Interview with Sky News - First Edition
Danica De Giorgio: Let's return now to the story we were bringing you just before that press conference; the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is hiring hundreds of new staff to address extensive delays in passport applications. Up to 2.4 million passports expired over the past two years. DFAT is hiring a minimum of 250 extra people over the next six weeks to process applications and will open an additional call centre. Joining me now live to discuss is the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tim Watts. Thank you for joining us this morning. These lines we've seen outside the passport centres, this has been going on for weeks. Why have you now only just intervened?
Tim Watts, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, the delays that Australians are experiencing in having their passport applications processed and the difficulties they've been having in getting in touch with the passport office about their applications are completely unacceptable. Unfortunately, this is the result of the previous government failing to plan for an entirely predictable surge in applications. Now, since we have gotten into office, we have got down to work in actually fixing this problem. As you say, we have committed to hiring 35 new people this week to work in call centres to address the people's incoming queries about their passport applications and we'll put an additional 35 people on next week. We're also going to hire 250 people to help with the processing of this backlog in applications. This is a problem that's been building for some months now and there's a very significant backlog. It has become acute over the last week, so on an average day before the pandemic, you might have seen 7,000 to 9,000 passport applications. One day this week, we saw over 16,000 applications. So, it's a very significant problem as a result of the previous government's failure to plan, but we're getting down to work fixing it.
Danica De Giorgio: You're saying it's the result of the previous government's failure to plan, but throughout the pandemic, DFAT actually contacted everyone whose passport was due to expire, so is the onus not on the individual, then, to take charge?
Tim Watts: Well, the delays that we're seeing at the moment, they're unacceptable. When the passports weren't being renewed through that time, it was entirely predictable that there would be a surge in applications as Australia opened to the world. Australians' passion for travel is well known. It should be no surprise that as the world opened to Australians, there would be a rush to the door as Australians sought to go on holidays overseas, to meet up with family they hadn't seen in years.
So, as I say, the surge in demand that we've been experiencing over the recent months is entirely predictable and it should have been planned for and ahead by the previous government so that we wouldn't see the kind of scenes that we've been seeing this week, the queues at the passport offices and the really frustrating wait times that people have had on the phone trying to get through to the passport office.
Danica De Giorgio: So, you're putting on additional staff. How long will it take to clear this backlog?
Tim Watts: Unfortunately, this won't be turned around quickly. There is a significant backlog of applications that has built up over the previous month and, unfortunately, we are expecting a significant surge to continue in applications. The kinds of applications we're seeing now are for people who have been travelling after the borders opened, but you can imagine coming into the next school holiday season, coming into the Northern Hemisphere's winter, that there is an additional surge that we expect to happen in the back end of the year. We expect that putting on this staff now will see a gradual improvement in the issue, particularly over this week and next week in the call centres. And then over time, we'll work to get that backlog in processing applications down.
Danica De Giorgio: So, how far in advance before a person travels should they be looking to renew their passport?
Tim Watts: Well, we're asking Australians that while this backlog from the previous government exists, that they plan six weeks in advance for any passport renewal application or passport application that they might want to make. We can be confident that the vast majority of applications will be processed within that six week time, but it is important that Australians plan ahead and get their applications in early to avoid that last minute stress.
Danica De Giorgio: We are seeing people lining up from very early hours, people queuing from 3, 4 am, just to make the front of the queue. Can you tell us: what time do the passport offices open and close?
Tim Watts: So, the queuing that we've seen at the passport offices before they open is a function of the stressors on the system at the moment, the stressors on the call centres in particular. So, what we're doing is we're getting additional capacity into those call centres to ensure that people don't have to get to the passport offices to queue up, so the lines can move more quickly. Similarly, we're triaging in the lines, having staff move up and down the lines, finding out why they're in the queue – whether it is to renew an application or whether it is to get an update on the status of an application – so that those issues can be managed more quickly. But we're not considering proposals to change the opening hours at this time. There are other ways that we can more effectively address that.
Danica De Giorgio: If you are in line, though, what time do the passport offices open and close at the moment?
Tim Watts: Well, I'm not sure of the opening times for individual offices. There are different offices around the country. But what I'd say to Australians is that if you have a put a passport application in, if you need to travel urgently and you've been waiting for longer than six weeks, you can email the Australian Passport Office at passports.clientservices@DFAT.gov.au and we'll endeavour to get an update on your application through to you within 24 hours.
Danica De Giorgio: All right. Just finally, if people are flying, say, in the next two weeks, they're still waiting on their passports, what can they do?
Tim Watts: Well, as I say, the best thing to do in that situation is to email that email address that I just provided. We do expect that wait times on the call centres, on the phone lines, are going to fall over the coming week and particularly over next week, so that's another way to get in touch. But email would be the best way at the moment.
Danica De Giorgio: Okay. But the email system, people can expect a response quickly enough, can they?
Tim Watts: We're endeavouring to get a response to people that email within 24 hours.
Danica De Giorgio: Okay. Tim Watts, thank you for your time this morning.
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555