Thursday, 14 May 2020
I rise tonight to speak on the COVID-19 app legislation which passed this chamber earlier today. Looking at the responses people have had to the app, it's fair to say that we have a problem with trust. We have a problem with trust when the public is reluctant to download an app that the government has developed. We have a problem with trust when we need legislation to reassure people that the government will not misuse their data. We have a problem with trust when we need to criminalise the misuse of people's data. And that problem of trust is making the management of the coronavirus much more difficult than it otherwise would be.
It's worth thinking about how we've ended up in this position. The public have not lost their trust in their representatives because of any single action; it's not the fault of one person, party or government. Instead, it's an accumulation of many separate actions over many, many years which have undermined people's confidence. It's not difficult to find examples. Sports rorts is one particular example. How can the public maintain its confidence in a government that puts its own interests before those of the community? Another recent example is the attempted cover-up of the Prime Minister's Hawaiian holiday during the bushfires. But the problem is not limited to the Liberal and National parties. When Labor was in government, the promise not to introduce a carbon tax, the Slipper affair and the defence of Craig Thomson all diminished the public's trust in its representatives.
Every time a politician is exposed in a scandal it makes the public suspicious that politicians' work is all about benefiting themselves rather than serving their constituents. Every time a politician refuses to be accountable for wrongdoing it confirms those suspicions. Every time a politician says there is no need for a corruption watchdog it transforms suspicions into hardened truths.
But it isn't just the big scandals that corrode trust; it's all the small things too—the exaggerations and lies, the demonisations and the dog whistles. Each of these delivers some momentary political advantage but comes at the cost of trust—in all of us. Now all our chickens have come home to roost. After years of allowing the public trust in us to waste away, we find that we actually need the public trust—and there is precious little of it left.
I hope one lesson we learn from the pandemic is the importance of public trust and that part of the recovery is a rebuilding of that trust. There is no silver bullet that will rapidly undo the damage that has been done. We cannot just pass a law, agree to a motion or promise that things will be different in the future. The only choice that's available to us is to be better and to do better—to consistently act in a way that builds the community's confidence and demonstrates they can trust us to act in their interest and not our own. For some of us, that will require real change and it will take time. But the response to the COVID-19 app demonstrates why is so important for the public to have trust in us. This is something we should all reflect on in the coming months.
Senate adjourned at 18:00