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Wednesday, 13 May 2020
Page: 2227

Senator RICE (VictoriaDeputy Australian Greens Whip) (11:35): Before I speak specifically on the bill that's before us, I want to use this opportunity to talk about the massive impact that COVID-19 has had on our society and our economy. It's the first time that I've had a chance to speak about COVID-19 and the pandemic in this chamber since it rose, having not been here for the last two sitting days. It is such a massive thing that our globe is going through, certainly within my lifetime: its unexpected nature—how our lives have been turned upside down, how our economy has been turned upside down, how our society has been turned upside down; and then the responses to it—how things that were seen to be impossible we've realised we have to do, like the huge support for the communities in terms of maintaining jobs. Clearly from the Greens' position there's more that we feel the government needs to be doing. But, in general, as a society we are all in it together and we have all worked together to get us through this time of crisis in the best shape possible.

I really want to pay tribute to the people who have been there on the front line getting us through—the healthcare workers obviously, but those other frontline workers too. I was thinking today, here in Parliament House, about the high risk, having brought people in from all over the country, and there are the cleaners going about their business. They are the people who are on the front line, they are the people who are having to go from office to office and who are most at risk and the people working in public transport and the people stocking the shelves at the supermarkets, whereas, so many of us have had the ability—obviously with its problems as well—to work from home. They are the people whose jobs can't be done from home. So I really want to send my thanks to them.

I also want to acknowledge the huge impacts on people—obviously the people who have lost loved ones, and it's devastating. But at least we can look, because of the work that we've done in Australia, at how the loss of life has been much more limited than in other parts of the world. I really do give thanks for that.

I also acknowledge the impacts on people who haven't lost their lives but are going to have ongoing health concerns. Suddenly their lives have been changed. They thought that life was going forward and they now have to deal with the after-effects of stroke or other neurological or lung problems. And, of course, there are people who have lost employment; people who haven't been able to continue with their studies; people who find themselves not knowing what life has ahead for them; people who are really struggling with the social isolation; and people who are struggling with mental health problems, whether it's young people or older people. People are really doing it tough because of the social isolation and the physical distancing that's going on.

I also want to acknowledge how this pandemic has made very clear the role of government, the importance of having government action and the importance of us all working together, being able to trust that our government is taking action in our interests and that the action is transparent and accountable. It's been a real test for our democracy. I have been pleased to see that, during this pandemic, trust in our democracy has gone up, and that can only be a good thing. Obviously, that trust has to be earnt and that transparency and accountability is crucial.

I move on to the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020. First of all, so much has already been said about the privacy issues surrounding the app. I support the remarks that have been made by my colleagues, including the member for Melbourne, in the other place, and my colleague Senator McKim here, and the comments that Senator Di Natale made just before. I'm aware that this legislation concerns privacy issues rather than the app itself, but clearly the two are related. You don't have one without the other. Journalist Bernard Keane has critiqued the app, arguing that it provides a false sense of security. What it will deliver primarily is a false sense of security for people and a sense that something is being done, which, by the way, is standard for technological solutionism. There's a belief that a social or economic problem can be solved with maybe a keystroke and some great new piece of tech, without anyone having to make hard decisions or undergo sacrifices. It's the inflation of micro-level solutions—'A particular tool will help me with a problem or address a need of mine'—to complex, macro-, global-level problems.

The truth is, as we know, that this app is only a tiny part of what needs to be done, and it's going to be a long, hard struggle to save lives in the face of this pandemic. COVID-19 has changed so much of our lives and we're not about to snap back either economically or socially. We don't have any silver bullets yet. There's been all the discussion about this app. Regardless of the privacy issues and people's concerns, weighing up the privacy issues with the value of having the app, this app still has faults. I am going to wait and see whether the amendments that the Greens are putting up today are adopted to overcome some of those privacy concerns before I make a final decision to download the app. My decision on whether to download the app has also been seriously influenced by the fact that it actually doesn't work very well on my iPhone. What's the point of me having an app on my phone that isn't actually working when I am waiting in a queue doing my emails or talking to somebody on the phone? It's just when you would want it: waiting in a queue at the supermarket or somewhere for 15 minutes. And, of course, there's the issue of the 15 minutes, as well as the usefulness of it. When you're in those circumstances, when you might be doing something else on your phone and the app is not working, what's the point of it? The technology may overcome these problems, but it's not a silver bullet.

In terms of tackling this pandemic, there is no one thing that will solve it. Even if we get to have a vaccine, its impact will depend crucially on surmounting a range of other challenges: clear science communication, effective public health systems, and effective international aid that supports our neighbours to make sure that people all around the world can access this vaccine as they deal with the same challenges. So much depends on other, harder challenges: how we as a society care for each other, public health, mental health support and income support. These are the crucial issues that we have to face and these are the challenges that this app isn't going to fix. And getting the privacy concerns right isn't going to fix these challenges either.

In particular, I want to talk today about a community that faces a set of unique challenges in the midst of this pandemic. Over the past weeks as we've experienced this pandemic, I've met with several organisations and individuals from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender-diverse, intersex and queer communities to check in on their work and get their insight into what COVID-19 has meant for them and the people they work with. Their concerns echo the points covered in the paper put together by Equality Australia, published after they assembled a roundtable of LGBTIQ+ and allied organisations to discuss COVID-19 impacts on LGBTIQ+ communities. Some of the issues that Equality Australia raised include the health disparities which put some LGBTIQ+ people at greater risk of severe health consequences from contracting COVID-19; the mental health disparities, particularly in rates of depression and suicide, which place LGBTIQ+ people at significant risk when faced with physical-distancing measures and greater isolation; a sudden loss of community support and cultural spaces; barriers to finding comfort and connection with our chosen families; and the possibility for some of living in unsafe and/or unsupportive environments. The third broad area of impacts is the historical and continuing experiences of discrimination, which make accessing inclusive health care, support, services and information, and interacting with law enforcement, more challenging, while LGBTIQ+ organisations are themselves insufficiently supported to meet the increased demand for their services. Equality Australia said that this potentially devastating combination of impacts and consequences may be further compounded and magnified for those with additional needs based on other attributes, such as disability or age.

With regard to other LGBTIQ+ organisations, I recently met with Joe Ball, the CEO of Switchboard Victoria. It was incredible to hear about the work that that organisation are doing during this crisis. They've been continuing to provide a support line even as we face a pandemic. They made the hard decision that they wouldn't have volunteers staffing their line, so they've had a massively increased financial impost from employing paid staff. But they also made the decision that the paid staff staffing their helpline still needed to be able to come into their headquarters, because it was just not safe for people, mentally, to have to cope with what they were hearing on that helpline; they needed to be there to support each other. Tragically, I hear that many of the calls they've been receiving are from people who are in fear for their safety because they've had to shift locations or change how they live due to health risks during this pandemic. Their work is crucial and must be supported.

Another organisation I've spoken to is Minus18, who work with young queer people. They are facing compounding challenges because of the massive unemployment that has hit young people. Overwhelmingly, they are people in casualised employment; they are working in the hospitality and tourism industries. They are losing their jobs and have been struggling to be supported, even after that. The Equality Australia report spoke about the resilience, resourcefulness and creativity of LGBTIQ+ people in the face of this crisis. I want to acknowledge and pay tribute to all of those characteristics and more. This is an incredibly difficult time for everyone, and people in LGBTIQ+ communities and their families face unique and acute impacts.

This app tackles a tiny part of the challenges that we, as a society, face. It's a tiny contribution to what needs to occur to keep everyone in our society safe and healthy in the face of this pandemic. I know that much more is being done, but much more remains to be done. We need to be considering more urgent government action to provide more support. LGBTIQ+ people and their families, in particular, must be able to access services without fear of discrimination, and they must have access to safe housing and other services in this crisis. Governments at all levels need to fund these services. They need to be focusing on this as well as applications like this app. They need to be funding the services that people need, from health to housing, and not cut corners on this. I know from speaking to these frontline services that we get amazing bang for the buck from them. Even without any funding, they stretch their resources to the limits. They should be adequately funded and properly resourced as part of the national response to this pandemic.

As we're considering this app today, there is still more work to be done to make sure that it is fit for purpose and that it doesn't compromise people's privacy. But, as I said, it is only a tiny part of what we still need to do to keep our society safe and healthy in the face of this pandemic.