The federal government is to spend more than $30 million to improve the current visa processing technologies after delaying its move to privatise the system until next year.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg released the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook on Monday morning.
It revealed that $31.2 million over three years would be spent to improve the online service delivery and data management capabilities of the visa and citizenship processing ICT systems to help with verifying the identities of individuals arriving in Australia.
This is the system that the Coalition plans to outsource to the private sector with the development of the Global Digital Platform, the new IT system for visa processing.
It had originally planned to select a winning bidder to develop the system by October, but has now delayed this until next year due to a number of conflicts of interest.
In the meantime, the government has stumped up the cash to ensure the current system remains effective. The new funding would allow for “continued engagement with the market for a strategic technology solution to ensure Australia’s visa systems remain competitive and safeguard national security”.
The cash will be partially met from existing resources within the Department of Home Affairs.
The controversial privatisation plans have already cost $80 million before the provider has even been selected, and has been staunchly opposed by the Opposition and the Greens.
The Department of Home Affairs is in the final stages of selecting a provider for the new IT system for visa processing. There are two shortlisted bidders: Australian Visa Processing – a consortium of Ellerston Capital, PwC, Qantas Ventures and Pacific Blue Capital – and a joint bid from Australia Post and Accenture.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Immigration Minister David Coleman have been forced to recuse themselves from the decision making process due to connections with Scott Briggs, who is leading the Australian Visa Processing bid.
It was revealed at a recent Senate Estimates hearing that more than $80 million has already been spent on the design and procurement process for the new visa tech system.
The privatisation plan has been widely criticised for a lack of transparency and over data security and privacy concerns.
Former immigration department deputy secretary Abul Rizvi has said the federal government has “utterly failed” to justify the decision to outsource such an important function.
“It failed to make a business case in terms of how the public interest benefits and, moreover, it failed to deal with how the extraordinary risks involved will be dealt with. Indeed, it actually just ignored all of those risks. The real cost in this is ultimately a loss of control in the visa system,” Mr Rivzi said.
The Community and Public Sector Union also warned that the plan could lead to data and national security issues and have “far-reaching negative commercial aspects”.
“The primary responsibility for data security would rest with the new provider. The experience of privatisation elsewhere is of service standards and work quality being undermined by the employment practices of the outsourced provider,” the CPSU said in a submission to government.
“There are also significant ethical concerns when the data people have to provide to access a government decision is in fact consumed for a commercial purpose.”
Labor has called on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to launch an inquiry into the plan and its potential as a force for anti-competitive behaviour, with concerns surrounding the security of personal data and the impact of automating some aspects of the system.