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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 2244


Mr BRIGGS (Mayo) (09:49): I rise also in line with the coalition decision to support the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Records Bill 2011, but in doing so I want to put on the record some concerns relating to the direction in which this bill is going. No doubt, as the member for Capricornia just outlined, there are some very good reasons to have an effort made into e-health. The step towards electronic health records was started under the former health minister and now Leader of the Opposition, but I have some concern about that direction because I think it raises significant issues which society more broadly are grappling with as we move into the electronic age. In effect, our lives are run by the power of the internet—information gathered and put onto the internet. We read about this regularly now, particularly in relation to our children—their access to it and the information they place on social media websites.

There is a television advert at the moment where a young person, obviously very well-qualified and well-experienced, is applying for a job. The employer interviewing him talks about how well-qualified he is but then raises issues that he found on the applicant's Facebook site relating to his personal life. While we debate bills such as this, where we are talking about putting the most private and personal information about somebody into an electronic form that can easily be emailed between different healthcare providers, I think we need to understand the risk this potentially creates for people.

I understand that the government are quite convinced that the privacy measures placed within the bill address these issues, but I must say I am less than convinced by this government's assurances that they will get this right. As the shadow parliamentary secretary in this area, the member for Boothby, has highlighted, the government have not been seen to be particularly competent. I think that is fair to say. We have also seen with this bill, like so much else that they have done, a haste and a rush to implement this without the necessary consideration or trials first being undertaken to make sure that we get this right.

As I said earlier in my remarks, there can be no more private or personal information than somebody's health records. We all see medical practitioners and medical experts from time to time, and each of us has a trust relationship with those providers. They provide tremendous service to their patients, but they have access to the most private details about a person's life. There is a danger that, when this information is put onto an electronic record under a government mandated scheme—it no doubt exists now in doctors' surgeries and chemists across the country—it can be emailed or sent around without any guarantee that it will not find its way into inappropriate hands. The member for Capricornia said that provisions of the bill ensure there is an audit trail, but we all know that it is impossible to put the genie back into the bottle after it has got out. So I urge caution on the government about the haste with which it is implementing this initiative. There are good reasons to take this slowly and steadily, so as to make sure it gets it right. In the first place, I am far from convinced that this government is capable of doing that. Secondly, the importance of this information is such that it should be treated with extreme caution and care. It is what we would do in government; this government should do it as well.

These concerns are not unwarranted. We have seen in the past two years the most protected information of the United States foreign service leaked across the world through the disgraceful behaviour of the WikiLeaks organisation. Putting aside the morally corrupt attitude of that organisation and its willingness to put our service personnel in danger by leaking protected information, the fact that some of the most secure and protected information of the United States could be accessed and downloaded onto Lady Gaga CDs by a low-level officer of the United States army, it is alleged, means we have to be particularly cautious about electronic health record-keeping. It shows the depth of the information kept by governments and the power of the internet to expose this information. The WikiLeaks saga has shown that information cannot be protected absolutely. There is no way that the security of information provided under a government scheme, which can easily be emailed and sent around, can be absolutely guaranteed and protected. That is a real concern and it is a genuine reason why the government should take heed of these issues. These are genuine issues; they are not partisan issues. They are issues about the responsibility of ensuring that the Australian public's most private and personal information is kept in such a way that it is not accessible by people who should not have access to it. I fear that because of the haste with which the government is moving on this bill, these issues and some of the other issues that have been identified, particularly by members on this side, have not been well enough addressed.

I appreciate the fact that the government, in an attempt to address some of these concerns, has made this scheme an opt-in arrangement. I acknowledge that it has attempted to address some of these concerns. I hope that the government has got the opt-in aspect right. The provisions in the bill seem to indicate that this is a genuine opt-in and that an individual will have to make the decision to allow their information to be sent electronically between healthcare professionals. This is a very important part of the bill. I would hope that people give this due consideration when they make the decision about opting in. Medical professionals and bureaucrats will want this information. It is the direction the country has been taking in the last 20 years. It is a lot easier to do this now.

On the face of it, the simplicity and efficiency of having this information available to all people in the medical profession, so they can understand the background of a case, make a lot of sense. There is no doubt about that. An increasing number of government agencies are moving down the path of having individual customer numbers. Centrelink is one which has records relating specifically to people, which are available electronically. We are moving by stealth to what is in a sense an Australia card. We should be very careful that we are not moving by stealth, issue by issue, to some form of identity card. That is something this parliament should be very well aware of. The Australian people may be comfortable with that in the end, but they should be involved in the decision. It should not be something that just happens inch by inch, department by department, bill by bill. It should be the subject of genuine debate about what people think is their right to the privacy of their most personal information. It does not get any more personal than your private health records.

In line with coalition policy and the decision of the party room, I support this bill. I put on record my concerns about the risks relating to the privacy aspects. I say also that this has been rushed. We saw another example overnight of the failure of a scheme this government rushed through, with the early closure of another one of its green programs, the Solar Credits scheme. It brought back terrible memories of the pink batts debacle and the green loans debacle and of all the waste and mismanagement with which this government has engaged over time. It is a concern that this scheme has been rushed so much. The government should take its time with this issue. It should take care of this issue because it needs to get this issue right. It takes only one example of somebody's health records appearing, unauthorised, on the front page of a national paper to show us how very careful we should be about moving in this direction. We have seen with the issues relating to newspapers in London that there is an appetite for this type of information from people of note. I hope that through this bill there are enough protections, that we are being careful enough to ensure that the most private information of people is protected in a proper fashion.

On that note, I conclude by saying again that I will support in line with the coalition policy but I put on record some very strong reservations about this direction.