Fears privatised visa system could see access to Australia ‘sold to highest bidder’

Union warns up to 3,000 jobs and private information at risk under proposal that could include ‘premium services for high-value applicants’

Government plans to privatise the visa application system could include “premium services for high-value applicants”, different access for those able to pay more, as well as “commercial value-added services”.

The Community and Public Sector Union has warned the changes – the department’s preferred option is to have all visa applications decided via an online platform – could cost up to 3,000 jobs and jeopardise the security of people’s private information.

The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has said the proposal’s rationale is to modernise Australia’s visa system to deal with a massive and growing number of applications, but the Greens senator Nick McKim said the proposal could see a fatal corruption of the integrity of Australia’s visa system with “access to Australia packaged up and sold to the highest bidder”.

Labor’s immigration spokesman, Shayne Neumann, said the current privatisation proposal was continuation of a trend started when the new Department of Home Affairs outsourced 250 departmental call centre jobs to New Zealand company Datacom.

A briefing delivered to potential commercial partners by the first assistant secretary of the immigration department, Andrew Kefford, outlined in detail the department’s plan to move visa applications to an automated “global digital platform”.

The department is seeking a private-sector partner to design, build and operate a commercial “user-pays” visa application and approval system, with limited human involvement.

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

Kefford said the privatisation and modernisation of the visa system would be the “most significant reform to the Australian immigration system in more than 30 years”.

Visa services now fall under the ambit of the newly established Department of Home Affairs. Australia processes about nine million visa applications a year, a figure expected to grow to 13 million within a decade.

Currently, a quarter of visa applications are on paper and half of all decisions are made manually.

Processing visas currently costs the government “several hundred million dollars a year”, but the government appears to want to make its “visa business” profitable under the new system.

“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.

Under the proposed “global digital platform” model, applications for visas would be made online, and the government wants 90% – in particular short-term and simple applications – to be assessed and decided automatically, without any human involvement.

The department will retain control of security assessments, as well as complex applications, including for diplomatic or refugee visas.

The department’s first request for expressions of interest to the market is to create the “global digital platform” for handling visa applications and approvals. But more government functions are expected to be later privatised, including health checks, character or genuineness (whether documents are legitimate) assessments, as well as data collection and verification.

“We expect the successful provider to deliver a global digital platform that is capable of handling all visa products,” Kefford said.

“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 company that wins the tender will be expected to provide “value-added connections” to commercialise the visa application process as a way to “share value”.

“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.”

The government expects machine learning and robotic process automation to increase the proportion of visa assessments that can be automated over time, in order to be able to save the government money.

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

And different visa applicants, will be able to choose to pay different amounts. “High-value applicants” will be able to access for “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.

While admitting foreign nationals to a country is a fundamental sovereign function, other countries have entirely outsourced their visa operations. The results have not always been well received.

The UK’s Home Office was criticised for making profits of up to 800% on some visa applications, and its suite of upfront charges. Most notably, any applicant who contacted UK visas and immigration from overseas by email was charged £5.48 (A$9.75).

In 2015, the operations of VFS Global, which acts for around 45 governments, were temporarily suspended after a technical glitch allowed visa applicants in Italy to access other people’s private information.

The government’s formal request for tender will go to the market in July 2018. Dutton told the National Press Club last week the tender process would be open to 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. 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.”

Peter Dutton
Peter Dutton speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Dutton said the proposal was driven by a need for modernisation, not a desire to privatise the process.

“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.”

The Greens senator Nick McKim said his party opposed the proposal which, as outlined, represented “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,” McKim said.

“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.”

The Greens would oppose the proposal, McKim said.

Labor’s Shayne Neumann said the privatisation proposal failed to value the work of the Australian public service “and the expertise and experience of our frontline workers”.

“It’s because of their conservative, cost-cutting ideology that the Turnbull government is incapable of treating Australia’s public servants with the respect they deserve.”

The national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Nadine Flood, said the recent revelations about the proposal had “confirmed our fears the Turnbull government is going to sell off almost every aspect of our visa system”.

“Our estimates that up to 3,000 jobs are potentially under threat,” Flood said. “But the department has been unwilling to answer the question about what they consider the threat to jobs. We base that estimate on the very large scope of potential privatisation identified by the government.”

Flood said there were also security concerns with the sovereign functions of a government being outsourced to a private company potentially offshore.

“The proposal will mean shoddier services and higher prices to line the pockets of an as-yet-unnamed multinational company. And it raises very serious concerns, for jobs, data privacy and security of people’s information.”

Flood said staff inside the home affairs department held fears for their jobs.

“These are also people committed to their work, and there is absolutely and strong and growing concern about their futures, and what happens to the important work that they do.”


Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

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