questions without notice today. As usual, Senator Campbell fell into the trap of waxing lyrical and in the process made a whole range of outlandish and outrageous statements. One of the statements he made during his answer on the issue of the consideration of the access card legislation was that the Senate committee had six weeks to consider this legislation and he intimated that, if we could not do the job in six weeks, we must be pretty worthless. I note that the Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration is in the chamber now. I want to pay tribute to my colleague Senator Mason because he has the role of chairing that very fine committee. I know that he has succeeded an equally fine previous chairman.
This legislation was referred to that committee by the Selection of Bills Committee on 8 February. From that date to the reporting date of 15 March is about six weeks. But of course Senator Ian Campbell was being totally disingenuous when he suggested that the committee has six weeks to consider it. The week following that referral was estimates week. There was absolutely no opportunity for the committee to consider the legislation. Also, as all of the senators in this chamber know, the secretariat had to move very quickly to advertise for submissions, and that occurred about one week later. The submissions are now rolling in in large numbers. The committee has established a program of public hearings to meet this Friday, and Monday and Tuesday of next week. Then we have to await the presentation of the chair’s draft to the committee for consideration, and that will probably take about another week or so. Then we have to table within three or four days after that.
This is an incredibly tight timetable. Effectively, when the committee starts its public hearings this Friday it will have under two weeks to report on this very significant legislation that is going to impact on the lives of millions of Australians and their families. The government itself acknowledges that. Every person in this country who currently has a Medicare card—and that is pretty much everybody and their families—is going to be affected by this legislation. It is substantial.
Senator Barnett’s comment that it is a voluntary card is absolutely ludicrous. You cannot participate in the Medicare scheme—the scheme established by Labor and opposed by this mob over there until they worked out that the public actually supported it—without a Medicare card. This is going to be a compulsory card. And it is going to cost $1.2 billion over the next four years to implement this system. But the government says, ‘Oh, you can deal with it in two weeks in a Senate committee and report on it.’ It has taken them years to put this proposal together.
Those of us who were at the estimates hearing two weeks ago and took the opportunity to ask some questions of the public servants at the hearing will recall that the public servants had a row of boxes of papers for this legislation that stretched virtually from one end of the main committee room to the other. We were all petrified when the secretary of the department pointed to this huge long row of boxes and said, ‘I have all the information on the access card here for you.’ I think you would have needed a semitrailer to bring it all up to the parliament. Senator Mason knows that what I am saying is absolutely true.
The opposition is cooperating with the processes for the consideration of this legislation before the committee, but nobody should ever accept this nonsense from Senator Campbell that somehow we have six weeks to do it. It is an outrage that a Senate committee should be expected to deal with this significant legislation in such a short time. There are major problems with the legislation in this proposal, as the government knows. Even this morning they announced further changes to the legislation. They are making changes on the run and yet they come in here and have the temerity to tell us that we should be able to complete the job within a couple of weeks. Frankly, this is going to come back to haunt you—just as you say the Australia Card came back to haunt us. The Australia Card was a good idea; this is not a good idea because you are getting it wrong and it will come back to haunt you at the next election.
Senator Forshaw is right in the sense that this is an issue we should look at very closely. Certainly, the card has many advantages. It has potential disadvantages as well. It is a difficult issue. What we should not allow to happen, Senator Forshaw, is the rhetoric of privacy to overshadow the debate. We should have a proper debate over the issue, and look at the safeguards.
I think the two aims of this card are, firstly, to combat fraud and, secondly, to improve access. They are both worthy aims. I think both sides of parliament agree with the aims of the process. Combating fraud is an issue of social justice—people should not be able to claim benefits they are not entitled to. Benefits should go to those people who are entitled to them and who need them. In relation to improving access, again I suspect that all senators would agree that access should be improved. There are difficulties at times with people gaining access. I remember last year when the cyclone hit Far North Queensland. People did not have access to welfare, and this access card would have made it easier.
So in a sense we are not really arguing about the aims. I think all senators agree that the aims are appropriate. It is whether the safeguards are sufficient. Those safeguards have been gauged in three locales over the last 12 to 18 months. The consultation has taken three forms. First of all, there has been the independent committee chaired by Professor Fels. That task force has reported twice and the government will continue its consultations with those interested groups to ensure that the implementation of the access card meets the needs and the expectations of all Australians. To date, Professor Fels has undertaken over 160 consultations and has received more than 100 submissions. This is a big-time report. He has looked at it objectively and he has reported to the government.
The access card website has received over 500 email comments from members of the public. The access card information hotline has received over 1,800 calls and there have been ongoing briefings to stakeholder groups and the media. The Fels report is on the web. It has been an excellent summation of the issues.
Secondly, and my friend Senator Forshaw mentioned this, the debate has already commenced in Senate estimates. We did not breach Senate standing orders by debating the legislation; we did look at the process. I accept that there are issues that we have to address. But let us not let the privacy rhetoric and the scaremongering get the better of us. Let us actually have a look and see whether those two aims—of deterring fraud and of improving access—can be achieved with safety and security of privacy. That is really the good public policy issue here.
I was not quite sure what was in the boxes. It might have been your files, Senator Forshaw! Over the next few weeks there will be a Senate inquiry, which I am chairing and for which Senator Forshaw is the deputy chair. It is an important inquiry. We are sitting for three days.
Let us be quite frank about this. If we all agree—and I think that we do—that the aims to combat fraud and to improve access are good, the question then will be: what are the safeguards for privacy and how do we stop function creep in the utility of the card? You are right about the Australia Card in one sense. It is easy to scare the Australian public about the smartcard. But it may in fact be the right public policy tool—and I think it is—to stop fraud and to improve access. You may in fact score some political points from this, as the Labor Party did with a very good policy initiative such as the GST. The Labor Party was wrong on that but nearly won the 1998 election on the back of it. All I am asking for and all the government is asking for is that this issue be looked at seriously, comprehensively, diligently and with senatorial purpose.
I too rise to take note of the answers from the minister about the access card and I acknowledge Senator Mason’s contribution. He really made the case that we do need a much longer and more comprehensive review of the legislation as it stands because there are so many issues outstanding.
First of all, I put on record that there is no-one on this side of the debate against the use of smartcard technology in service delivery. We do want to improve service delivery and reduce fraud in the system. That does not mean that we have to support the proposal we have in front of us with the access card. Certainly the concerns that have been raised and that were belittled by the minister in the Senate today just make us think more clearly about what problems are confronting us. We heard dismissive comments from the minister, who was not really interested in or prepared to listen to the dissent. We heard him belittle his own colleagues on his own back bench about their concerns, which involve not only privacy but also the abuse of this new access card for fraudulent purposes. We heard him mislead the Senate, I think it could be said, in the sense that, as Senator Forshaw said, we do not have six weeks to consider this very important piece of legislation. We have got just a few weeks to consider the issues involved. And this morning we heard that the legislation is being amended as we move to consider it—so this is a moving feast.
This brings us back to a critical issue in the Senate. More and more we are seeing legislation drafted in haste and rushed through this chamber simply on a whim of the government. Such a truncated process does not allow a good public policy outcome to emerge from a comprehensive Senate inquiry; instead we are faced with a limited inquiry. We have dissenting voices. Not only have submissions to the inquiry been belittled; quite genuine concerns held by members of the public are just being dismissed out of hand.
Another real concern that I have is the registration process and how that is going to operate out in rural and regional Australia. The idea that every person over 18—I think about 16½ million people on the government’s estimates—will have to register for this card needs to be examined. How that is going to happen is a mystery to me. It is an ambitious process that the government has really underestimated with respect to both costs and logistics. Yet it is not an issue that the minister wants to hear any constructive comments about, let alone any criticism. That is just one of the issues that concerns me.
We have real concerns from the industry that the entire technology associated with this access card is being subcontracted out to a range of providers. The government’s whole record of technology adaptation and adoption has not been very well proven in the past, so how is the technology around this card going to be safeguarded in the future? There are many issues and concerns that this legislation raises, and the dismissive attitude of the minister today in dealing with questions both from his own side of politics and from the senators on this side of the chamber really did him a disservice that I think we are all going to see much more of.
Question agreed to.