In April 2020, the Australian Senate established a Select Committee on COVID-19 to “shine a light on every aspect” of the Australian Government's response to the pandemic. The Australian Human Rights Institute, in collaboration with colleagues at UNSW Sydney, has offered submissions to the committee on the impacts of the government response on the human rights of people in Australia during the pandemic.

The first submission covered a broad range of human rights concerns.

People with disabilities

Despite the heightened risk faced by people with disability, Australia’s initial planning and response to COVID-19 failed to address the health and economic issues faced by people with disability during the pandemic. Federal Government support has been heavily focused on recipients of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). However, this group is only 10% of the 4.5 million Australians with disability.

People with disability who are not NDIS recipients have missed out on receiving government information, personal protective equipment and even some supermarkets have required 7-digit NDIS recipient numbers for people to access home delivery of groceries.

One of the recommendations: Establish a nationally consistent humanitarian emergency framework to ensure the protection of the rights of persons with disability on an equal basis with others in line with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction.

Migrant workers’ rights

Migrant workers are usually in Australia on temporary visas, which include a working holiday scheme, temporary skilled visas and international student visas. Migrant workers make up approximately 6% of the Australian workforce. Temporary visa holders are ineligible to receive payments from their employer under the JobKeeper income support scheme announced by the Federal Government.

Another government initiative, allowing funds to be withdrawn from superannuation accounts, requires temporary visa holders to be unable to meet their immediate living expenses. For international students to access these funds, they are required to have held their student visa for 12 months or more. The submission notes several ways the scheme is an inadequate substitute for JobKeeper for this group of workers.

One of the recommendations: The Government should demonstrate, through its initiatives, a willingness to reciprocate for migrant workers’ valuable contribution to Australia. 

Right to freedom of assembly, privacy rights and the use of drones

The use of drones for social distancing enforcement, temperature monitoring and surveillance of public space can have significant negative impacts on privacy, public safety and civil liberties without demonstrable social benefit.

Using police drones to enforce social distancing guidelines sets a dangerous precedent for the monitoring of public spaces and social control of Australians. Reporting in the United States indicates that social distancing enforcement targets minorities. Early evidence in Australia indicates Indigenous and migrant Australians have been disproportionately fined.

One of the recommendations: The Government should exercise caution in adopting emerging technologies, including new drone technology, computer vision, algorithmic analysis, thermographic temperature sensing and body mapping analysis, if not ban their use altogether.

The full submission authored by Professor Louise Chappell, Rosemary Kayess, Professor Jackie Leach Scully, Professor Justine Nolan, Dr Michael Richardson and Professor Andrew Byrnes can be read here.

A second submission looked at the issue of gender-based violence.

The right of women to live free from violence

The submission commended the Federal Government support for people experiencing violence during the pandemic, which have included a $150 million Domestic Violence Support Package and the decision of the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia to establish a dedicated court list for urgent parenting-related disputes that have arisen due to pandemic.

Given the complexity of this problem, the submission identifies further issues that require government action in five areas: prevalence and reporting, coercive control, service provision, reproductive health issues and economic security.

Recommendations include: Developing a human rights approach to underpin all gender-based violence policy and legislative responses which focus on the nature of the harms, the necessary accountability systems and the appropriate responses to victim survivors.

Read the full submission by Professor Louise Chappell, Professor Jan Breckenridge, Dr Patricia Cullen, Dr Kristen Beek and Associate Professor kylie valentine here. 

At the completion of its inquiry in June 2022, the committee will produce a final report to the Senate.

The Hansard transcripts of hearings and information about the inquiry is available on the committee webpage.

An earlier submission was sent to the parliamentary joint committee on human rights.

The COVIDSafe app and the right to privacy 

The Australian government’s mobile application COVIDSafe aims to protect the right to health by providing a way to trace users’ contacts in the case of a positive COVID-19 test, via the Bluetooth technology on their smartphones. The submission makes a series of recommendations that would improve the transparency of the scheme and better protect the privacy of users. It argues there are less intrusive alternatives that would achieve the goals of the scheme.  

One of the recommendations: Making public the purposes to which de-identified data will be put and the processes used to de-identify data for statistical purposes.

The submission authored with the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation, Dr Katharine Kemp, the Lead of UNSW Grand Challenge on Trust, the Disability Innovation Institute and UNSW Law can be read here

Gabrielle Dunlevy