Interview with Laura Jayes, Sky News Australia
Laura Jayes: As Australians look to travel overseas after nearly two years of border closures, upwards of two million Australian passports had expired during that time. Passports delays and backlogs are hindering thousands of trips, but with the collection process revamp and the arrival of extra staff, travellers can expect waiting times to be slashed.
Joining me live now is the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts. Tim, thanks so much for your time. We spoke to you about two weeks ago when this was probably at its worst. How much has it improved since then?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well look, Laura, it's been an incredibly frustrating and anxious period for Australians wanting to travel overseas, but we are starting to make progress in cleaning up the mess that the previous government has left for us in the Australian Passport Office. We've done that in a couple of ways. Firstly, by putting a lot more staff on. We are putting people into the Australian Passport Office as soon as we can find them and train them up and in the next week, we will be putting 330 extra staff into the call centres and 300 staff into the processing of passport applications. Another 170 staff will be coming on board in July for a total of 1,100 new staff coming into September.
So, we're putting a lot of resource into this, and another thing that I'm really pleased to say is happening in Sydney today is the opening of a pop-up passport collection office. Now, we've got six of these pop-up passport collection offices around the country now, and when we've opened them in capital cities, we've seen them have a really big impact on how fast those queues that everyone has been seeing on the news are moving at these centres. I've been down to the Melbourne office and I’ve seen that when the pop‑up passport collection office was opened, that queue really starts to hum for people wanting to pick up their passports and it frees up resources for the passport office wanting to help other people with other inquiries.
Laura Jayes: Yeah so, I imagine these are for uncomplicated cases; if you've been notified that your passport is ready, you can just head along to one of these pop-up offices. And where do we find their addresses?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, in Sydney the pop-up passport collection office is right next door to the passport office. It's an extremely convenient location. And, as I say, in Melbourne, it's really crunched those lines. It's really made the process faster for everyone, not just people picking up the passports but for people with more complicated enquiries as well. It's a more efficient way of using resources at the passport office.
Laura Jayes: So, how many staff have you employed in the last fortnight?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: We put 70 more staff on, and the reality is that we are seeing waiting times come down in the call centres but they're still at unacceptable levels and that's why we're putting 330 extra staff on this week to help bring those call centre wait-times down. I appreciate it's been a really frustrating and anxious period for Australians wanting to travel overseas, but we are putting staffing resources in literally as quickly as we can find them.
Laura Jayes: Okay. So, where are they coming from? Are they from within the department, within the public service already or have you had to employ outside?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, we've had a really cooperative relationship with Services Australia. We've been able to redeploy some staff that they've had in Services Australia that previously had been working on other projects that we've been able to throw into the breach here. There's been some media coverage of the grads inside DFAT, the graduate intake, being tasked with this really important crisis task. And I went and visited them in Canberra recently to thank them for their efforts there. So, it really is all hands on deck in trying to crunch this completely unacceptable backlog in the passport processing that's been growing since earlier this year.
Laura Jayes: So, Tim, what's the process now? Is there an orderly kind of immediacy here as to who's more desperate, who's more desperate to travel? Are the passport offices dealing with passports in an expedited way if you're travelling next week or in the next couple of days, for example?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yeah, so the first thing to say is that it will take some time to work through this backlog, so we are still asking people to plan ahead at least six weeks in making a passport application, and also to keep in mind that some more complex applications can take a little bit more time – so applications involving children, for example, where parental rights need to be taken into account, first-time passport applications where identification has to be verified. But you are right that where people have made passport applications and their travel date is becoming imminent, we are triaging in the passport office on a basis of need when people are desperate to travel. Now, the blocker for that, frankly, over the last month has been people's ability to get in touch with the passport office through the call centres or through the passport office. Now, the staff that we are putting on board will make it easier for Australians to get in touch with the passport office via those call centres. Once they are getting in touch, yes, we are enabling the triaging of people based on their need to travel and imminent travel dates.
Laura Jayes: When we see budget after budget every year, we always know that cutting the public service or this efficiency dividend is always politically popular. Are there some lessons here for Labor?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, I think the really big lesson here is that Australians value service delivery from their governments. This is a really tangible way that DFAT and the Australian Passport Office affects the day-to-day lives of Australians wanting to get out there for that holiday that they've been waiting two years to get out there and visit those family members they haven't seen during the pandemic and during the border closures. So, what we have seen in the news coverage of this is that Australians really value the services provided by their government and it's incumbent on political leaders to ensure that they are planning ahead so that the public service has the capability and the capacity in order to meet that public demand and this is an entirety avoidable problem –
Laura Jayes: But essentially, this is the product of staffing cuts? Of cuts to departments?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Slightly more complicated in this situation, Laura, because what we're seeing now is an enormous surge in demand. As you said in the intro, a lot of Australians didn't renew their passports over the last two years. It was entirely predictable that when the borders opened, all of those passports would be renewed. People would go to the bottom drawer, see that their passport had expired, and make those renewal applications. So, before the pandemic, we were seeing 7,000 to 9,000 passport applications a day. Now, we are routinely seeing over 16,000 passport applications a day. So, we should have had a government that was foreseeing this, planning for it, putting the staff on, and getting ready for the surge so that we didn't have this enormous backlog that, as I say, has been building since early this year that we now have to throw an enormous amount of resource at to work our way through.
Laura Jayes: Okay. Tim Watts, some good news this morning. We appreciate that. Thanks so much.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thanks, Laura.
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