Fears privatised visa system could see access to Australia ‘sold to highest bidder’

Government plans to privatise the visa application system could include “premium services for high-value applicants”, different access for those able to pay more, as well as “commercial value-added services”.

The Community and Public Sector Union has warned the changes – the department’s preferred option is to have all visa applications decided via an online platform – could cost up to 3,000 jobs and jeopardise the security of people’s private information.

The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has said the proposal’s rationale is to modernise Australia’s visa system to deal with a massive and growing number of applications, but the Greens senator Nick McKim said the proposal could see a fatal corruption of the integrity of Australia’s visa system with “access to Australia packaged up and sold to the highest bidder”.

Labor’s immigration spokesman, Shayne Neumann, said the current privatisation proposal was continuation of a trend started when the new Department of Home Affairs outsourced 250 departmental call centre jobs to New Zealand company Datacom.

The department is seeking a private-sector partner to design, build and operate a commercial “user-pays” visa application and approval system, with limited human involvement.

Visa services now fall under the ambit of the newly established Department of Home Affairs. Australia processes about nine million visa applications a year, a figure expected to grow to 13 million within a decade.

Currently, a quarter of visa applications are on paper and half of all decisions are made manually.

Processing visas currently costs the government “several hundred million dollars a year”, but the government appears to want to make its “visa business” profitable under the new system.

Under the proposed “global digital platform” model, applications for visas would be made online, and the government wants 90% – in particular short-term and simple applications – to be assessed and decided automatically, without any human involvement.

The department will retain control of security assessments, as well as complex applications, including for diplomatic or refugee visas.

The department’s first request for expressions of interest to the market is to create the “global digital platform” for handling visa applications and approvals. But more government functions are expected to be later privatised, including health checks, character or genuineness (whether documents are legitimate) assessments, as well as data collection and verification.

The company that wins the tender will be expected to provide “value-added connections” to commercialise the visa application process as a way to “share value”.

While admitting foreign nationals to a country is a fundamental sovereign function, other countries have entirely outsourced their visa operations. The results have not always been well received.

The government’s formal request for tender will go to the market in July 2018. Dutton told the National Press Club last week the tender process would be open to Australian and foreign companies.

Dutton said the proposal was driven by a need for modernisation, not a desire to privatise the process.

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”.

“The whole idea that access to Australia could be packaged up and sold to the highest bidder is deeply troubling,” McKim said.

“We are deeply concerned about the conflicts of interests that come with giving such power to corporations, especially given Dutton’s enthusiasm for it to be sold part and parcel with commercial services like finance, travel and banking.

The national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Nadine Flood, said the recent revelations about the proposal had “confirmed our fears the Turnbull government is going to sell off almost every aspect of our visa system”.

“Our estimates that up to 3,000 jobs are potentially under threat,” Flood said. “But the department has been unwilling to answer the question about what they consider the threat to jobs. We base that estimate on the very large scope of potential privatisation identified by the government.”

Flood said there were also security concerns with the sovereign functions of a government being outsourced to a private company potentially offshore.