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Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee
24/03/2017
Estimates
IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION PORTFOLIO

IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION PORTFOLIO

In Attendance

Senator Cash, Minister for Employment, Minister for Women and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service

Department of Immigration and Border Protection

Mr Michael Pezzullo, Secretary, Department of Immigration and Border Protection

Mr Roman Quaedvlieg APM, Commissioner, Australian Border Force

Mr Michael Manthorpe PSM, Deputy Secretary, Visa and Citizenship Services

Ms Rachel Noble PSM, Deputy Secretary, Policy

Ms Jenet Connell, Deputy Secretary, Corporate, Chief Operating Officer

Ms Cheryl-anne Moy, Acting Deputy Commissioner, ABF Support

Ms Maria Fernandez PSM, Deputy Secretary, Intelligence and Capability

Air Vice-Marshal Stephen Osborne,    Commander, Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force

Mr David Wilden, First Assistant Secretary, Immigration and Citizenship Policy Division

Mr Andrew Chandler, Acting First Assistant Secretary, Traveller, Customs and Industry Policy Division

Mr Lachlan Colquhoun, First Assistant Secretary, International Division

Mr Ben Wright, First Assistant Secretary, Corporate Services Division

Mr Murali Venugopal, First Assistant Secretary, People Division

Mr Steven Groves, Chief Finance Officer

Ms Philippa de Veau, General Counsel

Mr Stephen Hayward, First Assistant Secretary, Integrity, Security and Assurance Division (Chief Audit Executive)

Dr John Brayley, Chief Medical Officer/Surgeon General ABF

Ms Catherine Seaberg, Acting First Assistant Secretary, Enterprise Strategy, Reform and Performance

Mr Cameron Ashe, First Assistant Secretary, Intelligence Division

Mr Randall Brugeaud, First Assistant Secretary, ICT Division/Chief Information Officer

Mr Michael Milford, First Assistant Secretary, Major Capability Division

Mr Michael Minns, Acting First Assistant Secretary, Identity and Biometrics Division

Ms Christine Dacey, First Assistant Secretary, Visa and Citizenship Management Division

Mr Luke Mansfield, First Assistant Secretary, Refugee and Humanitarian Visa Management Division

Ms Fiona Andrew, Acting First Assistant Secretary, Community Protection Division

Mr Peter Van Vliet, Regional Director, Victoria, Tasmania

Ms Erin Dale, Commander, Customs Compliance Branch

Mr Jim Williams, Assistant Commissioner, Border Management Division

Ms Claire Roennfeldt, Acting First Assistant Secretary, Children, Community and Settlement Services Division

Mr David Nockels, First Assistant Secretary, Detention Services Division

RADM Peter Laver, RAN, Commander, Maritime Border Command

Mr Clive Murray , Assistant Commissioner, Strategic Border Command

Ms Kingsley Woodford-Smith, Assistant Commissioner, Detention, Compliance and Removals Division

Mr Wayne Buchhorn, Assistant Commissioner, Investigations Division

Ms Tiffany Blight, Acting Assistant Commissioner, Border Force Capability Division

CHAIR: Welcome. This is Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee's hearings into the additional estimates for 2016-17. I think we had a very lengthy opening statement at the original hearings.

Senator Cash: Yes, we did.

CHAIR: Unless there is something specific you wanted to raise with us, we will go straight to questions.

Senator Cash: No. Thank you, Chair.

Senator WATT: Thank you, Minister and officials, for coming along this afternoon. There are a couple of quick things for you to take on notice for me to do with labour agreements. Firstly, I am seeking to know when the various industry labour agreements were introduced. I do not need that now but you can take that on notice. Secondly, I am also keen to know the total number of people working under each labour agreement, and could you provide a year-by-year breakdown from the commencement of each of those agreements, please?

Ms Connell : Certainly.

Senator WATT: I also have some questions about the fast-food labour agreement, which has obviously been the subject of some media recently. The government recently cancelled the fast-food industry labour agreement and at the time the minister said young Australians must be given priority. Can you confirm that that agreement actually only applied to retail managers and supervisors?

CHAIR: Sorry, are we doing Immigration and Border Protection?

Senator WATT: Yes, but they are oversee these agreements.

CHAIR: Do you?

Senator Cash: That is correct, Chair. Yes.

CHAIR: Which one?

Senator Cash: Immigration.

Ms Connell : Mr Manthorpe will be able to help you.

Senator Cash: Because it is to do with foreign labour.

Ms Dacey : The question was about whether there are retail managers under the fast-food industry labour agreement?

Senator WATT: Is it correct that the fast-food industry labour agreement applied only to retail managers and supervisors?

Ms Dacey : The information I have here is that the template agreement offered new concessions to the standard visa requirements other than the inclusion of 'retail manager' or 'retail supervisor', which are not on the consolidated skills occupation list. So I think the answer to your question is yes.

Senator Cash: Perhaps we will take it on notice.

Ms Dacey : To be very clear, yes.

Mr Manthorpe : I think we should take that on notice. I have no reason to disagree with what Ms Dacey just said, but I do not have the agreement itself with me. So we can check that and come back to you.

Ms Dacey : Just to make sure.

Senator WATT: What experience was required to gain entry and employment under that labour agreement?

Mr Manthorpe : I think that is something we would have to take on notice as well.

Senator WATT: I am keen to know whether it was a diploma, a number of years experience—

Ms Dacey : I do not have that in the brief, I am sorry.

Mr Manthorpe : I do not think the qualifications to become a retail supervisor are particularly onerous, but we will take that on notice.

Senator WATT: I actually have that agreement in front of me. Retail managers have to have a diploma, which may be and most likely would be from overseas, and at least five years relevant experience in a fast-food environment. Retail supervisors have to have again a diploma at certificate IV level and at least three years relevant experience or at least four years relevant experience in a fast-food environment. Does that sound right?

Mr Manthorpe : I do not have any reason to dispute what you said, Senator. I do not have the agreement in front of me. You evidently do, so I am happy to take the question on notice.

Senator WATT: Given your earlier answer, which I know you are double-checking, and assuming it is the case that that agreement only applied to retail managers and supervisors, that did not allow for young overseas workers to come in and flip burgers and do the other stereotypical fast-food work. It was to come and manage a store or supervise staff.

Senator Cash: Given that the department is going to take it on notice and check, I think it would be unfair if they were to give you an answer which could unfortunately then prove to be incorrect. I know where you are going with it. I think it would be best if we allowed the department to take that on notice.

Mr Manthorpe : Yes.

Senator WATT: Can you confirm how many people were working in Australia under the fast-food labour agreement at the end of the scheme on 2 March?

Mr Manthorpe : As I understand it, the scheme had a ceiling or a potentiality of up to 500 people. I am not quite sure how many were here at the time that the agreement was terminated, so again I will take that on notice.

Senator WATT: Is there anyone here who has those figures to hand?

Ms Dacey : I can tell you the total number for the four years but not as at 2 March.

Senator WATT: That was my next question.

Ms Dacey : There had been a total of 221 visas granted against those template agreements.

Senator WATT: So over the four years since that agreement first came into place 221 people were essentially allowed in to be a retail manager or supervisor in a fast-food outlet?

Ms Dacey : That is the advice I have, yes.

Senator WATT: You do not have the figure as to how many were in place at the end of the scheme?

Ms Dacey : I am sorry, I do not.

Senator WATT: Okay, you can take that on notice. Can you take on notice, unless you have it there, that 221 figure being broken down into a year-by-year analysis as well.

Mr Manthorpe : We can take that on notice.

Senator WATT: The minister's press release issued on 2 March stated that, under this fast-food industry labour agreement, he has seen hundreds of foreign workers take jobs at fast-food outlets across Australia. But you are saying it was 221 over four years.

Mr Manthorpe : That is hundreds?

Senator WATT: It is hundreds; it is 200. When did you first provide advice to the minister on the change to the labour agreement? When did you first recommend to the minister that this labour agreement be cancelled?

Mr Manthorpe : I do not have a date for when we provided advice, but it was in the period leading up to the decision to cancel it.

Senator WATT: That was a recommendation of the department?

Mr Manthorpe : As a rule, I do not go into the content of advice to ministers in Senate estimates.

Senator WATT: Did the minister or the minister's office ever ask you for advice on the cancellation of this agreement?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, we were asked for advice about the agreement and options for cancelling it, but I am not going into the content of the advice of the recommendations.

Senator WATT: Did the idea to cancel that agreement come from the minister or his office as opposed to being fed up from the department?

Mr Manthorpe : I am not going there. You are asking me to provide advice about the content of advice to ministers. As long as I have been coming to Senate estimates, that has not generally been something that we go into and I am not intending to today.

Senator WATT: I have a few questions about the fine-dining labour agreement. I understand that the fine-dining labour agreement is still in force.

Ms Dacey : Yes.

Senator WATT: When was that agreement first introduced?

Ms Dacey : It was established in 2014.

Senator WATT: Who was the minister that signed off on that agreement?

Ms Dacey : I can honestly tell you that that is the only fact I can give you about the fine-dining agreement today. I am sorry, I do not have any other details besides when it was established.

Senator WATT: Minister Cash, were you involved in that fine-dining agreement?

Senator Cash: I was as the assistant minister for immigration at the time, yes.

Senator WATT: Did that mean that you signed off on that or was that actually done by the minister?

Senator Cash: I would need to clarify as to whether I ultimately did finalise it.

Mr Manthorpe : I cannot recall whether it was the then minister or the department.

Senator Cash: We would need to take that on notice.

Senator WATT: Would an assistant minister generally have authority to sign off on a labour agreement?

Mr Manthorpe : The way in which the work of a portfolio minister and an assistant minister is determined between them is always a matter for the portfolio minister and the assistant minister. I do not think there is a rule of thumb or a convention about that. At that time, as I recall, Assistant Minister Cash was responsible for matters in that lane, as the minister has just indicated.

Senator WATT: You took a particular interest in fine dining, Minister Cash?

Senator Cash: Unfortunately, I am absolutely not a fine diner—I hate to tell you. I am more of a takeaway on the couch girl.

Senator WATT: More of a fast-food person?

Senator Cash: Sorry to disappoint you!

Senator WATT: What prompted the introduction of the fine-dining labour agreement?

Mr Manthorpe : Generically, as I recall, there was a concern about high-quality, top-end restaurants and restauranteurs struggling to get the level of skill that they were seeking, particularly in waiting staff.

Senator PRATT: They were not prepared to train people?

Mr Manthorpe : I am sure there were training requirements in the labour agreement arrangement, but you have asked me what was at play at the time. My recollection is that that was the kind of issue that was at play. There may have been others.

Senator WATT: The kind of occupations that we are talking about under the fine-dining labour agreement include chef, cook and 'trade waiter'—which is not a term I have heard before, but that is someone who sets and arranges tables, takes reservations, opens bottles, pours beverages, cleans tables and does all the things. Are you seriously saying there are no Australians who are willing and capable of clearing tables, returning dishes and cutlery to the kitchen, opening bottles and pouring beverages?

Mr Manthorpe : No, I think it is a question of degree of the quality of the service experience that top-end restaurants are seeking to provide. I think that was the matter at play.

Senator WATT: How does a top-end restaurant clear tables in a way different to a bottom-end restaurant?

Mr Manthorpe : I do not think it is really a matter of just clearing tables; I think it is about the total quality of the service experience that top-end restaurateurs are seeking to provide.

Senator WATT: Is someone brought in from overseas more able to open a bottle and pour beverages than an Australian worker?

Mr Manthorpe : All I would say is that our evidence is that the recollection I have or the recollection we have of the rationale for introducing the fine dining labour agreement was not about a specific matter of who could open a bottle or who could clear a table but rather the totality of the service experience that top-end restaurateurs were seeking to provide. As I recall, there was an issue about the trade labour occupation at the time.

Senator WATT: Are the conditions that someone can be employed under the fine dining labour agreement different to conditions that apply to the fast food labour agreement?

Ms Dacey : I do not have them in front of me and I would be reluctant to make that comparison without—

Mr Manthorpe : We would have to check that, Senator Watt.

Senator WATT: Do you know whether the salary that can be paid is different between the two agreements?

Mr Manthorpe : The salary will definitely be the TSMIT, the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold. The Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold of $53,900 is the 457 base, and that is typically the number in the various labour agreements below which people cannot be paid—unless of course an award, an agreement or some other industrial agreement applies for a higher amount, in which case the higher amount would have to be paid. It is possible—and it has been for many years—that the minister can make a concession around the TSMIT. Occasionally that is provided, but I do not have details with me as to the circumstances in which that is applied.

Senator WATT: So the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold or TSMIT is a pay rate that ordinarily an overseas worker, a temporary worker, can be brought to Australia and employed at and they cannot, generally, be employed at a pay rate below that TSMIT, which currently is about $53,000 per year?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, unless the minister agrees to a concession, which from time to time ministers have done.

Senator WATT: Meaning it can be lower?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, but in very limited circumstances.

Senator WATT: How many people currently employed under this fine dining labour agreement are paid below that income threshold?

Mr Manthorpe : I do not know off the top of my head. We would have to take that on notice. I do not even know whether there are any—there may be none.

Senator Cash: I have just had some information sent to me. Someone is clearly watching this from the minister's office. The waiter occupation that you are referring to is actually the maitre d, and the advice I have been given is that there have been zero grants to date.

Senator WATT: Zero grants for trade waiters?

Senator Cash: Here it says, 'It must be maitre d; there have been zero grants to date.'

Mr Manthorpe : And so, therefore, none below the TSMIT.

Senator WATT: Okay.

Senator Cash: But, obviously, if you want more information on this particular one, the department can take on notice to provide something.

Senator WATT: If the minister's office is in a positon to advise, because I was going to ask how many people overall are working in Australia under the fine dining agreement now and year by year back to 2014 when it was introduced.

Mr Manthorpe : Sure.

Senator WATT: I am keen to know the number, overall, who are currently employed under this labour agreement, regardless of the occupation; the number who have been employed each other year under that agreement; and how many people, currently or previously, have been employed under the agreement and are paid below that income threshold. Does this labour agreement allow temporary overseas workers to be paid a lower amount than local workers would be paid to do the same job?

Mr Manthorpe : I would not have thought so, but we will take that on notice just to be sure.

Senator WATT: Is there any reason you would not have thought so?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, because my general understanding of the policy position in this space is that the pay rate to be paid is the TSMIT or the relevant industrial instrument rate, market rate—whatever it might be—whichever is the higher.

Senator WATT: Does the TSMIT apply to fast food and fine dining?

Ms Dacey : It applies to all labour agreements unless that is the area of concession that has been negotiated.

Senator Cash: That is a longstanding program. It is not something that was recently introduced. It is a longstanding program across government.

Senator WATT: Presumably, the dollar figure changes with inflation et cetera. Would it generally be the case, then, that temporary overseas workers are being paid fairly similarly whether they are in fine dining or fast food?

Mr Manthorpe : That is right, unless in fine dining they are paid materially more—I suspect, in some cases. I am speculating a bit there, Senator. I will have to take on notice the detail.

Senator WATT: I might try and see what my evidence for this is, but I understand that a request has been made that the salary of a trained chef—which I presume is under the fine-dining agreement—could actually end up being lower than someone who is employed in a fast-food outlet. Is that conceivable under these two agreements?

Mr Manthorpe : I am unaware of the request, so I simply do not know off the top of my head. We will take that on notice.

CHAIR: I have a couple of follow-up questions. Is the actual fast-food agreement negotiated, and, if so, who negotiates it?

Mr Manthorpe : Ms Dacey may be able to help me in a moment, but it was negotiated between the government of the day, through the department, and various employers in the fast-food industry.

CHAIR: Employers?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes.

CHAIR: Not employees? There is no-one representing the employees?

Mr Manthorpe : No. There is a process in reaching a labour agreement. Labour agreements are arrangements between the department and the minister of the day—a longstanding arrangement. As Minister Cash has indicated, these go back many years. They are essentially a relatively limited visa product. They are typically a subset of the 457 cohort.

CHAIR: So, they are a labour agreement specifically related to 457 visas?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, generally.

Ms Dacey : It is a part of the 457 program.

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, that is right. They are negotiated between employers that have particular requirements that cannot be readily met, either from the local labour market or through the standard visa products, and the government of the day to permit those employers to then seek to bring visa holders in on the conditions that are set out in the labour agreement.

CHAIR: For non-457 visa holders working in the same area—that is, in the fast food area—is the award or the labour agreement or whatever it is called for them similar to the fast-food agreement for 457 workers?

Mr Manthorpe : Can you repeat the question so I can try and come at it accurately?

CHAIR: You are dealing with 457 visa holders?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes.

CHAIR: Do people who are not 457 visa holders and are working in the fast-food industry or the fine-dining industry have an award or a labour agreement?

Mr Manthorpe : I see what you mean. Yes, people working in the fast-food industry, the fine-dining industry or any other industry who are not covered by a labour agreement would be required to be covered by the prevailing pay and conditions of the industrial instrument that might apply in that workplace.

CHAIR: Of the Fair Work Commission on the award?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes.

CHAIR: My question, perhaps a bit naive, was: how do the terms and conditions of those agreements—pay rates, salary, holidays and whatever—compare with those for 457 visa holders? Are they the same?

Ms Dacey : There is a requirement that overseas workers must be provided with terms and conditions that are no less favourable than those of Australian citizens. That is an overarching policy parameter, and then it depends on what is negotiated into the specific industry agreement. I just do not know—

Mr Manthorpe : Putting aside the relatively small number of 457 visa holders who are covered by labour agreements, 457 visa holders are otherwise covered by the TSMIT, the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold figure, or whatever the pay rate is in that industrial setting—whichever is the higher.

CHAIR: This is a fraction more complicated than I thought it would be.

Mr Manthorpe : It is complicated.

CHAIR: If someone is working the fast-food industry, they are on a set pay rate and a set of terms and conditions. If someone is on a labour agreement associated with 457 visas, you are saying the 457 visa holder worker would have pay and conditions no less than what is applied to an Australian worker, but it could be more?

Mr Manthorpe : That is the policy position. Then, I suppose for completeness, if you are not on a 457, whether you are an Australian or a visa holder you will be on whatever pay rate applies in a given industry—

CHAIR: But in dealing with 457 visas, do you compare that with what Australian workers are getting and then the labour agreement puts in place similar terminology and terms and conditions?

Mr Manthorpe : We have what is called a sponsor monitoring unit which monitors the conduct of employers of 457 visa workers to make sure that either the TSMIT or the relevant industrial amount is paid.

CHAIR: I accept that. But is what they are paid, what the agreement says, similar in words and terms and conditions as the award that applies to Australians working in exactly the same industry?

Ms Dacey : I do not think we frame or draft the template industry agreements with reference to the award. But I would like to check that for you. I am sure we just draft based on a series of criteria that we are looking to to establish that it meets the policy objectives. I would like to check that for you.

CHAIR: Can you help, Minister, from your wide experience in this area?

Senator Cash: Sorry, could you repeat the question?

CHAIR: Non-457 visa holders who work in the fast-food industry or in the fine-dining industry are covered by an award.

Senator Cash: Correct.

CHAIR: I am trying to clarify whether 457 visa holders have a different set of rules but are the same as—

Senator Cash: Correct. You need to employ someone in accordance with Australian law, but the rules and terms of the 457 visa program are more in relation to whether or not there is actually a need for the particular person to come into the country. So you need to actually show the department that there is a demonstrated need.

CHAIR: But having got to that position—

Senator Cash: Yes. Then the salary must then be a minimum of the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold—that is the absolute minimum. So you often find that employers will state, 'It is more expensive to employ someone coming in from overseas than it is to employ a local because of the basic flaw in the salary,' which is obviously much, much higher than the minimum wage.

CHAIR: It could be more, but it could not be less.

Senator Cash: It cannot be less because it is TSMIT or the market rate. If the TSMIT is $53,000 but the market rate of $62,000, unless I am wrong you will need to pay $62,000. You cannot pay less than what the Australian standing next to you is being paid.

Senator WATT: Is that the award?

Mr Manthorpe : The award or the industrial instrument or the—

Senator Cash: Or the market rate. Whatever is the higher.

Senator WATT: There is obviously an important distinction. I could imagine that under a labour agreement people might not be able to be paid below an award rate, given that is the minimum safety net, but it would be conceivable for them to be paid below what an enterprise bargaining agreement pays in a particular workplace.

Mr Manthorpe : I am not sure about that. I think it more pertains to the rate that applies in the enterprise, but this is—as you will appreciate—a technical and complex area. None of us want to mislead you, so I think we are best taking this on notice. I note, in passing, that two or three weeks ago, when we were in the other room, we took on notice a series of questions about providing the actual labour agreements, and we will provide those by the due date. And then all of these details will be evident for all to see.

CHAIR: Could you add to that question on notice by providing me also with the award for non-457 visa holders, so we can make our own assessment on whether they are the same or different?

Mr Manthorpe : Indeed. We are happy to provide the committee with information about that—

CHAIR: Finally, from me, on this—perhaps this is not the right estimates committee to ask this—how long has the current non-457 visa award been in place and who was that negotiated between? I assume it is the Fair Work Commission and a union. I am, simply, wanting to know which union.

Mr Manthorpe : If we are not talking about the pay rate payable to 457s pursuant to the TSMIT, then you are really outside of this portfolio. You are really into the mainstream of the workplace relations system.

CHAIR: I am, but I am cheating a bit—I see the minister, here, is that minister and I thought she might take it on notice if she cannot tell me off the top, even though it is not strictly this portfolio.

Senator Cash: Let us take it all on notice so we can ensure that the correct information is provided to you—in particular, just for the Hansard record today, noting that these are longstanding programs across governments. Whether it is a Labor government or a coalition government, they are longstanding programs.

CHAIR: You have made that clear.

Senator WATT: I have one question more about this particular topic. This particular agreement we are talking about was signed in 2014, but I acknowledge that there are other labour agreements that have been—

Senator Cash: Absolutely. Agreements are signed under different governments.

Senator WATT: I have a copy with me of that fine-dining agreement.

CHAIR: You just happened to have it.

Senator WATT: It states that the base rate of pay must be equal to or greater than 90 per cent of the income threshold. Again, it is conceivable that people could be paid below that.

Mr Manthorpe : You have the agreement in front of you, Senator. If that is what it says then that must be one of the agreements with respect to which a concession of that—

Senator WATT: If you want to go below the income threshold, you are allowed to do it as long as it is not below 90 per cent, but you still have to get agreement from the minister to get a concession.

Mr Manthorpe : Yes.

Ms Dacey : Yes.

CHAIR: We are going to move to Border Force. Senator Pratt has some questions. We will deal with those and then, subject to other committee members not having questions, we can send Border Force home.

Senator PRATT: I have some questions regarding Operation Sovereign Borders and turn backs and take backs. Have there been any since the last estimates hearings? I am really talking about the estimates before that, because I do not think we asked these at the last estimates.

Mr Quaedvlieg : These are issues that fall either within a PI claim or on-water matters, and it is not a question I am going to answer in this session.

Senator PRATT: We are not at liberty to go in camera during estimates.

Mr Pezzullo : If it suits the senator, the traditional position taken—not always accepted by members of the committee—is that those are matters for the minister to otherwise articulate. We do not discuss on-water maritime operational matters unless the minister of the day has otherwise publicly pronounced on those matters.

Senator PRATT: I gather from that that you are making a public interest immunity claim?

Senator Cash: There is a longstanding one.

Senator PRATT: Can you articulate the basis for that claim?

Mr Pezzullo : I do not have it in front of me but all of the relevant elements are pertained to: operational secrecy, protections of sources, methods, tactics, procedures, potential infringement of international relations and so on and so forth. I do not have the document in front of me. I did not have a sense you were going to ask the question but I am recalling as best I can the nature of that claim. Mr Dutton signed it during his period is minister.

Senator Cash: It has been tabled in the Senate.

Mr Pezzullo : It has been tabled, and I press that claim.

Senator PRATT: I will put my questions on record. I would like to know when turn-backs took place, where they were intercepted, how many people were on board each vessel, how many children were on board each vessel, where the boats originated from, how many turn-backs involved transferring people onto new vessels and how many times Australia Border Force provided medical treatment to people on board those boats. I gather you would be making public interest immunity claims?

Mr Quaedvlieg : Just to clarify the time period of your question, are you asking those questions from the commencement of Operation Sovereign Borders to today? A lot of that information has already been provided either to the Senate or—

Senator PRATT: I understand that. It is really an update from when that information was last provided.

Mr Quaedvlieg : In that case, I would have pressed the PI claim.

CHAIR: This is been raised in this committee any number of times. Rulings have been made and they have been upheld in the Senate.

Senator PRATT: But I am sure, as Mr Pezzullo appreciates, the parliament understanding the so-called effectiveness of turn-backs is something that needs to be embraced and understood by the parliament in order that it remain a plank in our policy to prevent, for example, more people ending up in detention on Manus and Nauru, surely.

Mr Pezzullo : All I can do is make mention of your questions to the minister and it will be a matter for him to determine whether or not he wishes to provide any advice to this committee.

Senator PRATT: I might indicate to those here what areas I have got questions on just in case there are officers you did want to send home given the time on a Friday. I had questions on significant investor visas, visa streamlining including the streamlined visa process, citizenship and citizenship ceremonies as well as asbestos in relation to the trade facilitation and industry engagement.

CHAIR: Mr Quaedvlieg, you can send your officers home. As far as I am concerned, you can go yourself. The committee has no more questions.

Mr Quaedvlieg : On that menu, I might dismiss all of the Border Force officers. I will take the questions on the asbestos. Unless there are questions from the remaining committee members for the ADF, I will dismiss them summarily and wish them a good weekend.

Senator PRATT: I wish them a good weekend and I thank them for their attendance. I will start with an update on asbestos importation. What seizures have been made since you last reported to estimates on this question?

Mr Quaedvlieg : I will answer that question but let me start in a more generic sense. We have increased significantly our efforts towards asbestos detection and interception at the border. For example, we have now 53 active profiles in the system. I think I have explained the issue of profiles previously but if you wish me to elaborate on what they are I am happy to do that in this forum. Essentially they are alerts on our system for high-risk consignments that may contain asbestos. So we have increased the number of profiles—

Senator PRATT: By profile, do you mean the kinds of products?

Mr Pezzullo : Yes. So there may be cement sheet bores, gaskets, brake pads, prefabricated floor sheeting—that type of thing.

Senator PRATT: If you are able to provide on notice a list of what those kinds of products are, that would be terrific.

Mr Pezzullo : Absolutely, we can do that. The point I was going to make though is that that figure belies the actual effort that we are going to, and this is the point I wanted to elucidate in this hearing. If I go back to, let's say, financial year 2013-14, for the entire year we had 117 alerts that went off at the border for consignments that we needed to look at. If I look at the number of alerts that have gone off year-to-date for this financial year, we have almost 6,000.

Senator PRATT: Yes, that would be more logical.

Mr Pezzullo : We have had a significant ramp-up in activity. We have also quadrupled the number of actual tests. So, where an alert goes off, our officers do an inspection, they do a desktop paper assessment and they make a determination as to whether a consignment is of high risk for containing asbestos, and they send it off to a laboratory. This financial year to date 400-odd tests have been sent away. What is really telling here in the context of actual importations, which is something I was not able to answer 12 months ago, is notwithstanding that exponential—in fact, greater than exponential—increase of alerts and tests, we are not seeing a correlated increase in detections. So year-to-date there have been 17 detections of asbestos. Last year I think it was 11-odd. I will just check my figures. It was 13 last financial year. If I do a direct comparison, for 2015-16 we had 1,167 alerts that went off at the border and we conducted 117 laboratory tests and made 13 positive detections. When I compare that to year-to-date, so to 14 March—we still have a long way to go this financial year—5,960 alerts went off at the border. Of those, we sent 418 to laboratories to be tested and we have had 17 positive detections.

Senator PRATT: One of the concerns that has previously been canvassed is that because the profiles were not previously adequate there was a concern that asbestos goods might be slipping through. The statistics you are showing would seem to indicate that in the main that is not the case.

Mr Pezzullo : I think the statistics do stand for themselves. I was concerned, as I mentioned, 12 months ago. I just did not have a sense of whether the profiles covered the entire spectrum of high-risk countries and high-risk goods. Since that time, those numbers have increased to that level because we have been conducting what we call saturation campaigns and sampling campaigns to actually find out what the level of leakage is potentially into the country. The sampling program, for instance, is non-discriminatory—we just test every number of samples. As I say, the numbers in terms of positive detections certainly indicate to me that we do not have a problem with a large influx of asbestos.

Senator PRATT: So you are not aware of goods containing asbestos that have not been stopped by Border Force because you did not at the time have properly matched risk profiles for particular goods?

Mr Pezzullo : Possibly. There are any number of occasions over the last two or three years where asbestos has been detected in construction sites or in buildings—

Senator PRATT: After it has been imported?

Mr Pezzullo : After it has been imported.

Senator PRATT: The Perth Children's Hospital being a good example.

Mr Pezzullo : For example. It does demonstrate the point that I often make—that we have borders settings, alerts, profiles, high-level enforcement activities, but we also do not stop 100 per cent of drugs or firearms coming into the country. But I think on the basis of those statistics, I am much more confident than I was 12 months ago that I am not facing a tsunami of asbestos here. There is obviously still asbestos coming in, but we are not only in terms of enforcement doing a lot of work; we are actually working with high-risk countries. China is a classic example.

Senator PRATT: So your hope is that there are fewer Australian companies importing asbestos, because they are checking their own suppliers more thoroughly now?

Mr Quaedvlieg : I think there is a lot more awareness within industry now that we are looking. They are taking the onus upon themselves to do more. Certainly, the Chinese government has been very helpful in this regard. They are providing advice and alerts to their own industry through their websites. We have spoken to a bunch of countries around the world who are our partners and, indeed, Senator, the production and export of asbestos around the world is actually reducing quite significantly. I think all of those factors in combination are helping us tighten our borders for that.

Senator PRATT: If a contaminated product is imported from a particular country or supplier—and I am assuming it is discovered—do you automatically trigger a consignment about that country or supplier being classified as at risk?

Mr Quaedvlieg : Absolutely. That is a marker for us that potential future consignments from either that exporter or importer, or from that country or, indeed, from a particular city are of risk. That is why the profiles have grown from 19 to 53 in the last 18 months.

Senator PRATT: I am going to ask questions about the significant investor visa.

CHAIR: Are we finished with Border Force now?

Senator PRATT: Yes. My remaining questions are about outcome 2. As we know, the Productivity Commission raised concerns about the possibility and propensity for fraud and money laundering through the significant investor visa and the premium investor visa. What incidents of fraud or money laundering have been uncovered related to those visa holders and applicants, and what did those incidents include?

Mr Manthorpe : Unless my colleagues have got detail on that, I think we will have to take that on notice. I do not have any material on that with me today.

Senator PRATT: So, you cannot advise us on whether there have been applicants or holders of the visa who have been found to be involved in fraud or money laundering here or overseas?

Mr Manthorpe : We do not have the briefing on that with us. I can tell you that it is a visa product that undergoes a lot of careful scrutiny by our expert staff, who are looking for those sorts of matters constantly. I cannot give you a more precise answer.

Senator PRATT: Are you preparing a response to the Productivity Commission's report?

Mr Manthorpe : I will take that on notice.

Senator PRATT: You do not know that either? Okay. I will ask a series of questions on notice if you can take them verbally.

Mr Manthorpe : Sure.

Senator PRATT: When will that response be provided to the Productivity Commission? Have you sought advice from the Foreign Investment Review Board and, prior to July 2015, the ATO regarding the number of SIV holders who have applied to purchase residential property since the inception of the visa in 2012?

Mr Manthorpe : We are happy to take all of that on notice.

Senator PRATT: Do you understand the nub of the concern, which is, essentially, that there are people seeking to be able to access visas that are not, in the main, investing productively in the economy but are merely picking up housing assets as a way of accessing a visa?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, I understand the nub of the questions, Senator. We seek to apply the conditions of the visa appropriately, but I will take on notice the matters that you raised.

Senator PRATT: In terms of that issue currently, do you know how many applicants have purchased properties as part of that scheme?

Mr Manthorpe : No, I do not. I simply do not have any briefing on that particular visa product with me today.

Ms Dacey : I have got some numbers, but nothing to the level of detail about what they are purchasing as part of their investments.

Senator PRATT: In terms of the numbers of visa holders, you do not have anything with you today that outlines the nature of their investments?

Ms Dacey : No.

Mr Wilden : We can give the broad parameters of the rules around how they can invest their $5 million, if that is helpful.

Senator PRATT: Yes. Very briefly, can you outline specifically if you are allowed to invest exclusively in housing?

Mr Wilden : There is a component where at least half a million dollars has to be in venture capital and private equity funds investing in start-ups and small private companies; at least $1½ million has to be in eligible managed funds or listed investment companies that invest in emerging companies; and a balancing investment, which is the remaining portion of the $5 million, of up to $3 million has to be in managed funds. There is a restriction on property to be a 10 per cent limit on residential real estate.

Senator PRATT: Have you been preparing any advice about tightening that 10 per cent limit even further?

Mr Wilden : The actual instrument that sets out what can be invested in is provided to our minister by Austrade. They are the ones who provide advice on the construct of the investments that are allowed under the SIV. That question would best be directed to them, I would suggest.

Senator PRATT: As I understand it, there is a dramatic drop in applications post-July 2015. Is that a reflection that holders of the visa had investments which were previously heavily focused on residential property?

Mr Wilden : That drop in the number of applications did occur after the change in what they were allowed to invest in. That drop is more seen as—if you like, the new portfolio of investment they can make is riskier, but it is actually working in our economy in a different way. Previously they were very passive investments and there was no strong evidence that there was a huge amount of investment in real estate, because the majority were going into state and territory bonds.

Senator PRATT: That makes sense. In 2014-15 there were nearly 1,400 applications for SIVs from Chinese nationals, but only 532 were granted. What were the main reasons visa applicants were rejected?

Ms Dacey : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator PRATT: I can put that whole series of questions on notice. I want to ask about the visa streamlining process. Does the government have plans to change the permanent resident and citizenship requirements for new migrants arriving in Australia?

Mr Pezzullo : I was contemplating issues around residential investment in Sydney.

Senator PRATT: Was there anything in your brain that leapt out that could help me in those earlier questions that you have taken notice?

Mr Pezzullo : No, Mr Wilden reminded me of the breakdown of the portfolio of investments and that it is a maximum of 10 per cent residential, so that kind of answers the question. Could you please grace me with a repeat of the question?

Senator PRATT: I am interested in the government's plans to change the permanent resident and citizenship requirements for new migrants arriving in Australia. What plans are in place to do that?

Mr Pezzullo : When you ask about the government's plans, I am not aware of any publicly announced plans, so it is hard from me to—

Senator PRATT: Are you aware of any plans that have not been publicly announced?

Mr Pezzullo : Departments provide advice to ministers from time to time on all manner of things, and that is not to confirm or deny that advice has been provided on the matter that you are asking about. I am not suggesting for a moment that such advice has gone forward, but ordinarily such advice is not canvassed in public before the government itself has had a chance to consider it and make appropriate announcements about it.

Senator PRATT: How many departments would you need to consult on an issue like that?

Mr Pezzullo : On an issue such as what?

Senator PRATT: Visa streamlining to change permanent resident and citizenship requirements. Would it include the Department of Social Services, for example?

Mr Pezzullo : It would depend entirely on the nature of the proposed change. It is such a hypothetical question that—

Senator PRATT: It is not a hypothetical if it is actually happening.

Mr Pezzullo : My answer to how many departments you would have to consult to achieve some kind of consensus view amongst agencies in relation to an unspecified change to visa and/or citizenship requirements would be as hypothetical as the premise of the question.

Senator PRATT: I would assume you would have to work with security agencies and the Department of Social Services. Do you think a department like the Department of Social Services would have an interest in such a process if they considered it a threat to social cohesion and social integration if, for example, you were tightening up someone's access to social security in this country because you were delaying their access to becoming a permanent resident or citizen?

Mr Pezzullo : Without confirming or acknowledging the premise of your question that any such concerns would be active in their minds in relation to an unspecified change to visas, would we consult with the Department of Social Services on the future of the visa program? Of course—they are one of our key partners.

Senator PRATT: Would, for example, delaying access to the status of being a permanent resident or citizen potentially impact on social cohesion in this country in terms of people feeling like there are two classes of people here?

Mr Pezzullo : I think you are asking me to express an opinion on a sort of a sociological issue. There is nothing specific that the government has announced that goes to that issue, so you are asking me: would some unspecified change to visa arrangements potentially create two classes of citizens or two classes of persons resident in this country? I think you are asking me to express an opinion.

CHAIR: It is hypothetical.

Mr Pezzullo : It is highly hypothetical, yes.

Senator PRATT: Well, it is not hypothetical if it is being considered by the government. What process does a permanent resident go through before becoming a citizen?

Mr Pezzullo : Mr Wilden happens to be the table; he is the national expert on such matters.

Mr Wilden : In the broad—because obviously we have a large number of permanent resident status through the family program and the skilled program and the refugee and humanitarian program. But there are some very core tenets behind that. The first is a period of residency, which has a set of rules that I will provide on notice, because they can get quite complex about how long you can spend out of the country, how long you need to be in over a period of time. If you have met the residency requirement and you pass the character test— again, we make sure people are of good character—then you go and sit a citizenship test, which is a computer-based test with multiple choice questions. Then, if you have passed through all of those stages—that can happen over quite a length of time—you then are granted a visa, and then you must attend a conferral ceremony. At the point of conferral, you are a citizen, once you have taken the pledge.

Senator PRATT: How long does that take?

Mr Wilden : It can vary, because it depends. At its shortest, except in very few exceptional circumstances, I think the residency period is about four years, and then you have, obviously, those steps you go through. It depends when you are available to sit your test; it depends when the result comes out; it depends when the next ceremony is. So the shortest is about 4½ years, I would suggest.

Senator PRATT: Has the department undertaken any analysis from data sources regarding citizenship eligibility, seeking to extend it from two to four years residency?

Mr Wilden : Say that again, sorry—I am missing the substance.

Mr Manthorpe : I might be able to help you. It is already typically four years residency.

Senator PRATT: Have you undertaken any analysis of that kind of data in terms of the impact of delaying access to that status on the budget—for example, on social security entitlements?

Mr Manthorpe : We do analysis and policy development and modelling and so forth on a regular basis. To the extent that any such matter pertained to a budget process, we would be in no position to comment on it or confirm or deny it at this point in time.

Senator PRATT: I take it from that that you have.

Mr Manthorpe : No, I would not take it from that that I have or have not. I would say that you are asking me to disclose matters that, if they were being undertaken, might pertain to the budget process, and the budget process is ongoing.

Mr Wilden : Access to entitlements are also the responsibility of the Department of Social Services, and there are, across the broad range of permanent visas already available, withholding periods so—

Senator PRATT: Yes, I understand.

Mr Wilden : the premise is not that people have access to full entitlements when they are permanent residents, as many of them do not for quite a significant period of time under the current rules.

Senator PRATT: You are aware, however, that there is information that has come to public light saying that the Department of Social Services is indeed working with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to cost options for access to social security payments and is identifying savings and social impacts associated with such a measure?

Mr Pezzullo : You will have to remind me of this information that somehow has come to public light. I do not have it front of mind.

Senator PRATT: The Business Insider website—businessinsider.com—published an article on 30 November last year, and it says:

The Turnbull government—

Mr Pezzullo : I am not an avid reader unfortunately of that journal. So—

Senator PRATT: I can read it to you.

Mr Pezzullo : Thank you.

Senator PRATT: It says:

Cabinet papers leaked warn that—

Mr Pezzullo : Did you say 'leaked'?

Senator PRATT: Yes.

Mr Pezzullo : Well, I would not be in a position to discuss such matters.

Senator PRATT: So you would not be in a position to discuss whether advice from the department—

Mr Pezzullo : If you are referring to purportedly leaked cabinet documents, I am not going to be canvassing their accuracy or otherwise—whether they are purported cabinet documents, authentic, leaked or otherwise.

Senator PRATT: Okay. So as the department of immigration, how would you go about assessing whether restricting someone's access—a cohort of people—to social security were to impact on social cohesion in this country?

Mr Pezzullo : How would this department go about—

Senator PRATT: How would you go about approaching whether impacting a cohort of people's access to social security in this country—namely, new migrants—would impact on social cohesion in this country?

Mr Pezzullo : How would we go about it? We would go about it, if we were to do it, very carefully and very cautiously and with rigour—if we were to do it.

Senator PRATT: Including analysis of what kind of data and information would you be using?

Mr Pezzullo : Any exercise—without commenting on the specific hypothetical scenario that is contained in the premise of your question; therefore, not wishing to take a leaf out of Mr Manthorpe's book and either confirm that scenario or indeed to deny it, but simply not to comment on it—of policy development would involve rigorous and careful analysis of all available data. It is just part of the trade. It is what we do.

Senator PRATT: Can you outline for us whether there are at the moment a large number of permanent residents not integrating properly into Australian society in a cohesive way?

Mr Pezzullo : I do not have the analytical basis that comes readily to mind as to how to even begin to answer that question. We are not 'the department of social integration'. We can tell you how many permanent—

Senator PRATT: The Department of Social Services are—

Mr Pezzullo : So we can tell you how many permanent residents there are, I suppose. And there is, presumably, academic literature out there about the parameters around successful integration and otherwise, but I would be extemporising—again, you are asking me, almost inviting me, to engage in sort of sociological opinion forming and advice giving.

Senator PRATT: So you cannot give us advice about the trend—

Senator PRATT: Can I ask about your plans to streamline the citizenship process that the government is proposing?

Mr Pezzullo : I am sorry; I am really trying not to be obtuse, but which exact plan has the government proposed? I am not familiar with any recent announcements that represent a government proposal. The last significant change to citizenship law in this country pertained to the cessation of a person's citizenship in the case of them being a dual citizen, by virtue of their service in fighting for foreign terrorist organisations, but I do not think you are referring to that.

Senator PRATT: I am not, no; I am certainly not.

Mr Pezzullo : I will just check with Ms Noble. Ms Noble, are you familiar with an announced government proposal to streamline citizenship?

Ms Noble : Our minister has made some remarks in the media about the citizenship test, through January and February, but I am not familiar with any actual proposal.

Senator PRATT: Can you rule out the government considering a two-tiered system?

Mr Pezzullo : I do not think it is Ms Noble's role to rule out matters that may or may not be coming up to government, and to neither confirm nor deny their existence is something that is very difficult. In fact, it is just not possible for us to comment on government policy that is not yet formed, announced and implemented. It is not our job to do that.

Senator PRATT: Okay. Perhaps you can outline to us what proactive plans you are therefore making to help newly arrived migrants integrate into the Australian way of life.

Mr Pezzullo : You will need to direct that question to the Department of Social Services because they do migrant settlement.

Senator PRATT: Do you think a two-tiered system of welfare provision would have social cohesion effects?

Mr Pezzullo : Chair, I think I am again being invited to provide an opinion to the senator.

CHAIR: Yes, and those questions are not—

Senator PRATT: So you will not tell us clearly when this proposal first went to cabinet or a cabinet committee?

Mr Pezzullo : Sorry, Senator; I am really trying not to be obtuse. When you say 'this proposal' I am struggling to understand—unless I have missed something; perhaps I was on leave.

Senator PRATT: I guess you will not comment on leaked documents unless I put them in front of you and probably not even then.

Mr Pezzullo : I would avert my eyes.

CHAIR: I have ruled before in committees I have chaired that 'This committee does not deal in stolen documents.'

Mr Pezzullo : Thank you, Chair.

Senator PRATT: Well, I did not steal them. Clearly, they have been provided by someone else.

CHAIR: I am not suggesting you did.

Senator PRATT: I would not have the access to them. Okay. I have questions about citizenship and citizenship ceremonies. There are, as I understand it, a range of delays that are being reported in citizenship applications in three areas. As I understand it, people are experiencing delays: after lodgement and waiting for a test; having taken a test and waiting for approval; having received approval and waiting for a ceremony or pledge. I would like please, if there is more information, to know why the department is not currently meeting a service standard—your own service standard—of 80 days in regard to processing citizenship applications.

Mr Manthorpe : I might start on this, and Ms Dacey can add to my remarks if I miss anything. It is the case that we are working hard with our citizenship case load, along with any number of other case loads. The number of people coming to Australia to visit, the number of people coming to live, the number of people seeking to be citizens—all these numbers are large and, in many cases, growing.

The areas where there have been some delays in the sorts of categories that you described have particularly been evident with respect to people in the humanitarian case load, particularly groups who arrived as illegal maritime arrivals in the years prior to 2012 and who, under previous arrangements—these arrangements no longer apply—having got permanent protection, some years later have come to seek citizenship. And there are other complex cases that are outside of the humanitarian and IMA case loads as well. Indeed, there has been an increase in—

Senator PRATT: Just in terms of my question: you have outlined some of the cohorts, but I asked why that is happening.

Mr Manthorpe : Yes, I was going to come to that.

Senator PRATT: Is there something specific about those cohorts?

Mr Manthorpe : There has been something like a 397 per cent increase in the last five years in the number of humanitarian entrants who are applying for Australian citizenship. In some cases—certainly not all—members of those cohorts present challenges for us in terms of thoroughly assessing in particular identity and documentation. In some cases—certainly not all—members of those cohorts either do not have or did not have identity or other documentation when they arrived. Getting to the point where you can satisfy yourself to the threshold that exists within the Citizenship Act can take some time and can take some effort. So we are grappling with a group in that cohort. We are, however, making progress. I can tell you that, for example, in 2015-16 we granted citizenship to 7,392 humanitarian applicants but there is a sizeable group that we are still working through.

Senator PRATT: I have here a letter that was sent by the department to a client who lodged a citizenship application. It requests that the client provide not only additional identity documents but also form 80 'Personal particulars for assessment including character assessment'. Your website clearly states that the necessary forms to apply for Australian citizenship are forms 1300 and 1290. I am happy to give you that letter if you would like it. Has there been a policy change in relation to the information that people are required to supply when applying for citizenship?

Mr Manthorpe : I am not sure there has been a policy change pertaining to a particular form or a process of that kind. I have just been passed this. I am happy to take questions on notice about the piece of material you have given me, but I am not able to—

CHAIR: Sorry. What is the piece of material that you and Senator Pratt know about but none of the rest of us do?

Senator PRATT: Sorry. I should have brought multiple copies with me.

CHAIR: Are you tabling it?

Senator PRATT: I am happy to table it, yes.

CHAIR: Can I see it first?

Senator PRATT: I just wanted to for the purpose of keeping the questions moving—

CHAIR: Can you tell me what it is?

Senator PRATT: It is letter to a citizenship applicant asking for further information. My question is: are people being asked to provide additional information to what was previously the case? Is there any kind of policy change here that underlines a letter like that?

Ms Dacey : Character has always been part of the assessment. What happens is we get the initial application and we very often write to people asking for more information. What we ask for additionally will be informed by what we did or did not get initially.

Senator PRATT: Okay.

Mr Manthorpe : In terms of policy change, I would say that in recent years, particularly informed by ANAO audits and other interventions in recent years, we have sought to improve our capacity to satisfy ourselves as to identity and character in the citizenship case load. Citizenship is a privilege and we seek to ensure thoroughly that a person's claim to citizenship is tested.

Ms Dacey : I would also add that requests for further information, including using that form, happen across the board. It is in visa products as well, so it is actually not exclusive to citizenship.

Senator PRATT: Are people experiencing visa delays exclusively because of identity and other type questions? You characterised it in large part as being humanitarian entrants.

Mr Manthorpe : Yes. It is not exclusively identity and it is not exclusively the humanitarian or IMA cohort, but it is the case—particularly because of the identity and documentation related issues—that that can be a particular complicating factor with respect to people who have arrived here, in many cases, without any identity documentation.

Senator PRATT: Are you aware that there is complaint amongst communities at the moment because they perceive that their applications are taking too long to be processed?

Mr Manthorpe : I am aware of that. There has been media commentary to that effect. There have been actions in the courts and so forth. We are very attuned to it and we are seeking to do what we can to move along the cases. Obviously, we recognise we need to keep working our way through the case load, and that is what we are doing. But we are doing it in such a way that we satisfy ourselves that, before we confer citizenship upon a person, they fully satisfy the provisions of the act.

Mr Pezzullo : Did the Senator ask you about visas?

Senator PRATT: Citizenship.

Mr Pezzullo : Sorry.

Ms Dacey : Senator, I just have a piece of information that might assist you. Ninety per cent of our citizenship applications are being processed within 12 months. But, as Mr Manthorpe has indicated, we have had a doubling of the total case load and a quadrupling of that particular cohort. So there is some significant growth in the system.

Senator PRATT: Okay. Can I ask you what a 'citizenship assurance officer' is?

Ms Dacey : We created a series—and I am just looking for the number for you—of about 10 or 15 'case load assurance officers', who typically look across the case load. Case officers or visa or citizenship processing officers come to you and say: 'This case is a little out of the ordinary. Are you seeing any other trends? Are there things you're aware of that are happening in other offices?' It is kind of like a triage system, where these people are referred the more complex cases.

Senator PRATT: So you are using those officers to try and bring down the current delays that are currently being experienced?

Mr Manthorpe : Yes. And we are using them to try and thoroughly assess the applications in a rigorous way, consistent with the requirements of the act.

Senator PRATT: I note there is a judgement ruling in the case BMF16 vs the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, which states:

… since June 2014, there have been considerable changes to the way in which the Department has administered the citizenship programme …

… … …

… the changes related to both policy and process of the Department;

… the development and implementation of those changes have caused additional delays to the processing of citizenship applications, particularly where identity is in issue.

That is a true statement from that judgement?

Mr Pezzullo : Sorry. Hang on. Are you reading from the judgement or is that commentary on the case or—

Senator PRATT: The judgement said—Sorry. Yes, I am reading a quote from the judgement.

Mr Pezzullo : Thank you.

Senator PRATT: And I have an attachment of that here.

Mr Pezzullo : So this was the overture of the judge?

Senator PRATT: Yes. Part of the judgement said:

… since June 2014, there have been considerable changes to the way in which the Department has administered the citizenship programme …

… … …

… the changes related to both policy and process of the Department;

… the development and implementation of those changes have caused additional delays to the processing of citizenship applications …

CHAIR: Are you aware of the case? Do you have a reference?

Mr Pezzullo : I am familiar with a case on that matter, but—

Senator PRATT: BMF16 vs the minister. FCA15—

Mr Pezzullo : I do not have the case number in front of me—

Senator PRATT: You have said there has not been a policy change regarding citizenship applications.

Mr Manthorpe : No, I did not say that.

Senator PRATT: That is what the government said in estimates in October 2015. What we are trying to come to grips with is whether any of the delays people are experiencing—

Mr Manthorpe : I guess it depends what you mean by policy.

Senator PRATT: are characterised by changes in government decision-making.

Mr Manthorpe : It is a broad concept. I could sit here and make an argument that there has been no change in the policy, apart from the allegiance matter that the secretary referred to a few minutes ago, because there has been no material change to the legislation in the last several years—other than that. But I could equally argue there has been a change in policy because, as this caseload has come through, as we have seen a 397 per cent increase in the number of IMAs—humanitarian and the like individuals—and other complex cases, with respect to whom many are entirely satisfactory, bona fide, straightforward cases, but in some cases there are issues to do with identity and other questions, you could say it is a policy change. Probably it is more 'p' policy change, but I suspect it has a small 'p'—

Mr Pezzullo : I put it more in the realm of a change in posture. I think that might assist the senator. I do not think it is a question of policy, Mr Manthorpe.

Mr Manthorpe : Fair enough.

Senator PRATT: It sounds to me like there is something of a change which could be impacting on processing times, be that both a demographic change but also therefore a policy response to that.

Mr Manthorpe : It is certainly a procedural response, a posture response, as the secretary says. Whether that amounts to a small 'p' policy change I suppose is a matter we could debate.

Mr Pezzullo : You can. If I might say, it is a bit like the recent debate in another like proceeding about what is a negotiation versus what is a feeler versus what is a diplomatic exchange. Policy comes from government. In the citizenship realm, ultimately it has to be expressed as law, otherwise there is no foundational guidance for our officers to operate under. So, has there been a policy change in that sense? As Mr Manthorpe indicated, I think you could make a case to say no. Has there been a tightening of our security posture, yes.

Senator PRATT: Okay. You may have made practical changes in the department to respond to a new cohort of the type of applicant who is applying for citizenship. Can I ask in that context: will you update the website or do you have plans to update the website to better indicate the kinds of forms and documents the changing cohort of people are required to produce when they are applying for citizenship? Maybe your form and practice has not kept up with that changing demographic.

Mr Pezzullo : I assume the forms are accurate, are they not?

Ms Dacey : They are accurate.

Mr Manthorpe : I assume they are, but, having said that, you have raised a question that prompts me to think that we will have a look at that to see whether there is anything that we ought update. We can always work on our website.

Senator PRATT: Are you providing any advice to the affected communities that are experiencing these longer than usual processing times so that you can try, from the outset, to support them to provide the kinds of additional documents they need? Many of them are in quite a difficult situation if they have come here as refugees et cetera. They do not have the normal kind of documentation that we would normally expect.

Ms Dacey : It is not a formal program, but we have a series of officers called ethnic liaison officers who do lots of work with different communities, including these sorts of communities. So there are options there for us to push out some messages but also to get some messages back from the communities. So I would not say there is a structured communications program.

Senator PRATT: I will put some questions on notice in relation to things that you might be doing to clear that backlog, but I would certainly ask you to take a plea on board that there are many communities suffering, and perhaps the usual practice of the department is not meeting their needs.

Mr Manthorpe : Can I just respond to that assertion and make this point. We are mindful of the caseload. We are mindful that it consists of many people who are working their way through the process with us, and sometimes there are delays. We are mindful, as we are in every aspect of the visa and citizenship program, that we have to manage volumes but we also have to manage risks, and that is what we are attempting to do.

Senator PRATT: In relation to citizenship ceremonies there are currently 862 applicants—this is from February estimates—awaiting ceremonies in the Parramatta Local Government Area. They hold one ceremony a month with 100 individuals, whereas the Dandenong council holds three to four with approximately 300 individuals. Can you outline why some council areas take a slower approach to holding ceremonies? Are you doing anything to proactively encourage them to hold more?

Ms Dacey : The reality is that we work as constructively as we can with the councils. They each have different capabilities and capacities to run programs. The feedback we get is that they really enjoy doing it, but it comes at some impost to them. We are always encouraging them to hold ceremonies, and we exert influence to the extent that we can.

Senator PRATT: Can local MPs hold ceremonies?

Ms Dacey : Yes.

Senator PRATT: What is the process?

Ms Dacey : It is a slightly different process. The preference is, because of the apolitical nature of the ceremony, that the councils are a really nice, neutral forum. MPs are certainly invited to attend. But if, for example, there was some—I do not know—very specific set of circumstances where a council might not be able to, that might happen if there was some need to hold a ceremony at a particular time. It is not the norm though.

Senator PRATT: But, if an MP wanted to help clear a backlog in their community and to hold an appropriate ceremony, they could approach the department about doing that?

Ms Dacey : We get approaches all the time. Our preference is to work through the normal processes. The department can also hold ceremonies.

Senator PRATT: But, if there is a legal capacity for an MP to do it—I understand what you are saying about it being appropriate—

Ms Dacey : Apolitical, yes.

Senator PRATT: why does the capacity exist for an MP to do it, if you do not want them to do it?

Ms Dacey : I did not say I did not want them to do it. I just said there is quite a regular process that has worked very well—

Senator PRATT: Yes. I have been to many, as have Senator Cash and the chair, I am sure. So there is a process for MPs to be able to do that, is there?

Ms Dacey : Yes.

Senator PRATT: Can you take on notice the breakdown by LGA of the number of approved citizenship applicants awaiting a pledge or ceremony where their approval has been in the last financial year, if you are able to do that.

Mr Manthorpe : Sorry, Senator. What are you after?

Senator PRATT: I am asking for documentation of the backlog. People like to have a ceremony. I understand that people do not have to have one. But, if people want to access a ceremony and therefore they are waiting—

Mr Manthorpe : I see.

Senator PRATT: for theirs—

Mr Manthorpe : You are trying to get a breakdown to get a sense of where it is.

Senator PRATT: I would like to see where in the country there are problems. We have heard evidence of people waiting in Parramatta. We would like to see the extent of where people are waiting longer than they might like to be able to access a ceremony.

Mr Manthorpe : We will take that on notice.

Senator PRATT: How many citizenship applications are currently awaiting assurances before being granted approval?

Ms Dacey : I can give you an on-hand number, but I am not sure that that fits that definition of 'awaiting assurances'.

Senator PRATT: Okay. In electorate offices like my own, for individual cases of delayed citizenship we are being told that they are awaiting assurances or undergoing mandatory checks from an external agency. Are they new processes? What is the process? What does it mean when we are being told that?

Ms Dacey : It means that there are matters that we are still investigating.

Mr Manthorpe : The mandatory checks essentially go to health, character, security—those sorts of high-level considerations. Depending on the circumstances of the case, they may require consultation with a variety of agencies.

Senator PRATT: Does that include things like requests for further documentation?

Ms Dacey : Yes.

Mr Manthorpe : Sometimes we require further documentation to help satisfy ourselves as to a person's eligibility.

Senator PRATT: It is not very transparent to me or others what is actually required in applying, but you are saying that this is not new and there have been no changes to the kinds of assurances that the department seeks? That is the discussion we had before. You are saying it is largely the changing cohort—that you fit the profile?

Mr Manthorpe : Well, I am saying that the changing cohort has prompted a change in focus on matters such as identity—an intensified focus on matters such as identity. I think our evidence is consistent on that point over the last—

CHAIR: Thanks very much, Mr Manthorpe.

Senator PRATT: I will put the rest on notice, thank you.

CHAIR: Anything else can go on notice. Can I just thank the minister and Mr Quaedvlieg, Mr Pezzullo and all of your staff for your assistance today. I thank Hansard and the secretariat for their work. We will see you all again at the end of May. I can't wait for it!

Committee adjourned at 17:30