Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Passport delays, Passport staff.

Kieran Gilbert: Let’s turn our attention now back to that story we mentioned earlier about the delays in getting passports approved. Bringing in now the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tim Watts. Minister, thanks for your time. Can you give our viewers an update on what sort of delays people are facing right now?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Kieran, the previous government, unfortunately, has left us with a significant backlog of passport applications to work through and while the majority of applications are still being processed within six weeks, there are some applications that are taking longer, particularly first-time passport applications and passport applications dealing with kids.

To address this, we're putting on enormous resources to tackle this problem. In the last week we put on 70 new call centre staff and in the next week and a half we'll put on 330 more at the same time as putting on 300 more staff to deal with the processing of these passport applications. So in total, by September, there will be 1,100 more staff working on this problem under the Albanese Government. Unfortunately, though, the reality is it's going to take some time to work through this issue, so this is a backlog that isn't going away any time soon. 

Kieran Gilbert: Tim Watts, is this - is the source of this really just the fact that no-one travelled during the pandemic, people forgot to renew passports, obviously with no travel in sight and now we're seeing this surge of demand, people wanting to get back to normal, get back to having holidays and seeing loved ones and so on?  So it's sort of the perfect storm, not having had any travel, now everyone back into it. Is that basically all we're talking about here?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: That's right, Kieran. Unfortunately, that's the most frustrating thing about it. Like, the backlogs we're seeing at the moment were totally avoidable. If the previous government had started planning ahead at the start of this year, when they'd seen all of those passports that had been allowed to lapse, all those passport renewal applications that weren't coming in during the pandemic, if they'd sort of planned ahead and realised, well, those applications will be coming soon and when the world opens up to Australia, there will be a stampede of Australians wanting to get back out in the world. They should have been putting on the staff really from the start of this year and unfortunately, this is a problem that's been building over a number of months now. 

Kieran Gilbert: And do you - are you confident that you can improve those wait times soon or do we have to wait until September before people can expect to have a passport done within that sort of six-week timeframe that you alluded to earlier?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, as the staff come on board, we are hopeful and expecting that the turnaround times, particularly in the call centres, will start to come down over the next sort of couple of weeks as the staff come on board. For the processing of passports, it is taking some time to work through the backlog so we are doing that as fast as possible and putting the resources in needed to deal with that. 

But I should emphasise that the majority of passports are being processed within that six-week period of time as we speak today. It's just that there are some others that are a little bit more complicated and you can imagine the issues with passports dealing with children. You know, you don't want to allow passports to be given to one parent to take a child out of a country when the other parent might not want that. You know, there's verification processes that need to be done, new passports, for example. So it's not just a tick and flick, you know, you need to train up staff to deal with this issue but we are recruiting and training people as soon as physically possible.

Kieran Gilbert: So for anyone watching today, what's your advice to those who are thinking they've got to get their passport renewed, what's your advice to those people in that situation?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, two pieces of advice. The first is to plan ahead. At least six weeks in advance for the foreseeable future you should be planning for a passport application and if you've got kids, for example, maybe plan a little bit further. 

The second piece of advice I'd give is that we've noticed that Australians have sort of gotten out of practice in travelling during the pandemic and they're getting overseas and encountering the usual problems that we see from travelling but without having planned ahead. So, you know, check the Smartraveller website, get that advance notice and those advance tips about how to travel where you're going and, you know, enjoy your holiday once you've done the preplanning and you're hitting the world prepared for what's to come. 

Kieran Gilbert: The staff, how are they managing? It must be sort of stressful scenes when people are so desperate to attend events or see loved ones and so on, it must be a very stressful situation for many of them?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, it is a terrible situation, Kieran. I mean, the waits that Australians are experiencing contacting call centres and getting their passports processed are completely unacceptable but at the same time the burdens being placed on the staff that have been there from the start of this process are horrible as well. You know, these are people who are, you know, fielding many calls from people who are stressed, who are anxious, who are frustrated at this process and thankfully the vast majority of Australians have been polite and courteous in the face of these frustrations. But, yeah, I would ask people to consider that the people answering the calls, it's not their fault that this situation has arisen. If you want to be angry at anyone, you can be angry at the previous government for failing to provide the resources and staffing necessary to prevent this backlog from occurring. 

Kieran Gilbert: Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tim Watts, thank you for the update today. I appreciate it. 

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Pleasure, Kieran.

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