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Troubled Path for Federal Government Access Card Project

by Kevin Noonan •
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The last few weeks have been a tumultuous period for the Federal Government’s Access Card project. Much of the unfolding story has been reported daily in the media. So what actually happened and what does this all mean for the project?

Many of the recent events have their beginnings in the bipartisan report from the Senate Committee in March this year. This report was highly critical of the Access Card legislation and its project management.

The Government responded by withdrawing the legislation and undertaking to come back with combined legislation in the June sitting period. Senator Ellison also undertook to “begin a series of one-on-one discussions with key Access Card stakeholders”. Senator Ellison’s press release confirmed that despite the setback, the Department was still “on track to rolling out the Access Card in 2008”.

The Access Card again entered public domain when questioned at Senate Estimates on 24 May 2007. There, the government reiterated its intention to introduce the Access Card legislation during the fortnight starting today, 12 June. The Department was also questioned in detail about its expenditure so far on public relations, advertising and market research. While the expenditure of $3.1 million was less than the budgeted spend of $5.5 million for 2006-07, the discussion had the undesirable effect of drawing the project into the political debate about government advertising.

As the deadline for tabling the legislation drew closer, pressure on the project increased.

It reached a peak on 5 June when media reports stated that commencement of the development project had slipped from April/May to late 2008. The delay was attributed to the failure of the first tranche of legislation in March rather than to any expected problems with tabling the combined legislation in June.

The delay itself was reported as a blow for the Department since such strong undertakings had been given about meeting project deadlines.

On the very same day, 5 June, the Minister was addressing the Australian Smartcards Summit where he announced that the government would now be tabling only an exposure draft of the legislation. Depending on further community consultations, the legislation itself might be delayed until after the election.

Given that commentators expect the election will be held in October/November, this could represent a significant delay to the project. The Department had already stated at Senate Estimates that “contracts will not be signed until after the legislation is passed”.

None of these recent announcements have been supported by formal Departmental or Ministerial press releases. It is likely that the Department will need to formally clarify its direction in order to quell the current tide of speculation.

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