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Wednesday, 13 May 2020
Page: 2232


Senator AYRES (New South Wales) (11:58): I am very grateful for the opportunity to make a few remarks on the legislation before the Senate, the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020. Labor's proposition for this legislation is the same as Labor's approach to all of the government's responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. In all of the government's public health and economic responses, we have taken a cautiously constructive approach. We have pointed out where there are problems. We have supported through this parliament wave after wave of economic propositions. The first tranche of the government's economic response was clearly insufficient, and we pointed that out at the time. With the second and third tranches of the government's economic response, we pointed out the deficiencies of all of those propositions but supported them through this place. That's the approach that we've taken in relation to the COVIDSafe app.

I do think that our approach in relation to the COVIDSafe app has been more successful in developing change in the government's approach to the legislation and the practical implementation. There have been some constructive changes and constructive discussions that have happened over the last couple of weeks that have improved the application of the COVIDSafe app. Those safeguards are, I think, useful in improving the operation and privacy aspects of the app. But, critically, our job as members of parliament is to make sure that we're encouraging as many Australians as possible to sign up to and to use the app properly to maximise its effectiveness.

There are new provisions that impose six-monthly reporting requirements on the Minister for Health and the Privacy Commissioner in respect of the COVIDSafe app. There is a new provision that confers additional oversight and certification responsibilities on the Privacy Commissioner to ensure that the Commonwealth complies with its obligations to delete all of the COVIDSafe data when the app is no longer in use. There is also a new provision—there because of Labor advocacy—clarifying that law enforcement and intelligence services may not be given any role in administering the COVIDSafe data store. Those are very significant improvements. Those changes are only there because Labor has engaged in constructive negotiations and discussions with the government. It doesn't mean that the bill is perfect. It doesn't mean that all of the issues are resolved. But we do believe that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

We believe that there should be a unanimous view coming out from leaders in the community, encouraging Australians to sign up to the app. But that hasn't been the approach that everybody in the parliament has taken. Some members of this parliament—all of them on the government side—have taken the opportunity to yahoo and carry on in their communities, and a number of them have quite deliberately set out their personal objections and encouraged other Australians to take a cynical approach to the app. That's been, I think, quite destructive.

I was being interviewed on radio in New England shortly after the local member, Mr Joyce, had been interviewed. He had been telling anybody who would listen that there was no way that Barnaby Joyce, the member for New England, would be signing up to the COVIDSafe app. I don't criticise Australians who make the decision not to sign up to the app for making that decision. That is entirely a matter for them. I do say that people in positions of leadership, people who've had significant positions of leadership in this country and who, it appears, aspire in the future to have significant positions of leadership, have a responsibility to use appropriate language. Those who aspire, in a quite uniquely destructive, National Party kind of way, to future positions of leadership, like we saw over the course of the last week—I don't think the word 'spectacle' does justice to what happened in Eden-Monaro over the course of the last week—where we saw the spectacle of that toxic self-interest unfurl and unravel for the Australian people, have a responsibility to use cautious language, to use language that's appropriate and to actually have read a few things before they open their mouths.

There are significant issues that are given rise to when there is an app like this that collects the kind of data that it collects, and it's quite appropriate for people concerned about civil liberties and about privacy to ventilate those concerns and to make sure that those concerns are satisfied. That is not what the member for New England was doing. He has never before in his political life shown the slightest regard for issues of privacy or of civil liberties. What he was doing was a sort of performance art, yahooing for the crowd in an effort to garner the support of people who are cynical about the government's activities in this area.

I haven't seen Mr Joyce talking about the data that people hand over to Google or the data that people hand over to Facebook. He's been nowhere to be seen on some of the difficult questions that government and our intelligence community have had to grapple with, in terms of the appropriate levels of privacy protections and data protections, when dealing with the kinds of issues that they deal with. He's been nowhere to be seen on any of those issues. But on this issue he's been popping up on regional radio, as a sort of toxic dwarf, trying to garner support for himself. That's not a model of leadership for members of parliament or senators. That's not what's happened for the majority of the parliament.

There are criticisms—I think valid criticisms—of the approach that the government has taken. I listened carefully to the comments that Ed Husic made about the government's decision to award the data storage contracts to Amazon Web Services, and I think his remarks were—I appreciate now in hindsight—a useful commentary. There were alternative Australian providers of data services who could have been considered. The government has chosen an overseas provider, and that comes with some risks. Some people say the requirement for individuals to download COVIDSafe is too narrow; the bill doesn't ensure that the COVID app data is retained in the data store for the minimum period necessary to complete contact tracing; and the bill doesn't prescribe some of the appropriate core design principles. Those are, I think, legitimate criticisms, but we are where we are and the legislation is in front of us. Improvements have been made, and I think it's time for the Senate chamber to support the legislation and move forward.

Five million Australians have downloaded the COVIDSafe app. It is not clear, and it has never been clear, what the threshold is for COVIDSafe to be effective in doing its work. At one point, the government said 40 per cent of Australians signing up was an effective level. The government's backtracked very quickly away from that proposition. It is now unclear—and I hope that this is dealt with in the course of the Senate committee inquiry into the government's coronavirus response—what an effective level is for Australians to sign up and properly utilise the COVIDSafe app.

As I say, it's very important that the legislation is passed. It's very important that Australians download the app. It's very important that Australians use the app properly—making sure their bluetooth is turned on when they leave home; making sure they do all the right things—but, as Senator McAllister said prior to me stepping up to make a few remarks, it is not a magic response that is going to take the place of all of the other things that must occur to keep Australians safe in the context of this virus. We cannot have an over-reliance on the COVIDSafe app. We need to encourage Australians to participate in it, but we can't allow that to become a reason for Australians not to follow the directions of public health authorities and not to do the things that we have so successfully done as a community. We still need to do social distancing, probably for many months to come. It's true that each of the states has had a different response and a different approach to the restrictions that have been applied to Australians and Australian businesses over the period. It is very important that Australians in each of our communities follow the directions and work constructively with the state governments.

The national cabinet has been an interesting process to observe. In some respects, the national cabinet has helped, I think, this Prime Minister to not make some pretty bad decisions. The national cabinet's been pretty useful at restraining some of the Prime Minister's worst instincts when it comes to dealing with the crisis. When you look overseas, you can see the sort of robotically conservative politics that we've seen in the American political system. We must guard against that kind of behaviour, that kind of politics, emerging on the Australian scene. There are plenty of people on the other side of politics who are interested in promoting those sorts of propositions. We've seen armed demonstrations inside state parliaments in the United States—people with weapons charging into the parliaments. That's not the American democracy or politics that I remember being such an inspiration to democracies around the world.

We've seen strange copy demonstrations around the country. The Prime Minister says it's okay for people to go and do that, and I suppose it is if they follow the social-distancing requirements. But we have seen emerging expressions from some members on the other side of politics—some members of the Liberal Party, particularly in Victoria—really starting to harden their opposition to the approach that the Andrews government has taken. It's a narrow, shallow, venal approach that has been, I think, a real problem in terms of our job here, which is to inspire confidence and trust from the Australian people in the government's approach. I noticed Mr Tim Smith, a local MP that nobody had ever heard of before, on his feet and getting stuck into the Andrews government's approach. That's inconsistent with where the Prime Minister's been and where the national cabinet's been. It's inconsistent with the kind of unity that we need to inspire around our struggle against this dangerous pandemic virus, and it's inconsistent with the approach that we should be taking to the legislation that's in front of the Senate this afternoon.