Plans to privatise Australia's visa processing system binned

Opposition says the COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated the importance of Australia's ability to retain control of its borders and visa processing.

Plans to privatise Australia's visa processing system binned

The federal government on Friday agreed that the privatisation of Australia's visa processing system was not its best idea, terminating the contentious request for tender process for its proposed Global Digital Platform.

Instead, the government is now pushing a "broad new policy approach", which it has detailed would change how it acquires and delivers workflow processing capability within the Department of Home Affairs and other areas across government.

"The government will implement modern, easy to access, digital services for clients," a statement from Acting Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge said. "This approach seeks integrated enterprise-scale workflow processing capability that could be utilised across the Commonwealth.

"Key to this is recognising the efficiencies that can be generated from large-scale government investment in technology and the re-use of capability across government."

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection -- now Home Affairs -- went to tender initially in September 2017, seeking a provider to design, implement, and operate a new visa business.

At the time, it was explained that the new visa business would be outsourced to another party that would be charged with processing visa applications.

In 2018, a request for tender was published and quickly removed. It called for a private company to own and operate Australia's visa processing system for a period of 10 years.

A decision on the tender was due to be made in October 2019.

See also: Public Sector Union launches campaign against visa privatisation 'data security risk'

During a review by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, Home Affairs said the private provider would not have any involvement in considering visa applications or "undertake any visa decision-making".

The committee rejected the assertion that tendering for a private partner to host the global digital visa-processing platform was not privatisation.

There were also concerns over conflicts of interest after a friend of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's, Scott Briggs, removed himself from the visa processing bid after it was revealed his Southern Strategy venture made a "mistaken" AU$165,000 donation to the Liberal Party.

With the privatisation plan scrapped, Home Affairs said it will conduct a market consultation process in the coming months to determine the best way to deliver "large-scale workflow processing capability for visa and citizenship applications and additionally, for Customs functions and personnel security clearances in the Home Affairs portfolio".

Tudge's statement said that while current visa systems continue to function, they are out of date and processing and decision making in many cases are still undertaken manually, supported by old technology and limited risk assessment capabilities.

"The work the department has done in recent years to modernise its visa service delivery arrangements will be utilised and extended to other areas in developing and specifying the requirements for this much broader capability, on which visa processing will still be the first product delivered," he said.

The scrapping of the tender process was welcomed by the federal opposition, with a statement from Shadow Minister Assisting for Immigration and Citizenship Andrew Giles reiterating his party's stance that controlling Australia's visa processing system is an essential function of government.

"The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of the Australian government retaining control of our borders and visa processing system," he said.

"At its core, privatising our visa system would have resulted in a tension between integrity and profit -- it would have undermined Australia's national security."

Giles said the government spent AU$80 million on undertaking the now-abandoned tendering process.

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