House debates

Monday, 14 October 2019

Private Members' Business

Immigration, Citizenship

10:26 am

Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Cities and Urban Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) the Government plans to privatise Australia's visa processing system;

(b) under the Government's plan, a private tenderer will be given licence to run Australia's visa processing system as a for-profit business; and

  (c) the Government will decide the winning tenderer in October 2019;

(2) acknowledges that:

(a) visa and citizenship processing times have blown out under this Government;

(b) more than 230,000 people are on bridging visas;

(c) more than 220,000 people are on waiting lists for their citizenship; and

  (d) the Government has failed to preserve and enhance the integrity of Australia's visa processing system; and

(3) calls on the Government to stop its privatisation of Australia's visa processing system.

Time is running out to stop the Morrison government from privatising Australia's visa system. Later this month, the Morrison government will decide who will run our visa processing system. Will it be the Australian government, accountable to the Australian people through this place, the Australian parliament? Or will it be big companies, accountable only to their shareholders and the profit motive? If the Prime Minister gets his way, he'll outsource $1 billion of visa processing off to the highest bidder. Today we see the same Prime Minister railing against profiteering banks by setting up an ACCC inquiry. I say this to him and to members opposite: if you were so worried about profiteering, you would not be privatising Australia's visa-processing system, especially when one of the consortiums is one of those big banks.

Labor believes that there is a genuine need for an ACCC study into visa privatisation so that we can see what the anticompetitive consequences of outsourcing our visa system will be. Labor is very concerned that the market power associated with the establishment of the private visa system, and associated monopoly power, may have major anticompetitive impacts both for visa applicants and for businesses. And let's be clear here: outsourcing our visa system will lead to significant job losses, increased visa costs, greater risks of worker exploitation, and data security issues, and will make protecting our national security more difficult. Do we really want our visa system to be outsourced? Do we really want our visa system to be outsourced to a monopoly provider? Isn't this a core responsibility of our national government? We in Labor believe it is, and we will be fighting for it.

There are 2,000 jobs around the country that are at risk if the Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs sell off our visa system without the right supervision. In New South Wales, 800 jobs are at risk. In Queensland, 250 jobs are at risk—and I look forward to hearing from the member for Ryan in this regard. I note that he won't be assisted by the government's talking points for today, which don't seem to acknowledge that this is a major issue for the government. In Western Australia, 150 jobs could go. In Hobart, 100 visa-processing jobs are set to be lost. And what do we know? LNP backroom dealer Scott Briggs, a close friend of the Prime Minister and a former colleague of the immigration minister, is a major investor in one of the bids to win the contract. What a coincidence! And this is why the Prime Minister and the immigration minister haven't spoken about this—they've recused themselves. But this doesn't explain, much less justify, the vow of silence taken by the Minister for Home Affairs. He should be talking about this. He should be explaining why this crazy proposal is, in fact, in the national interest. What's the context? We have massive blowouts at the moment in wait times for people applying to be Australian citizens, with over 220,000 people waiting. At the same time, this third-term government is embarking upon a dangerous folly to outsource visa processing. But Australians don't want this system sold off, they want to see it fixed. And they especially don't want to see it flogged off to one of the PM's mates.

Over in the UK, we see where visa privatisation is already well advanced. It's like seeing a preview of what we will soon encounter if this is not stopped as it should be. Reports have shown that visa applicants can attend one of just six core centres around the country which offer a free service, or they can go to others which charge a fee starting from 60 pounds, forcing people to travel hundreds of miles or pay high fees in order to submit their applications. We've seen reports of refugees being forced to pay 780 pounds just to have their application processed. We've seen reports of residency being granted in exchange for a two-million-pound investment. A privatised system will inevitably lead to people paying for access to our visa system, because that is what happens when you introduce the profit motive in place of the national interest. Is that what we want here in Australia? I think the answer is and has to be a resounding no. Australians want their government to take responsibility for this core government responsibility, not contract it out.

We are almost out of time to stop this. A decision is due to be made one way or the other this month. I'm aware that more than 10,000 people have already signed our online petition to stop this. They've made clear their concerns. And what have they got from members opposite up to this point? They've got silence. They haven't got any response at all. But what they are entitled to is a response, a clear answer. It is now up to the Morrison government, and in particular the Minister for Home Affairs, to stop privatising Australia's visa system immediately. They won't justify this billion-dollar sell-off, because they can't, but they must bring this privatisation experiment to an end now in the national interest and on behalf of 2,000 Australian workers who deserve to keep their jobs.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

10:31 am

Photo of Julian SimmondsJulian Simmonds (Ryan, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a pleasure to rise in the House today to speak against this motion, and it's an inauspicious start for Labor in this sitting fortnight already. It didn't take the Labor members opposite very long to throw off the edict of the member for Grayndler that they were going to be a positive opposition. They have reverted to the messages from the May election, back to opposition for opposition's sake. The member for Scullin's speech was a bit like going back in time to a couple of months ago—a bit of business bashing. I was surprised that the words 'the big end of town' didn't pass his lips. He was so close. You could almost see him straining to get it out as they reverted to their messages of old. It's back to the shabby politics that we see from Labor in this space. They have no credibility at all when it comes to immigration and home affairs, a policy area that under Labor was a total shambles. When it comes to immigration and home affairs, we know that it is only this side of the chamber that can be trusted to keep our nation safe and our borders secure and that can run a fair, equitable and budgeted—that's the key—immigration system.

Let's start with the facts about this private member's motion, an attempt by the member for Scullin to throw stones and wilfully distort what the government is actually doing. The government is not privatising visa decision-making. Again, we are not privatising visa decision-making. The member for Scullin knows it, which is why he's sitting there with a big smile on his face. The Department of Home Affairs is conducting a tender process for a new workflow tool that will support digital visa applications and decision-making. We are doing this as we continue to improve and modernise systems and processes that assist in reducing visa decision-making times. The provider of the workflow tool will have no role whatsoever in visa decision-making. The reform will, in fact, allow the department's skilled and experienced officers to refocus their efforts on higher value, more complex decision-making that will enhance our border integrity. It is not driven by a desire to reduce departmental staffing levels, as those opposite have claimed.

So we have a government on this side of the chamber with a stable and consistent approach when it comes to home affairs and immigration: strong borders and responsible economic management to fund them. In contrast to that consistent policy approach, Labor are wildly inconsistent when it comes to home affairs and immigration. They dismantled the Howard government era policies while they were in government, allowing 1,300 people to die at sea, and then they claim to be the compassionate party. In the lead-up to the May election, they claimed that there wasn't a wafer of difference between them and the government in this particular policy area; yet they went on a unity ticket with the Greens to introduce the medevac legislation. They are simply all over the place.

While we are improving and modernising our immigration and visa processing—that is what Australians expect from their government—there is no doubt that it is a foreign concept to the Labor members opposite. They don't understand efficiency and integrity in this process. They don't understand what it is to hold the same policy position in this particular area over a period of time.

Let's remember what Labor did with this: 50,000 arrivals on 800 boats. Their 457 visa program spiralled out of control with an additional 40,000 workers coming in under Labor's dodgy skills list, which blew out to 650 occupations, and there was a budget blowout of $60 billion to fund it all. How did they pay for this? We know that they don't do responsible economic management very well. So, to make up for the $16 billion shortfall, they took a razor to Australia's enforcement agencies to prop up their program. They cut $128 million from the AFP between the 2010-11 and 2013-14 financial years. They cut $735 million and 700 staff from customs.

So, when the member for Scullin comes in here and claims that the government is trying to reduce staff, we know it's a nonsense. We also know that, in their time in government, they reduced 700 staff from the customs department alone to save $735 million so that they could fund a $16 billion blowout, because they couldn't control Australia's border or immigration systems. So let's be clear: we will not be lectured to by the opposition when it comes to this. (Time expired)

10:36 am

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm proud to second the member for Scullin's motion. The Department of Immigration was established in 1945. Its mission was nation-building, administrating Australia's migration program, attracting the best and brightest to make Australia a competitive global powerhouse—not only numerically but also economically and socially—and it oversaw the successful settlement of many of our seven million postwar migrants. Sadly, the department's most recent history has seen it battered by the core, destructive elements of Liberal ideology. Liberals believe in small government—that is, governments should not provide services. So, once Liberals obtain power, they are quick to run-down or sell-off publicly owned assets and services.

Mr Tim Wilson interjecting

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Goldstein will get his first unofficial warning.

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

The road to demise started back in 2013 when Mr Morrison became the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and approved the integration of immigration with customs and the creation of the Australian Border Force. Who could forget the brute from Bronte's on-water matters press conferences? This is where he mastered the art of saying nothing loudly. Although immigration staff referred to the integration as the 'takeover', the complete takeover occurred under Minister Dutton's control at the end of 2014. At the time, The Canberra Times wrote that the adoption of the customs culture and militarisation of the organisation was so alarming that it prompted 'the public service's greatest executive brain drain since the 1980s'.

In 2017, after 72 years, the word 'immigration' was dropped from the department's title, and the department was sucked into the vortex of home affairs. Have things improved? The results of a staff survey conducted in May this year showed that thousands of public servants want to quit home affairs. Staff experience low morale, poor engagement and high levels of bullying and harassment. Across all of the 97 APS agencies that were surveyed, home affairs ranked last for engagement, 94th for wellbeing and 91st for innovation. Before you think that the results of this survey are a one-off, they're not. Ever since the takeover, the morale of our professional immigration officers has been consistently low.

How does a global organisation that was once tasked with the mission of nation-building and whose employees had been found to be some of the most resilient in the public sector get to this low point? Surely morale that is so consistently low must affect productivity. But the staff turn up each and every day. They may not love their environment, but they're dedicated to their work and to this nation.

How has this ungrateful government shown their appreciation for the hard work the department does in implementing their policies? The first thing they did was refuse to give staff a wage increase for six years. They also shut down visa processing functions at approximately six overseas offices. They outsourced contact centres in Australia and overseas. They centralised the parliamentary liaison units, diminishing the service to parliamentarians. They gutted client services in each state. In Queensland, they moved their Cairns office to the airport, where the department conduct border force activities.

The visa processing function in Cairns has gone. It was once a vibrant service that processed working holiday maker visas and citizenship applications and provided services to international tourists and humanitarian entrants who were settled in Cairns. You can't get a face-to-face immigration service in Queensland anywhere north of Brisbane apart from the internet—and you can imagine how friendly that is! Today, the department has nearly half the visa-processing staff it had prior to the takeover and yet the number of applications to be lodged and processed has not decreased. In fact, the government claim the projected number of visa applications they expect to receive is an argument for privatisation. So now they have virtually decimated the immigration component of Home Affairs the government want to hand over control of one of our most vital services to the highest bidder, to their Liberal mates, perhaps. They want to privatise Australia's visa processing system. It is disgraceful. They've made the staff miserable and overworked and now they want to actually sell off their jobs. How low can this coalition government go under Prime Minister Morrison?

Under Minister Dutton's scheme, private providers will be given licence to run Australia's visa system as a for-profit business. This will lead to more cuts to services, increased visa fraud and more data security risks, as mentioned in the member for Scullin's speech. Visa processing is an essential part of keeping Australia safe. Visa processing should be owned, managed and operated by the Australian government. It should be run by professional Commonwealth staff who are well resourced. These Commonwealth public servants should be given all of the necessary resources to operate effectively and make Australia safe. Australia has come a long way since the immigration department kicked off in 1945, but sadly we are at a point where we have a coalition government with a Liberal ideology that wants to sell off and compromise our border security. It is also why we've seen 90,000-odd people arriving at airports under this government and under this hopeless minister.

10:41 am

Photo of John AlexanderJohn Alexander (Bennelong, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Scullin for raising the issue. As a multicultural nation, our visa system is central to our migration system and must work well in order to keep families together and communities united. My electorate is one of the most multicultural in the country. Communities from across the globe have come to Bennelong and made a permanent home, combining the great benefits of our various cultures. We have large communities of Italians, Armenians, Koreans, Indians and, of course, Cantonese Chinese. Each of these communities now live in a hybrid cultural space. They are proud Australians, but they are still closely connected with the cultures of their ancestors. As a result, our community is regularly home to celebrations from across the world. It is the merging of these many rich cultures that creates the dynamic and unique flavour that pervades the suburbs of Bennelong. As I regularly say, our diversity is our strength and our greatest asset.

But these great local communities are only able to be here because of our visa system. Locally, I get a number of visa issues through my office, and I have been delighted to be able to help many people reunite with their families and attend critical events, such as weddings, christenings and funerals, and spend time with their loved ones at times that really matter. I have helped people stuck in Syria in the aftermath of civil war there make it out to Australia, where they had families and friends to support them and help them join the broader community. I've successfully represented a person who came to my office desperate to get relatives out from India to Australia so they could be beside him when he married the love of his life. I have helped someone seeking visas so family members could make it to the hospital and have a final conversation with their dying mother before she passed away, providing comfort for the whole family. This is what we must always remember. Visas look bureaucratic, made up of paperwork and file numbers, but behind each one is a personal story of hope, aspiration and a new start or an old connection.

Our visa system has been working well for the last few decades and continues to work well under this government. The reforms we are enacting will not hamper this growth and will ensure the system can handle the huge number of applications it receives. Let me be clear: this government is not privatising visa decision-making. The Australian government will always remain responsible and accountable, as it is today, for all visa decision-making. It will determine visa rules and how decisions are made. The Department of Home Affairs is conducting a tender process for a new workflow tool that will support digital visa application and decision-making. This modernisation process will reduce processing times to ensure visa decision-making continues to support key export industries such as tourism and education and help keep us all safe.

To be clear, throughout these changes we'll remain responsible for national security and community protection by maintaining control of visa decision-making. The provider of the workflow tool will have no role whatsoever in visa decision-making. This reform will allow skilled and experienced officers to refocus their efforts on higher-value, more complex decision-making. This will enhance border integrity.

This process is not being driven by a desire to reduce departmental staffing or to cut costs. Claims that this process will lead to wholesale job losses and office closures are simply false. Our visa system is working and, with these reforms, it will only work better.

10:45 am

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker, did I actually hear members opposite say they are committed to improving the visa system for Australia, when the reality of what has happened under this government in the last six years is completely the opposite? I have people in my electorate who've come to my office with terrible stories of waiting over two years for their 10-year-old son's visa to be approved—of not seeing their 10-year-old son for two years. There are people who've come to my office whose baby was born after they left their country of birth and who have never seen that baby in the first three years of that child's life.

These are shocking stories. Quite frankly, I worry about my staff, who have to handle these stories and every day have to deal with people who are living through extraordinary pain, whose hearts are broken because our visa system is broken.

Under this government it has got worse. There are 220,000 people still waiting to have their citizenship applications processed as future citizens, and they wait 13 months to pledge allegiance to Australia under this government. Once they're approved, they wait. They wait and they wait. I've had people who've been phoned the week before their citizenship ceremony to be told it was cancelled and they'd have to come back later. I've had people come to my office to prove their Australianness, desperate for citizenship; they come to my office and try to prove to me how worthy they are by telling me that they've paid for their education—that they've paid for their degree—because they're waiting for their citizenship ceremony, and telling me that they've worked every day for the last three years, and that they've paid their taxes. They come to me to prove their Australianness in a way that I don't have to. My heart breaks for them. I just ask those opposite who were telling us today that the system is working, and they're trying to make it better by privatising it, to have a bit of a rethink about this. It is not working, and privatising it will not make it better.

Look at the history of privatisation. I'm actually going to look at all levels of government and both sides of politics here. We tend to privatise things just at the wrong time, and it's the wrong time to privatise the visa system because the world is becoming smaller. There are more mobile work opportunities. People are moving. Families are more dispersed across the globe. People move more often. They marry across borders. It's a different world now, from 10 or 15 years ago—or 40 years ago, which is where this government belongs. It's a different world. And now is the time to keep the brain—which is your public sector—intact, to keep the knowledge of people who have worked in this sector for decades intact so that they can help us work through the changes we're going to need to make to make sure that Australia can properly participate in a global economy, with a mobile workforce and families moving across borders.

But look at privatisation. Recently, my local council privatised rubbish collection—just at a time when we need less rubbish. So now, the rubbish collectors get paid for more rubbish. The more rubbish they collect, the more they get paid. It's designed to fail what we need now.

We see the privatising of hospitals when, actually, we know that over 60 per cent of people in hospitals shouldn't even be there. So, now, hospitals get paid to have people in hospitals, when actually our health system should be about keeping them out. It's designed to fail.

We privatised the electricity grid just when we should've been trading on the grid and finding ways to pull more power off it. That was a stupid decision, to privatise the grid. We've privatised roads when we should have fewer cars on them. These are stupid decisions. I won't even go into the privatising of the serum laboratories and the transmission towers, or of the Snowy hydro scheme, for that matter.

We also see appalling examples of privatisation, where businesses are paid for their inputs, when usually in the private sector you get rewarded for your outcome. It's not that you train a person for work; it's that they get a job and the company is happy, and, therefore, other people come to your college because your outcome was good. In the privatisation of the voc ed system, you got paid for enrolling a person. If you enrolled a person and they didn't turn up, you got more money than you would if they graduated. It was designed to fail. It was designed to bring in shonks and it was designed to fail.

This will be the same. You can imagine the wonderful rorts that will go along with this, such as relationships with airline companies: 'You want a visa? Would you like flights with that?' This is what happens when the private sector moves into an area where the outcome is so difficult to manage. Are they going to be rewarded for the number of visas they process, which means they'll process them too fast? Are they going to be rewarded for the quality of people? This is ridiculous. On what basis do you reward a commercial business for processing visas? It is designed to fail from the start and it will follow the failure of all the other privatisations that have happened over the last decade. (Time expired)

10:51 am

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to express extreme disappointment with this motion from the opposition suggesting that the government is planning to privatise the entire visa-processing system. Nothing could be further from the truth. This government is not privatising the visa decision-making process, simply conducting a tender process for a new workflow tool that will support the visa application process. In raising this motion, those opposite are running diversionary tactics and again proving that they ignore the basis of good government and, certainly, are not interested in real outcomes.

Seeking input into visa-processing issues at present is considered necessary by the government, because we all know processing times that feed into visa decision-making conducted by government are too long. They are taking too long. We recognise the importance of a process that will in fact support key export industries such as tourism and education by bringing in skilled people with the appropriate visas. That is certainly the case in my electorate of Groom in terms of tourism and education, but most particularly agriculture.

Let's look at real outcomes, as I've suggested. The Minister for Immigration has advised that, in the first three months of this year, under the permanent skilled migrant program, there has been a 124 per cent increase in the number of regional visas compared to the same period last year. Now, that is important in regional Australia, particularly for agriculture. The government is interested in real outcomes. That is why the government will remain responsible for national security and community protection by maintaining control of the visa decision-making process and, as I said, by making sure that we are assisting our country in terms of those industries, particularly in regional Australia, as the minister has outlined in the program for migrants to go into regional areas.

The government is very much focused on proper process and prioritising the decision-making process, as I have said, To have skilled and experienced officers, for example, bogged down in processing issues in terms of the handling of visas, is certainly not the best use of our resources. The government intends to outsource part of that process to reduce the time it takes up of experienced officers, so that they can refocus on higher priority decision-making in relation to visas. Those opposite would suggest that this move is all about wholesale job losses—offices being closed, for example. Those claims are false, they are misleading, and those who are making those claims know that that is the case.

This is about good government, applying our resources to the highest priority areas for consideration. That is about visa decisions and it's about real outcomes—making sure that we have our processes flowing such that we can have, for example, as I've mentioned, skilled migrants going into regional areas. What does that do? It achieves a number of objectives. It certainly supports regional industries such as in my electorate of Groom. But at the same time it spreads the load across our country. It helps feed into the management of population pressures, for example, in our metropolitan areas. And we know that infrastructure spending being committed by the federal government is certainly focused on that priority.

This is a big-picture approach. It's the government focused on where the real decisions need to be made by senior officials, and that's certainly what they'll be freed up to do more of, by simply outsourcing some of these visa processing issues with a workflow tool that improves the process and achieves the outcomes that I have mentioned.

10:55 am

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fenner, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

Those opposite like to style themselves as the political heirs of John Howard, the man who once said, 'We will decide who comes to Australia and the circumstances in which they come.' But, as a result of this visa privatisation plan, private firms will decide who comes to Australia and private firms will decide the circumstances in which they come. Indeed, Mr Howard noted recently the link between trust and confidence in the visa system and the way in which it is operated. He said:

If they feel that control is slipping they will turn against it.

By that he meant the Australian people. He continued:

I think that would apply to just about any country in the world. It's basic common sense.

It's not just John Howard who's saying this. The submission to the Senate committee from Migration Council Australia's Carla Wilshire noted:

Maintaining public trust and confidence in the immigration program is critical to affording policymakers the political and administrative space to manoeuvre the complex and shifting context …

As the mover of the motion, the member for Scullin, has noted, there is a serious issue in our migration system right now—more than 230,000 people on bridging visas, more than 220,000 people on waiting lists for their citizenships, and a significant backlog at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. So, yes, there are significant problems to be addressed in our visa system.

But the government has not explained in any way how privatisation would solve those problems. As the CPSU noted:

Visa applications should only be assessed on their merits, as is the case now, not based on how much profit they can generate for a private company.

That's been a strong campaign run by Nadine Flood and her successor, Melissa Donnelly, who I acknowledge today. The CPSU noted:

This is not an open tender, as only two shortlisted companies are in line to be handed our visa processing system.

Some of the most biting remarks about this proposal have come from Abul Rizvi, formerly the deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration, responsible for the design and delivery of Australia's visa and citizenship program. This is a man who was awarded both the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for his contribution to the development of Australia's immigration arrangements. Mr Rizvi noted there has been 'No business case with risk plan and key performance indicators' put forward by the government,' and, 'The privatisation seems to have been driven by the artificial constraints imposed by the public service staffing cap'. We know that the public service staffing cap is lowering the quality of public services that are delivered. It is increasing spending on consultants and contractors, and it is hurting the institutional knowledge of the public service. Mr Rizvi said:

It is not clear how privatisation will address the massive visa and citizenship backlogs Home Affairs has allowed to be built up …

Those words are key: 'allowed to be built up'. To a large extent, this has been a policy choice by the coalition to ensure that the backlog of people awaiting citizenship is now almost equivalent to one per cent of the Australian population. Mr Rizvi notes:

There is no question the IT platform for visa processing requires regular upgrading and possibly even major re-development. But no explanation has been provided for why this is best done via a 'privatisation' model …

The Migration Institute of Australia and Migration Council Australia have warned of systematic risks. The Migration Institute of Australia said:

It is difficult to reconcile the complexity of the current migration program with attempts to automate 90 percent of processing or to automate subjective decision making.

The government that brought you robo-debt now wants to extend the automation of visa processing. Would you really trust the Morrison government, after the robo-debt scandals, to now engage in a process that will lead to more automation of visa processing? I think not.

There is significant concern among recruiters, who are looking for overseas talent to fill skill shortages, that poorly configured automated systems would make Australia an unappealing destination. Skilled migrants often look at a choice across a range of different countries, and waiting times are already causing a headache. Problems that arise through the privatisation of the visa system could further damage Australia's reputation as a great tourist destination and could further damage Australia's ability to attract skilled migrants.

11:01 am

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is interesting to have another motion today from the Labor Party on immigration. This motion indicates Labor has nothing of substance when it comes to migration. Indeed, what we have heard this morning is more spin than a ferris wheel. Australia can't trust Labor on immigration, and this motion proves it. Visa decision-making—let us be very clear—is not being privatised. This is 'Mediscare' redux. Labor's motto when the facts don’t suit is to accuse their opponents of doing something they're not actually doing. What's next? They will accuse us of faking the moon landing or putting fluoride in the water for mind control. If you believe the Labor Party, you'd believe Harold Holt was taken by a Chinese sub and that the US government is reverse engineering alien technology at Area 51. Back in the real world, we like to deal with facts.

If Labor were interested in finding out the facts, they'd discover that the Department of Home Affairs is conducting a tender process for a new workflow tool, a software interface that will support digital visa applications and enable officials to have more time to spend on the parts of the visa process which actually require assessment and decision-making. This modernisation process is necessary to reduce processing times and to ensure visa decision-making continues to support key export industries, like tourism and education, as well as helping ensure the integrity of the visa system. Let me be clear: the government remains responsible for all visa decision-making. We will determine the visa rules and how decisions are made. We will remain responsible for national security and community protection by maintaining control of visa decision-making.

Since Labor don't seem to know anything about the tender process, it might be worth me laying out a little bit more about what this is actually all about. Firstly, the provider of the workflow tool will have no role whatsoever in visa decision-making. The purpose of the tender is to implement technology to take away some of the inefficiencies that currently exist in the visa application process. Secondly, the reform will allow the department to refocus its efforts on higher value, more complex decision-making. Thirdly, the reform will enforce border integrity.

I'd like to correct some other claims that seem to have arisen from Labor's participation in debates on visa processing. My friend the member for Fenner outlined, with the CPSU talking points this morning, some of the issues Labor have been running. Let me be clear: this process is not being driven by a desire to reduce departmental staffing costs. Claims that this process will lead to wholesale job losses and office closures are simply false, and those making the claims know that. There has been no overall funding cut in the Department of Home Affairs since Minister Dutton took over in December 2014. In fact, the overall total departmental funding has actually increased.

When they get their facts so wrong, why would anyone trust the Labor Party with immigration policy in this country? When you look at their record, no-one should take any lessons from Labor at all on migration policy. This is the party who, when they were last in office, gave us the failed immigration policies that saw 50,000 people turn up on our doorsteps on 800 boats with 8,000 children in detention, with 17 detention centres opened. The cost of this failure in dollar terms was $17 billion. That doesn't compare with the human cost of the failure, which is the fact that, under Labor, 1,200 people drowned at sea. Those 1,200 people might just be a statistic to the Labor Party but we will never let them forget those people, because those lives were needlessly lost while Labor was in office.

Labor like to claim to be the great humanitarians and to be concerned about the poor and the downtrodden, but they aren't. Instead of 5,000 people per year being granted a special humanitarian visa, that number dropped to 500 in Labor's last year in government. This is because available places were taken by people who had arrived by boat. People who were waiting and most in need of asylum were prevented from obtaining protection in Australia because Labor were sloppy about their border policy. Just six years ago Australia's humanitarian program was not in order; it was a catastrophe. Since regaining government we have restored the program. In 2018-19 we granted more than 7½ thousand special humanitarian visas.

Then there is medevac. Labor took control of this House for one day with their mates on the crossbench and the Greens and gave us medevac, where any two doctors could cause a detainee to leave Nauru and Manus and come to Australia—a major weakening of our border protection system, and an example of what Labor would do if they ever came to government again. Medevac doesn't apply the character test to migrants, as is the case with other visas. It's a law made contrary to the advice of officials, yet it's an example of what Labor would do to our borders.

Because of the Morrison government, Australia now has one of the most respected migration systems in the world. This is because of the orderly system we have put in place over the last six years. We are not privatising decision-making. I say to those opposite: when you stop telling lies about the privatisation of visa processing, we will stop telling the truth about your failed border protection policy. (Time expired)

11:06 am

Photo of Peter KhalilPeter Khalil (Wills, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the member for Scullin's motion calling on the government to stop this plan to privatise our visa processing system. Let's start with the government's track record, particularly on visa processing, and how it negatively impacts ordinary people every day. People in my electorate of Wills, down in Melbourne, speak to me about delays in just about every single visa category; it's a common refrain. Almost every day at my electorate office in Coburg, someone calls or comes into the office because they are directly impacted by this government's visa processing failures. They come into the office desperate for answers, asking: 'Why is it taking so long? Why is there such delay?' We have to tell them that, even though they might have put in their application 18 months ago, this is actually within the department's listed normal processing times.

We see this widespread—I'm sure it occurs in electorates around the country—and it has real impact on people's lives. A teenager who is in high school, wanting to go to university, is trying to get their citizenship locked in and finalised, and, unfortunately, the delay on their citizenship means they can't go to study what they want unless they are ready to sign up to pay tens of thousands of additional dollars, because they are still classified as a international student—not a local or domestic student. These delays have a real impact on people's lives. They're holding people back from contributing to this country and to their communities in ways that will benefit all.

Let's look at some of the processing times that the department lists on its website. A partner visa takes 24 months—two years! A citizenship application takes 22 months—not much better. What about a parent visa? Sorry, says the department, the official line is, 'Processing times are not available for this visa.' People who want to become Australians, people who want to be part of our country, part of Australia, not just as visitors but as citizens contributing to their community, are being delayed. As the member for Scullin has noted, there are more than 222,000 people on the waitlist for citizenship. That number is not just a statistic; it's a number that represents people's lives and thousands of people being impacted in ways that really have a detrimental effect on what they can do in their contribution to this country.

What is the difference between someone on permanent residency and someone who is a citizen? The people who are on permanent residency pay their taxes, and they work and live in their community. They've probably lived here for many years. They're part of our communities. Yet, because they don't have citizenship, there is one thing they don't have—that is, the right to vote. Being welcomed into the Australian democracy with that really important right, the right to vote and participate in our democratic process—they pay their taxes but won't be given the right to vote because all of their applications have been delayed.

What's the cause of these delays? In 2017 the government tried to change the rules for people on permanent residency applying for citizenship. They wanted new rules that, instead of a year, would have extended the wait time to four years. They also wanted to add an English language test. I had a couple, two doctors, from India come into my office during that period. One of them fell on one side of the arbitrary date for this new rule and one of them fell on the other side. The wife could go straight to her citizenship ceremony, but her husband, whose application went in a couple of months later, had to wait another four years. It was absolutely ridiculous. This couple are not unique. They're making a contribution to this country. They've raised their kids here. They've paid their taxes. They wanted to become fully-fledged citizens of this country. We opposed that bill. The community rallied—we had 38,000 signatures on a petition—and the bill, thankfully, didn't pass the Senate.

Then there were more delays. Were they deliberate? I don't know. Was it the minister's way of trying to go slow? There might be another explanation. I don't want to be too conspiratorial about it. Maybe it's just mismanagement. Maybe the delays with the Department of Home Affairs have more to do with the fact that they've cut $150 million off their budget. Maybe it has got to do with that. Maybe it's got to do with the fact that the staff in the department play a critical role in building our nation and yet the department is being denied the resources and personnel to do that core responsibility. That's probably what's happening.

It's about time that this ends. We can't allow this government to privatise the process, to outsource their core responsibility in the Public Service. We're talking about 2,000 Australians losing their jobs and jeopardising data security. This is too important to allow it to happen with the Department of Home Affairs. We oppose this. (Time expired)

11:11 am

Photo of Pat ConaghanPat Conaghan (Cowper, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm somewhat surprised that the member for Scullin moved this motion, bearing in mind his background in law prior to coming to this place. I assume that with that background he would have experienced, as I did over a period of seven years as a registered migration agent and lawyer, the difficulties with the processing system over the past 10 years. I would have thought that, with that experience, people on the other side of this room, including the member for Scullin, would embrace the changes proposed by the coalition government.

Let's take out the hysteria, the rhetoric and the lies that this is privatisation and that jobs will go and let's look at the facts. I will give you an example of a client of mine—a plumber from the UK. He had been a plumber for 20 years. Plumbing was on the skilled occupation list; Australia required plumbers to come here by way of a skilled visa. He came to me and made an application. We put the application in. It took 13 months for that application to be processed. It took 13 months because it was a paper application, it had to be done in triplicate and it was sent to DIMIA, as it was back then, and assigned a case agent. That person had multiple cases at any one time. This proposal seeks to outsource and streamline the process for people like that professional person, who wanted to come to Australia to enrich not only Australia but his own life. They suggest that this is an attempt to privatise. Labor knows that that is untrue. They suggest that people are going to lose jobs. That is untrue. It's a furphy and a ruse—we might as well call it a 'Labor'.

Let's look at some more statistics. In the current year to 28 February the refusal rate across these programs was tracking at 3.8 per cent. This has involved a significant and commensurate increase in work effort and time for the department to appropriately assess and decide applications, including spouse applications, contributory parent applications and 457 applications. Despite this growth, the department has achieved greater levels of productivity, finalising more applications than it has received, by encouraging the uptake of online lodgement and enabling data entry through the department, by continually improving systems and processes and by consolidating visas into hubs.

The delay was way too long and happening way too often. This move by the coalition should be applauded, and those who are saying it is privatisation and will end in job losses should be condemned.

While the increasing movement of people globally brings with it many benefits to Australia, it also brings new threats to our security. This is not just about border protection. In fact, it's more about the ability for people to lodge their visas, whether they be humanitarian visas or a spouse visa, and to have those looked at and assessed in a timely fashion. That's exactly what this government is attempting to do. What Labor is attempting to do is turn it around, clutching at straws and making it into an issue that does not exist. So I welcome this government's policy to bring in a streamlining of the process and I look forward to seeing the numbers of people waiting for those visas reduced significantly.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next day of sitting.