SYDNEY -- Three months into his third term, Prime Minister Bob Hawke is staking his popularity on a controversial plan to give all Australians personal identity numbers.
Already his plan has split the powerful union movement, which Hawke once led and which remains the base of his nationwide popularity, and given birth to a strange patriotic alliance of left- and right-wing politicians.
Critics have dubbed the proposed "Australia Card" the "Snoop Card." They call the card, which holders would have to present in applying for a job, entering a hospital or opening a bank or investment account, the greatest intrusion of privacy ever contemplated here.
On nationwide television and radio call-in shows, their warning is the same: the Big Brother of George Orwell's "1984" has arrived -- albeit three years late.
"If Bob Hawke numbers Australians, then his days are numbered," thundered arch-conservative radio commentator Alan Jones at a recent Sydney rally launching the Australian Privacy Foundation.
Dressed in concentration-camp garb and with 10-digit numbers inked on their foreheads, several protesters portrayed themselves prominently in the packed room as symbols of a Nazi-like identification system that speaker after speaker attacked.
"This is the issue," said rock singer Peter Garrett. "We're going to wake up one morning with a number on our heads."
"I respect the views of people who oppose the card," replied Hawke's trouble-shooter, Sen. Susan Ryan. "But I am very concerned about the smear and scare campaign, the wild accusations which are without foundation, put out by the likes of Peter Garrett."
The fiery rhetoric, often resembling a religious revival meeting, has struck an emotional chord among blunt and individualistic Australians, who next year celebrate 200 years of white settlement in this former British colony.
Convicts with numbers first settled Australia in 1788, labor leader John Halfpenny reminded delegates to an Australian Council of Trade Unions meeting in Melbourne. "We don't want to celebrate that occasion by being numbered again," he said to loud applause.
The influential union movement has pulled back from outright condemnation of the plan, however, in favor of a call on government to review the civil-liberty implications.
The breathing space was no doubt welcomed by Hawke, the first Labor Party prime minister to win three successive elections. He insists the card will fight tax and welfare fraud, identify illegal aliens and save up to $900 million a year.
"I know this is right," he said. "We have a mandate from the people and we will implement it."
Although the plan has been rejected twice by the Senate, where the minority Democrats hold the balance of power, Hawke is confident that the legislation will be passed by a joint session of both houses.
Hawk contends that the Labor government's increased majority in the July election, called to eliminate the opposition's block on the "Australia Card" legislation, was his signal to override the wailings of "a strange bunch of bedfellows" and introduce the card.
But public approval appears to be waning for a plan that would cost $800 million to implement, require 2,500 additional public servants to operate and for the first time list all Australians in a massive data bank -- whose security possibly could be breached.
Only 39 percent of people randomly polled in a newspaper survey supported the card. Nine months earlier the approval rate in a similar survey was 65 percent.
Two state governments have denounced the legislation and warned that they might deny the federal government access to birth, death and marriage statistics.
Even the Labor premier of New South Wales, Barry Unsworth, who faces reelection next year, advised Hawke that it might be prudent to "reassess" his commitment to introduce the card.
Bank and industry officials have argued that tighter tax laws could do more than cards to recover the estimated $14 billion lost annually to corporate fraud and tax evasion.
Despite assurances, the Big Brother scenario of a computerized police state is daily gaining adherents. Expressing these fears, the influential Sydney Morning Herald commented that while the plan would not increase the amount of personal information to be stored, it will be more readily available:
"All that would be necessary to give unauthorized access to a person's tax, social security and health insurance records is one number and one corrupt public servant."