Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (3.09 p.m.)-I have to say I am a little disappointed by the approach of senators opposite. As a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration which inquired into the access card, I was quite struck by the bipartisan and cross-party willingness to support the goals, the Human Services (Enhanced Service Delivery) Bill 2007 itself and the efforts to improve the legislation. I appreciate that it is an election year and that there is the strong temptation on the other side to reduce all issues to partisanship. I need to acknowledge that that temptation appears to have been succumbed to on this occasion by Labor senators.
I must put to bed some of the opposition’s assertions. The first is that the Senate finance and public administration committee was damning of the government. Mr Deputy President, you would well know that the Senate’s and the committee’s job is to review legislation and to seek to improve it, and that is what the committee did. What is more, the government appreciated the report. The report actually supported the goals of the legislation. The report said:
… at the heart of the proposed access card system are two primary goals:
Improving delivery of Commonwealth human services and benefits; and
Combating fraud, particularly in relation to identity theft.
It went on to say at 3.2:
The Committee endorses goals to streamline the delivery of Commonwealth benefits and prevent fraud. The Committee supports any policy that will facilitate access to those who are eligible while forestalling access to those who are ineligible.
The report made one recommendation:
The Committee recommends that the bill be combined with the proposed second tranche of legislation for the access card system into a consolidated bill.
The government accepted that recommendation. The report listed a range of other matters for the government to take into account, and the minister has undertaken to take those matters into account. To portray the report as a scathing attack on the government is an unfair depiction. Some of the language was plain and frank, even robust, but the former chair of the committee, Senator Mason, is a very plain-speaking man. The government certainly did not take the report as an attack. How do we know this? The then chair, Senator Mason, was promoted to parliamentary secretary four days later.
Labor are trying to have it both ways. Labor contend that the government through its majority in the Senate has trampled on the Senate, neutered its committees and nobbled its role as a house of review, and that we have a government that is arrogant and out of control. Yet here we have an instance where a committee has done its job. It is doing its job-it is reviewing legislation. It does not look to me like a neutered committee system. And here we have a minister whose response to the report was: ‘What a good report. I’ll accept the one recommendation and I’ll consider the suggestions.’ This is hardly the act of an arrogant government. It is hardly the act of a government hell-bent on ramming the legislation through. To senators opposite: you cannot have it both ways; you have to get your lines straight. The Senate’s systems and committees are either working, as you have claimed today, and reviewing legislation-in which case democracy has not ended, as was predicted, and the Senate has not been trampled on-or not working. You cannot have it both ways.
The access card, as all committee members agreed, is needed. We need it to combat welfare and health fraud, to make identity theft harder and to make accessing services easier for Australians. The access card will certainly do this. At the same time, and very importantly, we need to protect the privacy of the information about Australians which is held by the government. The access card will not and should not be a national ID card. It is not the government’s intention. No-one on the committee would support that. Senator Ellison’s quite sensible proposal to accept the committee’s recommendation to consider both bills together will help to ensure that public confidence in the access card is maintained. That is the objective of the government and the objective of the committee. I commend Minister Ellison on his willingness to consider the committee report, on his ready acceptance of the committee’s recommendation and on his undertaking to consider the further matters which the committee recommended for consideration.