ABUL RIZVI. Is the Immigration and Customs Merger an Irretrievable Disaster?

May 6, 2019

Merger of Immigration and Customs and eventual incorporation into a wider Home Affairs Department has been an extraordinary disaster, at least for the immigration side of things. Whoever wins Government will face a Herculean task to fix things up. Reinstatement of a standalone immigration department, incorporating the traditional immigration functions, may be the only viable option. But what of the current leadership?  

For two years now, I have been writing about the mess Peter Dutton has created with our visa system, the loss of control of our air borders, massive visa application backlogs, blow-outs in processing times. Our and a visa system is truly in chaos. And this is with absolutely no evidence of claimed increased levels of visa integrity – if anything the system now has less integrity than it ever did.

But Dutton is not the sole culprit behind the mess. The Home Affairs leadership is equally to blame.

Each year departments in the Australian Public Service ask staff to rate the leadership skills of their bosses, consider whether their colleagues are honest and reflect on their overall job satisfaction.

According to FOI documents obtained by the ABC, the results at immigration have been among the worst in the federal public service since 2014.

“Staff have become increasingly disassociated from the department’s culture and achievements and its leadership,” an internal review of the immigration survey says. “These results are significantly lower than Australian Public Service wide results.

The fact is there was never any analysis that showed there were benefits from merging Customs and Immigration, let alone incorporating these within an even bigger Home Affairs Department. And it was always apparent the leadership viewed the immigration function as second class and its culture as not fitting in with the law enforcement role envisaged for Home Affairs.

Community and Public Sector Union secretary Nadine Flood considers the poor results were not a surprise.

“The department has alienated and devalued staff who deserve better — these people are at the front line policing our borders and working in our immigration system. There’s no doubt that merging Immigration and what was Customs has created some issues, but that alone doesn’t go close to explaining how morale has collapsed so low. Chief among the other factors at play has been the contemptuous attitude that DIBP bosses have shown towards staff, whether in bargaining or attitudes in the merger and creation of Border Force.”

In an unprecedented move, the CPSU has initiated a staff petition expressing a lack of confidence in the Home Affairs leadership.

Migration Agents are reporting immigration staff have been poorly trained and are increasingly making basic decision-making errors. Part of the problem is the department has become less transparent and less prepared to engage with the migration agent leadership. There is also a perception departmental officers have been directed to ‘look for a way to refuse’ applications rather than consider these holistically.

A prominent, experienced and highly respected migration agent recently said:

“I am pretty much fed up with the performance of the Department. When I see really good clients who have impeccable Immigration histories being treated so poorly by the Department, you have to wonder what on earth is going on. Any half decent management consulting firm could improve the services and save millions of dollars in the process, as there is so much low hanging fruit to clear out.

It is quite immoral that the government is extracting so much money from visa applicants and providing such an appalling level of service – 28 months just to get 1st stage spouse applications considered for which applicants pay $7160.  Seems triage system not a consideration.

It’s absolutely imperative that they re-open engagement with Agents – the quarterly meetings we used to have with State Directors/Managers & reps of the various Agent bodies, were absolutely invaluable.”

 Indicative of the problems is the findings of a recent ANAO audit of citizenship processing. The Auditor-General found these are not being processed in either a time efficient manner or a resource efficient manner.

He said “significant periods of inactivity are evident for both complex and non-complex applications accepted by the department for processing… Home Affairs did not have processes in place to monitor and address periods of processing inactivity, including the length of time between an application being received and substantive processing work commencing.”

The Auditor further said “Home Affairs has not checked the quality of the decisions taken to approve or refuse Australian citizenship in 2017–18. This was notwithstanding that its Quality Management Framework outlined that two per cent of the decisions should have been checked. As at August 2018 the department had not implemented an ANAO recommendation it agreed to in May 2015 relevant to assessing the quality of decisions taken.”

The policy advising function seems incapable of helping the Minister develop any coherent explanation of Australia’s immigration policy or of designing visas in a manner that can deliver on that policy, efficiently and effectively.

In desperation, the Home Affairs leadership has decided outsourcing visa processing is the only option. That’s like throwing a drowning man and anchor.

And now the Prime Minister has thrown the Home Affairs leadership under the bus by blaming it for the obviously political decision to re-open the Christmas Island detention centre, wasting just a lazy $180 million. Just highlights the dangers of public servants getting involved in politically fraught situations.

So what should be done?

The threshold issue is whether continuing with the current structure and leadership can recover the situation or whether a different approach is needed.

For the bulk of Australia’s post war history, immigration has operated as a stand-alone department, usually led by a Cabinet level minister, that sought to balance border control and nation building. It was an organisation that very deliberately included the settlement functions that have over the past five years been scattered to various other agencies. It would be legitimate for whoever wins the Election to consider whether returning to Australia’s traditional approach to managing immigration is the best way forward.

It is also essential the department become more transparent in the way it operates, including in terms of information it makes available publicly (its website continues to attract significant criticism) and its engagement with key stakeholders, including the migration agent community.

But is the current Home Affairs leadership capable of operating in that fashion, fixing the myriad of problems which are mainly of its own making and regaining the confidence of the staff?

The answer seems pretty obvious.

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.

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