Experts have roundly condemned the Federal Government’s move to privatise Australia’s visa processing system, leaving Peter Dutton’s department as the only champion of the deal. Michael Sainsbury reports.
A $1 billion-plus government contract by Peter Dutton’s Home Affairs Department that would hand visa processing to the private sector has been branded as extremely risky, “cloaked in secrecy” carrying “grave concerns”, by submissions to the Federal Government’s inquiry into the provision of government services.
Two peak migrations services bodies, the Migration Institute of Australia and the Australian Migration Council, along with Dr Abul Rizvi, the former deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration, and a trenchant public advocate against the privatisation project, have delivered detailed critiques of the Morrison government’s controversial project.
Other critics raised concerns over the secrecy of the detail of government contracts with private companies amid broader criticism over the security risks involved with the handing over of such a trove of personal data to private interests and the ways in which they may seek to monetise such information.
“The privatisation of Australia’s visa and citizenship program delivery model will reduce the integrity of the processing system, increase costs to users of the system and make the protection of sensitive data and national security more difficult”, MIA president John Hourigan stated in the organisation’s covering letter for its submission.
“The MIA’s grave concern over multiple aspects of the proposal leads the MIA to call for rejection of the privatisation of the visa and citizenship program and for the tender for this privatisation to be withdrawn”.
Rizvi, who served in the visa sections of the department at a senior level for decades, slammed the project’s lack of a business case.
“A clear and coherent rationale, business case, risk plan and key performance indicators for the proposed privatisation of the visa and citizenship function has not been made available to the Australian public,” he said.
While he noted there was “ no question” the technology platform for visa processing required regular upgrading and possibly re-development, Rizvi said there had been no explanation for “why this is best done via a ‘privatisation’ model compared to ‘outsourcing’ or indeed by in-house staff. “
“Under a ‘privatisation’ model, actual ownership of the new visa processing IT platform will be held by the winning company … This raises a new set of risks. How these risks are to be managed remains cloaked in secrecy.”
On 1 August 2019, against the wishes of the Morrison government which was trying to ram a number of projects through the bureaucracy, the Senate referred a range of matter related to the provision of government services to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee for inquiry. It was initially due to report by 16 October 2019 but on 16 September, the Senate extended the reporting date to the last sitting day in February 2020.
Yet despite this deadline, four months hence, the government said it would make a decision on whether to hand visa processing to one of two private groups understood to have tendered for the contract this month (October 2018).
The two groups are Australian Visa Processing Pty Ltd, a company fronted by Scott Briggs one of Prime Minister Scott Morrison closest political and personal confidants. It has been set up for the express purpose for the the tender.
The other contender is a joint venture between Accenture, one of the world’s largest technology outsourcing firms and government-owned Australia Post, whose board has been stacked by successive Coalition communications ministers with loyal party supporters.
Both the PM and the Minister for Immigration David Coleman, whose office would usually have carriage of the project but who is a former colleague of Briggs, have been forced to recuse themselves from the process. This has left it solely in the hands of Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton and his aggressive departmental head Mike Pezzullo, who has publicly expressed his “personal” support for the project a move many governance experts have seen as inappropriate.
The MIA submission said that the planned project “will damage the integrity of Australia’s visa and citizenship system and increase costs to all users of these programs”.
Crucially, it noted that the platform “will be misused as an increasingly commercialised platform for added on and premium ‘services’, which will override integrity, privacy and security considerations.” This comment gives some insight to how private firms might further profit from the platform.
AVP has financial backing from the James Packer linked Ellerston Group, chaired by long-time lieutenant Ashok Jacob who is also chair of AVP as well as little known Flemington markets produce millionaires, the Tripodina family, who also have strong Liberal party connections in the Prime Minister’s Sutherland Shire electorate of Cook in Sydney. The group is structured for a listing on the Australian Securities Exchange.
The Migration Council of Australia said in its submission that “in view of the complex and rapidly shifting policy environment, the introduction of a new actor in the administration of the migration program requires careful consideration of risks”.
Rizvi noted that “increases in visa application fees and charges have increasingly outstripped resources allocated to visa processing. Major increases in visa application fees, combined with increases in the volume of applications, has resulted in rapid growth in visa application revenue”.
So some of this surplus would likely now be shared with a winning private bidder, he noted, but questioned why the taxpayer should hand over excess government revenue to the private sector
“The pressure from the private company to increase fees and grow the caseload further (ie increase net overseas migration levels) will be intense”, Rizvi said.
MIA also note that the government has not taken sufficient account of the issues and problems emerging with “similarly privatised visa processing systems in other countries”. As previously reported in michaelwest.com.au, the United Kingdom has had serial problems with its own attempt at visa privatisation.
As well, the group said that the potential to damage Australian industry sectors reliant on tourism, international students – Australia’s third largest “export” market worth in excess of $30 billion – and overseas workers and have a negative impact on regional employment as current public sector employees were retrenched.
This is a really bad idea
SBS News: Fears government’s outsourcing of visa processing just a privatisation smokescreen.https://t.co/JvqWnKXWrJ
— WTF Just Happened?? (@AlanBerndt) October 14, 2019
Pertinently, the MIA also raised the security issues of privatising such a mass of sensitive data that visa processing would require saying it believed private companies would be “unable to adequately protect data that impacts national security and the privacy of applicants”.
An adjacent concern of some submissions has been the lack of transparency and accountability of firms who win government contracts. Both tenders include global tax avoiding corporation Accenture, and in the case of AVP Big Four audit and consulting firm PwC as well as software platform provider Oracle Corporation.
Independent public policy think tank Per Capita queried the use of “commercial-in-confidence” arrangements with private contractors for government services.
“Government contracts with private companies for policy advice and service delivery too often include “commercial-in-confidence” provisions that prevent the public from knowing what their money is being spent on, and whether the contracts represent value for money or adequately protect against conflicts of interest,” Per Capita’s submission said.
It’s also worth noting that there has been scant regard paid to rigorous government process and regulatory and financial oversight of the program including the notable absence of any referrals to either the Productivity Commission of the Australian National Audit Office.
In summary, the submissions provide a very detailed damning of concept of the privatisation program and underscore the myriad risks of such a move at a time when migration policy itself is in a great deal of flux.
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