A critical audit report has revealed that Australian government officials failed to adequately plan for the anticipated surge in demand for new passport when the country’s international borders reopened post-Covid. The report, presented in parliament, pointed out significant delays and long queues due to inefficiencies in passport delivery by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat). Approximately 25% of passport applications after the 2022 change of government took longer than six weeks.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) found that while passport applications plummeted during Covid border closures, demand surged by 22% per quarter immediately upon the borders reopening in November 2021. Despite Dfat’s awareness of a predicted “pent-up demand surge” as early as December 2020, the report highlighted a lack of timely engagement and training of additional staff, resulting in a substantial processing backlog.
Before the pandemic, Dfat was processing an average of 865 passports per full-time employee, but this figure dropped to 384 in 2022-23, marking a significant 56% reduction. The ANAO also noted discrepancies in advice given to applicants regarding waiting times, with changing timelines adding to the frustration of the public.
Although Dfat has a target of processing 95% of routine passport applications within 10 business days, the audit report revealed that this target had not been met for three of the past five years. Between June 2022 and June 2023, 24% of applications took longer than six weeks to process.
The ANAO presented nine recommendations to enhance efficiency in time and resources, improve complaints handling, and better measure performance indicators. Dfat has accepted all nine recommendations. In response, Dfat’s acting secretary, Craig Maclachlan, acknowledged the department’s commitment to improving passport services and attributed some inefficiencies to legacy technologies and the lack of digital capabilities. He expressed regret for any inconvenience caused to the community.
Despite the audit report highlighting issues post-May 2022, Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister Tim Watts blamed the former Coalition government for the lack of preparation for the expected surge in demand. While accepting all ANAO recommendations, Watts asserted that passport processing times have returned to pre-Covid levels, with nearly 95% of routine applications being processed within 10 days and average wait times of less than four days. He also highlighted that the Passport Office issued a record 3.1 million passports in the 2022-23 financial year.