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Mike Pezzullo has something to hide

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Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo (Screenshot via YouTube)

A document prepared by Mike Pezzullo for the new Home Affairs Minister has managed to avoid highlighting areas of incompetence, writes Dr Abul Rizvi.

THE INCOMING MINISTER'S BRIEFING for new Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews prepared by long-standing Departmental Secretary Mike Pezzullo was inevitably going to be more significant for what it didn’t highlight than what it did.

Now that this briefing is publicly available, it’s possible to identify the issues Pezzullo does not want Andrews to focus on — particularly issues that go to his competence in managing the Home Affairs portfolio.

So what did Pezzullo hide in the briefing on immigration and visas?

Delivering forecast immigration levels

The briefing describes how the Department is delivering the 2020-21 migration program but says nothing about how the Department will deliver the long-term net migration forecast in Treasury’s December 2020 Population Statement or in the 2021 Budget.

The briefing also says nothing about the larger 190,000 migration program from 2023-24 that Treasury has assumed, let alone explaining to the new Minister how that might be delivered, its composition or how the processing resources required to deliver that program will be secured.

There is currently a gridlock in visa processing, including a record 350,000 people on bridging visas awaiting a decision on their substantive visa applications, a tenfold increase in citizenship processing times, a huge backlog of partner and business skills applications and, of course, the massive backlog of (mainly unfounded) onshore asylum applications. This means Pezzullo will at some stage need to brief Andrews and Immigration Minister Alex Hawke on the challenges Home Affairs will face in delivering the larger assumed migration program with any acceptable degree of visa integrity.

At his Department’s Senate Estimates hearing in May 2021, Pezzullo said he did not even know about the Treasury forecasts. Nor did any of his senior officers. He told Senators they should ask Treasury about these matters.

How the Department responsible for delivering Australia’s migration levels did not know of the Government’s forecasts for net migration and the future migration program remains a mystery. Surely these forecasts would have been developed in consultation with relevant Commonwealth and state government agencies, particularly Home Affairs.

It certainly does not instil confidence that Pezzullo is on top of the agenda of his Department. Perhaps he would do well to worry a little less about the “drums of war” and actually focus on doing his job.

Partner visa backlog

Pezzullo’s briefing for Karen Andrews says that:

‘As a temporary measure, the 2020-21 Migration Program has departed from the usual two-thirds/one-third split between the Skill and Family streams to increase the number of places in the Family visa categories.’

The briefing acknowledges the massive partner backlog of 94,000 first stage partner visa applications on hand at end January 2021 — that of course does not include the 5,000 partner cases at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

Unsurprisingly, Pezzullo’s briefing does not explain how this backlog had been allowed to develop and why it would be illegal to continue to limit the number of spouse visas issued as Pezzullo had been doing for the previous six to seven years.

For the 2020-21 Migration Program, Home Affairs, at last, woke up to the fact of its past illegal behaviour and made a record allocation of places for partner visas. Clearing the backlog will take another three to four years. The Government will not easily be able to return the Skill and Family streams to a two-thirds/one-third split any time soon.

The new Minister has a right to know why the backlog had been engineered — at best, it was pure negligence on Pezzullo’s behalf for failing to understand his own legislation and at worst, a contempt for the law. Pezzullo must explain to Andrews and Hawke the legal reason why Home Affairs must return to processing spouse visa applications on a demand-driven basis, as expected by the Parliament.

He should also alert the Minister to the very good chance the Minister will face legal action for the Department’s past illegal behaviour.

Australia’s biggest ever labour trafficking scam

In the Refugee and Humanitarian Program segment of the briefing, Pezzullo makes zero mention of how he has allowed the development of Australia’s biggest ever labour trafficking scam through the unprecedented abuse of Australia’s asylum system.

While this segment of the briefing happily talks about illegal maritime arrivals that occurred before Pezzullo became Secretary, the massive asylum seeker scam that took place under his nose over the past six years goes unmentioned.

Andrews has a right to know:

  • how this scam came about and why it wasn’t addressed when it was still small as similar scams have in the past;
  • what actions the Department and Australian Border Force (ABF) have taken to shut down the scam and investigate the organisers. The ABF briefing for Andrews also doesn’t mention the scam despite the fact it has resulted in the largest number of unsuccessful asylum seekers living in the community — over 27,000 and growing steadily;
  • what actions are being taken to get on top of the massive backlog of (mainly unfounded) asylum applications at the primary stage (well over 30,000) and at the AAT (another 30,000+) and what this has so far cost the taxpayer and what more it will cost in the future; and
  • what plans Pezzullo and Commissioner Michael Outram have to prevent the scam from re-emerging once international borders re-open and what they propose to do about the rapidly growing cohort of unsuccessful asylum seekers living in the community now that Michaelia Cash has rejected David Littleproud’s suggestion of an amnesty.

This scam started with asylum applications from visitor visa holders from Malaysia. But as processing times have blown out, visitors and others from many more nations have taken advantage of the opportunity to use the asylum system to secure another three to four years in Australia with full work rights. The scam has now extended to visitors and seasonal workers from Pacific Islands and Timor Leste.

A sensible briefing on the issue would have also highlighted a compared and contrasted Australia’s situation with that in the UK.

Plunge in compliance and enforcement activity

In the ABF segment of the brief, Commissioner Outram happily provides statistics on current levels of compliance activity but fails to mention the extraordinary decline in this over the past few years (see Table 1).

(Source: Department of Home Affairs Annual Reports, 2018-19 and 2019-20)

The dramatic decline in the number of undocumented workers being located by ABF and ABF warnings to employers using undocumented workers has occurred at exactly the same time there has been a boom in unsuccessful asylum seekers who no longer have work rights and must work to survive.

Outram has never explained, either in this briefing for Andrews or anywhere else, whether this decline is due to limited resources (which itself would be due to the many DHA misadventures and waste of resources in its onshore and offshore detention centres) or because he has been warned off undertaking compliance action against employers using undocumented labour, particularly on farms.

After a flood of media and other reports about migrant worker exploitation, the Government has recently introduced an exposure draft of legislation to marginally strengthen measures to protect migrant workers from exploitation. The background to the exposure draft pretends the Government has been taking strong action in this area and this legislation is further evidence of that.

The reality is the Government has been asleep at the wheel while reports of migrant worker exploitation have boomed. The Fair Work Ombudsman is being flooded with complaints and these would be just the tip of the iceberg. The proposed legislation is of course ahead of the new Agriculture Visa which Pezzullo and Outram know will turbocharge exploitation.

Low morale and dysfunction in DHA

Finally, and also not surprisingly, Pezzullo says nothing in the briefing for Andrews about his Department having one of the lowest levels of morale in the Australian Public Service. And of course, he wouldn’t as this is primarily the result of his leadership.

The fact is Pezzullo and Outram have lost control of Australia’s visa system and hence, border control. Recovery from this point will be extraordinarily difficult, costly and take many years. But with a government obsessed with its public reputation on border protection, Pezzullo and Outram know that is not what the Government wants to hear — so they have decided the best course of action is just not to tell them and hope they don’t find out.

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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