Paul Turton, ABC Newcastle

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Passport backlog, Newcastle Passport Office closure.

Paul Turton: Are you planning an overseas trip and your passport still hasn't arrived? In Michelle's case, a long booked holiday is looming, but one of the children's passports still hasn't arrived. She made a point of getting to the Sydney Passport Office at 5:30 this morning. There were already 80 people in the queue ahead of her. So what's going on? What's causing the delays? Tim Watts is Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs in the new Anthony Albanese Government, and Mr Watts is with us now. Tim Watts, good afternoon. Thank you so much for coming on our programme today.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: It's a pleasure, Paul.

Paul Turton: So what's the problem? What's the bottleneck? Is it just too much demand?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Before I say anything, can I just say that the experience that Michelle had was completely unacceptable. It must have been a horribly stressful and anxious experience. So I'm just really frustrated that you have to go through that, particularly given that this is a problem that could have easily been avoided. During the pandemic, many, many Australians let their passports lapse, didn't renew them because they weren't planning on travelling in the near future. Now, obviously, as the rest of the world has begun to open to Australia, all those people have started to think about going overseas. They've gone to the bottom drawer, grabbed the passport, realise it's expired, and there's been an enormous surge in applications for passport renewals. This should have been foreseen, frankly, by the previous government, and they should have been resourcing staff to avoid this backlog coming. But since early this year, there's been a backlog growing of passport applications and we're at the point now where before the pandemic, there might have been 7,000 to 9,000 passport applications a day. In the last week, we've had multiple days of over 16,000 applications. So there's an enormous surge, it hasn't been planned for. And now, as the new government, we're playing catch up.

Paul Turton: Minister, is that abrogating your responsibility? That's Politics 101, isn't it, blaming the previous government?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, I can tell you, I wasn't in government when this backlog started to accumulate. Since we got into government, we've taken responsibility for fixing this problem. So in the last week, we've put on an extra 70 people in the call centres and adding another 330 over the next week and a half, as well as an extra 300 people processing these applications. By September, there will be an extra 1,100 staff in the Australian Passport Office dealing with this issue. Unfortunately, though, if those staff were put on in February or March, people like Michelle would not have experienced what they have been over the last month.

Paul Turton: Tim Watts, a lot of people get caught out, don't they, because they don't understand that you can't actually take your passport to the last date, because you go to a country and they won't issue you a visa if there's, I think, in some cases, less than six months on your passport. So, a lot of people would be running under the misapprehension they're going overseas for two weeks. They've still got plenty of life in their passport.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yeah. Our message at the moment is asking Australians to plan ahead for international travel. So if you need to renew your passport, factor in at least six weeks for that to be renewed. There are, however, some passport applications that are more complicated and can take longer, and particularly those involving children because there are additional checks to make sure that one parent isn't getting a passport and the other one doesn't, or for new applications where we have to establish identity, they can take a little bit longer. But overall there's a bit of a dynamic at the moment where Australians haven't travelled for a while, they haven't travelled for the last couple of years and in a lot of senses they've sort of forgotten what goes along with travelling, the planning ahead and the thinking of what could go wrong when you're overseas. So the other thing we're encouraging people to do is to log on to the Smartraveller website as soon as you're starting to plan an international trip and look at the kind of issues that are flagged on that website that you might encounter going to that particular country.

Paul Turton: Why do Novocastrians have to go to Sydney anyway? Surely the 6th biggest city in the country deserves its own passport office, doesn't it?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, the Newcastle Passport Office was closed in 2016 under the Turnbull Government. My focus since coming into government has been to address this backlog mess and that means putting more staff on answering phones, more staff processing applications, reducing those wait times. I'm trying to get the resources in where it will have the greatest effect and for the moment, that's in the existing passport offices. We have been putting in place measures to help people coming from regional areas. So, for example, where customers from regional Australia have an urgent need to travel, the passport office is working to facilitate collection of passports en route to international airports, for example. I understand it'd be really frustrating to travel really long distances to collect passports in person when you've got a really tight turnaround time.

Paul Turton: So, when are you expecting things to return to normal? Whatever that is.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Look, the backlog is very significant, so it's not going to be turned around anytime soon. And that's why we're asking Australians to plan ahead for that six weeks requirement. But with all these extra staff coming on board, we are expecting to see the problem trending in the right direction in the coming week or so.

Paul Turton: Minister, it was great to talk to you, I appreciate you making yourself available.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thanks for that, Paul. And again, I really feel horrible listening to Michelle's story. We're working to address this issue going forward.

Paul Turton: Tim Watts, thank you. There's the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs responding to the problems that a Novocastrian has had to catch a train at 2:30 this morning and line up behind 80 other people because her she's just about to head overseas and her son's passport hasn't arrived.

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