My battle with the Australian Border Force Act: A small, but worrying, example

Update: Since this post was published, the Department have reviewed my initial request and have provided the data. I appreciate the Departmental staff who reached out and initiated this off their own bat as I did not request any type of review activity. 

There are hundreds of interesting questions to ask when someone moves from one country to another. For as long as I can remember, Australia has been one of the best places to explore migration. There are two reasons for this: We welcome immigrants and the government and bureaucracy collect and make accessible robust migration data.

They are not household names but people like Graeme Hugo, the late Paul Miller, Deborah Cobb-Clarke and Peter McDonald have shaped global debates on migration. A new generation of scholars are now examining big, important questions about the intersection migration and work as well as any number of other themes, many of which will help us as a society in the future. Yet this tradition depends on access to Australian migration data from a number of sources, including the ABS, the Department of Immigration and various surveys funded by the government.

Until I received the following email from DIBP, I hadn’t realised just how uncertain this type of knowledge will be in the future:

“The data that was provided to Department of Agriculture was done so for a specific purpose in line with the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (ABF Act).  Unfortunately your request does not comply with the ABF Act and we are therefore unable to provide the requested data.”

I didn’t receive this email because I asked for something controversial. The reason this email stopped me in my tracks was I asked for something which was already largely public.

About a month ago I stumbled across the below map in a Senate submission to the Working Holiday Reform legislation.  The Department of Agricultural and ABARES had produced the map to help show where backpackers worked to gain their second visa. This was an important part of a big public debate about the merits or otherwise of the backpacker tax (as I write this legislation has just been voted on in the Senate, amended and defeat for the government).

I’d never seen this information before and I’m interested in exploring it further as there are decent labour market implications stemming from backpackers and the results may shed light on employment and migration trends. As you can see below, the Department helpfully documented the top 10 postcodes where backpackers worked to become eligible for their 2nd visa:

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-2-48-38-pm

I get teased a little bit about the number of emails I send asking for stuff. But I’ve found you normally don’t get something unless you ask for it. So using the Department of Agriculture’s handy feedback form on their website, I asked for the data showing how many 2nd working holiday visas have been granted for each postcode.

The top 10 postcodes are already public but as the map shows, there is lots of other information about what you might term a ‘long tail’ of postcodes. One reason I wanted this information was to match up major industries in these postcodes and understand what type of work these people were doing. It would also be good to go back a couple of years and compare trends over time, whether employment activity shifts over time. All sorts of things were possible.

One thing I’ve learnt in the past is don’t ask for too much, too soon. In addition, there is always a potential privacy consideration when examining immigration data. For these reasons, I limited my request to the list of postcodes and number of second visa grants in each. That’s it.

This ensured I excluded information about individuals like age and country of birth which may compromise privacy. I also assumed if the number of backpackers in a postcode was less than five, it would be shown as “<5” as this is standard practice for other types of immigration data.

ABARES let me know they had passed the response to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. After following up with DIBP twice, about a month after my initial request, I received the above email which prompted a series of internal questions roughly in this order:

  • You have to be f****** kidding me?
  • If the data was provided to the Department of Agricultural with the knowledge it would be at least partially public, why isn’t the same data available but in a different format? i.e. a spreadsheet not a map based
  • How does my request not comply with the ABF Act? What’s in the ABF Act which prevents highly aggregated data being shared to better inform our understanding of relevant public debates?

And finally: why couldn’t someone work out a way to comply with the ABF Act and still provide me with data?

From what I can work out, the relevant part of the ABF Act is Part 6 pertaining to secrecy and disclosure provisions. Section 44 outlines ‘Disclosure to certain bodies and persons’ and subsection (1) is about ‘protected information that is not personal information’ disclosed to “an entrusted person”. This is the same process causing serious consternation among health professionals working in detention centres.

I am not “an entrusted person”. According to subsection (3), the Secretary of the Department has authority to designate this. Perhaps I should email and ask? Again from what I can work out, it looks like the person who created the data made a record now classified as protected information. This information is then automatically restricted to people who are classified as entrusted, including other bureaucrats, such as those in the Department of Agriculture.

Yet this begs the question. If the Department of Agriculture can publish a partial piece of a protected record, why can’t the Department of Immigration and Border Protection?

All I know is this stinks. And while this concern does not rank anywhere close to those faced by doctors and nurses who work in detention centres, the slow corrosion of sharing information caused directly by this legislation will have massive costs to how we understand migration in Australia.

Think about the very reason we’re even having a debate about the backpacker tax. Not enough people knew about immigration policy, trends and behaviour. The wonks at Treasury didn’t do any modelling on the labour market implications and the politicians in ERC and Cabinet – including the National Party – had no idea about what this might do to their own constituents. Outside the government, when I did a quick ring around in the days after the 2015 budget, the peak industry groups for horticultural didn’t think the backpacker tax would be a big deal. If I was a farmer, I’d rip up my membership. People should have known from very early on this would have real effects in the labour market as I wrote 10 days after the Budget. The fact no-one stopped or modified the tax before it got out of control shows we are working off a low base in terms of awareness about immigration.

The Australian Border Force Act is only going to make that more difficult. Hiding basic, aggregated data behind this legislation will increase future episodes of poor policy making and limit the ability of Australia to set an example to world for immigration. Our Prime Minister is fond of musing on our successful multicultural society yet alongside this decades of learning that has shaped communities, policy decisions, funding allocations and everything else under the sun.

I have no idea how I’m meant to take part in this process if access to information is restricted to bureaucrats and ‘entrusted persons’, who at the moment don’t seem able to analyse worth a damn, judging from the quality of public debates we are having. I don’t expect a personalised service with open access to immigration data. But I expect the public service to serve the public interest, especially when the matter is straightforward, uncontroversial and has the potential to inform relevant public debate.

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One thought on “My battle with the Australian Border Force Act: A small, but worrying, example

  1. Very frustrating Henry. I hope you keep challenging them on this. And even to my non-Australian eye I can tell that 6503 is not a Queensland postcode.

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