By Adam Carlton
The Public Sector Union (PSA) has hit out at the Australian government’s plan to privatise the visa application system, and says that this could cost up to 3,000 jobs.
Even before the sale, a system that depends human contact with the public will be replaced by an automated computer system for most applications. These will incur an upfront fee. A better level of service will only be available, but for those prepared to pay substantially more.
Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton, calls this modernising the system. Others suggest it preparing it for sale by making it cheaper for the new private operator to run, through the use of tax payer money for the privilege.
Under the plan, it is envisaged that ninety percent of applications will be made online. These will be automatically accepted or rejected by the system. If the applicant is not satisfied, the only option will be to pay more, for a higher level of service. By this means, a private monopoly will be provided with a captive market and an incentive to maximise the charges. Applicants have nowhere else to go.
The department will retain control of security assessments, as well as complex applications, diplomatic or refugee visas
The plan also gives the operator the right to provide financial services. cash starved applicants can be pressured to take out a loan and pay it back later with interest. They can also be sold banking and travel services. This means that the visa application service will be transformed into a vehicle to capture a market for the financial services industry.
Australia now processes more than nine million visa applications a year and this is expected to grow to more than 13 million within the next decade, providing a gold mine for whoever takes ownership of the system.
Putting sensitive personal information in the hands of the private sector, especially when it is useful to market profitable services raises fears about its misuse and security.
The government’s track record on collusion and less than honourable arrangements with the privates sector, particularly those who are donors the the Coalition parties, is not a good one.
A briefing has already been delivered to potential commercial partners, by the first assistant secretary of the immigration department, Andrew Kefford, where he outlined the plan in detail .
“We are genuinely seeking a partnership to design, implement and run Australia’s visa business,” Kefford said.
“Automating the majority of these assessments is important to our objective of improving the financial outcomes of the visa business,” he added.
What is missing is quality of service. Visa applications often involve complex issues that cannot be answered by a computer and require a human interface. Quality of service means dealing with these issues in a fair and sympathetic way. This should be provided to all, and not just handed out on the ability to pay. Failure to practice this is inherently unfair, even if it is profitable for the operator.
The replacement of existing staff by a computerised system will throw away a body of accumulated expertise. This will also impact on the quality of service.
Changes already brought about to Centrelink and those in the pipeline, already tells us that this is a government short on compassion and fairness. Centrelink has become the model for the ongoing broader privatisation program.
Dutton told the press club last week that a request for tenders is planned for July this year and it will be open to domestic and foreign companies.
The national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Nadine Flood, said that the privatisation will mean “shoddier services and higher prices to line the pockets of an as-yet-unnamed multinational company. And it raises very serious concerns, for jobs, data privacy and security of people’s information.”
Labor’s Shayne Neumann said the privatisation proposal failed to value the work of the Australian public service “and the expertise and experience of our frontline workers”.
The Greens’ senator Nick McKim said his party opposed the proposal which, as outlined, represented “nothing less than a full-scale privatisation of access to Australia.”