Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Migration Amendment (Streamlining Visa Processing) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I second the amendment. I'll make some initial comments on the bill itself and then turn my remarks to the second reading amendment moved by the member for Scullin. Suffice to say, the bill is largely fine. It is largely uncontroversial. It was introduced last year, but the government was so serious about the bill that they did nothing with it, like much of the legislation currently on the Notice Paperreheated seconds! Of course, Labor does support integrity and the formalisation, in some respects, because a lot of this already happens but without, perhaps, the clearer legislative underpinning of the extension of biometric data to be required at the time of application as being important.
I just want to put on the record and amplify a couple of the concerns that were raised in the Senate report—in particular, that regarding the provision for exemptions. The bill does not provide, in the way that similar provisions in the act seem to, for exemptions from this in certain circumstances. There has long been a policy and a set of provisions across most of the visa categories for waiver of these kinds of requirements in emergency or compassionate circumstances, as well as compelling circumstances in the national interest—heads of state, heads of government, that kind of thing. But the emergency bit goes to many of our constituents, because it's the daily fare in electorate offices that people ring you in a panic because, for example, someone might have had an accident, they might only have a few days to live, and the family want their relatives to come out and say goodbye, or someone has had a terrible accident and the family needs someone to come out and care for children. Those kinds of things are the stuff of daily life, and, being in such a multicultural area, I see many people in my office relying on family and friends from all around the world.
The bill doesn't provide for these exemptions and the Senate committee pointed that out; government members raised those concerns, such as similar provisions being elsewhere in the act. I note the minister has stated, 'It's not intended the requirement apply to short-stay visas in emergency situations.' We have no further detail, so I'd invite the minister to repeat that commitment and perhaps explain to us how the government is actually going to provide that family members are able to quickly come to Australia and be with their loved ones—loved ones who have had fatal accidents, near-death experiences, all those other family emergencies—without always having to go through these ordinary checks. It is really important that this is true, because if it's not then the consequences at a human level would be very harsh indeed.
The other thing I'd just note—it's not a particular, but it does relate to these requirements and the further we extend them—is the difficulty for many people in many countries to actually meet these requirements, and I'd draw particular attention to the Pacific Islands. I've had groups come to me struggling to complete the visa requirements and to do things in person. When they're from island countries, they often have to travel for many days to get to the visa office where they can do this. I'd encourage the government to be sensible in applying these to certain countries where the physical geography would prevent people from doing this. We had a problem in that regard with a Scout jamboree. The jamboree almost couldn't happen because they simply could not travel to the main island to get the visa requirements met. So I trust that there will be sensible exemptions provided for the minister or the department to administer these provisions, as occurs elsewhere.
I want to go to the second reading amendment, which goes, in essence, to the utter mismanagement of the visa and migration program under this government and, indeed, the current department administration. The blowout in visa waiting times is part of the context, as the member for Scullin has observed, and I'd just draw the House's attention to two in particular. My electorate is one of the most multicultural in the country. Our constituent workload is somewhat peculiar compared to most members' offices. Visa, immigration and citizenship issues account for more than half of the things that we deal with every day. They outrank all of Centrelink, all of disability and even all of the NBN. All those things combined are swamped by visa and citizenship issues, and that has been getting steadily worse in the more than three years that I've been in parliament, as this government continues to cut staff from the department and we continue to see blowouts in visa waiting times for every category.
I'll now just touch on the two issues that cause the most tears, the most problems, in the office. One is partner visas. There has been an appalling, a quite unbelievable, blowout in the average waiting time for partner visas, which I believe privatisation is only going to make worse. I want to put on the record: you cannot get longitudinal data for this. The government won't provide it; they hide it. You used to be able to get this stuff, but they scrub it from the website now—all they will do, at a point in time, is publish what they say is the 'average processing time' for 75 per cent and for 90 per cent of the applications—but we have managed to piece together some data.
For partner visas, this is usually an Australian citizen falling in love and marrying someone overseas. That's the stuff of our everyday life in Australia; it's part of our social fabric, and has been for decades. It has always been the case that you're able to bring someone you love to Australia. The waiting time for partner visas in 2016, according to an answer to a question, was about 15 to 18 months—okay; there you go. As of 30 June 2017, for subclass 801, it was 18 to 22 months. Then we get to 30 June 2018, which is 16 to 23 months, so pretty similar. The current waiting time has blown out to 21 to 28 months.
What we've seen over the past four years has been a progressive increase. The human misery that causes is immense, cruel and doesn't actually stop people coming to the country. As the member for Scullin observed, the government's so-called cut to migration—this much trumpeted, 'We've cut migration; we've cut permanent migration to 160,000'—is a con, is a trick and is an absolute fraud. There are still people coming to the country, but they come on visitor visas and then they hang around for years on bridging visas.
That's why we have almost 200,000 people in this country on bridging visas. They often don't have work rights. Eventually they might get some Medicare rights out of the government in a limited way—if you're about to die we might let you see a doctor. But it doesn't actually save the taxpayer money. It still means they're catching the trains, driving on the roads, all that stuff. When we say we're busting congestion, somehow it's the fault of migrants that the roads are congested, not the government's failure to invest in infrastructure. This blowout in waiting times is coupled with this absolute fraud of the cut to migration. None of it is actually real. We just have people hanging around on other visas. They're not able to fall in love, marry and settle in the country.
The other thing I would like to draw the House's attention to is dependent child visas. This may sound esoteric. It's very hard to get any data on this, but in the last 12 months I've heard multiple cases of people, Australian citizens, who fell in love overseas, lived overseas and moved back to Australia. They want to bring their kids. It seems pretty reasonable. They're now waiting over 12 months to get the dependant child visa. It doesn't sound like a problem; they have the kids here on a visitor visa. But it is a problem, because they can't go to school. They cannot go to school without being charged international student fees. The kids are sitting at home. I had a family in Noble Park with kids sitting at home for six months. The family are terrified because they can't afford any more health insurance, and they think that if they leave the house and have an accident their kid might die. The department's response to this is that they will just have to wait, because until they get the permanent visa they can't have them attend school. This is unbelievable. This stuff goes on every day. It doesn't affect many members over there. You don't see it all in your electorates, but we do see it in many of the multicultural electorates over here. The human misery caused by the cuts to the Department of Home Affairs and the complete mismanagement is unbelievable.
The final bit of context that I would like to touch on is the blowout in citizenship waiting times. The Auditor-General tabled a report in February which found that over the last four years the waiting times have blown out by 771 per cent. When the Labor government left office there were about 30,000 people in the queue at any point in time. That was about normal. It took six to 12 months to get through, do the checks and do the test. Fine. As of 30 June last year, there were 244,765 people hanging around for years waiting for their citizenship. Again, you may think, 'What is the problem with that?' They're permanent residents of the country; they've been paying taxes; they've got a life here; but they are not able to consolidate their life. They are not able to get a passport in some cases, if they're humanitarian entrants, and travel. We've had students who need to complete their masters by doing a subject required as part of their degree in another country, who just sit here waiting for two years. We've had people not able to go to university because of the fee structure, because until they get their citizenship they're not eligible for a whole lot of stuff. Again, it's the complete mismanagement of this department. Unbelievably, part of the government's proposal is that after they've privatised the visa processing system there's a second stage, which is to privatise the citizenship-processing system.
I want to call this out for what it is. It's an old conservative government playbook, straight out of the UK. It's failed, as the member for Scullin pointed out. First we cut. Since 2016-17 this government has cut $180 million in funding from the Department of Home Affairs, and thousands of staff. First we cut; then we create a crisis; then we say: 'Look at those terrible public servants. They're not processing the visas. The only way to fix the crisis is to privatise. That's the answer.' So right now there's a $1 billion tender being considered, sitting in the department, sitting with ministers. Some of the ministers have to recuse themselves, as the member for Scullin said, because their Liberal Party mates are the tenderers. Thousands of jobs would be cut from Home Affairs, and these profitable contracts would be given to Liberal Party mates to process the applications to determine who comes into this country.
But if there's one thing that should be done by public servants in the public interest in a department of state, surely it's the assessment and processing of visa and citizenship applications. It determines who comes to our country. It determines who can stay in the country. It's extremely private information. We know it's private and commercially valuable because both of the consortiums of the tenderers have travel insurance agents and health insurers. You can imagine it: you start filling out the form; you say, 'I'm going to stay for 12 months'; and the ads start popping up, because they're sucking your data into private companies just for dealing with the government. I can't wait for the privatisation of Centrelink. They've already started that. That's another debate. There are 5,000 staff out now.
The government will tell us that we have to do it for better service at lower cost. It's true that we need better service. As I said, the department is completely broken. The staff satisfaction surveys came out a few weeks ago across 75 public sector agencies in the Commonwealth. Guess which one was number 75? The Department of Home Affairs. Morale in that department, under this minister with his dark heart and the secretary, master of the dark arts in the bureaucracy, is at abysmal lows. It is the worst place to work in the Commonwealth. That is absolutely appalling. This is an important department of state.
It wasn't like that before this leadership. The government has cut so many staff that the backlogs grow and the kids of Australian citizens are sitting at home not even able to start school. In desperation, I referred one of these cases to the Herald Sun in January—I couldn't get any sense out of anyone else. The Herald Sun said: 'Yes, that's terrible. We'll help you.' They went to do a story and then they rang the department. The department's media person said: 'Thank God! This is terrible. Maybe you guys can get some action. We get these calls all the time.' Still, not much happened. Eventually we did get the kids to a school. I thank the Greek Orthodox school in Oakleigh, which gave them half fees, and that is still going well. It was a really good solution. Thank you to the Herald Sun.
In closing, this is straight out of the failed conservative playbook. They cut the service to create a crisis. This is my prediction: firstly, the private operator will be a government mate and they'll introduce two fee scales. There will be higher fees for those who can pay for a premium service and sail through, and other fees for most Australians, like the people in my electorate, who are told by the Liberals to suck it up harder and wait. Then, over time, once the capability of the public service has been destroyed—this is a really important part of what they try to do: they destroy the in-house capability. We've seen it with employment programs. There's no-one left in the department that knows anything about an employment program. They just administer contracts to pay billions of dollars to private companies that get no-one a job. Secondly, once the capability in the public sector has been destroyed, the prices start rising, like we saw in the UK, because the private sector contractors have a monopoly by then. It's hard to the point of impossible for anyone else to compete. Then there'd be too many up-front costs to the government to later go, 'Well, we got this wrong,' and insource it, like we're seeing in the UK, and the taxpayer gets royally screwed for decades. Thirdly, you can bet your bottom dollar the private operator will donate generously to the Liberal Party.
My concern about the future service model is, firstly, that it was publicly reported that in industry briefings to tenderers the department noted the potential for offsetting the cost of building a new online platform by providing premium services. This is their plan! No wonder the minister won't come in here to actually talk about his billion-dollar tender to give the department to his Liberal Party mates. No wonder he doesn't want to talk about that. I know, and every member opposite knows, the response you'd get if you went into your electorate and said, 'Hey, we think we might privatise the processing of visas and immigration and citizenship—is that a good idea?' Punters in Australia know exactly what privatisation of these public services delivers. They've seen this in electricity and in gas in Victoria. They see it in Centrelink now, where no-one will answer the phone. They know what's going to happen if you get away with this. That is public-service-speak in that tenderer briefing for offering two different processing streams based on how much applicants are prepared to cough up. Of course, a private operator will follow the incentive—as they should. They're going to chase the higher profits. That's what they'll do. They'll chase the higher profits on the high-service fees and the premium visas and everyone else will wait at the bottom of the queue. This undermines the integrity of the migration program and creates a two-class system which is roundly un-Australian and should be rejected.
I encourage the government members, the few amongst them who may be prepared to think: have a look at Britain. The Conservative MPs are freaking out about what a mess they've made of this. They're looking at bringing some of this stuff back in-house. Insourcing is now a debate. The company Carillion collapsed in a billion-dollar tender, leaving the government with a mess of hospitals, prisons and services. And then they decided it was too big to fail, so guess who bailed it out? The poor old taxpayer steps in and pays more than if they'd just run the services properly themselves. The government has to abandon their plans to privatise visa and citizenship processing. If they don't, then at least have the courage, the guts and the decency—find a shred of honesty—to come in here and explain what you're doing. Be up-front about it instead of hiding from public scrutiny.