Speeches Chris has made in the Australian Federal Parliament.


November 28, 2006

Mr HAYES (Werriwa) (5.32 p.m.)—I would like to make a few brief comments about the
Privacy Legislation Amendment (Emergencies and Disasters) Bill 2006. Labor’s view is that the
privacy laws need to strike a balance between the value of sharing information for the benefit
of individuals and the wider community and the privacy considerations that protect an
individual’s personal information. This also has to be balanced with the need to respond rapidly
to emergency and disaster situations so that the problem at hand can be dealt with, reducing
the threat to property and, more importantly, reducing the threat to lives.

The bill before us inserts a new part VIA into the Privacy Act 1988 to permit but not compel
information exchange between Australian government agencies, state and territory authorities,
private sector organisations, non-government organisations and others in an emergency or a
disaster situation, whether in Australia or overseas. Part VIA is triggered by a declaration of an
emergency by either the Prime Minister or the Attorney-General, in consultation with the
Minister for Foreign Affairs should it be an overseas situation, and provides for the use and
disclosure of personal information related to the Commonwealth’s response to an emergency
or a disaster.

On the face of it, the amendments are aimed at increasing the ease of information sharing. I
have to say that that has considerable merit. The Boxing Day tsunami, the Bali bombings and
Cyclone Katrina, which hit New Orleans last year, are all disasters or emergency situations that
stick in the minds of individuals, but they have also pointed to how quickly the systems that
we rely on can break down in an emergency or disaster situation, creating undue delays, poor
responses and confusion. Such instances point out the problem that the public and, to some
degree, private sector organisations have when it comes to dealing with emergency or disaster
situations and how they respond to them.

The problem emerges with the chain of command, jurisdictional debates, and in particular
situations we find an incompatibility of equipment and plant used in emergency response or
emergency relief. All issues at hand, whether it be fire, flood, bombing or whatever, are not
being dealt with to the best of anyone’s ability. These are situations that lead to chaos and
unfortunately sometimes these situations can lead to loss of lives. That is unfortunately a
direct result of a less than efficient response to an emergency or disaster based situation.
I note that schedule 3 of the Privacy Act 1988 contains provisions that allow the disclosure of
personal information at times of emergency or disaster. I also note that the operation of provisions in schedule 3 requires that the information-sharing provisions be applied on a caseby-
case basis. Unfortunately, a case-by-case basis does lead to costly delays and, as a
consequence of that, the inevitable response to a delay in an emergency situation is obviously
something that is not relished by the community. It was noted that in the review of the Privacy
Act 1988 the Office of the Privacy Commissioner said:
The scale and gravity of the large-scale emergencies have tested the application of the Privacy Act and raised
questions as to how the privacy protection should operate in such situations. The Privacy Act received criticism in the
media after the tsunami disaster for lacking commonsense and for being unable to anticipate and cope with the extent
of the tsunami disaster.
The evidence presented to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner indicates that the agencies
and private sector organisations tended to have an overly cautious approach in terms of the
provisions of the Privacy Act and that has been seen to impede the timely assistance in those
very emergency situations. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade noted that the privacy
legislation had restricted its ability to coordinate a whole-of-government response as the
legislation impeded its ability to gather personal information held by other government
agencies to help in the effort to locate, identify and assist Australian citizens when they are in
need of help.

Having identified a clear need, at the very least, to improve the operation of the Privacy Act
when it comes to the information sharing between public agencies, the private sector and
others in the event of an emergency or disaster, it is incumbent on us that we do not
overreach in the relaxation of the privacy protections. This is what I think the member for
Chifley was drawing the attention of this chamber to a little while back. It would be far easier
for us to remove the provisions in an ill-considered way that could result in it being too easy to
share personal information and accordingly dilute the protections for individuals based on the
argument that we may need the ease of transmission or sharing of that information at some
unforeseen point in time in relation to some disaster or emergency event.

Australians are right to be concerned about having their private information shared too freely.
Personal information and the theft and misuse of personal information, quite frankly, is
probably one of the newest forms of crime that we have seen develop in this country. We have
already seen the open condemnation by the Australian public of the banks who have decided
to move their call centres overseas. In addition to being offended by the loss of Australian
jobs—and rightly so—there was deep concern amongst people about the prospect of private
information then falling into the wrong hands. Only a couple of weeks ago we heard reports of
personal information of Australians being on sale in the back alleys of some cities. As a matter
of fact, the report indicated there were bulk discounts for those who wanted to make a large
purchase or bulk purchases of that sort of data. That is the sort of thing that does scare the
Australian population.

I note that, in order to combat this problem and to allow individuals rather than business
owners to have the final say on the transfer of personal information, Labor has announced that
it will introduce measures to address this when it reaches office next year. This compares to
the notable silence of the government in addressing this problem of allaying the concerns of
Australian citizens, and particularly Australian families, when it comes to inappropriately
gathered information being freely available in the marketplace. So while I support moves to
improve the flow of personal information between agencies to overcome needless cumbersome
provisions that impede operations in the event of an emergency or disaster, I also recognise
that personal information must be protected.

The bill that is before us is intentionally drafted in a very broad manner. No-one would
reasonably expect that any of us could predict the exact circumstances that we may be faced
with in the future when we would be applying the provisions of this bill. Accordingly, as we
could not predict that, I think it is only right that this bill is drafted on a very broad basis.

However, that should not be an excuse for laziness; it should not be an excuse to allow holes
to be created in the laws that protect the personal information of individuals.
I will be supporting this bill because I support people being provided with the tools they need
to do their job. In the past I have supported provisions to assist information sharing in an
attempt to deal with cross-jurisdictional issues that emerge in combating criminal activity, and
I apply the same logic here. Those dedicated Australians, professionals and volunteers, who
respond to disasters and emergency situations need to be equipped with everything they need
to address the problem at hand in a timely and efficient manner. With respect to the bill that is
before us, while there are some legitimate concerns about the lack of definitions contained in
certain areas and about the broad regulation-making powers that can be extended to whoever
the provisions will apply to, it offers greater clarity and assurance to organisations which may
be involved in emergency and disaster response. This can only help, not hinder, the activities
of our various agencies, both public and private, that have a role in responding to emergencies
or disasters, should they occur. Therefore, I commend this bill to the House.