The auditor general has said there is “merit” in a probe of Australia’s partner visa system and put the home affairs department on notice to clear a backlog of applications.
Grant Hehir made the comment in response to a request for an audit by Labor MP Julian Hill due to concerns of lengthy wait times and discriminatory outcomes for partners in non-English speaking, African and Middle Eastern countries.
Hill said the average time for a subclass 309 visa application by a citizen of Afghanistan to be processed was 43.6 months compared with citizens of the US, which took an average of just 7.3 months.
Hill noted the scramble to evacuate “the partners and children of hundreds or thousands of Australians” from Kabul, arguing if not for the “maladministration” of the visa system more of them would have been “safe in Australia years ago”.
When Hill formally requested an audit in July, it was already taking 20 months for 75% of subclass 820 partner applications to be processed and 27 months for 90% to be processed.
According to the department, wait times for that visa have increased, with 75% of visas processed within two years and 90% within 31 months – more than 2.5 years.
According to documents released under freedom of information in October, Hill said that “an extraordinary 23% of the entire subclass 309 backlog” was held by just one of 30 visa processing offices, in Dubai.
On 20 August, Hehir replied to Hill revealing that the department has claimed that a “decrease in the number of applications for partner visas … has created an opportunity for the existing backlog … to be remediated”.
Hehir agreed “there is merit in a performance audit of the administration of partner visa application processing, subject to our normal priority setting processes”.
“In order to come to a decision on whether to undertake the audit, and if so, what the appropriate time should be, we will monitor the department’s progress in addressing the backlog of applications.”
Hill replied, repeating his call for an “urgent audit”, arguing that family reunification should not have to rely on the department’s “serendipitous reduction in paperwork”.
Hill blamed the backlog on a “sharp reduction” in the number of partner visas approved in 2017-18 and 2019-20.
The Migration Act states that children and partner visas are uncapped, but the department has a practice of setting “planning levels” to guide the allocation of visas within the family stream among partners, parents and children. Hill said in the past two years, 8,000 fewer partner visa were issued than in each of the previous four years. He questioned whether planning levels were lawful or operated as a “de facto cap”.
In September 2019 Hill requested an audit into the family migration program, but Hehir declined on the basis of the number of other audits into home affairs.
The Senate standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs is also inquiring into the family and partner visa system, and is due to report by 25 November.
In February the government came under fire for the harsh impact of its offshore granting requirements, which forced the applicants of some family visa types, including partner and parent visas, to travel abroad during the pandemic to have their visas granted.
The government introduced a temporary concession allowing people in Australia who are not able to travel offshore to be granted the visa due to Covid-19 related border closures.
In its submission to the Senate inquiry, the department said since Covid-19, Australia’s migration mix had shifted from two-thirds skilled, one third-family visas to about half each. Partner visas now make up 72,300 of the 77,300 places for family visas.
The department defended its “planning levels” which it said were the “longstanding practice of successive governments”.
“Partner and child visas have never been, and cannot be capped,” it said. “There is, however, scope in administering the program to consider planning levels and prioritise processing accordingly.”