Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Passport delays, High Court of Australia Alexander ruling

Ben Fordham: 17 minutes after 7 o'clock. It is going to be mostly sunny today even though it's freezing cold this morning, particularly in Sydney's west – a top of 16 degrees and mostly sunny. Now, we've had a bit of a breakthrough on the passport front. Listeners have been bombarding us with stories about major delays for a new passport. We first raised this issue on 19th of May, and we've sent multiple requests to the Department of Foreign Affairs asking for an interview, but they won't do interviews. And we've seen the embarrassing scenes over the last week of hundreds of people queuing up outside the Passport Office. Then this week the computer system failed at the Passport Office in Sydney. A lot of Aussies are trying to go on their first holiday since the start of coronavirus and many of them are reconnecting with family and friends overseas.

Well, now, three weeks after we first raised this, the Federal Government has been in touch saying, “We are stepping in.” So, Labor is saying that they will immediately hire new staff. There will be a new call centre with 35 additional workers starting this week. Another 35 will come onboard next week and 250 staff in total will join the Passport Office over the next six weeks. Tim Watts is the Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister. He's on the line. Minister, good morning to you.

Tim Watts: Thanks for having me on.

Ben Fordham: Thank you for jumping onboard. It's taken a bit of time. Three weeks ago, I think, we first started talking about this. Why so long in taking some action?

Tim Watts: Well, this has been a bit of a hospital pass from the previous government, Ben. We got in and started getting briefings on this issue and, frankly, I was pretty astonished that the previous government wasn't planning for a massive surge in Australians wanting to go overseas. I mean, if there's one thing we all know about Aussies, we like to go out and see the world. We've got families all over the world. So, when the borders started opening, when the world started to open up to us, it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone that there would be a massive surge in Aussies wanting to go overseas.

Ben Fordham: Well, just to be accurate, these calls started coming to us on 19 May. The election was on 21 May and now what are we? June 9 and you guys are deciding to act. It could be a bit faster, couldn't it?

Tim Watts: Ben, this is a surge that's been growing for months, frankly, since the borders started to become open, as the world opened to Australia. You might have seen that we got a number of messes to clean up from the previous government. The Foreign Minister has been in the Pacific fixing up that part of the previous government's neglect. But we're a team. I've been allocated responsibility to deal with this one. I was briefed about this issue this week and we've immediately got to work, as you say, putting more staff in the call centres so people can get an answer about where their application is up to - importantly, putting a lot more staff in the processing queue so that these applications can be processed more quickly.

Just to give you an indication of the scale that we are talking about here – I mean, you've heard it from your callers, but before the pandemic, around 7,000 to 9,000 people were applying for a passport a day. Just this week, we've got a new record of over 16,000 applications. So, this is a really, really big surge. It's not something that the previous government set up systems to cope with, but we're putting them in place and over time we're going to fix this problem.

Ben Fordham: We're talking to the Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister, Tim Watts. I'm just keen to know about opening times as well, because I raised the point a little bit while back: Why wouldn't we open the passport earlier, considering the fact that people are now lining up at 7.15 in the morning and traditionally they open at 9? Now, I've been told anecdotally by people they're now opening earlier, but I've got no way of confirming that because DFAT won't talk to us. Can you confirm for me what time they actually open the doors every morning now?

Tim Watts: I can get you an answer on that, Ben. But the queuing, that's a function of the stress that's on the system, right? People are seeing how long it's taking and they're getting there earlier and earlier. What we're trying to do is to create more paths for people to get an answer. Particularly those call centres, I know there's nothing worse than sitting on a hold line listening to music. We're putting 35 people in this week, 35 next week, and you'll start to see that that will reduce the wait times so that people don't have to go and queue up to get an answer on the status of their application. But if they are lodging new applications, look, I'll get an answer for you and send it through to your producer about that –

Ben Fordham: That would be great. Opening and closing times would be good. I'm getting messages now, more of them. Justin says, “We've got a long-awaited family holiday to Hawaii this month. My family and I submitted our passport applications 10 weeks ago.” Leila says, “I leave for Europe in a few weeks. I spent $15,000 for flights. I'm at risk of losing it all.” Can you guarantee that these people who have been waiting in the queue are going to be able to fly?

Tim Watts: For people like Justin and Leila, if you put in an application and you've been waiting for more than six weeks, I really encourage you to email, with your contact details, the information about your application. We're endeavouring to turn that around inside 24 hours in answer their situation. You can contact in future the call line. As I say, the call line is going to have additional staff on it going forward.

But a broader message to everyone, look, this is an issue that's not going to be turned around overnight. The big surge in applications – it is only going to grow, frankly. You look at the reasons Aussies travel overseas in the European winter, for school holidays, things like that. We're expecting there to be continually a significant number of people applying. So, put in your applications earlier than you usually would – try to put your passport application in six weeks early to try to save the stress down the track.

Ben Fordham: Alright, well I suppose we need to prepare people for the situation that they don't want to face, but some people may not be able to jump on the plane when they're scheduled to do so. We're talking to Tim Watts, the Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister.

Can I ask you about Delil Alexander, this lunatic who travelled to Syria to help out Islamic State, and he was a close associate of the terror cell that was plotting to execute an innocent Australian in broad daylight. They wanted to chop someone's head off in the streets of Sydney. We've now had the High Court rule on this, suggesting that this person does have a right to return to Australia. They've ruled in favour of this man and they're suggesting that the Minister and the Federal Government should not have the power to be judge and jury on a situation like this. Can you give a guarantee that the Government will be doing everything in their power to prevent Delil Alexander and others like him from returning down under?

Tim Watts: Look, on this High Court case, the legislation associated with it, something that people warned could have constitutional issues when it was being established. But let me be really clear: while we're considering the implications of that specific High Court decision, it's really important to note that there's no threat to Australia as a result of today's decision because the Australian Government has a range of measures available to manage a risk posed to Australians by individuals who are living offshore, including specifically this temporary exclusion order regime, which can prohibit an individual from returning to Australia for up to two years.

Now, I'm not going to go into the specifics of any individual case, because that's not my area of ministerial–

Ben Fordham: He won't be returning in the next two years. You can guarantee that by the sounds of things.

Tim Watts: I'm not the decision-maker on the temporary exclusion order regime, but I think you can rest assured that the structures are in place for the Minister who is responsible to be able to put that in place to ensure that individuals who pose a threat to Australians are not able to return to this country.

Ben Fordham: I think everyone knows what the reaction would be if that was to happen. We appreciate you jumping on the line. Thank you.

Tim Watts: No worries, Ben.

Ben Fordham: Good on you. Tim Watts, the Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister. And yes, he is saying the previous government allowed the passport thing to get out of control, and he's probably got some truth behind that statement considering that this had been bubbling away. We raised it on 19th of May; they won the election on 21 May, so it was around beforehand. But I suppose if there's a lesson to be learned for the new Government, don't fall into the same trap that Scott Morrison did time and time again where he was the last bloke to turn up to the party and realise something had to be done. We raised this on 19th of May. They came into Government on 21st of May. It should have been a first order of business, not waiting until June the 9th.

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