Census 2016- the digital Australia Card

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In the late 80’s the Labor government called a Double Dissolution. The issue they were trying to force through parliament was the infamous Australia Card. The Australia Card came out of a national tax summit convened by Labor in 1985 which hoped to clamp down on individual income tax and welfare fraud.

Health Minister Neal Blewett told Cabinet that while there appeared to be general support for a national identity system, it was doubtful if its tax benefits alone would secure its acceptance among significant community groups, particularly the Australian Democrats. The government should therefore emphasise the benefits of identifying illegal immigrants, which might release 60,000 jobs for legitimate residents, and combatting welfare fraud.”


Under the Australia Card legislation, organisations could be fined for not demanding Australia Card information from individuals:

“Every person in Australia will be required to obtain a Card, including children. The Bill does not make it legally compulsory: it simply makes it impossible for anyone to exist in Australian society without it, because they will be unable to carry out normal activites such the receipt of their pay taxed at the normal rate, operation of bank accounts, or the receipt of social security or health insurance benefits.”

Even in the mid-80’s it was apparent that building a data-surveillance system through linking administrative datasets was the ultimate goal and outcome of the proposed Australia Card, a policy that was only defeated through political opposition from the Liberals, Nationals & Democrats and a strong public campaign by privacy advocates.

“Without some form of a universal identification Number and a central population Register, an authoritarianism based on data surveillance is unlikely to develop. The likelihood of it developing from these two components is neither inevitable nor impossible. If a political regime of the future was disposed toward extensive data surveillance, and lacked effective political opposition, it would have the necessary tools at its disposal in the form of the `Australia Card’ scheme.

The scope of the scheme is likely to undergo gradual expansion. It has always been the intention of the main bureaucratic proponents of the scheme that it should be used to link the personal data systems of all significant Commonwealth agencies, on the grounds of administrative efficiency[20]. The Bill facilitates such expansion, as this article has sought to show. Demands for expansion of access to the Register by State agencies and private sector organisations may be politically difficult to resist.” ( The Australia Card: towards a national surveillance system Graham Greenleaf, 1987).

The Australia Card was put to rest after a retired public servant, Ewart Smith noticed that the Australia Card Bill had been drafted in such a way as to make it impossible to legally implement. Had an educated, interested and engaged citizenry not taken such an interest in the proposed Australia Card it is plausible to imagine it may have come into being. Decades later, after changes to the Census Information and Legislation Act (2000 & 2005) strengthening penalties for non-compliance, the campaign to create a system capable of extensive data surveillance of Australians has finally born fruit.

Despite such public and political dissent in the late 80’s, the long-held desire to create a complete register of every person on Australian soil (with our implied consent for all future uses) has finally come to fruition barely raising an eyebrow as the ABS announced in the week before Christmas 2015, that it would now be keeping all names and addresses until the next Census to link every name on every form to as many other administrative datasets as can it can manage.

Projects based on this year’s compulsory storing of names and addresses provided in the Census may include the use of “FaHCSIA welfare payments data, Centrelink unemployment benefits data, Medicare and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme data, Australian Immunisation Register, the AEC electoral role, and other nationally important datasets.” (Paragraph 23)

The ABS admits it won’t end there: “While we may not know all of the potential future uses of all the datasets the ABS holds, the retention of some or all personal identifiers would enable us to be in a position to meet those future needs as they arise.” (Paragrah 21).

Right now there is no one dataset that records every Australian. In a submission to 1998 the ‘inquiry into the treatment of name-identified census forms’ the South Australian Genealogy and Heraldry Society (quoted in Chapter 5 of the resulting report ‘Saving our Census and preserving our history‘) points out that without a de-anonymised Census, no register of every Australian exists:

“One issue … in stressing the value of these records is that it brings together material that is currently available (without any problems being suggested regarding confidentiality) but into a single source. The electoral roll provides full names, address and until recently, occupation, birth and marriage records are available from civil registration authorities, information relating to property is available from local government and state land record repositories. People publicise the birth of their children in newspapers. However while these discrete pieces of information are available currently the census brings it together in a single document within a social and community context.”

This need to create a single register of every person on Australian soil linked to an address database is a necessary first step in implementing data linking projects. The ABS is making a lot of it’s administrative capacity to fine people for refusing to fill in the Census form or supplying false information. These threats raise interesting questions:

  • If the ABS does not already have access to our name and address then how does it know we have not completed the Census?
  • How can the ABS know whether the information we supply in the Census form is incorrect?

Such threats (echoed by the OAIC) are the cause of consternation among the hundreds of people who have become aware of the threat that the storing of names and addresses poses to the public and are now considering how best to respond to the Census.

It is important that people understand that under the law, no crime has been committed until an individual is given a ‘direction‘ under the law to complete the Census. Until individuals are given follow up letters and still refuse to comply with the demand for information (and presuming a standard grace period), no direction has been issued and no crime has been committed or alleged.

The #CensusFail hashtag (not to mention personal accounts including mine) have received hundreds of questions and suggestions about the practicality and legality of various avoidance tactics.

It has been noted by Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation that there is little evidence that multi-day fines have been imposed on individuals who refuse to fill in the Census form even after a direction has been issued. According to Clarke, of the 5,234 persons who refused to complete the 1991 Census form, only 91 were successfully prosecuted for their refusal (1.7%). Evidence has been found that one individual was fined $100 and given 28 days to pay.

The ABS is not likely to have much in the way of funding available to pursue prosecutions against a large number of Census refusers and will need to consider how it will look to prosecute highly articulate Census refusers many of whom have significant audiences within our social networks. It can only be assumed that such prosecutions will do more to inform the wider citizenry of the threat posed to them of having provided their personal information to the ABS than if the ABS were to simply take non-compliance on the chin.


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