In a recent speech to heads of international border agencies, Mike Pezzullo, head of Australia’s new Home Affairs Department, again highlighted the dark world view that, together with the policies of Peter Dutton, is paralyzing our world class immigration system.
Pezzullo says in this speech that “we need to recalibrate our analytical and policy settings to account for a darker (but regrettably more realistic) view of the global world order”. While he makes a minor concession to the more networked world being “a net positive for humanity, by a significant margin, and well worth the attendant risks of networked threats”, Pezzullo fails to achieve any balance in his speech with his Department’s responsibilities for facilitating these networked benefits or for his Department’s responsibilities for social cohesion or Australia’s humanitarian obligations.
Don’t get me wrong, terrorism and the various forms of criminality Pezzulo refers to are very real and need to be managed seriously. Our security agencies have shown over the years they are very good at managing these risks. Pezzullo’s constant fear-mongering fails to acknowledge how well our security agencies have done their job – perhaps to justify bringing these agencies within his Minister’s portfolio.
We all understand beating the national security drum can help a Government relying on its security credentials to win votes. Pezzullo may have just been beating this drum to support his Minister. It’s also not unusual for a senior public servant to talk up risks to either win a bigger budget or be able to say I told you so when a security event does take place.
But Pezzullo’s infatuation with darkness and evil is having serious negative consequences. Immigration staff responsible for making visa and citizenship decisions are very conscious of what their Secretary says in his speeches. Rather than being encouraged and assisted to make efficient and timely decisions that balance all relevant factors, Pezzullo’s fear-mongering is driving decision-making paralysis. Together with Dutton’s policies, this is creating massive application backlogs and blow-outs in processing times.
Visa applications for overseas-born partners of Australians now take 30 months to process compared to 6-9 months just a decade earlier. Employer sponsored visa applications now take more than 12 months. And citizenship applications now take 16 months compared to two months just a few years ago.
Moreover, there is every indication these backlogs and processing times will continue to blow out. Backlogs generate growing complaints from applicants and sponsors which take ever more resources to manage. Growing complaints demoralise staff, especially if they see no strategy from their leaders to reduce the backlogs.
Pezzullo provides no explanation for how the blowout in processing times for employer sponsored applications, for example, will help deliver the positive benefits of a networked world. And in terms of the growing backlog of visa applications from people who are already in Australia – which now number over 200,000 – he fails to explain the risks these create for exploitation of the immigration system by non-genuine applicants.
Minister Alan Tudge has suggested the blowout in citizenship processing times are due to a “higher national security threshold these days” and some “bureaucratic stuff ups”.
But citizenship applications are amongst the simplest types of applications for Immigration officers to process. Citizenship applicants are people who the Government has already checked for identity, character and national security when they were granted their permanent residence visa. While a small number of applications may raise additional national security concerns, to suggest the overall processing times would blow out by a multiple of eight as a result of national security concerns defies credulity.
It is time the Auditor-General was called in to investigate and ensure the Government is not extending citizenship application processing times as a means of administratively implementing its policy of a longer wait for citizenship. That would be the Government acting as it is above the law of the land.
No one denies the importance of checking applications for national security and character issues. This is something that has been ramped up since well before the events of 9/11. But Pezzullo provides no evidence the massive blowout in processing times in recent years is in any way justified by the extra checking he promulgates. Even worse, as the man responsible for Australia’s immigration system, Pezzullo’s unbalanced references to darkness and evil undermine Australia’s social cohesion.
These encourage the public to view immigrants with suspicion and concern even though around 28% of us are born overseas and almost half of us have a parent who was born overseas. Undermining social cohesion does enormous harm to national security which Pezzullo again fails to acknowledge.
Pezzullo approach, with the support of his Minister Peter Dutton, is increasingly converting a world leading immigration system into one that is in crisis.
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.