Neil Mitchell, 3AW

  • Transcript, E&OE

Neil Mitchell: On the line, the man who’s going to fix it, this system, the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts, good morning.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: G’day, Neil. Good to be with you.

Neil Mitchell: Excuse my coughing; I think I’m right now. Not fixed.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, look, I’d say, Neil, we’re really making progress. We’ve doubled the number of staff working in the Passport Office since the election and that’s enabled us to do two things in particular: one, the wait times on the phones are down to around a couple of minutes. It varies depending on what day you’re calling, but, you know, about two and a half minutes. Those big queues that you’re seeing in the media outside the Passport Offices, we’ve set up pop-up passport collection facilities and that’s really addressed that queueing problem outside the offices. People are able to get into the offices quickly and get out. Still a bit of work to do on the backlog of applications, but we’re expecting to be back to our regular three‑week processing window by the end of next month. It could be –

Neil Mitchell: Hang on, but we spoke six weeks ago and you said you’d have all these staff in and it’d all be hunky‑dory in six weeks. Now, we’re looking at another six weeks.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yeah, well, we said we’d be making progress in the coming months, and we have. I mean, the processing times are down very substantially, but I’m not here telling you that the problem is completely fixed. You know, there will be some people who’ve been going through this system for a while, but the important thing for them is that it’s easier to get through on the phone now, very significantly easier, and if you’ve got an imminent need to travel, you can get through on the phone now and we are triaging people to make sure that if you’re travelling in the immediate future, you can get on the line and we’ll get that addressed for you.

Neil Mitchell: Okay we had some, a person yesterday waiting 10 weeks, were due to leave for Greece today; I don’t know whether she got it in the end. If you’re in that situation, what do you do? Waiting for a couple of months and I can’t get it and I’m due to the leave the country, what do you do, ring up?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yep, ring up. Look, there were terrible wait times on the phones going back, you know, about a month ago, six weeks ago, and that was sort of doubly infuriating for people because it’s not just the processing time, you couldn’t even get through to the Passport Office to tell them that, “Hey, we’re leaving tomorrow” type thing. Largely that issue is dealt with now and the Passport Office has been assisting and triaging urgent applications for many weeks now.

Neil Mitchell: Okay. How many extra staff have you put in?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So we’ve doubled it from about 730 to about 1400.

Neil Mitchell: Oh, really? You were talking about putting in an extra 250 in, so you upped that, did you?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: We’ve upped that substantially. So that was the initial down payment. There were people we were able to re-task from Services Australia, but in addition to that initial down payment we’ve added substantially more staff since then. You know, we’re really throwing a lot at this backlog that the previous Government had left us, and we are getting our arms around it, Neil. It’s not fixed yet, but we’re making real progress.

Neil Mitchell: Will they stay there, the extra 750? I mean, have you permanently increased the size of the Passport Office or is it just a blip on the radar?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, a lot of these people we redeployed to deal with 2 million passport renewals that didn’t happen during COVID. Now, that’s not going to happen all the time going forward, so you wouldn’t expect us to keep everyone on board. But one of the things we are saying is that we’re likely to see spikes in applications going forward, so when a major destination like Japan reopens their borders, you can expect a spike, as people make all their bookings. If there’s a big travel campaign, so you know we’re trying to keep the staff on board to deal with those going forward. But it probably is sensible that people plan ahead when they’re travelling. You know, we expect to get back to three‑week processing by the end of next month, but, still, if you’re thinking of a trip later in the year, get in early. It’ll just save you a bit of stress.

Neil Mitchell: Okay, and have you changed the 4:00 pm closing time or not?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So, the 4:00 pm closing time, that was the official closing time. We’re staying open significantly after that if you’re in the queue to deal with that. I mean, passport staff – can I just say, thank you to all the passport staff for their extraordinary effort through this period. They were going above and beyond serving people who were in those queues after closing time. The reality is we’ve fixed those queues. You can go down and have a look at the Passport Office in Melbourne. They used to be queued around the block outside; they’re only queued outside the office now. So, that need to stay open substantially later, that has passed.

Neil Mitchell: We’re getting a lot of calls through as we’re talking from people in trouble, about to leave the country. You might not know off hand, but what’s the number they can call?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: They can call on 131232.

Neil Mitchell: 131232. Thank you very much for your time. What’s it like sitting on the other side of the house?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Much better than the alternative, Neil. I’d rather be in there fixing the problems than complaining about them on other side.

Neil Mitchell: Thank you very much. Tim Watts Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. Okay he says now it’s the end of next month. It was due about the end of next month. We’re fixing it but it’s not there yet.

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