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We’ll stick together, but only if the pain is shared equally


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Hoarding toilet paper early on was the visible evidence of a selfish Darwinian mindset. Next thing you are buying guns and stocking up the survivalist bunker. All in it together? Ski Aspen and you score a “Get Out of Quarantine Free” card. Or is it that Kerry Stokes has the Border Force au pair hotline number? His exemption erodes public trust. If billionaires can wrangle their way out, the crisis cannot be that serious is the reaction.

Yet all the science and advice from anyone other than Pete Evans is that the communal responses will keep us safe. Appeals to a shared public good do not deserve hostility, but that is what pops up over and again in the Institute of Public Affairs-fuelled nonsense passing for public policy.

French President Emmanuel Macron has declared that companies that do not pay taxes will not get government bail-outs. Hooray, not just for thinking of it but for saying it out aloud. It reassures the citizens that parasites will not be indulged amid a national emergency. That builds public trust.

The PM confusing us, again, with mixed messages about schools re-opening leaves scar tissue on the public psyche. The resultant squabbling and point-scoring undermine the success of Victoria’s management of the pandemic. Distractions of so-called “culture wars” over an entirely innocuous but provocative tweet from a young doctor about Captain Cook and COVID-19 is nothing to do with public safety. It is an expression of the frustration bubbling up within the state opposition over the Premier’s hoarding of political capital going unchallenged over the past month. Confected outrage anyone?

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And the magic app? Several million downloads is remarkable – but low-hanging fruit. With almost zero community transmission, the app cannot ever take the place of human contact tracing. It might sometimes make it easier, that’s all. So, should we or shouldn’t we?

There are strong and even compelling arguments on both sides of the debate. The biggest hurdle to overcome is the prior record of Peter Dutton and fellow minister Stuart Robert in walking all over people’s rights and privacy. Judge them by what they do, not what they say.

The COVIDsafe app is brought to you by the same people who raided journalists’ homes and offices. The same people who delivered Robodebt, a brutal policy rammed through despite internal warnings, targeting the most vulnerable in our society, contriving theoretical but frequently non-existent debts. The poorest left unable to argue against the might of government bureaucracy, unable to counter computer-generated, error-riddled calculations.

At least when Westpac pulled a similar stunt and got caught charging fees for no service, those responsible paid the price and quit or were sacked. No one has ever been accountable for Robodebt.

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Can a government change its spots? Does the “we are from the government and we are here to help” app signify a fundamental rethink of the relationship between the governing and the governed? Can spooks resist mission creep towards digital authoritarianism?

If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge for sale in Sydney and a snake that needs oiling. Once we are habituated to mass tracking and surveillance for the public good, irresistible will be the attempts to next use facial recognition. Technology will be touted as a simple, proven and unobtrusive tool to assist in countering terrorism, fraud, child exploitation, equine flu. Big tech helps. We used it before so let us use it again. Big Brother via COVID-19?

Jon Faine is a former presenter on ABC 774.

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