In the lead up to the 2016 election, we are starting to hear more promises from each party promising change, promising new policies, promising jobs and growth.
What is perhaps getting overlooked is the way things are and what, at its very core, is the role of government.
Today’s article in The Age about the collapsing morale within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection comes as no surprise to many of us who work in this field. Working within a culture described as “command and control” with “a move away from a people and humanitarian focus” can only be soul-destroying.
This change in culture is something we, as representatives, have seen slowly creeping into immigration decision-making in the last three years. Gone are the days of being able to pick up the phone and speak to a case-officer. These days, everything is done through a generic ‘mailbox’. Cases are decided in teams, with individual officers no longer permitted to consider and take ownership of a whole application, let alone give out their phone number to an applicant or their representative. In most cases, all you get is a decision-maker’s first name or a position number after the case has been decided.
Whilst this culture is clearly frustrating for departmental staff, the repercussions for visa applicants and sponsors are far more serious. This Department is increasingly focused on process-driven, automated decision-making, where decisions are made behind a shield of anonymity, according to a ‘checklist’ and with little scope for compassion. There is no doubt that many Departmental staff are feeling disengaged in this environment – we see it in the increasingly harsh decisions that focus on ‘compliance’ and prioritise policy over law. We hear it in the strained voices of Departmental officers we have dealt with for more than twenty years. In practice, some clients are coming to see us with a copy of a flawed decision in their hand, while others are scratching their heads. Some of the flaws in these decisions are relatively insignificant, such as typographical or other grammatical errors. Of more concern are the increasing numbers of decisions infected with jurisdictional error, such that the client has not been given a “fair go” during the decision-making process. These range from instances of documents being lost or overlooked, resulting in them not being considered in a decision, through to cases where temporary visa applicants are being wrongly assessed against more onerous permanent residence requirements.
We are seeing an increasing number of clients forced to seek review at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal because of the Department’s unwillingness to devote adequate resources to make fair and reasonable decisions, let alone vacate those decisions that have been made unlawfully.
There will always be errors made in the administration of government, but the issue we face now is the new anonymity which makes decision-makers less accountable, and their decisions increasingly incomprehensible. This is extremely concerning when decisions have a very real effect on people’s lives. Every delayed, defective and potentially unlawful decision increases costs and stress levels for visa applicants, their sponsors and the wider Australian community.
As we see processing times blow out, work visa applicants are left in limbo, prevented from commencing employment and contributing to the Australian economy for longer periods than ever before. Sponsors are forced to forgo business growth or incur the cost of recruiting less suitable temporary staff until their sponsored employees’ visas are granted. Couples choose to defer starting a family or purchasing property whilst they wait for a partner visa. In some cases, relationships fail due to the pressures that come with forced long-term separation and the agonising uncertainty of a visa outcome. Asylum-seekers languish in offshore detention centers, long after being assessed as genuine refugees. In this area of law, every single decision has a significant personal impact as well as a wider economic effect. It is easy for decision-makers to overlook this fact when operating in a system that depersonalises the individual.
As representatives, we are forced to tap into a different skill-set to more effectively assist our clients. Gone are the days of lodging an application and feeling reasonably confident that the next communication received from the Department will either be a quick call from the case officer to clarify an aspect of the application, or an email from the case officer with an approval letter attached. These days we prepare for template requests for further information from an unnamed official and we advise clients that the Department is going to scrutinise them more closely depending upon the country of their passport, the job they are seeking to fill or the industry within which they operate.
We prepare clients for the wall of silence behind which their decision will be made and embrace our role as lawyer, representative, lobbyist, strategist, lay counsellor and partner through this daunting process. These days, more than ever before, effective representation can mean the difference between application approval and a long and stressful appeals process.
Ultimately, government is about people, and there is no area in which this rings more true than immigration. We think it’s time both sides of politics remembered that.
At Nomos, we believe that the best way we can assist you is by advocating for you. We know the application process is more than filling out some online forms and waiting for a system to eventually present you with an outcome. We are proud of the work that we choose to do when advocating for our clients because we know they are entitled to fairness and need someone to hold a decision-maker accountable. If that’s the sort of assistance you want, contact Nomos for your immigration or citizenship matters.