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'Don't privatise Australia's borders': unions warn against outsourcing plan

Unions have warned against further privatisation of Australia's borders, saying plans for private operators to run the nation's visa system could undermine a core function of government.

Fairfax Media reported this week private operators would take over large parts Australia's visa system as part of Department of Immigration and Border Protection plans to avoid cost blow-outs and cope with booming demand.

The government floated changes to let private companies administer tests, detect fraud and recommend decisions to grant or refuse visas.

Large parts of the visa system would be transitioned to new contracts valued at up to $9 billion over 10 years.

Artificial intelligence and robotics companies have been invited to help the redesign.

The department expects a 50 per cent surge in visa and citizenship applications by 2026, when numbers are predicted to top 13 million a year.

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Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood holds deep concerns.

"We are seeking an urgent briefing to fully understand the repercussions of this for the security and integrity of Australia's borders and for thousands of DIBP workers whose jobs now appear to be at risk," she said.

"Australia's visa system is critical to the national interest but it should never be described as a 'business' in the way the department has done. DIBP's consultation paper talks of making visas and citizenship simple, clear and fast but makes no mention of ensuring they're safe and secure."

Ms Flood said the plan represented "privatising our borders, not modernising them."

About 20 per cent of the visa system is currently run by private operators. The department would continue to control security assessments, enforcement, some final decisions and reviews.

Companies would take over onshore health assessments under one or more contracts worth $1 billion, and offshore services in work valued at $1.5 billion.

"The department's IT and other critical systems absolutely need to be upgraded, as our members working in DIBP have been telling their bosses for years," Ms Flood said.

"Outsourcing Australian visa services undermines the integrity of a core function of government."

The moves came after a scathing national audit report of IT security at the department, which found it was vulnerable to cyber attacks and personal data was at risk.

No timeline has been set for adoption of the four cyber security measures required to defend from threats, despite a missed 2016 deadline.

A spokeswoman for the department said it was exploring how to manage increasing growth and complexity in visa applications, within its existing financial and staffing footprint.

"Contrary to what the CPSU has claimed, reform of our visa system will ensure the safety and security of our borders long into the future.

"The expectations of the travelling public for rapid, digitised visa processing, and the need to continue to meet growing traveller demand, means we must transform the way in which we process visa and citizenship applications.

"The department has engaged with private industry as a first step in exploring what technologies are available now, and expect to be available in the near future, that allows us to think about the way we can deliver visa services to an ever growing number of travellers." 

The spokeswoman said existing partnerships with businesses had been highly successful.

"Our staff continue to do great work to manage growing numbers of visa applications," she said.

"As clearly outlined in the market consultation paper, this process is targeted at ensuring that Departmental staff retain decision-making responsibility on complex, high-risk matters and are able to use their expertise and judgement on applications that most warrant their attention."