Interview with Lisa Pellegrino, ABC Darwin
Lisa Pellegrino: This week staffing was ramped up in the Passport Office. So how is that backlog looking today? Tim Watts is the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs and joins you today. Good morning.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Good to be with you.
Lisa Pellegrino: Can you give us sense of how many Australians are currently waiting for a passport?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, before we go into that, I should say that these delays are completely unacceptable. The delays in getting passports processed and the really long times people are waiting to speak with the Passport Office - both in person and on the phone lines, they are completely unacceptable. And frankly, it's a situation we should have avoided. It's entirely predictable that when Australia's borders opened - when the world opened to Australia - Aussies would be keen to get out there. We know Australians love to travel. We know we've got plenty of friends and relatives overseas we haven't seen in a long time. So this surge in applications, we should have seen it coming. Well, frankly, the previous government should have seen it coming.
Lisa Pellegrino: Well, you said it's unacceptable, but is it understandable? I know you said they should have seen it coming, but there's been so many things at play in a chain reaction leading to this moment.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: No, absolutely. And many Australians have had that passport sitting in the bottom drawer during the pandemic, and when they've gone to grab it for travel, they've seen that it's expired in the two years that have passed. So there’s been this enormous surge that's happening at the moment. To give you an indication of how big that surge is, before the Pandemic, the Passport Office averaged around 7-9 thousand passport applications a day. Well, this week we hit one day with 16,417 applications, so they are an enormous number coming in, and this has really been building up since around February this year. And by this stage there's now a very significant backlog of applications. So we're acting to deal with that. We're putting on 30-plus staff this week in the call centres, and 35 more staff next week to try and shorten those phone delays. And we're putting on an additional 250 staff over the next six weeks to help with processing the applications. We're putting people in as soon as that they can be recruited and trained. So it's not a problem that's going to be turned around overnight, unfortunately. There's a very big backlog that's accumulated, but we're hoping that we'll start to see a gradual turnaround from next week.
Lisa Pellegrino: And so is this making any difference, this mass amount of extra staff?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Absolutely. There's a lot of staff going in. Now, unfortunately, the surge is going to continue. The surge in applications for the upcoming school holidays and for the Northern Hemisphere winter, we're expecting there to be continued high demand for passport applications. So one of the really clear messages we're sending is we're putting on as many staff as we can as we train them up, as we recruit them. But we're asking Australians if you're planning travel, plan ahead six weeks in advance for your passport application. Now, most passports are being processed in less than six weeks, but there are some that are more complex and take a bit longer, particularly first-time passport applications, because all of the supporting documents and the identification details need to be verified there. So that can take a little bit longer.
Lisa Pellegrino: And let's not forget, some countries have various rules on how many months your passport needs to still be in for, so the expiry date. So that's something that sneaks up on people at the best of times, let alone during this period where you don't have time as a luxury.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Absolutely. And frankly, that the media coverage associated with the delays and the queueing we've seen at the passport officers has triggered many Australians to go and check their passports in the bottom drawer, and that's driving an increasing surge as well. So, yeah, it's not a great situation to inherit from the previous government, but we are getting stuck in and fixing it.
Lisa Pellegrino: Now, you did touch on this, but I'm just curious to kind of explore this a little further. Could this problem have been foreseen and dealt with earlier and how so?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, absolutely. The fact that we had maybe up to 2 million passports not renewed during the pandemic, we should have seen that that would come due, that the surge would come later as those passports were renewed. So as the world opened to Australia and as Aussies went out into the world, we should have been planning frankly, the government should have been planning to add extra capacity to the system to process those applications. Now, that didn't happen under the previous government, but it is happening under the current new Labor government.
Lisa Pellegrino: Now, some people in the text have suggested they should receive a discount on the cost of their passport given they weren't able to use it for the last couple of years. So obviously, you pay for a certain amount of time and the fact that it was just sitting there could not be used for two years, that should be taken into account.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: I have heard people put that to me. Unfortunately, the system is a bit more complicated than that. And the passport fees are structured as an application fee. So that's the fee you pay to make the application for the passport, to get it processed, to get it verified. It's not a fee for having a valid passport. It's a fee that you pay to make an application. So, unfortunately, it's a bit more complicated than that.
Lisa Pellegrino: Okay. And so what's the best advice for someone in the Northern Territory right now? Let's just say they've applied for the new passport. They've been waiting for weeks. What should they do? Who should they contact?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So if you've applied for a passport and you've been waiting for more than six weeks to receive your passport and you have an urgent need to travel, you can start by contacting one of the call centres on 131232. Now, there have been significant delays in those call centres in the past and we are putting staff in to try and deal with that starting from next week. But if you're having trouble with the call centres, you can email the passport office at firstname.lastname@example.org and we're working to get back to people as quickly as possible via that email channel.
Lisa Pellegrino: Have we been hearing much from the NT? I mean we're seeing on the TV, hearing on the radio. There are massive lines in Melbourne, people in Sydney waiting a long time. How are we going in the Northern territory?
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yeah, the issue has certainly been more acute in Melbourne and Sydney. The NT hasn't had the worst of it so far, but I would really encourage people to apply that six weeks early to allow for the processing time for the applications to kick in. And if you come into a problem where you've applied and you've got urgent travel upcoming, please get in touch by that email address.
Lisa Pellegrino: Tim Watts, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, thanks for your time.
Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you Lisa.
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555