Australia's ocean patrolling drones and water surveillance project in tender limbo

The Future Maritime Surveillance Capability project was announced nearly two years ago, but the department is still sitting on pitches from the market.

The federal government in October 2018 announced scoping was underway to deliver the "next generation" of maritime surveillance capability through the Future Maritime Surveillance Capability project.

A press release from Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton nearly two years ago said the project could see "drones prowling Australia's far-flung ocean boundaries" and "undersea sensors monitoring shipping movements around coastlines". He said the project would deliver "new cutting edge technology to respond to current and emerging civil maritime threats to Australia".

Dutton also said a "significant" investment in the project would be made.

Facing Senate Estimates on Monday, Home Affairs was asked where the project was up to, noting no funding had been explicitly allocated in the federal Budget, nor any contracts awarded since the announcement was made. Labor Senators claimed the upgrade would set Australia back around AU$1 billion.

"The government in due course will make a decision as to whether it's like for like, whether new technology comes on the scene, [such as] remotely piloted aircraft," Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo said.

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He said the money was available as part of the department's baseline maritime and surveillance budget, rather than being a separate funding measure.

"We're scouring with our colleagues in Defence all sorts of new technology and whether that's going to require the additional capital investment of a billion dollars or more, or less, is a function of that survey of technology. If you can surveil the ocean more broadly and cheaply using other technologies, it will be cheaper," Pezzullo added.

"There's base funding in the way that the navy in perpetuity has got money for warships and who knows what those warships will look like in 50 years or 100 years -- there is base money," he later said.

A request for information was published by the department at the time of Dutton's announcement. Representatives from Home Affairs told Senate Estimates they received 67 responses.

"The examination of those responses is being used to guide the development of capability options that will be progressed for consideration by government," Deputy Secretary of Strategy and Law Enforcement Cath Patterson said.

Patterson could not provide a summary of what the responses detailed, however.

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Labor Senator Louise Pratt showed frustration at the department representatives for not being able to provide detailed information on the project which was purportedly critical to national security. She labelled the announcement made by Dutton nearly two years ago a "photo op".

"If there's a suggestion that either in terms of the unapproved capability which is yet to be put to government as an active procurement decision … if I'm drawing an inference that we're not taking this seriously, I reject that utterly; if I'm to draw an inference that we're somehow going slow or not assiduously perform our public duties, I reject that utterly," Pezzullo said.

Pratt's questioning suggested that interested suppliers had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in preparing responses to the government. Pezzullo said while he was delighted respondents took the process seriously, it was a commercial decision they made to do so.

"Particularly for an RFI, which is, I wouldn't say theoretical, but certainly pre-procurement, they do so at risk with the view to gaining future business," he said.

"This project will most certainly be going ahead because at some point planes won't be operable and vessels will be obsolete and Australia is a maritime nation, surrounded by ocean," Pezzullo later added.

"The project team at the moment is off the back of that RFI defining the capability of requirements, conducting some risk-reduction activities, and preparing the business case that will go to government with advice about what some of those options might be in those capabilities," Patterson explained.

She also said the government still has time as the deadline is 2024 to have a full capability ready.

NO 'COMPUTER SAYS NO'

With discussions on visas taking much of Home Affairs' allotted time, following the announcement of a new visa processing system from over the weekend, representatives were asked about the decision-making process for declining a visa application.

Home Affairs Deputy Secretary of Immigration and Settlement Services Andrew Kefford said the visa risk assessment process provides the ability to examine visa applications that are made against a series of criteria.

"You might call them algorithms, you might call them business rules, to determine whether that visa application is subject to fraud or if we have intelligence holdings about criminal activity," Kefford said.

Some of the parameters, he said, include if the application originates from a particular IP address that is known to be related to fraud or from a particular geographic location that has seen a level of fraud before. He also said the algorithm could determine if applications are linked to a serious organised crime investigation.

Pezzullo said all visa decisions in the end are made by a human.

"[Staff are] looking at profiles, they're looking at algorithms, and they're using advanced analytical systems to hone down those risk factors," he said. "It's a two-step process, Mr Kefford's decision makers then of course -- it's never the computer, there's always a decision maker that makes a decision that applies to a particular denial.

"We don't operate 'computer says no'."

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