Looking after Australians overseas

17 October 2007   |   Policy Briefs   |   By Prof. Hugh White

As the number of Australians travelling and living overseas continues to increase, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has been forced to devote a growing proportion of its resources to providing consular services to Australian travellers. In this paper Professor Hugh White considers the impact of this resource allocation upon DFAT’s capacity to carry out its core tasks in the realms of traditional and public diplomacy. Professor White argues that the Australian government should set limits to the consular services it offers and refocus DFAT’s resources on core diplomatic activity.

‘Consular work and other short-term tasks have pushed aside the more important long-term responsibilities of our representatives abroad’. (p 11)

Key Findings
Demand for consular services by Australians overseas has grown significantly. Similarly, there has been growth in expectations of what Australian consular services should provide.
This has strained DFAT’s resources and inhibited its capacity to represent important Australian interests through traditional and public diplomacy.
Reasonable limits need to be set on what consular services DFAT provides and DFAT’s budget needs to be expanded.

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    In this paper, Professor Hugh White charts the reasons for the growth in demand for consular services and considers the difficulties the Australian government encounters in attempting to meet these expectations. According to Professor White, the significant expansion of consular services not only presents practical challenges with resources and priorities, but also raises issues of public policy principle.

    Professor White poses questions about the opportunity costs associated with such an extensive commitment of DFAT’s resources to the operation of consular services. According to White, this prioritisation has an adverse effect on the capacity of the Australian foreign service to carry out the diplomatic work with which it has been charged. Important diplomatic work in countries where Australia has significant interests has suffered as the allocation of DFAT’s resources has shifted from traditional diplomatic activity and public diplomacy towards consular work.

    This is not to say that Australian governments should not assist Australian citizens abroad. But Professor White argues for reasonable limits to be attached to what is promised by governments. Professor White makes recommendations on how the Australian Government can set realistic guidelines and limits to the operation of its consular services and communicate this reality to Australian travellers. Finally, he argues that in order to carry out ‘its core work in promoting Australia’s long-term international interests’ DFAT must receive increased funding.