Wednesday 27 Oct 2021 | 21:49 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 27 Oct 2021 | 21:49 | SYDNEY

Consular service carries the can...again


Alex Oliver


25 November 2009 14:12

Another hard luck story about the general lack of consular support Australians receive from their government when travelling and living overseas — this time from an Australian couple running a resort in Samoa, who are getting agitated that the Australian government has not done enough to assist them in their recovery from the Samoan tsunami two months ago.

The couple, originally from Queensland, say that they have had no assistance yet from the Rudd Government, but that they 'expect that to change because [they’re] starting to get unhappy and ruffle some feathers'.

The overblown and sometimes hysterical expectations of Australians who find themselves in trouble overseas, fanned by hyperbolic media reporting, are something we’ve written about on several occasions. In March this year, we argued for more resources for the overstretched consular service overseas in our Blue Ribbon Panel Report on the state of Australia’s diplomatic infrastructure, Australia’s Diplomatic Deficit.

Back in late 2007, Hugh White’s Lowy policy brief, Looking After Australians Overseas, foreshadowed a serious mess if our government’s ability to deliver good foreign policy continues to be hobbled by its shrinking resources and mounting consular workload. And here’s another along the same lines.

Strangely, Australians who travel or live overseas expect far more assistance from their government than they would if they were living or travelling in their own country. Consular officials talk of the 'Bullimore effect'. Lately, that’s been amplified by the 'Lapthorne effect', and let’s not forget the Bangkok airport fiasco (where the government air-lifted 1,700 Aussie travellers out of Thailand to escape the discomfort of airport protests in Bangkok). And remember the ‘bar mat mum' escapade?

There are serious international crises where Australians genuinely need assistance, and the government devotes immense resources to resolving their plights. The massive evacuations from Lebanon in 2006 are an example (although again, travellers demands were often extravagant). Stern Hu’s arrest may be another.

But with the number of Australians travelling overseas now hitting over six million annually, the under-resourced consular corps must be near breaking-point. This stampeding herd of travellers almost doubled in size over the last decade, while tellingly, the total cases of consular assistance rendered by the Department of Foreign Affairs tripled.  In the last year alone, assistance with hospitalisations, deaths, missing persons, arrests, imprisonments, and even with lowly but time-consuming notarial acts, have all increased by five percent.

After Australia’s Diplomatic Deficit called for increased resources for our foreign affairs machinery in March this year, the 2009 Federal Budget allocated some $230 million extra to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT), AusAID and Austrade. While this was quite welcome news, in part it served only to reverse severe cuts in previous years’ budgets, and there are now murmurings that further cuts are around the corner. This will further weigh down DFAT’s ability to function, with an operating budget which has been declining in real terms, and a staffing level in actual terms, since at least 1999.

Australians’ demands for government assistance overseas are fast becoming unrealistic, and at present levels of resourcing, cannot be met.

Photo by Flickr user kandyjaxx, used under a Creative Commons license.