FOI reveals Home Affairs secretary’s ‘neutral’ thoughts on visa privatisation

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday July 10, 2019

Department of Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo

Department of Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo chose the first day of the caretaker period this year to set out his own views on how Australia’s visa and citizenship processing system needs to be improved, regardless of the politics, in an interesting message to his executives.

The short message was written on April 11, which was also one day before he abruptly cancelled a private briefing offered to one of the strongest critics of the government’s plan to source a new system from the private sector, and released in June under the Freedom of Information Act.

Pezzullo noted the government was committed to the “Global Digital Platform” — which at the time was the subject of a tender process — and acknowledged the Opposition’s strong stance against the privatisation of visa processing. 

“As public servants, we are strictly neutral and we will implement the policy of the government of the day. Here is my view on some basic facts, which independently exist, irrespective of which party is in power,” he wrote.

“The volumes of visas that we issue each year continues to increase, as a result of the growth in the numbers of people coming here for tourism, temporary work, study and to make Australia their home. This increasing volume, coupled with our changing risk environment, places increasing pressure on our aged systems, which will not be able to keep up with that growth.

“Whether the capital to fund a new immigration and citizenship system is privately financed or otherwise, is not a matter for me or the Department. The Government of the day will decide that issue, as it will the final form and design of the future system.”

Pezzullo referred to the Senate estimates hearing that took place three days prior to the email, and maintained the decision of whether to automate the visa system would not be made until after the election.

However, in the email, Pezzullo said his personal preference was “to automate our manual processes wherever we can, reduce the administrative cost entailed in processing each visa, and – most importantly – concentrate the same number of staff (or preferably an increased number of staff) on higher value-added roles”.

“Our people, who are our key asset, should be focused on decision-making, risk assessment and complex case engagement where human engagement with applicants is crucially important. Working together, across the Department and the [Australian Border Force] ABF, we will put a range of options to the government of the day, regarding the funding of a major capital upgrade of our systems, where we have the same number of officers, or preferably more, engaged on those higher value tasks, while at the same time automating wherever possible more manual administrative tasks, such as data entry,” he wrote on the department’s “executive hub” on April 11.

“I look forward to the ongoing contributions from staff into the design of our future systems, processes and practices, drawing on their deep knowledge and experience.”

Last year, former Immigration deputy secretary Abul Rizvi gave his opinion on what could go wrong as Australia privatises visa processing.

Privatisation of core government functions such as visa processing is high-risk, especially when undertaken under the cloak of commercial-in-confidence secrecy. Major ICT transformation projects conducted “in partnership” with a big IT company are also high risk. Doing the two together multiplies the risk big time, but that’s exactly what the Department of Home Affairs is doing,” he wrote.

One day before Pezzullo’s message to staff, Rizvi wrote about a being offered a “personal briefing” on the matter from Pezzullo and other senior staff the previous month. Rizvi reported the meeting was cancelled one hour before it was scheduled and in the April 10 article, published a long series of questions he sent the department ahead of the briefing.

The government first announced the planned framework in the 2016-17 Budget. 

After years of uncertainty, culminating with Labor’s election loss, it is now very likely that the visa privatisation plan will happen.

Home affairs will move ahead with the plan in a contract expected to be worth at least $1 billion, The Guardian reported.

“The government is not privatising the visa system or outsourcing responsibility for visa decision making,” a Home Affairs spokeswoman told The Guardian

“As set out in the tender documentation on the department’s website, the government will always retain responsibility and accountability for sovereign functions including immigration policy, visa decision making and security checks.”

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