As the focus on serious bungling at the Department of Immigration grows — including whether departmental officers could be prosecuted for contributing to the death of an asylum seeker — it is becoming clear that there are major, and serious, problems within the department in relation to some of the most important functions it carries out outside its asylum seeker detention regime.

A review of recent reports by the Australian National Audit Office shows systemic and recurrent flaws within Immigration that suggest only a full-scale, independent inquiry into the department can address ongoing maladministration and incompetence. While the ANAO’s recent reports on the department’s bungling of billion-dollar offshore processing contracts are the highest-profile examples of the profound flaws within the department, other major problems have also been revealed by the independent ANAO.

Only weeks ago, the department was found to have failed to follow through on its commitments to a parliamentary committee to overhaul its cybersecurity. Immigration was responsible for one of the most serious IT bungles of recent Commonwealth history when it accidentally published the details of more than 10,000 asylum seekers in 2014, potentially enabling other governments to take reprisals against asylum seekers and their families. An (unrelated) ANAO audit later that year found that the then-Customs department was one of the worst of a group of departments examined for their cybersecurity measures. But unusually, after the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts and Audit interrogated the agencies on the issue, the ANAO undertook a follow-up audit.

Customs had assured the committee in 2014 that it had already addressed the major failing identified by the auditors. “I think we have that in place now,” a Customs executive told the committee. Alas, no — the ANAO’s follow-up audit re-examined Human Services, the ATO and Immigration (now merged with Customs), and found only the first had done what it was supposed to do, and that Immigration was now ranked last. Immigration pleaded to the ANAO that it had been busy merging with Customs and had “a risk based approach to cybersecurity, taking into account our position in the ICT investment cycle”.

That is, it was too busy to fix its cybersecurity, more than 18 months after the merger with Customs.

In October last year, the ANAO also found that Immigration had failed to adhere to basic requirements in its rush to disseminate the Rudd government’s anti-maritime arrival advertising in 2013. In September, the ANAO criticised the department’s management of contracts for health services for onshore detainees, finding “there were weaknesses in the department’s approach to the assessment of risks to the achievement of contractual objectives” and the department didn’t bother properly monitoring nearly half the 17 performance indicators put in place in the contract with the provider (IHMS, which also provides services at offshore detention camps). In fact, the ANAO found, “the key measure to assess the quality of primary health care was yet to be monitored 15 months after the contract was signed”.

Those failings, however, were almost trivial compared to far more serious failings in the administration of the department’s core business, migration visas. In December 2015, the ANAO produced a damning report identifying major problems in the department’s monitoring of compliance with visa requirements:

“There are weaknesses in almost all aspects of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s arrangements for managing visa holders’ compliance with their visa conditions, including in key corporate functions that support the administration of Australia’s migration and visa programs. These weaknesses undermine the department’s capacity to effectively manage the risk of visa holders not complying with their visa conditions—from simple overstaying through illegal working to committing serious crimes … There is little evidence of overall improvement, not least as a result of the continual change, with initiatives seldom fully implemented or evaluated.”

According to the ANAO, Immigration only had a good understanding of whether people were overstaying their visas. “The levels of non-compliance with other visa conditions, including whether a visa holder is working illegally, are less well understood, and the department undertakes little work to capture and analyse the results of compliance activities.” And following the merger with Customs, Immigration simply abolished internal arrangements relating to risk and intelligence. As a result “there was no coordinated risk framework or process for visa compliance”. And in the wake of the farce that was Operation Fortitude in Melbourne, the conclusion “the operations of compliance field teams are not well managed” seems almost generous.

Many of these flaws were found after the department had ostensibly overhauled the 457 visa program in response to a 2014 independent review, which had specifically recommended improved compliance monitoring. All of that was done under the current leadership team of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and secretary Mike Pezzullo. Last week, the Prime Minister declared that the entire 457 visa program had “lost its credibility”, though Pezzullo and Dutton don’t appear to have accepted any responsibility for this.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the department had also been failing to properly confirm the identity of people seeking citizenship. In mid-2015, the ANAO reported that more than half of electronically lodged citizenship applications “were processed without the officer sighting or reviewing the supporting identity documentation”. And “at the citizenship test appointment stage, DIBP officers did not follow the key processes for identity verification for 26 per cent of applicants”. Nor did the department actually check to see if proper identity checking procedures had been followed. This was at the same time as the Abbott government had sought to hype the threat posed by asylum seekers and dual citizens. Immigration’s lax processes might have meant criminals or terrorists were waved into Australia without any effort made to check their claimed identity.

Based on half a dozen ANAO reports, it’s clear that the Department of Immigration cannot perform any of its basic functions properly — including functions critical to the economy and national security. Mysteriously, it seems to remain immune to any form of political accountability.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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