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Wednesday, 14 November 2018
Page: 8084


Senator McALLISTER (New South WalesDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (11:55): I rise also to place on record my concerns about the My Health Records Amendment (Strengthening Privacy) Bill 2018 and to do so in the context of my broader concern about the government's approach to digital transformation generally. I will start with the bill. This is an incredibly important policy reform. Digital health records provide the opportunity for huge personal and community benefit by providing better information to clinicians and patients about their own medical history. But unfortunately the implementation of this concept has been badly bungled and the government seems unwilling to listen to the concerns of the community. Labor has called on the government to delay the opt-out deadline for the My Health Record, but the government continually refuses to meet that request. The Senate has voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion calling to delay the implementation of the My Health Record, but the government refuses to listen.

As I said, it is a project that potentially offers huge benefit. In fact, it was initiated under the last Labor government. But the implementation has fallen woefully short of what's required for such a substantial transformation to the way that health record-keeping works. The key failure has been the decision to shift from an opt-in system to an opt-out system. Labor's approach was to say that people could opt in. Reasonable people can debate whether an opt-in or opt-out system would work better, but if you are going to choose to opt out it requires a very different approach to communicating about the scheme. By shifting from Labor's original opt-in system to an opt-out system, the government has placed the entire project at risk. The Senate has expressed its concerns about the implementation of this scheme—and, frankly, so have the Australian people. The government has not implemented the necessary legislative reforms to secure these arrangements in a way that is satisfactory for the Australian people, and it has not communicated the benefits of the My Health Record to the Australian people. As a consequence, people do not understand the privacy protections that are available to them and do not have confidence in the adequacy of these protections. There is enormous distrust in the system. That's why we've called for the 12-month extension. It's actually a reasonable solution. It's a solution that a smart government would pick up because it would provide the opportunity to fix this mess. It would provide an opportunity to legislate for appropriate privacy protections and to talk about this with the Australian people.

The Privacy Commissioner should be involved in a review to address outstanding concerns about the system settings. In undertaking such a review, the Privacy Commissioner should consider the appropriate balance between utility for clinicians, patients and other carers and the privacy and security of individuals. The Privacy Commissioner, in undertaking such a review, could grapple with the difficulty of ensuring genuinely informed consent. Such a review could make appropriate changes to default access settings, which become necessary once you move to an opt-out model. It would also provide the opportunity to work through the very significant issues for particular cohorts of vulnerable people—I'm thinking here about young people, people aged 14 to 17 and families fleeing domestic violence.

Time would provide so much for making this project work. Time would allow all of these things to be addressed properly and it would allow confidence to be restored. But, stubbornly, the government persists with its present timetable. The opt-out is due to finish this week. Seventeen million Australians will have their records created, and there will not have been adequate consideration of privacy concerns or an adequate response communicated to the Australian public about the concerns that have been expressed by so many. And these questions of confidence are huge. We are moving into a period where technology will play a significantly greater role in the delivery of government services. I'm all for that—in fact, I'm very interested in it because I think it presents an opportunity for government services to be provided at a higher level of quality and with a great deal more accessibility. But you have to proceed in a way that gives confidence. It's a new thing for people to transact business online. It's not always straightforward, and anyone who has tried to navigate some of the existing government systems knows that finding your way through the new world of security arrangements, passwords, different pages and provision of identification is very complicated. It also raises a range of issues—acutely in the case of health—about what information is being provided and who will have access to it. For all those reasons, you need to take the community into your trust.

As a parliament, we need to give confidence to the community that the arrangements we're putting in place meet the very reasonable expectation that the community has that their information is protected. But unfortunately it's hard to get the community to trust when there is such a history of maladministration when it comes to tech projects for this government. Even this year we've seen a litany of problems. The plug was pulled earlier this year on a multimillion-dollar apprenticeship management system that was developed for the Department of Education and Training. The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission's biometrics project, which was touted as a very significant initiative and overseen by the current digital transformation minister, has also been canned. There have been major problems with this year's NAPLAN tests. Perhaps the worst in this list of disasters: staff have been told to abandon work on the $100 million project to overhaul the child support payment system. Why is this happening? There has been a complete failure over the last five years of this government to invest any political capital whatsoever into overseeing, supporting and championing digital.

These are difficult transformations to make and they require leadership, but there has been a constant churn of ministers. We don't have anyone who has taken leadership and provided sustained leadership over the period of time that the government has been in power. In the case of the Digital Transformation Agency, I think we have now had five CEOs. I think we're up to our fifth CEO with Mr Brugeaud. The last one left after just 16 months. That, in turn, has produced a complete inability to retain staff. This is something that I have been paying attention to. The DTA, in its three years of existence, has seen 340 staff leave, and that was just in an 18-month period from December 2016 to June 2018. The place only has a total workforce of 342 people, so that's a 100 per cent turnover of staff. How can any project be delivered with any consistency, any continuity or any quality when people keep leaving? As my colleague Senator Kitching joked—and it's not really a joke—they must be having a morning tea pretty much once a day, with 342 people leaving. That's a lot of cake! Actually, it's really not a laughing matter; it's a serious problem. It shows up in tech disaster after tech disaster.

The thing I wanted to point to in closing is that these failures are expensive. Presumably, they're frustrating for the personnel who work on them, and, potentially, they're also a very big problem for service delivery and full confidence. Digital transformation presents the most enormous opportunity for government. People expect excellent digital services when they go to the bank and people expect excellent digital services when they engage with their super company. They expect excellent digital services when they go looking for some retail experiences.

I believe in an excellent Public Service. The Australian Public Service should provide excellent services to all Australians—the best services we can possibly provide—and that means going digital. But we can't sort that out until we provide leadership. That means stable leadership at a ministerial level and it means stable executive leadership within the Public Service. Until those things are sorted out, we'll continue to see falling confidence in public services delivered digitally. That's a great shame, because in the area of health, in particular, there is the potential for huge rewards—transformative rewards for patients and significantly greater productivity for clinicians.

We shouldn't miss out on that—it's a huge opportunity. It requires trust and confidence. We call on the government again to extend the opt-out period, to slow this down and to return to a position where the community can have confidence in the project as described.