Labor and the union representing the Australian Public Service have welcomed the federal government’s decision to abandon its controversial visa privatisation plan.
Acting immigration minister Alan Tudge on Friday revealed the plan to outsource Australia’s visa processing platform had been terminated due to the emergence of a “broad new policy approach to the acquisition and delivery of workflow processing capability in the Home Affairs portfolio and other areas across government”.
“The government will implement modern, easy to access, digital services for clients in line with its response to the Thodey Review of the Australian Public Service,” he said.
“This approach seeks integrated enterprise-scale workflow processing capability that could be utilised across the Commonwealth.
“Key to this is recognising the efficiencies that can be generated from large-scale government investment in technology and the re-use of capability across government.”
He said the Department of Home Affairs would soon conduct a market consultation process “seeking industry engagement and insights into the best way to deliver large-scale workflow processing capability for visa and citizenship applications”, as well as for customs functions and personnel security clearances.
He argued current visa systems are out of date, while processing and decision making is often undertaken manually.
He said the new approach would allow systems and capabilities to “meet future demands, enabling the government to respond to emerging global threats and improving service delivery across government”.
“The Department of Home Affairs has consequently terminated the Request for Tender process for its proposed Global Digital Platform,” he concluded.
The government first revealed its hopes of reforming Australia’s visa processing system in the 2016-17 Budget. Home Affairs began looking for an external provider to create a new platform more than two years ago.
In November Home Affairs’ deputy secretary Malisa Golightly told a Senate inquiry that the government was not planning to privatise or outsource Australia’s visa decision making.
“The department will maintain full responsibility and accountability for policy, security, risk assessment, and visa decision making,” she said.
“The global digital platform provider and its staff and contractors will not be involved in the consideration of these applications, or undertake any visa decision making. The department alone will determine the business rules for the platform that the platform implements. It will determine which questions are asked of which applicants and the workflow process each application or follow. As said out in the tender documents and our submission, refusal decisions or decisions that take away a right or entitlement will only be made by departmental officials. They will not be made by the computer.”
Last month a senate committee recommended the system be developed in-house, after finding the project would amount to privatisation.
Shadow minister assisting for immigration and citizenship Andrew Giles said the COVID-19 pandemic had “demonstrated the importance of the Australian government retaining control of our borders and visa processing system”.
“At its core, privatising our visa system would have resulted in a tension between integrity and profit. It would have undermined Australia’s national security,” he said.
“This is a win for the thousands of hardworking public servants who do vital work in keeping Australians safe.”
He said it was disappointing that $80 million had already been spent on the tender process before it was abandoned.
The Community and Public Sector Union noted the move was an “enormous win” for the more than 2000 public sector workers whose jobs would have been cut if the privatisation had gone ahead.
CPSU National Secretary Melissa Donnelly said it was “extraordinary that it took a global health pandemic” for the plan to be scrapped.
“COVID-19 has further exposed the flaws in the Morrison government’s plan – it is simply irresponsible for any government to hand over our visa system to private interests. We are glad that Scott Morrison has finally seen sense and canned the plan,” she said.
“When our nation is facing great uncertainty, Australians expect the government to back local jobs and the integrity of vital public services, not flog off essential services to political donors’ multinational companies. This is a win for the security and health of the Australian community.”
CPSU members have been campaigning against the sale of the visa system since 2018, the union noted.
“The sale of this service to private companies posed a serious threat to thousands of Australian jobs that would most likely have been sent offshore,” it said.