There's a genie stored away in a lamp somewhere in the public service and it makes an appearance every now and then.
The Hawke government rubbed that lamp in the 1980s and out came the Australia Card, the first attempt in recent decades to introduce a single ID for citizens.
It offered three wishes and granted Labor the dubious gift of a double dissolution election, before it was safely stowed away and forgotten.
Later, the Coalition had a turn. The genie reappeared in the form of the Access Card, another ID scheme that tripped and fell flat on its face.
The Morrison government is hoping its plan to roll out digital IDs for people will lead to easier online services, but there's already warnings it could become a trove for corporations ready to exploit personal information. Or an Aladdin's cave, if we're talking lamps and genies.
Despite the Digital Transformation Agency's vehement denial that the project is "Australia Card 2.0", one think tank has warned it risks becoming a Western version of China's Orwellian social credit scheme.
ABC TV comedy Utopia knows all about this old debate, by the way.
In its latest episode, "Mission Creeps", Nation Building Authority boss Tony Woodford (Rob Sitch) warns the new digital transformation minister that the public service often waits for a reshuffle to raise such discredited ideas as ID cards with unsuspecting newbies.
Before long, a department has dusted off the brief and versed their naive, unsuspecting new leader.
"I actually don't know how they managed to put it all together at such short notice!" the minister tells Tony.
He is apparently the fifth to hold the portfolio in five years, a situation posing an uncanny mirror to real life "digital transformation" in the Australian Public Service.
It was a pet project of tech-savvy Malcolm Turnbull's as prime minister. For different reasons, it's also become one of Scott Morrison's.
The portfolio still has some churn. Let's count the ways. Angus Taylor announced major changes to the way government bought in IT expertise as minister, among other things. Then came Michael Keenan, who soon bowed out of politics. Now it's Morrison ally Stuart Robert's turn in what's now a larger "Government Services" portfolio. By now, he must still be finding his feet.
There's no need to imagine Tony Woodford's exasperation at such a merry-go-round. He's trying to avert the new minister's gaze from the digital ID genie but his alternative flagship projects, a drab national partnership program and a small-fry plan to focus on start-ups, isn't enough.
The Australia Card stages a comeback as the Universal Identification Number. To the minister, it has the ill-defined aim of being "citizen-centric". Tony's description? A "top-down data-grabbing surveillance scheme".
Let's pause here for a second. This debate actually resurfaced not long ago, this time with the federal government's Govpass scheme.
The federal government is trialling technology to simplify how people identify themselves when using its services online. Web-users will opt in and create a digital identity to access government services by giving 100 points of ID, and uploading a "selfie" for checking against passport or driver licence photos.
The DTA says there'll be no "honeypot" of personal data for anyone to raid.
Doesn't matter, says the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, that's not the point. It warned in a paper last year that data could be misused, saying businesses using Govpass could build profiles of their customers' behaviour every time they verify their ID, and sell this information to third parties.
It's not an Australia Card 2.0, the DTA says. Others have nonetheless willingly drawn the comparison for it.
In the Nation Building Authority, the ID card takes on a momentum of its own. It turns from an exploratory exercise into a draft bill. The discussion panel rapidly morphs into an "implementation authority".
Tony's protests are howled down internally with the usual cries.
"You're tying the hands of our security agencies. We can't let the terrorists win!" says media liaison, Rhonda (Kitty Flanagan), always hungry for a flashy new project to sell the public.
The card's rationale is ever-changing. It starts as a way to make government services easier. Later, a government ad explains it's to protect against online predators and terrorists. This is the NBA, and predictably, there's no evidence that it'll achieve what it's meant to.
"This is poor policy!" Tony cries. No matter, it has the support of Australia's federal security agencies.
Evidence-free policy troubles the agency on other fronts too. Bureaucrat Ashan De Silva (Dilruk Jayasinha) takes credit for bio-tunnels designed to protect pygmy possums when his agency receives a gong for it.
He just doesn't know how much it cost ($72 million) nor whether it actually worked (it didn't). Ashan, and others in the public sector, measure its success with the attention it gained from children's nature TV series Totally Wild ("Here the whole day!") and, of course, the award.
As in previous episodes, the NBA is an agency obsessed with its reflection in the media. If a kids TV show doesn't inflate its ego, it'll do the job itself with a vacuous podcast, "Talkin' NBA". Staff members - including head of security Brian Collins (Jamie Robertson) - spend the episode recording "atmos" and conducting interviews for their new public relations experiment.
- Utopia season 4, episode 1 recap: The light rail Canberra shouldn't have built?
- Utopia season 4, episode 2 recap: Inside the bored room at One National Circuit, Barton
- Utopia season 4, episode 3 recap: How the public service loses its connection
- Utopia season 4, episode 5 recap: The art of government buck passing
It's never going to become the next Serial, though, is it. What the agency's staff think they've achieved, and what they've actually accomplished, are two different things. The podcast's pilot ends up ranking fourth... in the competitive "building and infrastructure" category.
And in fact, NBA voice-of-sense Nat Russell (Celia Pacquola) figures out those tunnels for pygmy possums have actually become "bio-funnels", concentrating them into a small area for feral cats to kill and eat.
There's a solution, a simple one-two punch. Defer action and scrutiny with a longitudinal study, and limit the damage to biodiversity by fencing off the government's own multimillion-dollar new infrastructure.
Tony finally gets a win in this episode, too. His own fix for this looming ID card mess is straight from the Jacqui Lambie playbook. The Tasmanian senator has poured cold water on the Coalition's plan to trial drug-testing for welfare recipients, saying she'd support it if it was also applied to politicians.
When Tony suggests the ID cards are trialled in Canberra, recording all the travel, expenses and dinners of its MPs and public servants, he turns the scheme into something its most fierce supporters hadn't expected.
The lesson? Be careful what you wish for.