Bills: Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020 - Second Reading

13 May 2020

Senator Patrick: I thank the whips for assisting me as I juggle committee and chamber duties. Centre Alliance will be supporting the bill before the Senate this morning, the Privacy Amendment (Public Health Contact Information) Bill 2020. I will acknowledge that, as Senator Keneally pointed out, the government has been quite willing to negotiate amendments and work with other parties to improve the bill. In fact, Centre Alliance have been talking with the Attorney's office and have worked with the government on a number of amendments. There are still some amendments that we will put to the Senate during the committee stage. But, in principle, the process has been good, and I thank the government for that.

I'm on record as saying that I haven't downloaded the application, but I'm neutral as to whether people should or shouldn't. It's a matter for their own circumstances. I have been concerned that the protections that have been put in place have been done by way of ministerial determination, because that means that, with the stroke of a pen, they can be changed at any time. I think what's happening today makes it a much more robust arrangement and certainly puts me much more at ease in respect of the privacy issues. So I think that's a tick in the box, assuming this passes the parliament today.

There are some concerns about the application, however, that I think we need to air and that the government needs to be up-front about. As I said, I'm neutral; I think everyone should download the application based on their own circumstances. I think there are likely to be fewer and fewer privacy reasons now for not downloading it. However, I think we need to be up-front about the performance of the application. We are asking people to download an application that sits on their phone, and we know, anecdotally—as I've heard from a number of people I've talked to that have the app—that it drains the battery pretty quickly, for example. That's a small penalty to pay in relation to dealing with a pandemic, but only if the application ends up having a useful effect.

This leads to a couple of issues which I think need to be addressed, the first being that this application originated in Singapore. When it was first talked about, there were discussions about its origin and the fact that 20 per cent of the Singaporean population had downloaded the app. Yet at the COVID committee I asked—and have not yet received a response—whether or not the Australian government sought any advice as to the app's effectiveness. What effectiveness does a 20 per cent take-up give you in terms of health outcomes? We heard the Prime Minister talk about 40 per cent here. But, as the Department of Health confirmed, we did no modelling, so we don't know whether 40 per cent gives you 2X, 3X or 4X in terms of outcome. It's not been modelled. We don't know, because the department hasn't modelled it, what the right take-up is. I think that is a problem and it's a problem that should be addressed. We want to make sure that we have legitimate targets for the population. There is a report out of Oxford university that suggests the take-up rate needs to be above 50 per cent. I think we just need to be straight-up with the Australian public, and we also need to know these numbers ourselves so we can make sure we pitch and contribute to achieving those numbers. Is this linear in terms of the take-up verses the outcome, or is there some sort of other curve shape that says the application is pretty much useless unless at least 30 per cent download it? I'd like to see that data; I'd like to see the modelling done. The government hasn't committed to doing that, and I think that's a mistake.

The second area of concern is how effective the application is. In the COVID committee, we asked officials about whether or not the application is actually effective. The answer was talk about how many people had downloaded it. That's the answer to a different question. There are concerns—and the DTA gave evidence to the Senate—that there is degradation in the performance of the application in circumstances where the application is in the background, or, indeed, in circumstances where the phone is locked. I think it's proper that that deterioration be quantified, and that information should be provided to the Australian public. I have put questions on notice asking for the test data to be provided to the Senate, and obviously to the Australian public, and hopefully the DTA will be compliant in providing a significant amount of test data—not just the best cases but also the situations where it doesn't work at all, the point being just to be open and upfront.

From all the evidence that I heard, I suspect the application is not doing very much at this point in time. That's not a criticism of government. Back when the application was proposed, we were in a different situation than we are in now. We were looking at the upside of a curve. We're now looking at a flattened curve. I applaud the government for throwing everything at this application when it was conceived, for saying, 'This could be a tool that will contribute.' But, if there are problems with it, just be honest with the Australian public. Let them be well informed so that they can make a good decision about downloading it. If it's the case that it's not working well now, but in two weeks time we get an upgrade from Apple and Google, as foreshadowed in respect of bluetooth, we then let the public know that, and we don't take a marketing approach. We take a well-informed approach where we inform the Australian public.

I thought it was worth sharing that with the Senate. I do support the bill and I do support the application. As the bill lays out, it is a matter of choice for people as to whether to download it. Let's be very open and honest about its utility, about how well it is working at this point in time and about what the required uptakes are, such that we can protect the Australian public. I commend the bill to the Senate.