Monday, April 27, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Downloading the COVIDSafe app may be our least-worst option

Source: ABC News

It’s a great pity that a combination of incompetence and dishonesty by the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Coalition governments has damaged the public trust just when we are being asked to download the contact-tracing app, COVIDSafe, that could help quash the pandemic. There’s been epic bungling, from #censusfail and #robodebt to the botched rollout of My Health Record. There’s been blatant misuse of the mandatory data retention regime and its anti-free-press Journalist Information Warrants, and apparent politicisation of supposedly independent agencies like the Australian Federal Police, which has targeted journalists and whistleblowers. The mysterious encryption-busting laws passed last year undermine official assurances that COVIDSafe data will be secure because it is encrypted. As lawyer Michael Bradley writes in Crikey [$], the app may not even be lawful under the Biosecurity Act. Like shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally stated on Insiders yesterday, Bradley says he will not download it without a proper parliamentary debate and laws to protect privacy.

And the fact that the minister responsible for development of the COVIDSafe app is Stuart Robert – who recently blamed the failure of the Centrelink website to deal with a totally predictable rush of dole applications on a fictitious denial of service attack – is beyond laughable. Robert was conspicuously absent from the COVIDSafe launch yesterday. As the ABC’s Jane Norman reported, he is regarded by his own colleagues as both “accident and scandal prone”.

This morning’s Newspoll [$] found a majority of Australians – 54 per cent – intend to download the app, and there is a groundswell of support for anything that will save lives and end the lockdown as soon as possible. Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes has endorsed the app, as has shadow health minister Chris Bowen. Overnight, Health Minister Greg Hunt claimed success with one million downloads in the first five hours – well ahead of expectations – and a further announcement is expected later today. 

With little or no new COVID-19 cases around the country, and with WA, NT and Queensland announcing social-distancing restrictions would be eased, the sense of a public health emergency is fading. In an update after today’s meeting of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said the government’s suppression strategy was working well and its major focus was now building public health capacity. That means testing asymptomatic people for the first time – with Victoria unveiling a new mass-testing regime – and the COVIDSafe app, which Murphy cast as a necessary prelude to any decision by the national cabinet to ease social-distancing restrictions in a few weeks. Professor Murphy said the public response to COVIDSafe was an “amazing and really gratifying outcome”. The more downloads of the app, Murphy said, and the more evidence that there are not undetected cases out there, “the more secure national cabinet will be about thinking about taking those gentle cautious steps we all want to take”. 

NGO Digital Rights Watch put out this excellent explainer on Friday, setting out a range of privacy concerns, and along with the Human Rights Law Centre and the Centre for Responsible Technology it has urged the government to release the COVIDSafe source code. The Australian Cyber Security Centre has committed to doing so within a fortnight. In a useful Twitter thread, app-development expert Matthew Robbins explained how he downloaded and decompiled the Android version. He found it was pretty straightforward and was designed to self-delete data after 21 days, concluding: “From what I can see, everything in the #covidsafe app is above board, very transparent and follows industry standard.”

Professor Murphy, who has won a high degree of public trust, insisted “we have a compact with the Australian people … [COVIDSafe] will never be used for any other purpose”. Perhaps, with a high degree of reluctance and even dread of the inevitable breach of security or faith, downloading the app and deleting it in three weeks’ time is the least-worst option here.

“There’s just no transparency or accountability around this. We’ve seen what happened with sport rorts. We’re talking about Commonwealth money at a time when we know the economy has taken a hit due to coronavirus, and I think it should be properly investigated.”

The independent member for Warringah, Zali Steggall, asks the auditor-general to investigate the Morrison government’s scheme for underwriting new investment in power generation, administered by Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

“The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now. I think in the long term … if the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think ‘Why should we go to such a country that is not so friendly to China?’ … Maybe the ordinary people will say ‘Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’”

Chinese ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye denounces Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s push for an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak. Foreign Minister Marise Payne has described Cheng’s threat as “economic coercion”.

Anthony Albanese’s pandemic response
Labor leader Anthony Albanese is juggling the need to appear constructive while holding the government to account. But what does the public actually want from the Opposition during this crisis? Today, Karen Middleton on the Opposition’s tactics in a pandemic.


The size of the majority that the Coalition will hold in the House of Representatives if it wins the seat of Eden-Monaro in a byelection, after Labor MP Mike Kelly flagged he would retire. Senator Jim Molan, a member of the Queanbeyan Liberal branch, has said he may stand.

“Once an employer decides to participate in the JobKeeper scheme and their eligible employees have agreed to be nominated by the employer, the employer must ensure that all of these eligible employees are covered by their participation in the scheme. This includes all eligible employees who are undertaking work for the employer or have been stood down. The employer cannot select which eligible employees will participate in the scheme. As noted in the explanatory statement to the existing rules, this ‘one in, all in’ principle is already a key feature of the scheme and will be made clearer in the rules.”

An excerpt from an announcement on late Friday, five days after opening the JobKeeper scheme for enrolments, in which Treasurer Josh Frydenberg used the wide delegation given to him under the enabling legislation.

The list

“This is not a war. If pandemics bore any relationship to war, nations would prepare for them. War and preparations for it are incessant and obscenely expensive state activities and a lucrative trade for immense corporations. But this pandemic, though long predicted by scientists (and Bill Gates, among others), and portended by HIV/AIDS, Hendra, SARS, MERS and Ebola, arrived as if all of a sudden by spaceship from another universe.”

“Eight modern Liberal PMs: one prematurely deceased, three (possibly) in the roles of faithful old boys and four definite apostates. Not much of a record of loyalty over the past 70 years. It says more about the party of ‘strong and stable’ conservative government than all the 699 pages of diatribe Turnbull has unleashed on the world.”

“It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see what the government’s plan for recovery from this economic catastrophe is, for it is essentially the same as it was before. In good times or bad, the prescription’s the same: small government, lower taxes, trickle-down theory. The coronavirus might be novel, but the conservative response is not.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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