Docs reveal Immigration department less capable under Dutton
EXCLUSIVE: THE number of Australian Citizenship applications languishing in a queue at Immigration has blown out to more than 200,000 and people are now being forced to wait almost 18 months to have applications finalised.
Sources have told News Corporation that people who first lodged their applications 16 months ago, back in April last year, are only now being interviewed by Immigration officials.
And it's estimated they would not get to a Citizenship ceremony before early next year.
Sources say that if a halt was placed on new applications today, it would take an astounding eight years to clear the backlog.
Revelation of the extent of the backlog places further pressure on the already embattled Home Affairs Minister and prime ministerial challenger, Peter Dutton, who oversaw the Immigration Department from December 2014 until last month's leadership coup and who is embroiled in a senate inquiry into his decision to grant visas to two foreign au pairs.
Under Mr Dutton's reign the number of citizenship applications awaiting adjudication jumped from just 22,952 in the 2014-2015 year to 242,606 in the financial year just gone.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a new Minister for Immigration when previously Mr Dutton was the Minister responsible for the super portfolio of Home Affairs, Immigration and Border Protection.
The Immigration Department publishes online monthly figures on the waiting lists and the latest figure, for the month ending July 2018, is that 75 per cent of applications are processed within 15 months and 90 per cent within 17 months. In April the waiting time, from lodgement to citizenship ceremony, was 14-16 months. This is after people have already spent four years as permanent residents.
With Immigration Department staff under extraordinary pressure and prospective citizens being forced to put their lives on hold while they wait for citizenship, there are calls for the Government to do something about the ballooning backlog.
The number of citizenship applications in the queue in the 2017-2018 year stood at a record 242,606. This compares to just 33,634 in the 2012-13 year and 106,384 in 2016-17.
At April 30 this year there were 209,826 citizenship by conferral applications at hand.
The Government says there has been an increase in citizenship applications of 176.9 per cent in the years from 2010-11 to the past financial year and says the delays are a result of this increase coupled with an increased focus on integrity in assessing applications and an increase in the number of cases needing complex identity assessments.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said the department is implementing measures to address the caseload which includes an extra 150 staff.
"To ensure the safety of all Australians, the Government has introduced additional integrity measures to strengthen processes for verifying the identities and good character of citizenship applicants," the spokesperson said.
There has also been an increase in the number of applicants who supply limited or no identity documents from their country of origin, requiring additional time and effort to process.
It is understood job cuts in the Immigration Department, privatisation of one area and a freeze on processing new applications last year as the Government announced new citizenship changes which were doomed and never went ahead are also to blame.
Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia, Tony Burke, says the Government must urgently explain what is being done clear the backlog.
"Despite the mounting evidence that something is seriously wrong, no adequate explanation has been given as to the growing queue and delays," Mr Burke said.
"The scandal continues to grow, communities are hurting and the new Minister's first priority must be to explain what he will do to fix this mess."
Mr Burke disputes the Government claims of a massive spike in applications, saying the official data shows a steady and normal increase on average over five years of 7.3 per cent each year.
He said that since the 2016 Federal election there had been a 428 per cent increase in the queue despite only a 21 per cent increase in the number of applications lodged.
"The only spike is in the queue of people in the black hole of the department," Mr Burke said.
But new Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, David Coleman defended the delays on security grounds.
"Demand for Australian citizenship is at a record high-we are a country that many people want to live in and be a part of.
This Government is unashamedly focused on security and integrity. Since 2015 we have introduced a range of measures to ensure the integrity of the program and the good character of those seeking Australian citizenship.
These security and integrity measures are much stronger than those in place while Labor was in Government.
We will always work to make the system as functional and effective as possible for legitimate applicants. However, we make no apologies for ensuring only those who meet our security and character requirements are given the privilege of Australian citizenship."
Community and Public Service Union (CPSU) Deputy National President Lisa Newman said "the sorry state of visa and citizenship is due to immigration staff being cut at a time when the Department has never been so busy. Citizenship processing was put on hold for a number of months while changes to legislation were being debated - this made the already massive backlog of applications even worse.
"It isn't good enough that there is a massive backlog of applications and that people are forced to face agonising, uncertain waits, often as long as a year or more. Our members know clients who lodged applications in April last year and are only just being interviewed because of the backlog. The backlog not only affects the applicants and their families, it also affects key parts of the economy like the higher education sector.
"Immigration staff are reaching breaking point - they care about their clients and are increasingly frustrated at not being able to help. Poor service is the inevitable result of Minister Dutton's policy failures and the staffing cuts he and his government have overseen. The decision to privatise immigration call centre work and visa processing instead of investing in accountable public servants is disappointing, if not surprising.
"Instead of hiring more permanent, properly trained Department staff to do the job, the Coalition Government is pushing ahead with a plan to privatise our entire visa system. This threatens the jobs of up to 3,000 people working for the Department and will blow out visa costs. Privatisation puts the communities data security, privacy and service standards at risk. Our visa system is too important to be sold off to the Coalition's corporate mates at a profit.
"The Coalition must stop the cuts and restore staffing to a sensible level. Privatisation does not deliver the services Australia needs and it does not keep us safe. We need more immigration staff employed by our government so we can deliver these vital services to our community."
Meanwhile, Sheila Woods, managing director at migration agency, Immigracious, says that when she tells clients the current waiting time for citizenship the response is shock.
"Most of them have been here for such a long time they don't expect the end of the journey to be so slow. Now we are saying, sorry it is going to take 18 months and that makes people feel so frustrated," Ms Woods says.
She says finally achieving citizenship is an exciting time for people and something they aspire to and for them to wait so long puts a bad spin on the experience.
"It is a shame because most applicants are super excited to be doing it and to be finally able to apply," Ms Woods says.