On borrowed time: Pezzullo proves he does not understand immigration

May 24, 2023
Secretary of the Home Affairs Department Mike Pezzullo speaks during Senate Estimates at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, May 22, 2023. Image: AAP Image: AAP /Lukas Coch

In his opening statement to the recent Senate Estimates hearing, Department of Home Affairs (DHA) Secretary Mike Pezzullo again proved he does not understand immigration policy or administration.

At the hearing, he said:

“I wish to advise the Committee that the average visa refusal rate for the six-year period from 2001-02 to 2006-07 was 1.8 per cent. The average visa refusal rate for the six-year period from 2014-15 to 2019-20 was 3.2 per cent, an increase of 1.4 percentage points. This improvement was a function of our deeply expert immigration and intelligence staff becoming even better trained and supported to detect and deal with fraudulent and non-genuine visa applications, as well as applications which do not meet the relevant and applicable visa criteria. This has included the building, since 2014-15, of better risk-profiling and threat identification engines and tools. Extrapolating for the whole financial year 2022-23, were the weaker visa integrity performance of 2001-02 to 2006-07 to be applicable today, then an estimated 120,000 visas would have been granted this year in circumstances where the grantees would not actually be entitled to a visa grant, for reasons of fraud or non-eligibility otherwise, as compared to the Department maintaining at least the stronger performance of more recent years (2014-15 to 2019-20). That said, our ministers have made it clear that they wish to see even better results, especially in relation to thwarting migrant worker exploitation.”

Leaving aside the political silliness of not comparing to the previous period Labor was in power and only comparing to a period the Coalition was in power (as if no one would notice), visa refusal rates generally say very little about either how well the visa system is functioning or visa integrity. They say nothing about whether the right people or wrong people were refused.

Visa refusal rates vary enormously between visa types, between source nationalities and whether the application is made onshore or offshore. Visa refusal rates also vary enormously depending on the balance between subjective and objective visa criteria. Inevitably, subjective criteria such as ‘genuine temporary entrant’ lead to more refusals.

Visa refusal rates also depend on messaging (explicit or implicit) from the leadership to visa processing staff about the importance of making legally correct decisions. If the message is to increase refusal rates rather than focusing on well balanced, legally correct decisions, visa processing staff will do as instructed. It seems the message to visa processing staff under Pezzullo may have been to increase refusal rates.

The inevitable consequence of such a message was a blow out in processing times and backlogs as visa processing staff look for ways to refuse more visas. Looking for obscure ways to refuse a visa inevitably takes time. The blow-out in visa processing times and backlogs under Pezzullo was indeed massive, including onshore backlogs such as the phenomenal increase in the onshore bridging visa backlog from less than 70,000 in 2013 when Pezzullo became Secretary of Immigration to over 370,000 in 2022 when the Labor Government came to office.

A massive blow-out in bridging visas reflects both poor administration and poor visa integrity as such backlogs can readily be misused by the unscrupulous. This has been clearly demonstrated by Investigative Journalist Nick McKenzie in his expose titled ‘Trafficked’ (see Part 1 and Part 2).

Under the Labor Government, the bridging visa backlog and other backlogs have been significantly reduced. There has been a major reduction in the onshore student visa backlog with a visa approval rate of around 99.5 percent for onshore student applications. Would Pezzullo argue this high approval rate reflects a reduction in integrity? The point is from just the refusal rate data we don’t know.

By using aggregate refusals rates as a measure of integrity, is Pezzullo saying that if refusal rates had increased even more under him, there would have been even more integrity? Can integrity forever be increased with rising refusal rates? This is such an extraordinarily silly argument for such a long-standing senior public servant to make.

To use aggregate refusal rates across all visa types as a measure of integrity is naïve at best but more likely reflects a man desperate to prove he was not asleep at the wheel for the last ten years in the face of enormous evidence to the contrary.

That evidence has been laid bare by the Parkinson Review which described current visa design and administration as in ‘disrepair’. Does Pezzullo accept any responsibility for that?

Media reports suggest the findings of the Nixon Review of visa integrity are scathing. Does Pezzullo accept any responsibility for that?

But let’s look at actual measures of visa integrity which have been well known to immigration staff for decades.

Under Pezzullo there was the biggest labour trafficking scam abusing the asylum system in Australia’s history (see Chart 1). How did this take place if targeted refusals had increased as Pezzullo says?

Source: DHA Asylum and PV Reports

The way this scam operated has been well known to immigration officers since the late 1990s. In the past, they managed to prevent the scam from growing by acting immediately and effectively. But for some reason, Pezzullo was paralysed in dealing with it and let it grow to an unprecedented size. His then Minister Dutton was similarly paralysed. If Pezzullo’s assertion about refusal rates increasing visa integrity are to be taken seriously, why didn’t those prevent this scam from growing beyond a very small size?

The scam was obvious because migration agents were avoiding putting their names to many of these asylum applications (see Chart 2). Such a significant decline in agents putting their names to asylum applications should have had the alarm bells ringing loudly for Pezzullo. The rapid increase in the asylum backlog at the AAT, where refusal rates were also high, should have led to an effective response.

But it appears he did very little that worked.

Source: MARA

Contributing to the increase in the visa system being scammed was a major reduction in immigration compliance activity under Pezzullo (see Chart 3). If scammers know there is little chance they will be caught, it is inevitable they will become more brazen (as demonstrated in the ‘Trafficked’ program).

Source: DHA Annual Reports

The decline in compliance activity is reflected in the decline in the number of overstayers held in detention and then removed. Under Pezzullo the number of overstayers in detention steadily declined (see Chart 4). Removals from detention fell from 6,663 in 2014-15 to 5,550 in 2018-19; 3,284 in 2019-20 and 1,034 in 2020-21. While the fall during the pandemic is to some degree understandable, the decline started well before the pandemic started.

Source: DHA Website, Detention Statistics

If Pezzullo wants to really analyse the decline in visa integrity under his administration, it is these types of indicators he must focus on. That is if he is to continue in his current role.

But the size of the mess in the current visa system is so big, the Labor Government would be taking a huge risk in relying on Pezzullo, the man under whom the mess was created, to fix the mess.


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