Department Pushes Ahead with Plans to Privatise Visa System

The government’s proposed plan to privatise the visa application system has taken another step forward, with the first assistant secretary of the Department of Immigration, Andrew Kefford, publishing a public briefing to potential commercial partners.

The Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, has claimed that plan’s purpose is to help modernise Australia’s immigration program, and deal with the growing overflow of applications.

“The issue we have in this modern age is the volume … I don’t have the staff, and never will, to provide the scrutiny that’s required that we can now deliver through technology,” Dutton said.

However, a senator for the Greens party, Nick McKim, has said that the introducing the proposed changes will deal a catastrophic blow to the integrity of our visa system, arguing that it represents “nothing less than a full-scale privatisation of access to Australia”.

“The whole idea that access to Australia could be packaged up and sold to the highest bidder is deeply troubling. We are deeply concerned about the conflicts of interests that come with giving such power to corporations, especially given Dutton’s enthusiasm for it to be sold part and parcel with commercial services like finance, travel and banking.”

“We are also worried that this model will preference wealthy people from white, English-speaking countries: this has been Dutton’s legacy in this portfolio,” McKim said.

Kefford’s briefing outlines in detail the government’s plan to move much of the visa system to an automated “global digital platform”. To this end, the Department is seeking a partner from the private sector to design, build and operate a commercial visa application and approval system that will feature limited human involvement.

The Department is currently pursuing a “user-pays” model for the platform, which Kefford described as the “most significant reform to the Australian immigration system in more than 30 years”.

“We are genuinely seeking a partnership to design, implement and run Australia’s visa business. We are keen to explore commercial value-added services that will assist in attracting people to Australia.”

“This is not just about digitising what we do today, but just as importantly about establishing an innovative commercial model that creates new opportunities for government, our clients and providers,” Kefford said.

Currently a quarter of all visa lodgements are still done on paper, while almost half of all decisions regarding applications are still made manually.

The manual processing of visas also presently costs the government approximately “several hundred million dollars a year”, which has left many stakeholders viewing the changes as an attempt to make the “visa business” profitable under the newly proposed system.

If the government’s proposed “global digital platform” model comes to fruition, then it will see all applications for visas shifting to the online space. The briefing also reveals that government’s intended goal of outsourcing up to 90%—specifically simple and short-term applications—of visa assessments and approvals to an automated service.

Under the proposal the government will still retain control of security assessments, and personally handle more complex applications such as diplomatic and refugee visas.

While the department’s request for expressions of interest is primarily aimed at visa applications and approvals, reports suggest that more functions—including data collection and verification, health and character checks or genuineness assessments—are expected to be added over time.

According to Kefford, the company that wins the tender will be expected by the government to generate “value-added connections” which will further commercialise the visa application process as a way of providing “share value”.

“Automating the majority of these assessments is important to our objective of improving the financial outcomes of the visa business.”

“We expect the successful provider to deliver a global digital platform that is capable of handling all visa products. The department has retained the option to confirm at a later stage whether, longer-term, more complex visa products will be delivered over the global digital platform, but to be clear, that is our preferred approach.”

“The government is highly open to exploring commercial opportunities…provided that these don’t adversely impact on security, privacy or government’s reputation. This could include additional value-added services for applicants, such as financial products or connections to Australian accommodation and employment services,” he said.

Another element of the proposal that has attracted considerable controversy is the option for “high-value applicants” to pay additional fees in order to access “premium services”.

“We want to hear the market’s thoughts on whether differentiated charges for particular client segments should be part of the future business,” Kefford said.

The Department’s formal request for tender is expected to go to the market by July 2018, with Peter Dutton a National Press Club conference that the process will be available for both Australian and foreign companies.

“We will go through the normal procurement processes and we don’t discriminate against Chinese companies. We wouldn’t against an American company,” Dutton said.

“We’d look at the bona fides of the person, the collaboration, the consortium who has come together to put the bid and we would work through their proposal.”

The CEO of Absolute Immigration, Jamie Lingham, also spoke out against the government’s decision to outsource Australia’s visa system, although he was supportive of a move towards greater digital automation.

“Whilst Absolute Immigration is supportive of the move toward technology-based processing, we do not believe that privatising essential services will work in the best interest of Australia, or applicants who looking to migrate on a temporary or permanent visa,” he said.

“A quote from a 2017 Macrobusiness article states that, “two decades ago Australia embarked on an experiment with the privatising, corporatising and marketization of the electricity sector. The proponents at the time assured the nation that everything would be better. Clearly that is not the case; between December 1996 and December 2016 Australian prices increased by 64 per cent but electricity prices increased by 183 per cent—almost three times the overall increase in prices.”

“Our personal view is that privatising essential services will only end up costing more for users, and like the privatisation of the energy sector this will be felt by many generations well past the current government. We also believe that once privatised, there will be no control in relation to data protection or fee increases.”

“We believe that there has to be a better way to solve this issue, and the government needs to engage with thought leaders in this space to ensure that they can retain the immigration program, whilst also ensuring that this is a healthy source of revenue for Australia,” Lingham said.

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