Department of Immigration

Secretary of the Department of Immigration Mike Pezzullo

For public service watchers, there’s an interesting game currently underway in Canberra — just how much evidence of bungling at the Department of Immigration has to emerge before the government is finally moved to take action?

Last month we compiled a list of only the most recent external reports that had identified serious failings by the Department, including a worrying inability to monitor compliance with visa conditions or verify the identity of people seeking citizenship.

The problems around Peter Dutton’s entirely unevidenced claims that an armed assault on the Manus Island prison camp was sparked by an attempted pedophilic attack on a child also continue to compound, with the ABC obtaining a report from the Department’s own subcontractor that fails to mention anything about Dutton’s fantasy. Just who in the Department was responsible for giving Dutton this fiction will presumably be explored in depth at the budget estimates hearings next week.

It’s also clear that the Department has bungled the government’s rebadging of 457 visas, with a number of key industries warning of serious problems arising from the removal of occupations ranging from CEOs down to web developers from the list of permitted visa categories. It’s particularly embarrassing for the government that some of its own CEOs, like NBN’s Bill Morrow, are caught up in its purported crackdown. Plainly someone in Immigration failed to think through the consequences of many of the occupation categories proposed for removal.

Then there’s another matter that will presumably figure at estimates as well: the department’s quarter-billion dollar relocation to new premises in Canberra.

Like any other such proposal, the relocation has gone through parliament’s public works committee. Like virtually no other proposal, however, the committee angrily and repeatedly attacked the department over it.

The trouble began at a hearing into the proposal in February. The department verbally told the committee its costings for the project had changed in its opening statement — something “highly irregular and unusual for a project of this size” as one committee member put it, especially given the Department had actually made the changes in 2016. Then it emerged, though only as a result of some questioning by members, that the plans had changed as well, although the Immigration officials were keen to downplay the changes. That made the committee even less impressed.

“Chair (Dean Smith): Let’s be clear. You have taken the decision to take the training facilities out of the project. That decision was taken in December, and you are telling us in the middle of February.

Officer : Yes.

Chair: Now you are telling us that the floor plans that you have provided to us are different from the ones that will be used.

Officer : They are different in a sense that the layout has changed slightly, yes.”

Officials were also reluctant to give a straight answer to repeated questions about what the cost per square metre of the project would be.

So, in an extraordinarily rare decision, the committee called Immigration back for a second hearing, insisting that Secretary Mike Pezzullo show up. Pezzullo didn’t improve matters by cancelling on the committee, forcing a delay. When he did front up in March, committee chair and Nationals MP Scott Buchholz got stuck into him.

“The committee is deeply unimpressed by the way it has been provided with information on this project to date,” he said, accusing the department of “a lack of preparation on the department’s part and has made the committee’s job far more difficult than it would have normally been if the information had been provided up-front. It has also led to significant delays in the committee’s preparation of a report on this project.”

“I am not at this stage prepared to apologise to the committee or express any remorse or regret,” Pezzullo promptly replied. Unfortunately, one of his subordinates then immediately apologised to the committee, because the department had got another of its figures wrong in the documentation that had been provided to the committee.

The quarter billion dollars required for the shift of Immigration to a smaller number of buildings is primarily funded by lease incentives — under which the department locks itself into a very long lease contract in exchange for up-front payments to fund the fit-out of the new premises. While the wisdom of locking a major agency into a multi-decade contract is debatable, the approach has been signed off by the Department of Finance, but some important questions remain — questions that may well split the committee, if media reports are anything to go by. 

One problem is that Immigration is paying top dollar for a building at Canberra Airport that has sat empty for eight years — in an area where there is a 40% vacancy rate. As Labor’s Alex Gallacher put it:

“You are paying the maximum rate for a lease in Canberra in an area where the building is eight years old and there is allegedly somewhere between a 20 and 40 per cent occupancy rate. In a tightly-held area with all top-rated buildings, you pay the top rate. In a less tightly held area, why do you pay the top rate?”

These concerns are related to a department that has been repeatedly the subject of some of the most serious adverse ANAO findings in recent years in relation to its capacity to manage large projects.  Pezzullo’s remarkable response when this was noted by a committee member was to complain that there should be no mention of the ANAO’s reports because they weren’t within the remit of the committee, a bit like “on-water matters”. Pezzullo is an arrogant man. But his department’s ongoing bungling gives him nothing to be arrogant about.


Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey