Pezzullo: Immigration department won’t be trapped by history


I should like to advise on the progress being made to integrate the nation’s key border functions — a journey which began on July 1, 2015, less than a year ago, when the Australian government integrated the following functions: immigration, citizenship, customs, border protection and civil maritime security. On that date, a new Department of Immigration and Border Protection was created, through the amalgamation of the former Immigration Department and the former Customs Service. Also on that date, the enforcement arm of the new department was also created, in the form of the Australian Border Force, which was established pursuant to the passage of legislation through the parliament which bears the same name.

As we are in the midst of a federal election campaign, I do not intend to canvass matters of policy, or any matters of political disagreement. I will focus exclusively on organisational matters, which are inherently matters of apolitical and impartial administration.

“We operate as a diarchy … to protect Australia’s border and to manage the movement of people and goods across it.”

While I head the department of state known as Immigration and Border Protection, I co-manage the portfolio with my colleague, Roman Quaedvlieg, the inaugural commissioner of the ABF, and simultaneously, the comptroller-general of Customs.  We operate as a diarchy, which allows the commissioner to focus on his significant operational and regulatory roles, as well as his responsibilities as the professional head of the ABF’s uniformed officers. Together, we are focussed on our common mission: to protect Australia’s border and to manage the movement of people and goods across it.

I can assure you that we are very conscious of our role in facilitating trade, travel and migration, for Australia’s economic and social benefit, while also protecting our borders, and in doing so, contributing significantly to our national security and to the protection and safety of our community. These are not contradictory missions. To the contrary, they are seamless and indivisible tasks. Strong borders underpin more open global economic linkages and social cohesion and trust. If a community has high levels of confidence in the security of its borders and reasonable assurance about who and what is entering and leaving its territory, then its willingness to engage in the processes of globalisation (and therefore the benefits of globalisation) is heightened. Essentially then the department and the ABF are the gateway to and from Australia, and manage the major conduits of our global linkages — in the form of trade, travel, labour mobility and migration, as well as seaborne movements to and from, and through, Australia’s waters.

‘The trap of sentimentality’

How different was the former department’s original mission in 1945, when it was established towards the end of the Second World War. In those days, the exclusive focus of the former department was on permanent migration and settlement — after Australia had decided to embark on the remarkable post-war programme of nation building. The former department undertook all of the relevant functions that were required to fulfil this mandate — migrant selection and travel facilitation; housing; language training; employment readiness and cultural orientation. Everything to settle-in the ‘New Australians’ as we were called in the post-war years, although sometimes the names that we were called on the streets, in school yards and on sporting fields were rather more pungent and colourful.

Today, even without the integration with Customs, the focus of the department has long moved on to other areas of migration and mobility, which have long dwarfed the permanent migration function — areas such as temporary skills-based migration programme, tourism and visitation, international students and working holiday programmes. Indeed, even without integration, it is clear from the 2012 Capability Review into the Department of Immigration and Citizenship that the department, as it then stood, required a major overhaul, especially in relation to risk management; enterprise-level policy, strategy and planning; decision-making processes and governance; and its approach to innovation, technology and systems.

While we should appreciate and indeed celebrate our history which, in our case, stretches back seven successful decades, history can also become a trap if its blinds you to the present, and more importantly, blinds you to the future. This is the trap of sentimentality, which seeks to create the comfort of yesteryear in the face of today’s challenges. Let me be clear on this point — the modern migration and mobility mission is very much like the modern trade and customs mission — where we deal with very high volumes, at massive scale and at high tempo. While there will always be a place for a permanent migration and settlement programmes under government direction, it is dwarfed by the other strands of migration and mobility that I mentioned a moment ago.

Operating at scale

To provide a snapshot of our work, by the end of June, we will, most likely, subject to performance in the next few weeks:

  • Deliver up to 190,000 places as part of the permanent migration programme; and 13,750 visas under the regular permanent Refugee and Humanitarian Programme.
  • Grant 7.6 million temporary visas.
  • Confer Australian citizenship on 140,000 people.
  • Process more than 40 million international air and sea travellers.
  • Inspect over 100,000 out of a total of approximately two million sea cargo containers coming into Australia; process approximately 36 million inbound air cargo consignments; and inspect about 50 million items of mail received in Australia each year.
  • Manage around 2.5 million client interactions, inclusive of call centre inquires.

Seamless, faster processing

In order to operate at these scales, we need to maintain a default position of facilitating trade, travel and migration.  In our future operating model, we will seek to build ever less intrusive, more seamless and faster processing processes and systems for the legitimate and law-abiding majority of travellers and traders.  The future is emerging today — with more automated departure and arrival gates at airports, and trusted trader arrangements, which will increasingly replace burdensome customs declaration processes, and delivery of better digital services.

As we look to the future, we need to reimagine and redevelop Australia’s visa and citizenship systems, by reducing overlapping visa pathways, deregulating visa requirements, cutting red tape for businesses and clients, using technology to improve the application process, and incorporating new policies that are set by governments to attract skilled individuals who will assist to meet Australia’s future labour market needs, or who will study here or who will visit us, with hopefully an intention to return at some point in time.

To prepare itself for the challenges of the 21st century and manage the growing volumes of people and goods crossing our borders, we have to focus on improving our core capabilities, systems and processes, particularly with regards to intelligence, data analytics, biometrics and visa processing. We have to develop the workforce capability to match, by building on the wonderful reservoir of knowledge, skill and talent that we have in our longer-tenured Immigration and Customs officers, as well the energy and talents of our newer recruits who have joined since July 1 integration last year. It is especially important that we bring in staff with the specialised skills that we will need to meet changing demands.

Automated, defusing interactions

When I look at this future operating model and what we are doing today to bring it about, I cannot recognise the social media critique of a “militarised” department.

“The majority of departmental staff are regular APS officers … operating within standard management frameworks and rules.”

If by that charge is meant the establishment of the ABF, then here are the facts. The ABF is the amalgam of the former Customs and Border Protection Service as well as the compliance and detention functions of the former Immigration Department. There is nothing more, and nothing less to it. Who would seriously suggest that these functions should not be professionalised and undertaken under the clear rules and disciplines of an accountable chain of command? The majority of departmental staff are regular Australian Public Service officers who are not members of the ABF and who operate within standard management frameworks and rules. They are not uniformed and are not required to carry firearms. Officers who do are those ABF officers whose duties require it and who are trained and credentialed to do so.

Rather than “militarising” our department and our workforce, we in fact want to move in a very different direction — that of minimal contact and an increasingly automated border with little or no burdensome interaction with travellers, traders and even, in some cases, temporary migrants. This will allow the ABF to focus its efforts on those who really warrant its attention — those engaged in unlawful activity who would otherwise do us harm were it not for the vigilance, skill and dedication of the ABF officers.

Our staff are increasingly embracing our vision and mission, and have a shared sense of purpose. We have a workforce which is dedicated and very much committed to ‘getting on with the job’ in order to achieve results. Given the scale and pace of recent changes, this demonstrates a keen sense of personal and organisational resilience.

Professionalising the workforce with new skills

We are very focussed on further increasing the professionalism of the organisation, which includes dress and appearance standards, integrity and security reforms (including drug and alcohol testing; mandatory reporting of suspected misconduct, corruption or internal criminal activity; a Special Investigations Unit to assist with complex integrity and corruption issues; and ethical decision-making training programmes); as well as strengthened accountability and assurance processes.

We are also investing in professionalisation — by which I mean equipping our staff with the specialist skills and professional development opportunities that they need to be able to do their jobs even more effectively and efficiently in the years ahead.

Our aim is no different from any other organisation — to invest in our people (our best asset) so that they have the skills and the tools to make lawful decisions within their spheres of accountability and responsibility, where they can demonstrate that such decisions are being made logically, on the basis of clear evidence and sound judgement, in ways that manage risk, mitigate threats and take advantage of opportunities to innovate and to facilitate the very workings of our society and our economy at the border.

We are making good progress, insofar as we have achieved much in only 11 months while delivering record outcomes in terms of trade, travel and migration volumes. There is of course more to do, but no change management journey ever starts and finishes on the same day, especially one that is so sweeping and ambitious in its scale and breadth. All of this is largely due to our wonderful and talented people. Far from there being the negativity that is sometimes evident in social media commentary that I see, we have — after only these brief 11 months — a functional department and ABF, which is delivering on its business-as-usual measures while creating a new national capability and a new organisational culture. I commend the men and women of the department which I proudly lead and the ABF with which I proudly associate myself today. A similar report in a year’s time will be even more promising — and that now becomes the next challenge.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Michael Pezzullo to CivSec 2016 in Melbourne on May 31.

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