Department of Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo made it very clear he has no intention of setting new performance targets for processing citizenship applications, as he explained to a Senate committee why he refused to accept an auditor-general’s recommendation.
“If people feel that the processing times aren’t what they should be, well, they can volunteer to pay more taxes and I can be funded to punch more widgets down the conveyor belt,” he bluntly declared in the final leg of his latest marathon Senate estimates hearing, which concluded on March 22.
“But, otherwise, the processing times are what they are.”
Growing concern about slow processing times for citizenship applications has been a priority for the parliamentary audit committee since mid-2017. When the auditor-general reported in February, the department disagreed with a recommendation to introduce new public key performance indicators and publish more detailed information on processing times.
Pezzullo left it to an assistant secretary to pen the departmental response to the audit but the estimates hearing allowed him to personally explain why DHA disagreed on this point.
Working to grant citizenship by conferral at a certain rate to meet new KPIs could undermine the integrity of the system, he warned, on the basis that thoroughly checking each prospective citizen’s background was a bigger priority than getting through applications promptly.
Newer systems provided the department much more intelligence and information so it now found more reasons to doubt the identity and claims made by people applying to become Australians, he said. Sometimes, older decisions to grant permanent residency were also being re-examined.
Pezzullo accepted that parliamentarians heard a lot of complaints about processing times but said there was another side to the story: newer intelligence gathering processes meant more flags going up about potential identity fraud or “dodgy documents” attached to applications.
“They probably don’t draw that to your attention,” he told the senators. “So yes, I understand the pressure that members of the House of Representatives and members of the Senate are under when so-called client satisfaction issues arise.
“But, equally, this parliament would be just as seized if someone who was granted citizenship on the … thinner scrutiny and checking that we did prior to 2014, subsequently engaged in violent crimes or a mass-murder terrorist attack.
“I’d be sitting before you being absolutely flayed for other reasons.”
The secretary made sure to affirm his respect for the auditor-general’s independence and “right to put a view” but said that did not mean the parliamentary office-holder was “infallible” or that departments were not allowed to disagree.
“If there’s a different way to speak to the outcomes whereby we can quantify security and integrity outcomes along with processing times and client satisfaction – if someone can write that algorithm for me – I’d be delighted to put that KPI in place,” he continued.
“My higher duty is to ensure that no-one who’s going to be a threat to our country gets a visa or citizenship.”
Pezzullo rejected what he called “cookie-cutter targets” when asked why the old goal of completing 80% of citizenship applications within 80 days had been dropped.
“It drives perverse behaviour whereby officers, in order to meet their target towards the end of a program year, you’re starting to get [citizenship] grants, sometimes, frankly, out of a cereal box,” he said. “It’s not appropriate. It drives poor behaviour.”
The acting deputy secretary for immigration and citizenship, Luke Mansfield, described the 80%-in-80-days target as “a historical figure that was used internally as a measure of performance” but had been abandoned “quite some time” ago. He said it had come to be seen as inappropriate due to the “complexity” of the current caseload.
“We believe that there are other measures that you can use to more effectively ensure that you’re not only driving internal performance – finalising cases in an efficient way – but also not compromising on integrity, so you’re also ensuring quality decision-making,” said Mansfield, without explaining more.
Greens senator Nick McKim asked twice what KPIs were in place to show the parliament and the public how things were going. Mansfield and Pezzullo pointed to the “overall processing times” published on the department’s website. If parliamentarians wanted to know more, they would have to ask.
“We also, through the Senate estimates processes, make available information about the number of decisions that we’ve taken in relevant periods, and breakdowns of those decisions, depending on the questions asked,” offered the acting deputy secretary.
The auditor-general’s report noted the citizenship processing function became a priority of the parliament’s Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit in May 2017 after various indications of a slowdown:
“The Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Refugee Council of Australia, Members of Parliament and others have publicly expressed interest in the length of time being taken to process applications.
“Reasons include a reported increase in processing times, an increase in complaints received from applicants about delays and the Federal Court of Australia judgement of December 2016 that there had been an unreasonable delay in deciding two plaintiffs’ applications for citizenship by conferral.”
Pezzullo also confirmed in the hearing that if any Home Affairs staff were found to be “associated with known right-wing extremists” — hypothetically speaking, of course – they would be dismissed. Senator Kimberley Kitching then asked if he was “concerned about the influence of or the potential for right-wing extremism” in the department.
Asked what steps he had taken to make sure “right-wing extremism” did not take root among staff, he referred to the obligation of public servants to respect the law and current government policy. That means a “universal, non-discriminatory immigration program” in Home Affairs.
“For instance, if you associated with – however you want to define the term ‘association’, whether it’s loose or tight, whether you’re a member of such an abhorrent group or whether you associate in another form – if intrinsic to your world-view, however evidenced, whether it’s through social media or your associations otherwise, that you can’t abide by a universal and non-discriminatory immigration program, you have no place in the department.
“It’s as simple as that. If evidence or information comes to light – always subject, of course, to procedural fairness and natural justice … if you can’t explain the associations in a way that is satisfactory, you’ll be dismissed from the department.”
The trigger for this discussion was a recent news report suggesting Richard Howard was a DHA employee working for Senator Fraser Anning on unpaid leave, and had written Anning’s roundly condemned maiden speech, calling for a public vote on going back to a “predominantly European immigration policy” as the “final solution” to a supposed “problem” with immigration.
The claims in the article “are of concern” to the secretary, but he had to “tread carefully” around ministerial offices and avoid infringing on the senator’s parliamentary privilege.
“If it’s the case that I can’t look into a matter that has been undertaken in a privileged fashion – that is to say by a member of staff working for a senator – I will do everything within my power to look at ancillary associations that I can look into.”
The DHA chief added that he and other senior executives had aimed to send “a powerful message … in relation to extremist right-wing views” in their Harmony Day missive to staff, which directly addressed the need for people in positions of authority and influence to strongly oppose “the vile and odious ideology of extremist white supremacist nationalism” in the days after the Christchurch terrorist attack. In his opening statement, he pointed to a document the department recently produced to “assist public discussion about immigration”.
The secretary was “not willing to particularise” what sort of action he would take in relation to this report, or even confirm Howard really was on unpaid leave from DHA, but said the department’s leaders had made it clear that “extremists of any description” would not be tolerated.
“I don’t care with whom they’re associating; any form of extremism is repugnant. Any association with groups that vilify minorities and either normalise or incentivise violence is completely abhorrent. Our duty is to uphold the law, and that includes laws in relation to violence – murder and the like. You will not be working in my department if you hold those views.”
Pezzullo explained such views might threaten a public servant’s security clearance, and the separate “employment suitability” clearance required to work at Home Affairs, but parliamentary privilege was a significant barrier.
“Just speaking in general terms, it’s hard to see how the secretary of a department can look into the activities of someone who is on leave from that department who’s working in the service of a senator,” he said.
“I want to give you a very general answer: as I said earlier, if there’s other ancillary information that isn’t potentially affected by such questions of privilege that might have a bearing on any officer’s employment such as would void their clearance or void their employment suitability – those are the two tools that I have available to me — I can assure you that it would not be the case that the department would be tardy in turfing them out.
“I can give you absolute assurance, subject to due process and natural justice. The extremists that we are speaking of are the ones who don’t want there to be natural justice for all, who do not respect the dignity of the individual and who run roughshod over due process.
“The values that we fight for will be applied in this case should that be necessary. But, again, I need to look at it very carefully because of the question of the privilege that attaches itself to someone who is working in the service of a senator.”
ACLEI investigating claims of bribery for visas
Earlier, the DHA officials had also stressed the importance of due process – and the fact that looking into a complaint did not indicate it was likely to be true — when asked about allegations of bribery for visas from February that were angrily denied by the minister, Peter Dutton.
The committee eventually heard the department had referred those claims to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity on March 6, after a curious exchange in which the secretary and the head of professional standards and integrity, Rachel Noble, both started off saying they could not recall seeing any report on the matter and did not know where it was up to.
Pezzullo first said he had not seen a report on the matter and confirmed he would have, if it had gone to ACLEI. Mansfield said it was still under ongoing review within the department, which later appeared to be incorrect since it had already gone to the integrity commissioner. Noble then suggested DHA “may have already referred it to ACLEI” and offered to take a question on notice.
Despite their foggy memories, Pezzullo and Noble were clear and unified on one view: the bar is “quite low” for this kind of referral, they argued. Pezzullo said he was bound to refer any allegations to the commission if he was “satisfied that it appears as though corrupt activity or misconduct might have occurred”.
Pezzullo said the department found the claims in the “cesspit” that is social media, although they were detailed in a blog and more cautiously reported in print and television news, which led to a furious press statement from Dutton, aimed at 10 Daily reporter Hugh Riminton.
Once Noble had revealed the matter did go to ACLEI, Senator McKim confirmed it must have been the secretary who referred it to the agency. “It must have been,’ Pezzullo agreed.