Nothing brings home the vastness of our continent more than remote communities being cut off by flooding. We have watched this reality with the recent devastating rains in northern WA.
Perhaps the starkest example of the consequences is the impact on the delivery of essential supplies. Perth to the Kimberley region is about a 2500km trip.
But with roads and bridges washed away, truckies undertook 12,000km, week-long trips, travelling east from Perth to Adelaide, then up the length of Australia to the Northern Territory before heading west. All to get food and supplies through to affected communities. You know the old saying — not all heroes wear capes. Some heroes wear a blue singlet!
The long tail of ex-tropical cyclone Ellie wreaked havoc as the Bureau of Meteorology estimated that 60,000 cubic metres of water per second moved down the Fitzroy River at the peak of the flooding.
Even Noah would have panicked. That’s more water than the BOM has ever seen flow through any Australian river in one day and is equal to the amount of water used in Perth over a 20 year period.
It is the job of my department of Services Australia to support communities through crises such as this. But it does not make our staff or our buildings immune to the same pressures as the communities they assist.
The service centre in Fitzroy Crossing received extensive flood damage, with water halfway up its walls, but the amazing local staff never missed a beat. They initially helped customers from the evacuation centre that was set up, and then from the National Indigenous Australians Agency building down the road.
They haven’t been able to move back into the service centre yet but that hasn’t stopped them working hard to ensure people could get disaster payments as quickly as possible.
As soon as access allowed, further staff were deployed to Fitzroy Crossing to provide additional support to the community. So far, 2800 West Australians have been supported by $2.2 million in disaster assistance since payments became available on January 8.
But their support for the community wasn’t just during office hours. Service centre manager Zara was helping customers for Services Australia by day, and volunteering in the evacuation centre by night, preparing and handing out food packages to locals affected by the disaster.
Meanwhile, Broome-based staff were talking with local hospitals to ensure evacuees had access to the services they needed. They also assisted regional efforts by undertaking virtual servicing to remote communities.
It is times like this that highlight why the Government has been right to pursue improvements to myGov, the government portal for digital services. It makes applying for emergency assistance easier at a time of great stress.
The Prime Minister promised before the election that I would audit myGov to see what it gets right and where it has gaps and flaws that we need to fix. I have done this in conjunction with Finance Minister Katy Gallagher.
Katy is in charge of the Digital Transformation Agency, which has responsibility for the Government’s digital ID program — a critical part of how we protect Australia’s data online.
The Services Australia portfolio that I oversee puts me in the wheelhouse of myGov.
Respected Australian business leader and former head of Telstra David Thodey AO chaired the panel of digital, human rights and health experts to carry out the audit.
Yesterday, Mr Thodey and I announced the findings. The big take-away was that, just like the roads and bridges that carry crucial supplies, just like hospitals and the energy grid, myGov is critical national infrastructure.
To put it into perspective, every day, more Australians use myGov than catch public transport to work on a daily basis.
Australians expect and deserve government services to be state-of-the-art, secure and easy to use. The panel called for long-term investment in myGov to ensure it realises its potential and overcomes the problems Australians still experience in navigating government services online.
Last December we moved to a contemporary technology platform and released the myGov app. But our aspirations are bigger. We want mGov to be a premier digital asset.
The myGov panel’s recommendations provide the opportunity to think about myGov as a large a part of your life as online banking or shopping, and even give you the ability to do such things as renew passports, enrol to vote or even complete the census.
We know people are understandably a little nervous about handing over their personal information, given the cyber incidents that have disrupted the lives of many Australians. But we will build trust with the community by making privacy, security and transparency our priority.
Investing in this critical infrastructure means we can accelerate the digital ID program which reduces the need and frequency for personally identifiable information to be collected and stored by government or other organisations.
And that makes things a whole lot easier. You’ll only have to “tell us once” to get services from multiple layers of government, tailored to you and your unique needs at the various stages of your life.
Upon the release of the report, Minister Gallagher has said how we store information as a government is a “clear priority” and she welcomed “the recommendation for an acceleration of the nation’s digital ID program”.
The Government will carefully consider the recommendations of the myGov audit panel, but rest assured, that any investment in government services will be done with the best interests of Australians at its heart. With professionalism and the best technology in the world, Australians deserve nothing less.
This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 1 February 2023.