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Tuesday, 12 May 2020
Page: 65

Mr BANDT (MelbourneLeader of the Australian Greens) (18:29): This Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020, hopefully, represents a culture shift within the government on how they approach the privacy of Australian citizens.

We have come a long way in a very short time. Just last year, this House was presented with some of the most oppressive and threatening laws to privacy through the government's encryption legislation. Not only was the government's encryption bill a tremendous invasion into people's privacy but it also threatened the viability of IT companies and startups operating in Australia. The Greens were the sole party in this place opposed to that legislation. We worked closely with stakeholders and the tech community to push privacy priorities so that they are no longer treated simply as an annoying inconvenience by the government.

Today, in this bill, we see the culmination of this hard work and hard-fought campaigning by the digital and legal community alongside the Greens. The government has listened to most of the privacy concerns that seem to have been adopted in the development of the COVID-tracing app. We continue, though, to have some concerns on this bill and we'll be moving amendments in the Senate to improve the legislation. But many of our concerns have been addressed. Our amendments—to foreshadow them—could include an explicit sunset clause on app and data use and retention so that they can't be used for any non-COVID-related purpose. We also want to see some reporting obligations, with the reports tabled in parliament, and we also want to see some enforceable prohibitions on derivative and re-identified data that is derived from the app.

We also remain deeply concerned about the ambiguities of how this intersects with US law, and whether Amazon, as the successful contractor, has duties and obligations to a foreign government that are at odds with the interests of Australian citizens. In this morning's Financial Review, the Australian head of Amazon basically conceded that if the US government wants our data from the COVIDSafe app then they can have it. Now, this is quite different to assurances that were provided to the Greens by the government during briefings that we were relying on in the lead-up to the rollout of the app. The Law Council of Australia has called on the government to expedite an executive agreement with the United States government, under the US CLOUD Act, to minimise the risk that any data obtained will be able to be accessed by US authorities. The Greens reinforce the Law Council's caution, and we will continue to pursue this point while the app is operating.

In any case, it is incredibly disappointing that the Morrison government has put its citizens in this situation by contracting a US firm to hold the personal data of millions of Australian citizens without having ensured the protection first. I repeat: when the Australian head of Amazon basically says that they may be powerless, and may be required to hand over the data to the US government if the US government wants it, then that is something that should be of concern, and that is something that the government should have sorted out before it contracted them.

With this information out today, the Greens still remain cautious and sceptical about this whole process. But it is important to note that this bill is not about the rollout of the app, which has been done by regulation. It's about putting in place a framework of privacy protections. This bill will improve the operation of the COVIDSafe app, so the Greens are not in the position of opposing this bill—despite having reservations about matters external to the legislation. I will just repeat that: this bill doesn't enable the app; the app is there under separate powers. This bill puts some protections around it and, even though we would say those protections don't go as far as they should, nonetheless those protections are better than no protections and therefore we are not in a position to oppose the bill.

But that brings us to the app itself. It may be a useful tool, to some extent, if deployed and used properly, but it's not going to be a silver bullet to our challenges. There are many more important things that we all need to be doing, such as maintaining social distancing, continuing to invest in the people who do the contact tracing and continuing to prepare our public health system. In the medium term, it's going to be critical that the government ensures that any vaccine that is invented is able to be manufactured here in Australia. I know that CSIRO and CSL have some capacity, but the government needs to be ready to put public resources into ramping up any vaccine manufacturing and to ensure that a vaccine is freely available to all. That's because if we rely on Donald Trump to give us the vaccine we are going to be at the back of the queue.

While this app does have the potential to help our public response, on a personal level I have to date been reticent to download it—given the government's atrocious record on privacy. We have recent examples where ministers of the Crown have leaked personal information relating to private health records or Centrelink income records in order to humiliate someone in the pursuit of a political advantage. Just to underscore this: the concerns that people in the community have had about handing over information to the government, that the government or governments are able to access, are not necessarily misplaced concerns, because when you see government ministers who have abused their positions to get personal information that people have provided to the government in the form of Centrelink or health records, and then those find their way out into the media so that the government can get a political hit, then you understand why people are concerned. Basically, this government has spent all of its term undermining the trust that Australian citizens can have in government.

Now, more than ever, we need trust in our public authorities in order to guide us through this crisis. But this government has done everything it possibly can to undermine that trust. And so the government comes to this from a place of trust deficit, and it has to address that. It cannot criticise people who want to ask questions about the use of this data and about their privacy, because this government has systematically abused that trust over many, many years. It's this abuse of power by the government that the Greens are so vigilant to guard against, and it's why we take our votes on legislation like this so seriously.

Personally, I've come to the view that, as far as I'm concerned, because of the gravity of the health threat and because we've been able to secure some privacy protections, I'll feel comfortable enough to have the COVID-tracing app downloaded on my phone and used to assist the public health response. But, again, I caution the government that for the people who have a question mark about whether they'll do the same it's not because those people are somehow wrong or that those people have misplaced concerns; it's because this government has done everything it can to undermine trust and to undermine protections around privacy, and so the government is now reaping what it has its own. If the government wants more people to download and use the app then it should have a look at what it has done to undermine trust and it should have a look at what it has done to undermine privacy. As I said at the start of this speech, perhaps this is the beginning of a new government approach to privacy and one of the things that could be done now is perhaps go back and revisit the metadata laws and encryption laws. If this level of privacy and protection is warranted for this then perhaps it is warranted in other instances as well. It might be a good time to start putting people's privacy first.

The Greens will always stand up for the privacy of all Australians. I'm proud of the role that we played in forcing the government to the table on privacy and ensuring that the protections are there as the app is rolled out. We'll continue to monitor the progress of this app and push for more action to protect privacy. We'll also continue to push for a response that is led by the advice of public health experts. It is with grave concern that we're starting to hear now the chimes and calls from the billionaires to say: we all need to snap back to business as usual because we aren't making as much money as before, and wouldn't it be good if some of these restrictions were lifted? Look, no-one likes these restrictions. No-one has said, 'I want these restrictions imposed' because they enjoy it. It is being done to save lives. We should only start lifting these restrictions when the public health experts tell us that it is okay to do so. While there are people saying there is still a risk of a secondary spike of infections until we get the crisis under control and as long as there is a call from the sound body of public health experts advising governments to say, 'Look, we should not follow the path of other countries who've lifted restrictions too early and have then had to manage a second wave of infections,' then the Greens will support that.

It was clear from the beginning that the government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to follow the advice of public health experts. Let's not forget that whilst some state premiers were taking the right step of beginning to put in place restrictions, we had a Prime Minister telling us he was off to the football and a health minister saying it was okay to shake hands. Then, within 24 or 48 hours, they changed their minds on that. It is clear that the government has had to be dragged to a public health first response. We are glad that they have been dragged there by political and health forces who have said that that is the way to go. We are pleased that's the case. I would urge the government now to not treat this app as a silver bullet that is going to all of a sudden allow them to cave into the demands of big business and start lifting the restrictions earlier than the public health experts say is okay to do. Because we need to listen to the health experts first, and if they tell us that the restrictions need to stay for a bit longer to make sure we're safe then that is what we should do. Again, it's not because anyone likes the restrictions; it's because it is saving lives. The Greens will continue to fight for a proper health response that puts health first and an economic recovery that leaves no-one behind.