Interview with 3AW
Neil Mitchell: Okay. Passports. We've spent – we've been looking at this for weeks and weeks and weeks, and it really took off this week with the huge queues from the Passport Office. Michael Hilder went down there. Three lines, one 100 metres long, the second a similar length, the third went over two levels of stairs, and the waits – some people waiting between five and seven hours. Now, the Federal Government has done something to try to clean it up. We've already heard from people whose trips had to be cancelled and they were going to lose money. Trips cancelled - they couldn't get any refunds and the trip was cancelled because it had been – in one case, they were waiting eight weeks for a passport. Other people complaining the only way they'd get a passport despite applying weeks earlier, six or seven weeks earlier, was to pay a priority fee. Bit of a mess – a significant mess I would say. On the line, the Minister in charge of it, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts, good morning.
Tim Watts, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Good to be with you, Neil.
Neil Mitchell: Thanks for your time. Just one basic thing: they close at four. Couldn't we keep them open longer?
Tim Watts: Well, look, Neil we're putting in a number of places initiatives to try to deal with what is going on at the Passport Offices. So, APO staff there serving customers past the closing hours if they're in the line to help assist customers that are already queued up, and we're triaging people through the lines. So, you've described a number of different lines there. Staff are going through saying, you know, “Are you just here for a checkup? Are you here for an application? What's your purpose here?” And they're triaging people in the different lines to get them moving more quickly.
Neil Mitchell: But they will stay after four o'clock to deal with those people in line, will they?
Tim Watts: They are now doing that already. That's right.
Neil Mitchell: Really. How late do they stay?
Tim Watts: I'm not sure how late they're staying, but they are staying beyond the closing time.
Neil Mitchell: Because we've had people turned away when they closed at four o'clock.
Tim Watts: Well, Neil, it does show the unacceptable problem that we have at the moment - the processing times are unacceptable at the moment and particularly the times that it takes for people to reach the contact centres – the hold times online when they call on the phone to see what the status of their application is. So, that's what we're trying to address. We're putting 35 more staff into those call centres this week and extra 35 next week to try to avoid the need for people to go down to the Passport Office. We're putting 250 more staff in over the next six weeks to help with processing those applications and to get through the backlog because, unfortunately, you know, the previous tenants haven't left the place in good order for us. We've got some repair work to do, and, as you say, this week, the number of applications has really gone through the roof.
Neil Mitchell: So you're blaming the previous government?
Tim Watts: Oh, that's the reality of it, Neil. It's entirely predictable that when the rest of the world opened up, Aussies would want to get out there. The fact that Aussies love to travel is no surprise to anyone. The fact that Aussies have people and family overseas they haven't seen for a long time during the pandemic – completely unsurprising. But the resources weren't provided inside the department, inside the Passport Office, to deal with this completely expected surge by the previous government. We're dealing with it now, and we're going to try to reduce this problem over time.
Neil Mitchell: So, the additional 250 staff, how long do they take to train?
Tim Watts: Well, it takes a bit of time to train people and to recruit them. People might think when they're filling out the passport application that, you know, it's a bit of a tick‑and‑flick exercise, you know, if you have got boxes filled in right, but passports are really serious documents. It matters getting the identification right. It particularly matters in cases with children; you know, you've got to have both parents signed off. We don't want to see kids –
Neil Mitchell: I understand, but how long will it take to train these people?
Tim Watts: Well, we're bringing them onto online over the next six weeks.
Neil Mitchell: So you won't be up to full strength for six weeks?
Tim Watts: No. It's going to take time to fix this problem, Neil. There's no silver bullet. There's no quick fix. But we're hoping to see the issues start to be gradually turned around this week and next week, particularly as people go into the call centres.
Neil Mitchell: In fairness, they told me that weeks ago, it was about to turn around. So even though you blame the previous government, certainly the line from the Passport Office is, “Everything under control, nothing to see here.” So maybe they haven't been jumping up and down enough. What about the number of applications? What are they getting in at the moment?
Tim Watts: So, before the pandemic, you'd look at about 7,000 to 9,000 applications a day. That was the norm. Now, obviously, people weren't renewing their passports during the pandemic and it's skyrocketed in recent times as the world's opened. So, just this week we had a new daily record of 16,417 applications in a single day. So, you know, that's twice what we were receiving before, and that's the kind of surge that we should have been planning for, frankly a few months ago.
Neil Mitchell: Yeah, I agree. So, when would you – how long should it take? How long should it take it from go to whoa?
Tim Watts: Well, the vast majority of applications are processed within six weeks. As I say, there are some more complicated ones, particularly initial applications, particularly ones dealing with kids, but we're sending a clear message to people now, saying, “Look, given this backlog, you know, plan ahead. If you're thinking of going overseas for the next school holidays or even in the future, put your application in at least six weeks early just to kind of avoid the stress associated with that.” If you have been waiting for more than six weeks, as I say, it will be easier to get in touch with the call centres from this week and next week, but we do have an email address that people can contact if they have an immediate need to travel, and I can share that.
Neil Mitchell: Yes, please.
Tim Watts: It's passports.clientservices@DFAT.gov.au. Now, that's if you're waiting for more than six weeks and you have an urgent need to travel, email that and we'll endeavour to give you an update on where you're at.
Neil Mitchell: We advised people on that a couple of weeks ago actually because a listener had found that it worked. So, when it's all up and running perfectly, how long will it take? Will it still take six weeks?
Tim Watts: Well, it's going to be some time before it's up and running perfectly, Neil.
Neil Mitchell: I understand.
Tim Watts: For the foreseeable future we're advising people: put your applications in six weeks in advance.
Neil Mitchell: Well, what would it take pre‑pandemic? How long?
Tim Watts: Well, pre‑pandemic, that's not the world we're in at the moment –
Neil Mitchell: I'm trying to do a comparison though. How long did it take pre‑pandemic and we're now into six weeks indefinitely?
Tim Watts: Well, there are average time frames I could give you that were –
Neil Mitchell: Yes, sure.
Tim Watts: They were in the sort of 15 days–type range, so 15 business days type thing, but they're just averages. What I want to be really clear about – six weeks, if you're planning to travel overseas, that's what you need to be aiming for.
Neil Mitchell: Thank you very much for your time. Good luck with it. Tim Watts, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. He's quite right. I mean, they don't wear the blame for what's happened here. I don't know how much the previous government does or whether it's the administration in the Passport Office but something's gone wrong. Isn't that interesting? So pre‑pandemic it was 15 working days, which is, say, three weeks, three five‑day weeks, and it's now out to double that for the indefinite future for as long as we can see ahead.
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555