Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:36 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:36 | SYDNEY

Asking too much of consular service


Alex Oliver


13 October 2011 15:05

There must have been a heavy collective groan reverberating along the corridors of DFAT's RG Casey building earlier this week when Australia's diplomatic corps learned that the prime minister had personally spoken with the 14 year-old boy arrested in Bali for drug possession.

As a consular case, this boy's situation is delicate and complicated, in the context of the complex and sensitive bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Australia. Still in the throes of the live cattle trade debacle, this was one case which required kid gloves rather than jackboots. But it appears the government couldn't resist the opportunity for a bit of political point-scoring, possibly at the expense of the boy's future and at the risk of stretching the bilateral friendship even further.

The strain on DFAT from the increasing burden of its consular work has been a consistent theme in the past few years — not only from the Lowy Institute (for example, here, here and here) but in the media and from the department itself.

DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson has raised it at successive Estimates hearings this year, referring to the increasing pressure on the consular area, and DFAT's Simon Merrifield pointed to a 60% increase in the number of active consular cases over the past five years. The department's incoming government brief to the Gillard Government in September last year made it crystal clear that DFAT's consular capacity was stretched to its limits:

Growing case complexity reflects increased community and government expectations of the services to be provided...the continuing growth in expectations of and demand for our services is now pushing strongly against our capacity limits.

Nobody could say the government wasn't warned. Yet this case sits in a long line of dubious government decisions on consular affairs which make the department's consular work almost impossible. 

This year, there were the free government airlifts out of Cairo, an inevitable consequence of the questionable decision to evacuate Australians from Bangkok after airport closures there in 2008, and the mass evacuation of 6000 people from Lebanon in 2006. Silly cases like the Melbourne woman accused of stealing a bar mat from a Thai pub receive almost equal prominence to serious consular cases with real ramifications for Australia's international relations, such as Stern Hu's arrest and conviction in China.

Every political intervention in such consular cases creates a vicious cycle in which the government of the day whips up public expectation amid a fanfare of media attention, creating dangerous and increasingly taxing precedents on a department already struggling with a growing workload and inadequate resourcing.

As we pointed out in our recent 'Diplomatic Disrepair' report, Australia has 34% fewer diplomats at its overseas embassies and consulates than it did in 1988, yet the number of Australians traveling overseas every year has rocketed from just under 2 million to well over 7 million over the same period. The maths already don't add up; adding direct Prime Ministerial intervention into the mix every time someone gets arrested overseas makes the equation insoluble.

In the context of the government's funding of the department, this wanton stoking of public expectation of the consular services Australia will provide to its citizens, no matter the merit of the individual case, verges on inexcusable.

Just as well the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has decided to hold an inquiry into Australia's overseas diplomatic missions (announced today), looking at the activities of Australia's diplomatic posts and the appropriate level of staffing. Australia's diplomatic network is in danger of becoming a giant chaperone and babysitting service, courtesy of our elected representatives.

Photo by Flickr user pzlez.