Transcript: ABC Afternoon Live 23/4/20

10.30am | April 27, 2020


PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST:  I want to bring in my political panel now for this afternoon, Liberal MP Katie Allen and Labor Senator Jenny McAllister. Welcome to both of you.


KATIE ALLEN: Thank you.

KARVELAS: Katie Allen we’re getting a clearer picture from the Prime Minister now that there will be potentially an easing of restrictions, schools for instance, you’re a Victorian MP, would you like Victorian schools to reopen?

ALLEN: Absolutely and I am hearing that from parents in my constituency. They're keen for kids to go back to school. We have to move forward in this together and the teachers are unsure about their safety, yet the medical advice is that it's a safe place for children in schools and we need to make sure that teachers feel that they’re safe as well. We need to make sure they feel safe so we can get kids back to school which will help parents and that eventually helps people with their jobs as well.

KARVELAS: Do you think there's a sense of urgency that Victorian schools actually reopen during term two?

ALLEN: I think term two is the right term. But, that being said, we've had one week where we've had less than 1% increase in cases. So we’re at the point now where the epidemic seems to have stabilised. We are heading into winter. For me, as a medical professional, there's a little question mark about are we sure that this isn't going to spike again? I'm pleased that the Prime Minister pretty clearly has outlined what are the three things that we need to be careful of coming forward. Do we have medical system that's ready to take any problems were they to arise? Do we have a good test and trace sort of procedure that's in place? And what can we do if there was to be an outbreak? I think we know where we're standing. We're in a bit of a waiting holding pattern at the moment. The medical advice has been very clear from the start, that schools are a safe place for kids. And teachers who are immunocompromised or older, that's a different situation for them. Teachers who are going to a school where there's a very stable population of children and yet they're nervous about going to school but they'll go to a supermarket where there's a much bigger variation in the population of people. So I think that going forward there will be a pressure from the parents themselves for schools to reopen more fully. I'm hearing from principals that they feel  trying to run two schools, an online school and one which provides for essential workers and that's a big burden for these principals to have to maintain at the moment.

KARVELAS: Jenny McAllister, the situation is different in New South Wales. There's a plan for a return,  a staggered return. Do you think there should be sort of a focus now on getting institutions like schools back up and running?

MCALLISTER: Look, I think the most important thing is to give parents some sense of certainty about how this is going to work in New South Wales. My office has been talking with constituents, reaching out to actually people of an age where they would have kids at school. And the overwhelming feedback is that parents don't really understand what's happening. They've got a vague idea that school might be coming back. But they've been told different things by principals, by the Prime Minister, by the Premier about how that's going to unfold in New South Wales. And there is an enormous amount of confusion. The Prime Minister has said this is a decision for state premiers. I think the best thing at this point would be for him to encourage people to listen to state premiers. At the moment we've got the Prime Minister offering a lot of opinions about what is and isn't safe in a school environment. If his position is actually that it's his decision for state premiers, it might be best for him to let the state premiers do the communication on this.

KARVELAS: Katie Allen, how concerned are you about a second spike or complacency? There is a sense I feel, and I'm saying this as a citizen and not just a journalist, that we were on top of this and maybe we could get a little relaxed. Are you concerned about what that might lead to?

ALLEN: Look, I am absolutely concerned. This is a new epidemic, or pandemic, and we always have to be cautious, hope for the best, but we just don't know where we're going with this. Absolutely. The one thing about Australia is we've been careful from taking evidence from around the world and I suppose as a population researcher my interest is in the Northern Hemisphere and a Southern Hemisphere. I've been looking at South America. If South America was following what we were doing, you could say maybe the pandemic is more in the Northern Hemisphere than the Southern Hemisphere. The issue that's bad news for South America but good news for us is it does seem to be taking off in South America. They haven’t had the restrictions in place that we have had. They haven't had the border control, they haven’t had all the same sorts of things we've been doing. It suggests that Australia is actually carving its own curve. That gives me a sense of comfort that all the steps we've been taking have been effective and perhaps there may be a seasonal component but we seem to be protected from that because of the measures we have put in place. So the big issue is, as we lift these measures, we have to be ready to respond appropriately if it comes back. As we know, once the genie is out of the bottle with the epidemic, it's very hard to put it back in, as happened in Italy, the UK and the USA. There's no doubt the Prime Minister is very alive to these issues. His view which is making sure that we have the test and trace  capabilities are incredibly important. One of those things which I'm a big proponent of is the COVID-19 app. If we get the capabilities as a country to control any outbreak within a 24-hour period, not a 2-week period, then we have an opportunity to make sure citizens can go more freely about their life, go back to work and encourage them to participate in  normal life and hopefully support our economy more quickly. But I think the COVID-19 app is central to that. The conversations that are going on at this points in time are really important in the community. It's important people understand that it's a voluntary app at this point, and people can turn their Bluetooth on and off if they do download the app. There's no GPS capability to the app and people can't be located or traced. There's only four pieces of information that will be put on the app - a name, mobile phone number, postcode so the health state authority tracker know which state the person resides in and if they've crossed state boundaries, and the fourth thing is their age range. It's not even a specific age. The information is deleted after 21 days. And the information is on a server that can only be accessed by the state health authority, people who are actually tracking the COVID-19 outbreak. There will be regulation around ensuring that this information cannot be available to any other authority. It has been argued that this is probably the clearest sets of principles around making sure this information remains private and that is because it's a critical piece of tool to fight this COVID-19 epidemic right here in Australia. It will be interesting to see how the community responds to the app.
KARVELAS: Jenny McAllister, do you think the community should sign up in large numbers?

MCALLISTER: Well, the issue here is trust, isn't it? With this measure and in fact all of the responses to COVID-19, the Government's really asking the community to trust their leadership. I think my view would be that trust is really dependent on transparency. It's going to be really important that the community does understand very clearly what the privacy protections are and that they understand what the data is and not going to be used for. Today in the hearing -the Senate Committee met today of course,and had Brendan Murphy appear before them - wasn't really clear whether or not legislation will be put in place to protect citizen's privacy. That's not yet clear.

KARVELAS: Would you like it to be?
MCALLISTER: Look, it's up to the Government to explain what the... (INAUDIBLE) to secure privacy is. They are in possession of the information and they are going to  need to look at the existing legal frameworks and explain whether or not they are adequate to protect individual privacy or whether things need to be changed. That explanation is yet to be provided and I  think overall what the Government needs to do is take people into its confidence, share its thinking about the technology, about the legal  framework and also about the underpinning public health assumptions. I mean they're asserting a 40% takeup is the magic number. We don't know the basis for that. That's another area where it would be good to have more information.

KARVELAS: Interesting questions being raised there by Jenny McAllister. Should there be legislation to strengthen and also ensure Australians know there is a legislative protection and framework around participating?

ALLEN: I think Christian Porter is looking at what the provisions are at the moment. And his assurance is that this is an app that is going to be open source. There's three departments that are involved in this. There's the Attorney-General's
Department, Stuart Robert's department and the Health Department all in this to make sure it's a collaborative approach. Others are looking at the belt and brace aspects of this, and there will be a privacy assessment that will be taken. If that opens up questions there will be an opportunity to think about the legislation. But I think at this point in time it looks like it is going to be a voluntary app anyway.

KARVELAS: It does and the Government has clarified it will be voluntary. If you don't get to the magic 40% number because maybe Australians are worried about their and the campaign to -- privacy and the campaign to tell them not to worry doesn't work, do you think the Government should consider making it mandatory?

ALLEN: It's a really good question. In fact I was given a Hong Kong app from some of my colleagues in Hong King and I looked at it and you could actually see on the app see where COVID cases were in streets in Hong Kong. I said to my colleague that this will never get social licence here in Australia. It's interesting moving along we decided we would take the basis of the Trace Together app in Singapore and remove the GPS geolocation aspects and remove the aspects we think won't work here in Australia because we want to make sure it's an app that's completely supported by public sentiment. The concept of mandatory is a pretty difficult concept here in Australia. You could argue that providers of services themselves might want to think about whether they encourage people who want to participate at the MCG or going to Chadstone, they might say please download the app before you come in so we can keep you safe. I'm not saying that will happen. Scott Morrison's showing I think very good leadership by being clear about what this app is and isn't. About explaining what it needs to reach for it to be useful, and I think there's been some focus groups about the general sentiments in the Australian community. I don't know the figures myself but I understand they seem to be positive. Australians are having to weigh up the benefits for themselves. If they think that they can turn the app on and off because they can turn the Bluetooth on and off, they can know where they're going to be safe and is useful for them, versus any potential or perceived risks. More than 90% of Australians have smartphones and many people doing banking. Google has a lot of data about us. That's not to say people in the community will say we don't want any part of it. But the general view is this is to help Australians. This is not for some other reason. This is to help contain the COVID outbreak so we can all loosen up, and get back to work and shopping and get back to sporting venues and to we have a tool, a technology which 100 years ago wasn't available for the polio pandemic. We have the capability to use the technology made here in Australia, by Australian scientists. It's a great opportunity for us to be able to carve our own curve.

KARVELAS: A quick question. Is it unfortunate - first to you Katie Allen - that some of your colleagues have been talking it down?

ALLEN: I'm a big believer of freedom of speech. If we didn't have various views people would be suspicious.

KARVELAS: Let me interrupt you, with public health, you kind of need to be on message, don't you? You need to be saying, "We need to do this." If you've got divisions in your own government about a public health measure, that can't be helpful?

ALLEN: We are the party free speech and often have variety of opinions. The executive, all the ministerial portfolios are as one on this and the Prime Minister is as well. The role of the backbench is to provide differences of opinions. I think it's really important that we provide opinions that are coming from our constituents. We're not delegates to the Parliament, we’re representatives. I listen very carefully to my constituents,  I'm hearing that they are open to the idea of the app. They haven't seen the full rollout of what it might mean but they're very positive when I speak to them about what their concerns are and I've had lots of questions asked and I'll respond to them about what the response is. They're extremely calm and confident about it when I give them the responses. Australians are prone to being sceptical. That's what we're good at being. It's good to have diversity of opinion. But at the end of the day it will be up to every individual Australian about whether they want to stay safe and want their families to stay safe and equally as important if we want to move our economy to opening it up to get to the other side of this coronavirus epidemic sooner rather than later.

KARVELAS: Jenny McAllister, we know Barnaby Joyce, and others have said don't trust the Government with this sort of information. Is it helpful?

MCALLISTER: I think the Government obviously has some work to do convincing people if they're yet to convince members of their own backbench. Ultimately, as I said, this is about transparency. I think the sooner the Government can get their assurances on the table about the privacy protections and the accountabilities around this app, the sooner they'll be able to initiate a dialogue with the community that Katie's talking about. I don't think focus groups are enough. It’s going to have to be a significantly more public conversation than that.

KARVELAS: Thanks to both of you. A great panel. Calm, measured, collegiate. What a time to be alive.

MCALLISTER: Thank you.



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