Home Affairs officials grilled over plans to privatise visa application system

Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs Michael Pezzullo was grilled about plans to privatise the visa application system. Source: AAP

Home Affairs officials faced questions on the department’s plan to use a private company to run a digital visa application system.

The Home Affairs department is finalising plans to contract a private company to run a new online system for Australian visa applications. 

Officials told a Senate Estimates hearing they were waiting for the Morrison cabinet to approve the plan, before a firm could be chosen for a potentially lucrative contract to build the global, digital system.

More than 10 firms expressed interest in the project, which would require the company to invest $1 billion over 10 years but would promise a larger return “over time”.

Department boss Michael Pezzullo described an ailing visa application system that was struggling under the weight of a massive spike in global applications from people who wanted to visit, live or work in Australia. 

“I won’t call it a tsunami, but a surge of applications coming at us,” Mr Pezzullo told a Senate Estimates committee on Monday afternoon. 

He said staff at the department were using “multiple logins” to access various “legacy” computer systems, which was giving them a “fragmented view of client identity”. 

Staff losses, visa costs? 

Labor senators questioned the department on whether contracting a private firm would ultimately lead to increases in visa fees. 

Home Affairs officials said the fees and charges would be “considered by government” when the contract was settled, and would be “written into the contract”. 

Asked about any potential staff losses, Mr Pezzullo said he did not plan to “lose one member of staff across the department over this public-private partnership”. 

Visa decisions still with government 

The responsible minister at the Senate Estimates hearing, Linda Reynolds, reminded the committee all visa decisions would still be made by government employees at Home Affairs. 

“It is not the government’s policy intention to privatise the visa system itself. They are looking for a private partner to help them with the IT system,” Senator Reynolds said. 

“They’re not, in any way, outsourcing the visa decisions.” 

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