Interview with James Valentine, ABC radio Sydney
James Valentine: Well, that's just one of hundreds of thousands of people that have been waiting for this. Have we fixed it? What is the actual issue? Tim Watts is the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs and joins us this morning. Tim, good morning.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Good to be with you, James.
James Valentine: What's the problem?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Unfortunately, this is a problem of the previous Government failing to plan for something that was entirely predictable, and that is that as the rest of the world opened up to Australia, Aussies would be clambering for the exits to go and visit. Like, we know Australians love travelling. They love going on holiday overseas. They love catching up with their friends and family overseas –
James Valentine: So, it's increased demand?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: It's been an extraordinary increase, entirely predictable. But before the pandemic, you'd see 7,000 to 9,000 passport applications a day. Last week, we had multiple days of over 16,000. So, the volume is extraordinary. But the problem is that this is a volume that's been building, you know, for many months now. And as a result, there's an enormous backlog in applications. So, when we got into Government this was a bit of a hospital pass, and we saw that Australians who were applying for passports were crunched by this. So, we've acted straight away to put more staff on. So last week, we added 70 extra staff to the call centres to try and help people trying to get in touch to understand the status of their application. In the next week and a half, we'll put another 330 people in those call centres and an extra 300 people, processing staff. So, by September, we'll have over 1,100 extra staff in the passport office to try to deal with this backlog. It's going to take some time to work through, but we're putting the required resources in to get stuck into it.
James Valentine: So, I'd understood that it wasn't necessarily an increase in applications but a shortage of staff, but those numbers you're describing there is double each week than we normally have.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: No, the failure has been a failure to plan for required staff needed to deal with an expected surge in passport applications. People know what it was like during the pandemic. It wasn't a priority to renew your passport for just your everyday Australian and they sat in those bottom drawers for two years, and then when people have gone to plan their holidays, they've taken them out of the bottom drawers and realised “Geez, they've expired.” So, we've had thousands and thousands and thousands of people extra per day putting in those applications. So, it's going to take some time to work through. We are asking Australians, if you are thinking of going overseas for the school holidays or later in the year try to and plan ahead. Plan six weeks in advance for making a passport application. The majority of applications are being processed within six weeks.
Now, I heard, James, on the line earlier there, there are some applications that are a bit more complex. So, first-time applications can take a bit longer because they have to verify all their identity and all those details. Children also take a bit longer. There are additional checks with kids to make sure that parents can't take kids overseas et cetera. So, they can take a little bit longer, but plan ahead.
James Valentine: There is still, you know, there's a lot on the text service – “Our daughter up to 17 weeks, and there's no idea when she'll get it;” “14 weeks and still waiting;” “call centre says we can't service your call and hangs up;” “can't even get on hold.” So, this is what you're saying you will be addressing with extra people into the call centres.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yeah, and, look, I should be completely clear, James, the delays on the call centres and at the passport office there, they're completely unacceptable. We have been bringing down the wait times on the call lines but they're still unacceptable. That's why we're putting on hundreds of extra staff into those call centres so that people can get through. I would say if people have been waiting for more than six weeks for their passport and they urgently need to travel, you can contact that call centre and it will become more responsive over time as those people come on, or you can email the passport office at firstname.lastname@example.org if you've got an urgent need to travel.
James Valentine: Tim Watts is the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. We'll repeat some of those details about what to do if you're in something of an emergency.
Jules, you're in the passport line.
Jules: I am.
James Valentine: Describe what it's like.
Jules: Sorry, what?
James Valentine: Describe what you can see. What it's like?
Jules: It's like there are hundreds of people here. It is actually insane. But everyone's reasonably happy so it's not terrible.
James Valentine: Okay. Have you got organised for it?
Jules: Yeah, everyone's got their camping chairs and blankets and just waiting for it to open now.
James Valentine: Got a thermos? Got some sandwiches?
Jules: Yeah, we've all got our little thermoses. Everyone's doing coffee break. It's bad but it could be worse.
James Valentine: Yeah, yeah. You could make a fortune just doing a coffee run. “I'll grab you some coffees. I'll only charge $5 a coffee”! Jules, when are you leaving?
Jules: Ooh, I'm leaving for Europe on Friday, so, hopefully, the line is shorter by then.
James Valentine: On Friday and you don't have a passport right now?
Jules: Not yet.
James Valentine: And you're leaving on Friday? Is this your first passport?
Jules: No, it's my second one, but it's, like, the adult, one, so –
James Valentine: Right. Jules, good luck. Let's hope that happens. What does Jules need to do, Tim? I mean, this is impossible. She's leaving on Friday.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yeah, well, one of the things we are doing in the lines is trying to facilitate them to move more quickly by having concierge services, so people walking up and down the lines trying to work out, “Are you here to pick up a passport? Do you have an inquiry?”, triaging it in that way. In other states – not Sydney yet; it's in the pipes – in other states we've set up pop‑up collection offices where you can skip the line for queries and have a dedicated site that's just for picking up passports. We're working that through for Sydney at the moment. That shouldn't be too long. Look, Jules is doing the right thing at the moment given the immediacy of her need to travel, but, yeah, this is a big problem. It's going to take some time to work through. We're putting the resources that we need to increase the processing pace, but it's going to take some time to work through.
James Valentine: I wonder if lots of people are also – is it now – I mean, I'm starting to think about this. Well, I might just get an application in now. I think mine is due next year or something like that. I might just get it in now because I don't want to be caught in this situation.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yeah, well, there has been a bit of a feedback loop effect as well as people have seen the media coverage about the delays and queues, you know, more people have gone to that bottom drawer and realised that their passport has expired, and we've seen a response rate to the media coverage of people applying. So, you know, it is a real crunch at the moment.
I should say as well, James, we're seeing a bit of a dynamic of it's been a while Australians have travelled overseas, in a couple of years, so one of the things we are suggesting to people as well is that, you know, be ready to travel. Once you've got your passport, check the travel advice on Smartraveller, plan ahead. We're seeing Australians going overseas not expecting the normal things that happen, the unexpected challenges of travelling and are planning ahead for it. That's another callout that we're making for people. Plan ahead before you go overseas. Check out Smartraveller.
James Valentine: That's right. We had the instance of the Qantas plane that dropped people in, I think it was in Dallas and, you know, they were stuck there for 24 hours. Like, travel can be a little bit haphazard at the moment.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yeah, I mean, everyone's getting back into practice, aren't they? So, it is good to do a little bit of extra planning and thinking it through about the kinds of things that could go wrong when we're travelling. Aussies were world‑class travellers before the pandemic and we'll get back into practice soon no doubt.
James Valentine: Yeah. Is it the sort of – is this not dissimilar to problems we've got with the airport? I mean, really, we're just talking demand and staff.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, the airport isn't really my patch, James, so I'm not sure. In my patch, it's just clearly a failure to plan for an entirely predictable surge by the previous Government. If we'd been putting staff on in January to deal with this, we wouldn't be confronting the kind of backlog and the kind of queues that we're seeing now. If the previous Government was governing back then, this wouldn't be happening today.
James Valentine: Tim, good to talk to you, thanks so much.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Pleasure, James.
James Valentine: Tim Watts, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, you know, to give you some of the details. Well, hopefully, there's going to be some changes coming through. There will be some more staff there. There will be more opportunity to get the passports sorted. Let's hope that is the case, because it's very, very difficult at the moment.
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