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Wednesday, 13 May 2020
Page: 2230

Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (11:49): I appreciate the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate on the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020. Like many people in this place, I made the decision quite quickly to download the app. I did it with some reservations. The government's record, practically, in securing private information is not a strong record. But, more concerning, the government's interest in protecting privacy, particularly digital privacy, appears to be extremely limited. My experience with the government is that both their practical capabilities in terms of effecting any protections they may wish to put in place and their willingness to do so have combined to produce a series of problems in relation to government digital projects, and that made me very hesitant. I should, of course, indicate that that hesitation is not particularly about my own privacy; it's about the overall framework for privacy that has been put in place by the government. That said, the government appears to have made quite serious attempts, both in the original determination by the minister and in the bill that is before the chamber at this time, to put in place serious safeguards to support privacy. It's on that basis that we're supportive of this legislation.

My hope is that this experience will encourage the government to give consideration to these same matters when it develops other interventions that also go to privacy. Part of the problem, of course, is that, when we ask the community to engage with the government's app, they've seen all of the other instances where government has appeared indifferent to their privacy, and we reap what we sow. But on this occasion Labor has sought to support the government's public health response, and it has seen that this app represents a sincere attempt to support a broader public health response to contain the impact of the pandemic.

I want to turn to the broad nature of that response. At its heart, the government has asked all Australians to trust the health advice being provided by government and to trust in one another that, together, the actions that we all choose to take voluntarily, without compulsion, will support the health of our citizens. Not everybody is equally vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19. It's clear that people with pre-existing health conditions are more vulnerable both to contracting the virus and to the impacts of the virus. It's clear that there are some parts of our community for whom the social determinants of health render them vulnerable over their lifetime to poorer health outcomes who are themselves more vulnerable to the impacts of the virus. In my own conversations in my own family, I've made it clear to younger family members that, yes, they may not be impacted as severely by this virus, but older people in our community, people that they know, people that they love, are likely to be impacted and it's on that basis we all have engaged in the social-distancing measures that have been requested of us. It is fundamentally an approach built on trust—trust in the scientific advice, trust in the medical advice, trust that government is acting in our best interests, trust that governments are collaborating within the federation to protect the Australian community, trust that all of the people around us—all the people in our neighbourhoods and in our workplaces—are doing our best with the advice we have to prevent the spread of the virus. It makes us realise what an important asset trust actually is in a democratic system. It should provide cause for reflection in this place about what is required amongst parliamentarians, amongst political representatives, to build and sustain trust, not just in this policy area but in all policy areas, because it is fundamental to our ability to respond to the circumstances we find ourselves in now and it will be fundamental to our ability to respond to challenges that will arise in the future.

I do want to sound a note of caution about over-reliance on the app as a public health solution. The government laid out a range of measures necessary to protect the community, and we shouldn't think that the app itself provides a kind of magical protection. Indeed the government's own criteria for take-up of the app seems to have changed dramatically. At first it was indicated what was required was 40 per cent of the population. It now appears the goalposts have moved and what is required for the app to be effective is 40 per cent of the adult population who use a mobile phone. That shift alone should provide some indication that this is not an exact science and, in fact, what is required is the implementation of a whole suite of measures, most of which do not rely on technology. Most of the measures rely, as I said earlier, on individual citizens taking a decision to voluntarily make choices that will protect fellow citizens by limiting our interaction with one another.

I do think that now that we have moved out of the acute phase of this crisis and into what will be a long period of transition back to some kind of normality, we should think carefully about the opportunities to engage civil society in support of that objective. We are blessed with leaders right across our community who stand up in their local communities and voluntarily play a role. They choose to play a role as a leader of a sporting association, choose to play a role as a leader in a school P&C, choose to play a role as a leader in a local environment group. These are leaders who are fundamental to establishing the kind of trust at a local and personal level within a community that allows our society to function. They are leaders who are not often recognised but who would be immensely valuable in the fight we are presently engaged in to contain this pandemic. They are probably infinitely more powerful than an app and, as we develop our response and roll it out across the community, we ought to be thinking about the kinds of community engagement that might be possible if we really leverage the power of civil society to respond to the challenge before us.

This app is important. It will give our remarkable public health officials new tools to engage in contact tracing. It will supplement the data that they already have before them when they engage in that contact-tracing process. I want to place on record my thanks, particularly to the health workers in my home state in New South Wales, who have been working so hard, such long hours in a sensitive environment with people who are unwell, for engaging in contact tracing. This app will do a great deal to support their work and it's on that basis we provide support but we do need to remember that the public health response is much broader than simply a piece of technology. I urge government to continue thinking about that, to be respectful of the community, to understand that a genuine response over a long period of time is going to need to involve many, many people and that the best way to do that is through transparency and an overall posture of respect to those many leaders in our community who already do so much to keep all of our organisations working.