A "glass-jawed" government incapable of listening to community feedback and criticism will not help Australia get through the pandemic response, the former human rights commissioner has warned.
Ed Santow, who finished up his five-year term as human rights commissioner last month, has seen some of the government's most controversial programs during his tenure, including robodebt, COVIDSafe and My Health Record.
But the tech-savvy lawyer, who is now leading an artificial intelligence initiative at the University of Technology, Sydney, said governments needed to be less resistant to negative feedback on their attempted COVID-19 solutions.
Mr Santow said he had often seen new ideas or plans implemented without continuous, effective monitoring and honest reflection.
In a pandemic, that approach would undermine public trust when it's needed most.
"We're at a crossroads," he said.
"Too often governments are a bit too glass-jawed and very resistant to anything that looks like criticism when it could be just constructive suggestions for how to improve the system."
It's why he would like to see a more consultative and nuanced approach to vaccine passports - the government's latest technological program to easing restrictions once the nationhits higher vaccination rates.
Access to a vaccine and a consideredapproach to those who can't get vaccinated were critical questions needing answers before two-tiered restrictions were introduced.
"A one-size fits all vaccine passport - you know, this is your only way to be able to access core community services and so on - that can't work," he said.
"Vaccine passports are really social contracts.
"I think the government has got to come to the party by making the rules clear, fair, transparent, and also stepping up in the areas where we've been slow internationally."
While the government's human rights report card had not been excellent, Mr Santow said he was pleased to see some "green shoots" in understanding over the years since the disastrous robodebt scheme.
He said it was as simple as following three principles: fairness, accuracy and accountability.
"If you just embrace a technological solution without really understanding how it will work and how it will affect people, it can go terribly wrong," he said.
In other areas, however, he believes there is much more work to be done.
Mr Santow said it was crucial the government addressed the issue urgently rather than hoping it would resolve in time.
"[COVID-19] is a problem we're going to be living with for a significant period of time, so we can't keep on operating as though these are all short-term measures because they're not," Mr Santow said.
"For example, hotel quarantine may well have been entirely appropriate for the first phase of the pandemic but the capacity to get enough people back safely through that system for the longer term has just not been there.
"So you literally still have tens of thousands of people who are stuck overseas who desperately want to come home.
"That's something that I think we strongly need to change."
Mr Santow said accepting negative feedback and criticism can be tough but it was necessary to deliver better programs for Australians.
"It's appropriate to not look away when something goes terribly wrong," he said.
"But what do we do with that information? Does it mean that we throw away all of our technology and, you know, bring out the abacus?
"No, we've just got to use the technology better so that it achieves what we want."
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