A government project to overhaul and automate the country's visa program is facing flack by opposition after it was revealed to have cost another $12.7 million despite being no closer to the finish line.
The plan to digitise incoming passenger cards and create an online visa processing portal has struggled to gain traction after replacing an earlier proposal dumped following strong criticism and budget blowouts.
The project, called the permissions capability, was adjusted and relaunched months later in October last year by then-immigration minister Alan Tudge, who said the system would make travelling post-Covid easier.
Tender documents released in October revealed the Home Affairs Department had expected to issue a contract by March this year with the introduction of digital incoming passenger cards by September's end.
But nearly half a year on, the department has confirmed a contract has still yet to be issued.
It's explained the proposed time frames were "indicative only" and it would not comment on ongoing procurement processes.
According to an answered question on notice, $8.4 million in contracts were issued by Home Affairs for system design, legal and commercial services between April 2020 and March 2021. The Digital Transformation Agency issued the remaining $4.3 million.
Pragma Partners were given $6.5 million for its service design and analytic services while KPMG received $3 million for delivering a business case.
An earlier project first floated in 2017 would have resulted in private operators running parts of the visa system to deal with an expected surge in tourists prior to the pandemic.
The changes would have granted successful companies the authority to detect fraudulent applications, administer tests and recommend decisions to grant or refuse visas.
Companies would gain a cut of the visa fee for each application it processed.
It was dumped in March 2020 after costing the government nearly $100 million and replaced with the permissions capability proposal.
Department secretary Mike Pezzullo told a Senate estimates hearing in May the contracting process alone for the new permissions capability project would cost $74.9 million, adding to the growing overall cost.
Labor's spokesperson for immigration Andrew Giles said the government's second attempt at creating the system had been marred by a lack of transparency and "wasted" taxpayer dollars.
"The Morrison government has wasted almost $170 million attempting to privatise visa processing - twice. This zombie has just taken another $12.7 million bite out of the taxpayer," Mr Giles said.
"There has been zero transparency and accountability.
"We are no clearer on what exactly is to be delivered, when it will be delivered and who will own the capability."
In an industry information paper released last year, the department outlined it would work to first have a digital replacement for the incoming passenger card international arrivals fill out when entering the country from July.
It would then work to integrate a simple online visa system for non-citizen travellers due by the end of the year.
The department expects the system could be expanded to other areas of government allowing for a one-stop shop to get permits, licences and registrations.
He said the department had been told to pace itself so it could consider how to integrate health data from foreign visitors in order to stop Covid cases, or unvaccinated travellers, from reaching the country once borders open.
"How do you ensure that you've got a robust digital signature of someone's health status before they get on the plane?" Mr Pezzullo said.
"It's quite a complex and technically difficult challenge."
The Auditor-General said it was considering the contracting process for the permissions capability for an audit this year.
Questions of political conflicts of interest were raised during the previous project's process.
The previous plans, which were ditched earlier last year, would have resulted in the winning supplier taking a cut of each visa application processed was expected to generate hundreds of millions in revenue.
One of the main tenderers, the Australian Visa Processing consortium, was ran by former NSW Liberal deputy state director and close associate of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Scott Briggs.
TheCanberra Times revealed in 2020 Mr Briggs had donated $133,000 to the Liberal Party in the lead-up to the last election.
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