AU$75m permissions capability project delayed due to COVID-related 're-focus'

The first element of the permissions capability, the simple visa system, has been replaced in priority order with the incoming passenger declaration card, which will need to include COVID-related information, such as an individual's vaccination status. The Home Affairs secretary claims this is why the March 2021 milestone has been missed.

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While scrapping its AU$92 million troubled visa processing system, the Australian government announced a new plan that would result in a Commonwealth-wide permissions capability that would focus initially on the simple visa type.

Allocating a fresh AU$75 million to the cause, the Department of Home Affairs in October turned to the market to find a provider to help build this new permissions capability architecture.

During Senate Estimates on Tuesday night, Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo was asked about the delays in delivery.

"I don't know that the tender plan had a specific date attached to it," he said. "It's certainly something which is currently going through an ongoing evaluation process."

As stated in the tender documents, the government hoped to have the first work order for the capability ready by March 2021, with the permissions capability "live delivery" pencilled in for June. It also said the digital passenger declaration would be ready in the third quarter of 2021, and the simple visa capability ready in the fourth quarter.

"Sometimes you can expect things and your expectations change, don't they?," he said.

The secretary, although refusing to accept the characterisation that the project was delayed, said the reason for a change in timeline was due to COVID-19.

Instead of the simple visa type being the first cab off the rank, the focus is now the digital passenger declaration (DPD), which he categorised as a "critical first use case" for the permissions capability.

"It will digitise the Incoming Passenger Card and the current Australian Traveller Declaration, providing biometrically-anchored and digitally-verified travel, health, and vaccine status information," he said. "Verified data will be able to be securely shared with State and Territory public health authorities. "

The DPD will have the capability to validate the vaccination status of people who have been vaccinated in Australia when they return from overseas.

Discussing the existing passenger declaration process -- which requires a card to be completed by the passenger using the honesty system -- Pezzullo said in a COVID world, that system "is an absolute recipe to bring COVID in at scale".

"The challenge here, and it'll take the best part of 6-to-12 months … the government's made no final decisions about what its requirement's going to be based on health advice. It's how do you securely, proportionately, and with privacy, ingest health data before travel occurs?," he said.

"It's quite a complex and technically difficult challenge."

During his opening statement, Pezzullo said Home Affairs is currently focused on "developing biosecure border arrangements across the travel continuum", which he said starts with pre-departure checking of visa and health status, as well as an individual's prior travel history; operating with check-in authorities at overseas airports where flights depart for Australia to ensure they are processing only those passengers who are cleared to fly; working with airlines to monitor health in-flight; supporting Australian airports to establish "green" and "red" zones to facilitate safe movement within the airport environment; and working with states and territories to provide them with the passenger information required to support quarantine and contact tracing.

It is the intention of the government that the permissions capability will be reusable across other departments and agencies, as Pezzullo described, and for the successful vendor to provide that same capability "over and over and over again in different configurations".

The resulting capability, he added, will be owned and operated by the department.

STILL NO OCEAN PATROLLING DRONES

Another project not yet seeing daylight is the Future Maritime Surveillance Capability project.

Now-Minister for Defence Peter Dutton in October 2018 announced scoping was underway to deliver the "next generation" of maritime surveillance capability through the project. He said the project could see "drones prowling Australia's far-flung ocean boundaries" and "undersea sensors monitoring shipping movements around coastlines". He also said the project would deliver "new cutting edge technology to respond to current and emerging civil maritime threats to Australia".

Senators questioned Pezzullo in October over the status of the project, and on Tuesday night he was asked when Australia was going to see these drones and undersea sensors.

"There's always a transition point between the technology of the day and you've always got an eye on the far horizon of technology," he said.

"But so long as we've got an extend capability, we'll keep an eye on future options, which could include uninhabited vehicles, could include sensors that are subsurface, but you've always got to be very careful with experimental technology or technology, which, in a defence sense, you might be willing to take a bit more risk about because it relates to being prepared to engage in conflict, the more complex sorts of systems for our purposes -- we probably don't need that level of complexity."

That "futuristic vision", Pezzullo said, is something that Home Affairs will "keep on the horizon".

"We'll see what the team comes up with once they've got specialist capability, experts, they can scan the global technology. But in the meantime, the commissioner needs capability in the air," he said, pointing to the two-year extension just provided for the current surveillance capability.

Asked if the government is on track to having full capability by the end of 2024, Pezzullo said yes.

"Australia will have a maritime surveillance and response capability with whatever mix of technology is available within the resources that government chooses to afford to the function, we will have a maritime surveillance capability at that period, in the period before that point, and in the period beyond."

In 2019-20, the project was allocated AU$6.7 million and there was also some internal funding allocated within the department of AU$163,000. In 2021-22, it was handed AU$14.2 million.

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