(Image: Jason Murphy/Twitter/Adobe)
(Image: Jason Murphy/Twitter/Adobe)

Mum is having a significant birthday this year. To celebrate it, and take advantage of the resumption of international travel, she decided it would be lovely to meet up with her kids and grandkids. My sister lives in London, and we don’t all catch up together very often. So we made a lovely plan to meet somewhere in South-East Asia in mid-2022. Everyone committed to it.

Plane tickets were bought, a hotel was booked, and I pored over Google Maps to check out the local beaches. Amid the glow of happy expectations, none of us knew the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) would put the whole thing in peril.

My passport expired in late 2020 and I hadn’t bothered renewing it in the crushing days of the pandemic — I didn’t want its limited period of validity ticking away while the sky was free of planes. So I knew I needed to renew my passport in 2022.

The other thing I needed to do was get my two young kids their very first passports. (Yes, we had two babies in the course of one pandemic.) This was to prove harder than it sounded.

DFAT’s 2020-21 annual report says its goal was to process 95% of passports within 10 business days. It achieved that handily between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021 — after all, anyone whose passport expired had less motivation to renew. Normal adult passports last 10 years and DFAT can usually expect a flow of more than 2 million passport applications a year. In 2020-21 there were just 600,000.

In 2022, the backlog emerged with a vengeance, and a wave of applications crashed into a DFAT that had $600 million cut from it by the Morrison government.

“The average wait time at the moment for a passport is 16 days,” passport office chief Bridget Brill told a Senate estimates committee in February. A 60% blow-out by February. That number is probably ancient history by now.

Kid one: an empty field

I applied for a passport for me and one of my children in late April, with my flight safely booked for mid-July. The DFAT website and form instruct a person to apply for priority processing if their travel date falls during the next six weeks; I had a tremendous buffer of more than 11 weeks before my plane took off. I felt calm and trusting.

A passport application form instructs a person to list their travel date if it falls during the next two months. So relaxed was I at the time of application that I followed that instruction exactly, not listing our far-distant travel date on the application form. The memory of that empty field on the form was set to haunt my dreams as my travel date drew closer and closer. Why not just fill it in? I imagined hundreds of thousands of other applicants filling it in — and perhaps nudging their date earlier than it truly was — and leap-frogging me in the queue. So I sent an email advising them of my travel date. Did they ever read it? I don’t know.

My passport — a renewal for a person with no risk factors — arrived very promptly. But my son’s application, I heard nothing. Emailing returned an automated reply. Calling hit up against an automated menu telling you not to call.

By late June, I was constantly thinking about my kid’s passport application. I sent the following tweet, and it struck a nerve with Australians in a similar situation:

I heard many stories, including plenty where wait times stretched over a dozen weeks. I was sent rueful tales of cancelled travel, of people lining up outside DFAT at 2am just to try to talk to someone about why it was taking so long. I tried to imagine ruining my mum’s celebratory birthday by being stuck in dreary Melbourne while she enjoyed the warmth of a tropical holiday without her whole family.

Kid two: Australia Post

My younger son’s passport application was lodged even later than my older son’s, thanks to a different delay with births, deaths and marriages. By now I was savvy about DFAT and delightedly paid the fee for priority processing. That was very effective — I got an email within three business days saying his passport was in the mail.

I learnt a valuable lesson too, because Australia Post proved to be the laggard, taking seven days to deliver a piece of registered mail from one side of Melbourne to the other. I realised that if DFAT was planning to deliver my other kid’s passport at the last minute, I would not be able to rely on our national mail carrier to get it to me before take-off.

Free advice

I got a lot of free advice online about solving my problem. People told me to phone, to email, to line up, to tweet at Penny Wong, and to chant incantations at the moon. I did all of these except bother the foreign affairs minister.

The best advice though came quietly: call your MP. So I phoned my MP for the first time in my life. I spoke to a staff member in his electorate office who told me something I didn’t know: it has an “escalation line” for raising issues and getting them solved. Not only with DFAT but with many major institutions: NDIS, Centrelink, even Telstra. My MP is a Labor member, a government backbencher — would a Coalition MP have such powers? I don’t know, but I certainly hope so.

It feels like cheating to use an MP’s staff in this way. I want bureaucracy to work well enough to not require this hidden system. It reminds me of Chinese-style guanxi — contacting a powerful, well-connected person to oil the wheels for you.

Even though they would help any constituent, my ability to do so felt like a kind of privilege. Nevertheless, the awkward feeling didn’t stop me trying — I would be on first-name terms with the electorate officer in question by the end!

In the nick of time

While I was writing this story, and with our flight time ticking down, DFAT emailed: “Your passport has been issued and is ready for collection from the Melbourne passport office.”

Hallelujah! 77 days after applying, but whatever! I felt tremendous relief. What worked? I’ll never know. Perhaps none of my desperate efforts did anything and the application simply got to the top of the pile.

I cannot recommend the uncertainty of a last-minute passport. Often as not, the best part of a holiday is the weeks spent in glorious anticipation. Trading that for stress and doubt — and spreading that stress and doubt among your travel companions — erodes the fun. Insomnia resulted as I weighed the options.

DFAT has been hiring a lot of people to help process applications, and apparently even the DFAT grads — educated linguists hoping to become skilled global diplomats — have been put to work processing forms in the passport mills.

Things might get better, but if you’re travelling any time soon, my best advice is to pay for rapid processing. At this point most other people are probably doing so, and if you don’t your application will continually slip down the pile.