The Australian Privacy Foundation was formed in 1987, to coordinate public resistance against the proposal for a national identity card, that the government of the day dubbed ‘the Australia Card’.

The proposal first saw the light of day in March 1985, as part of a package of tax reform measures. From then until the federal election of July 1987, small groups of people throughout the country undertook research, informed the media, confronted the responsible Minister (Health Minister Neal Blewett), and presented evidence to Parliamentary Committees. But to no avail: the juggernaut appeared to be carrying the day. Although the Government lacked the numbers to get its legislation through a hostile Senate, it had used the rejection of the Bill as a trigger for a double dissolution, and therefore had the opportunity to use a joint sitting of the two Houses to force it through.

The last hope was a massive wave of public protest. It began in a small way. On 7 July 1987, Tim Dixon, a final-year school student, took his debating coach, Simon Davies, then a mainstream journalist, along to a rally in Martin Place, Sydney. Half a dozen people turned up.

The experience left Simon determined to adopt the Australia Card as one his causes. He made contact with lawyers, academics, and community and business leaders who had been raising concerns about the Australia Card. These included Roger Clarke and Graham Greenleaf, senior academics who had undertaken a great deal of research on the proposal, published papers and made speeches, but without the impact they had sought.

On 28 July 1987, Simon organised an initial planning meeting in the Newtown, Sydney home of sometime national rugby coach and radio announcer, Alan Jones. By early August, Simon had assembled an extraordinarily diverse coalition of prominent individuals ranging from staunch conservatives to communists, from business leaders to rock musicians, and from doctors and barristers to sports stars.

On 16 August 1987, ABC’s 4 Corners program ran a ‘dinner party’ debate on the topic. Despite the efforts of the ABC and the Government, the Minister who was by then responsible for the initiative, Susan Ryan, could find no friends, and was the lone proponent for the scheme. But public opposition needed a nucleus that it could crystallise upon.

The decisive moment came on 31 August 1987, when the Australian Privacy Foundation was launched at the well-known Sebel Town House in Kings Cross, Sydney. Attracted not least by the diversity of the public personae on display, the media attended in large numbers. The movement against the Australia Card led the evening news across the nation. The snowball was suddenly rolling its way down a steep hill, gaining volume and speed as it rolled towards Canberra.

During the following twelve weeks, the public clamour was unprecedented, and became undeniable. The public outcry filled the airwaves and the letters pages of the newspapers. Huge public rallies sprang up in cities and towns across the country. Surveys recorded a massive turnaround in public opinion. No other social issue had ever galvanised public opposition like this one.

The newly re-elected Labor Government was facing a crisis. It had trumpeted the benefits of the scheme for two years, but now its party room was desperately seeking a graceful way out. It was handed a life-line by a Liberal Party too eager to win points, and insufficiently patient to let the Government face the humiliation of dropping its own proposal. The Bill was able to be withdrawn with the face-saving claim that it contained a fatal technical defect.

The Australia Card would never have been defeated without the massive public outcry in those months of late 1987. Each phone call, letter, protest march and donation made a difference. Australian democracy came alive in a desperate effort to stop a measure that would have forever changed the relationship between Australians and their government.

After the victory over the Australia Card, the Privacy Foundation’s supporters agreed that the Foundation needed to go on – to continue the fight for Australians’ freedoms, in the face of government agencies’ desire for social control, and the push by big business for more power over consumers. In the two decades since the ID card fight, the Australian Privacy Foundation has continued the battle – sometimes with a high profile, often with a low profile; sometimes with victories, often with defeats. And with a new generation of privacy advocates, the fight goes on.

The well-known people who attracted media attention to the Australian Privacy Foundation’s launch event and the case against the Australia Card were:

Dr Michael ARONEY Vice-President, Australian Society of Surgeons (d. 2001)
Ron CASTAN OA QC Barrister, Melbourne (d. 1999)
Dr Peter CATTS Surgeon and President of the Small Business Association
Greg CHAPPELL International Cricketer
Prof Lauchlan CHIPMAN Philosophy, Uni of Wollongong, later a Vice-Chancellor
Peter GARRETT OA Rock Musician, Conservationist, subsequently Labor Minister
Senator Janine HAINES Leader of the Australian Democrats (d. 2004)
Frank HARDY Author (d. 1994)
Alan JONES AO Rugby Coach and Broadcaster
Ben LEXCEN Yacht Designer (d. 1988)
Hon. James McCLELLAND Retired Labor MP and Judge (d. 1999)
Tim ROBERTSON SC Barrister, Sydney
Dr Bruce SHEPHERD Surgeon, Federal President of the A.M.A.
The Hon. John SPENDER QC Shadow Mnister, later Ambassador to France
Prof Geoffrey de Q. WALKER Law, subsequently Faculty Dean, Uni. of Queensland
Nadia WEINER Director, Centre 2000, and later of the Adam Smith Club
Prof Ted WHEELWRIGHT Political Economy, Uni. of Sydney (d. 2007)
Brian WILSHIRE Broadcaster

The group agreed to approach two other well-known Australians, Sir Reginald SMITHERS Kt, Retired Judge of the Federal Court, Sydney and Bridget GILLING, Women’s Rights Activist. Together with Peter Garrett and Ben Lexcen, they subsequently became Trustees of the Australian Privacy Foundation.

The brief description above was assembled from the memories and personal documents of several of the participants. The most comprehensive published description of the APF’s crucial role in the demise of the Australian Card proposal is in Davies (2004). Other published descriptions include that in Clarke (1992), and the following, which is extract from the Addendum to Clarke R. (1987). Those and other references to published papers are below.

“A variety of organisations had been established to protest against the Australia Card proposal, but to this point [July-August 1987] few had had significant impact. The various State Councils for Civil Liberties, particularly in the two major States, had lobbied with considerable energy and some effect, but during the election campaign they had been somewhat hamstrung, because of the declared interest of a significant proportion of their membership in assisting in the Labor Party’s re-election.

“During the weeks following the election [which took place on 11 July 1987], a lobby organisation of a different kind was formed. The membership of the Australian Privacy Foundation was broad, in terms of occupations, social attitudes and party affiliations. It contained a large proportion of people who had public relations and media experience, it included people with high community standing including judges, Royal Commissioners and retired sportsmen, and it included not a few people who were household names in individual capital cities, throughout States, and in several cases throughout the country.

“On 31 August, following fund-raising and lead-up publicity, the Foundation launched its anti-Card campaign in the ballroom of a major international hotel in inner Sydney. The professionalism of the launch, together with its high-profile membership, succeeded in establishing the movement’s credibility. With the responsible Minister losing the media battle, the Prime Minister became personally closely associated with the scheme. However his attempts to brand the Foundation as “a funny collection of people” were treated by most media commentators as being as equally unconvincing as his oft-repeated claims to have an election mandate to proceed with the scheme.

“Following the wide coverage for the launch, the many members of the media who had long been concerned about the scheme provided sufficient ongoing exposure to ‘keep the ball rolling’. By mid-September, the Letters to the Editor columns were overflowing. The Sydney Morning Herald published the ratio as being 9-1 against the scheme. The Australian stated that it received 526 letters between 3 and 15 September, 475 against, 25 for and 26 unspecified – “There has never been a debate like it on the letters page; there has never been such a cry of opposition from the nation over one topic”. The Parliament House Bills and Papers Office was unable to keep up with demand for copies of the 130-page Bill.

“The opinion polls recorded a turnaround from about 60-30 in favour of the Card in late 1986 to about the same proportion against. There were large meetings, particularly in provincial and country centres. On 23 September, 20-30,000 people marched in Perth. The issue gave every impression of developing into the most divisive social issue at least since the Vietnam War and possibly since the Second World War, but with the additional aspect that demonstrations were not confined to the capital cities.

“In late August, the A.L.P. State Conference called on the Victorian Labor Government to boycott the scheme. In early September, the N.S.W. Labor Cabinet, facing an election within six months, expressed overwhelming disapproval of the scheme. Also in early September, rank and file representatives at the trade union congress blocked the intentions of the A.C.T.U. executive to announce support for the scheme, and called for a comprehensive review. The three non-Labor State Governments announced that they would not provide births, deaths and marriages registry data to support the scheme. There was increasing discomfort within the Federal Parliamentary Labor caucus, with many members in marginal seats fearing that their prospects at the next election would be slim, particularly since at that time the issue of Cards would be likely to be in full swing.

“With the Prime Minister continuing to take a high profile on the issue, the Bill was reintroduced in mid-September, with 7 October 1987 publicised as the target for the Senate vote. At this stage the Government felt forced to promise a subsequent Bill containing amendments. It did not provide any detail as to what was intended, but likely contenders were matters relating to data security, and the practicability of compliance by financial institutions. The Government could not incorporate such amendments in the original Bill without foregoing the right to a joint sitting. In the press on the morning of 23 September, it was reported that the Bill was likely to be passed in early 1988, after a short Senate enquiry, rejection in the Senate, and a joint sitting.

“During Question Time on 23 September, the Opposition dropped a bombshell on the Government by identifying a tactical flaw in the Bill: the date for implementation of the Act was not part of the legislation, but would have to be subsequently passed by Regulation. It was therefore possible for the Government to have the Bill passed in a joint sitting, but for the opposition parties in the Senate to combine to prevent its implementation, by disallowing the Regulation. The Government announced a few days later that it was withdrawing the Bill”.


Clarke R. (1986) ‘The National Identification Scheme: Costs and Benefits’ CIS Policy Report 2,1, Centre for Independent Studies, February 1986

Clarke R. (1987) ‘Just Another Piece of Plastic for your Wallet: The ‘Australia Card’ Scheme’ Prometheus 5,1 (June 1987), republished in Computers & Society 18,1 (January 1988), with an Addendum in Computers & Society 18,3 (July 1988)

Clarke R. (1992) ‘The Resistible Rise of the National Personal Data System’ Software Law Journal 5,1 (January 1992)

Davies S. (2004) ‘The Loose Cannon: An overview of campaigns of opposition to National Identity Card proposals’ Paper prepared for the Unisys seminar on ‘e-ID: Securing the Mobility of Citizens and Commerce in a Greater Europe’, Nice, 18-20 February 2004

Graham P. (1986) ‘The Australia Card: a burden rather than a relief?’ Aust. Qtly 58,1 (Autumn 1986) 4-14

Graham P. (1990a) ‘The Australia Card : A technology driven policy?’ Unpublished M.Phil thesis. Griffith University, Brisbane

Graham P. (1990b) ‘Computers in Public Administration: The Australia Card Case’ Austral. Comp. J. 22,2 (May 1990)

Greenleaf G. (1987) ‘The Australia Card: Towards a National Surveillance System’ L. Soc. J. of N.S.W. 25,9 (October 1987)

Greenleaf G. (1988a) ‘No confidence in the Commonwealth Privacy Bill’ Austral. L. J. 62 78-81 (1988)

Greenleaf G. (1988b) ‘Lessons from the Australia Card – deus ex machina?’ Comp. L. & Sec. Rep. 3,6 (1988)

Greenleaf G.W. & Nolan J. (1986) ‘The deceptive history of the Australia Card’ Aust. Qtly 58,4 (Summer 1986) 407-425

JSC (1986) ‘Report of the Joint Select Committee on an Australia Card’ Aust. Govt. Publ. Serv., Canberra (May 1986) (2 vols.)

Smith E. (1989) ‘The Australia Card: The Story of Its Defeat’ Macmillan, 1989

Walker G. de Q. (1986) ‘Information as Power’ CIS Policy Report 2, 1, Centre for Independent Studies, 22 January 1986