Digital passenger cards to be introduced as Australia prepares for travel reopening

Digital passenger cards are expected to be rolled out toward the end of the year as international borders reopen. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Digital passenger cards are expected to be rolled out toward the end of the year as international borders reopen. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Digital incoming passenger cards, which include vaccination status, will be rolled out to airports around the country by the end of the year, paving the way for a border reopening.

The federal government announced on Monday it had issued a contract to international IT company Accenture to deliver the latest iteration of the digital passenger declaration (DPD).

It will replace the paper-based form and COVID-19 declaration web form and will be available for passengers coming to Australia up to 72 hours before boarding their flight.

In addition to recording passenger details, it will also capture and verify their vaccination status.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said it was a key part of opening the country back up for travel, and indicated the digital cards could be operating before the end of the year.

"The DPD will support the safe reopening of Australia's international borders, by providing digitally verified COVID-19 vaccination details," she said.

"This will help us to welcome home increasing numbers of Australians, and welcome the tourists, travellers, international students, skilled workers, and overseas friends and family we've all been missing during the pandemic."

The digital system, which is moving into its testing phase, will also have the ability to collect, verify and share the travel, health and vaccine status information of international travellers with public health authorities.

An extension of the new technology to create a one-stop shop for visas and licenses is also being considered.

Employment Minister Stuart Robert flagged access to other government services could be built into the system.

"The overarching digitisation program could include visas, import permits, personnel identity cards, licenses, registrations, and other documents, making previously cumbersome processes easier, safer and more transparent," he said.

But Labor has been quick to point out criticism of the project following a long delay over its announcement and a string of failed earlier versions.

The plan to digitise incoming passenger cards and create an online visa processing portal replaced earlier proposals dumped following strong criticism and budget blowouts.

The project, then 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 post-COVID travelling 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.

Labor's assistant immigration spokesperson, Andrew Giles, called out the mystery six-month delay, pointing to an ongoing lack of transparency surrounding the project.

"There has been no transparency and accountability with this procurement. It is not clear what the Commonwealth is paying for, how much it is paying, when it is to be delivered, and who will own the capability," Mr Giles said.

"These are extremely important questions, with significant consequences, which we shouldn't have to be asking."

Home Affairs Department secretary Michael Pezzullo told an estimates hearing in May the permissions capability project had so far cost nearly $80 million.

The Canberra Times asked Ms Andrew's office for details on the total cost and length of the contract awarded to Accenture. It did not provide a response in time for publication.

Earlier pitches of the overhauled system would have seen a wholly privatised model introduced, but were dumped after political conflicts of interest were raised.

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Information detailed the government's intention to expand the project to develop an online visa processing portal as well.

Mr Giles said the government still appeared unclear about what it was planning to achieve with the new technology.

"We now have Minister Roberts saying this 'overarching digitisation program could include visas'," he said.

"And it is astonishing that Minister Roberts is unsure of the scope of this project and that Minister Andrews said nothing about expanding workforce capability after years of cuts, which have resulted in a blowout of visa and citizenship processing times."

The Auditor-General's office earlier this year flagged it was considering a probe into the government's planning and contracting of the permissions capability.

Mr Giles said his party would be "watching carefully" as the technology rolled out.

The Community and Public Sector Union offered similar criticism, sharing their concern over who controlled the government's system.

Assistant national secretary Michael Tull said the system should have been built in-house rather than being outsourced to the private sector.

"This new platform is critical digital infrastructure that should be built in-house by the public service, so it is publicly owned and controlled by Parliament," he said.

"Public assets like visa gateways should never be handed over to multinational corporations, and certainly never in a circumstance where major questions about what is being built [and] how much it will cost are yet to be answered.

"This is a troubling move in the wrong direction. The government must invest in in-house capacity, not outsource essential public work to multinationals who wish to have a future monopoly on government services."

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This story Digital passenger cards on the way as international travel prep begins first appeared on The Canberra Times.