The federal government would like downloads of the COVIDSafe app to be a guide to loosening the lockdown.
Unfortunately, it is starting to look more like a measure of the government’s trust deficit.
The government is aiming for at least 10 million downloads for the mobile phone app to be effective in helping control the coronavirus spread. The score so far is less than half that.
The phrase “I don’t like to say I told you so” is one of the great lies.
It’s inevitably followed by “but” as everyone loves the opportunity to say it, to be proven right.
So, without apology, let me remind you of something written three months ago: With what may be another crisis unfolding, it would be helpful to have faith in the nation’s leadership, reassuring to have confidence that a capable, open and honest government is doing the right and best thing.
Instead, well, is what you’ve heard really true or just Morrison government talking points?
That is what it has come to under a steadily mounting case load of fibs and lies, spin and evasion.
This is the terrible price for the government being “subtle, false and treacherous” with us – a loss of trust in the government when it is most needed.
That column was in light of the government’s egregious doubling down on its $100 million #sportsrorts fraud – claiming that black was white and the sun rose in the west – but that scandal had unfolded on top of [wait for it] carbon emissions lies and Robodebt and ignoring the fire chiefs and Angus Taylor and the dodging and weaving about the Hillsong White House invitation.
Then there’s lying about the Hawaiian holiday and playing pea-and-thimble with infrastructure spending and Barnaby Joyce and hiding information under the “Cabinet document” fig leaf and the Witness K prosecution and Angus Taylor again and the AFP raiding journalists’ underwear drawers and wages growth suppression and the QAnon mate and Craig Kelly and (insert your favourite disappointments here).
It also focused on one of the government’s first ’Rona initiatives, if we can remember back that far: If the government is taking the radical and expensive step of isolating hundreds of Australians on Christmas Island, it would be nice to think it’s the best and right thing to do.
But over 18 months now, we’ve been given no reason to take the Morrison government at its word and good reason to doubt it.
So when Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton says “Christmas Island is purpose built for exactly this scenario”, it is sensible to question the statement.
And it is not subsequently surprising to find he is not telling the truth.
Christmas Island was purpose built as a detention centre, as an offshore jail. It does not have adequate medical facilities for “this scenario”.
Subsequent events have demonstrated Mr Dutton’s Christmas Island adventure was indeed just an expensive stunt, his explanation a lie.
It has not been used again for isolation when much has been needed and remains a multimillion-dollar boondoggle for the private contractor running it, merely part of the unconscionable cost of punishing the Biloela family for wanting to stay in Australia.
All of us might now be paying the price for the government being untrustworthy.
If the majority of us trusted the government enough to download the app, it might help contain the ’rona, save lives and get society functioning more normally.
It is a commentary on the government that we haven’t collectively decided, “yep, no big deal, it’s a good thing, we’ll do it for the common good”.
Instead, we’re dragging the chain, more of a “yeah, nah” response.
Innocuous app, mistrustful government
By way of disclosure, I have downloaded the app – I have a bit more skin in the COVID game than most.
I was swayed in the decision by Barnaby Joyce and Pauline Hanson being opposed to it and Crikey’s Bernard Keane advising that the app itself is relatively innocuous.
Bernard has been a long-time critic of the willingness of both major parties to extend government surveillance, erode privacy and misuse power and personal information.
His problem with COVIDSafe is the government behind it: It introduced data retention laws supposedly reserved only for a small number of security agencies, protected against abuse and mission creep, and aimed only at serious crimes.
Instead, the agencies using metadata have ballooned, the most trivial offences are now included, and security agencies abuse the data without being held to account.
It defied laws designed to prevent the misuse of the personal information of transfer payment recipients to publicly vilify – via leaks to friendly journalists – a citizen who publicly criticised the government over Robodebt. Its bureaucrats insisted they had done so lawfully because they were correcting her “mistake”.
It used laws it introduced aimed at deterring whistleblowing within government to raid journalists’ homes in search of sources that caused embarrassment for security bureaucrats.
It raided opposition offices and Parliament House itself searching for information on sources that had embarrassed NBN Co.
It used surveillance to undermine legal professional privilege and harassed and prosecuted the men who exposed criminal wrongdoing by ASIS, in the K/Collaery case.
It has given itself powers to force software and device manufacturers to secretly plant malware on devices to target citizens. Its signals intelligence body – which helped write the app – refuses to share information about major security vulnerabilities in widely used IT systems so it can exploit them for commercial espionage.
It’s that trust thing.
Scott Morrison’s personal approval rating has soared during this crisis, unlike the previous one, second only to Kevin Rudd’s 70 per cent record.
But that has not translated into support for the government overall, the Coalition and Labor tied 50-50.
The state premiers’ approval ratings also have jumped, as have those of government leaders around the world.
Even Donald Trump is back up to his highest approval rating of 49 per cent.
And that’s after his astounding “inject disinfectant” performance – something you’d think only The Australian’s Chris Kenny could love.
Few things better demonstrate that it is human nature to want to believe in leadership during a crisis, to have faith that those at the top know what they are doing when the population feels powerless.
Despite that, the slow and low take up of the COVIDSafe app says we are not rushing to trust this government – its track record continues to count.
Schools a substitute culture war
And now the National Cabinet solidarity is fracturing, as demonstrated by Sunday’s full-throated attack on the Victorian Premier by the federal Education Minister.
It is in politicians’ DNA to find a fight, a point of difference.
Given the trust thing, or lack thereof, there’s a suspicion the open/close schools argument is a substitute culture war, as much about the teachers union as good policy when politicians like Peter Dutton and Andrew Laming march in, boots flying.
Apparently disregarded in the fight are points four and five of the COVID-19 National Principles for School Education, as announced by the Prime Minister:
4. State and Territory governments and non-government sector authorities are responsible for managing and making operational decisions for their school systems respectively, subject to compliance with relevant funding agreements with the Commonwealth.
5. Decisions regarding the response to COVID-19 in the schooling sector must continue to be informed by expert, official, national and state-based public health and education advice, consistent with these national principles.
Those principles allow room for differing operational decisions and for both national and state health advice to get a look in.
Making a Labor v Liberal political fight of it erodes trust in the crisis leadership.
The COVIDSafe app download rate indicates the government doesn’t have trust to spare.