Commentary |
29 March 2020

Coronavirus has shown Australian travellers have too high expectations of how the Government can help

In an opinion piece originally published on ABC News website, Alex Oliver describes the high expectations Australian travellers have of the consular assistance government can provide in a crisis. The original article can be accessed here.

Alex Oliver
Alex Oliver

The coronavirus has revealed some disturbing conflicts and unpleasant traits in the national Australian character as Australians find themselves under pressure at home and abroad.

Australians have prided themselves on their resilience, mateship, adventurous spirit and rugged individualism. These traits were displayed with pride in the recent bushfire crisis which now seems a distant memory. Yet it is disturbing in the current crisis to see these qualities recede to an equally distant past.

Australians are a travelling nation of individuals. Around one million of us live permanently abroad. Last year Australians took more than 11 million trips overseas. They are seeking adventure in far-flung places. Older people are travelling more; younger generations are also taking advantage of cheap airfares to exotic locations. Mostly, this is an immensely positive experience. Today, everything has changed.


There are currently almost 700 Australians in various parts of Peru, a number of whom desperately want to come home. Most travelled there for adventure and a foreign experience. The rapid escalation of the COVID-19 virus has seen closed borders, banned aircraft, flights cancelled, airlines crippled. But those travellers, who no doubt pride themselves generally on their rugged individualism and resilience, now seek government assistance to rescue them from an impossible situation of their own creation. Gone is the resilience; in its place are cries for help, along the lines of “where is the helicopter to get me to Lima”; “where is the government-sponsored Qantas flight to get me home?”, and “why should I pay more to get out of here”? “The Australian embassy (in Lima) is closed. The embassy has been no help”, one tourist is reported to have complained from Peru.


Worse, some Australians boarded cruise ships after explicit government advice on 9 March against cruise travel, particularly for older travellers with health issues. Borders were closed on 15 March to international cruise arrivals in Australia. We all know what happened then. There is to be no repeat of the Ruby Princess; we won’t allow sick cruise passengers to disembark in Australia. But the same rules don’t apply to Australians on ships abroad. One foreign-flagged cruise ship, the Norwegian Jewel, was allowed to dock in Honolulu, after Australia worked furiously with friendly countries to negotiate with US authorities to override American port closures. The Australians on board have now flown home on a chartered Qantas flight. And that is just one of the 20-odd cruise ships carrying more than 2500 Australian leisure-cruisers currently at sea.


With so many Australians living and travelling abroad, it is literally impossible to repatriate each one of them in such a crisis, as Foreign Minister Marise Payne has warned. There is no magic wand, and in some cases there is little the government can do.


Yet the government, and its Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has not stopped trying. It recognises Australians are facing real hardship far from home, and is doing everything it can to help, regardless of ill-timed decisions to travel. According to senior officials, the department has made a “huge pivot” to do everything in its power to assist even those who have travelled against explicit government advice. It has activated its emergency call centre fielding thousands of calls; put staff on night shifts to ‘shadow’ struggling diplomats attempting to operate in different time-zones with hobbled offices. Spare a thought for those officers who heeded their employers’ advice and sent their families home while that window remained open to them. They are now alone, some of them sick, unsupported by family, facing health dangers themselves in places where the crisis is at its most acute, working extended hours in self-isolation with locked-down offices. 


The pressures are compounded by Australia’s thinly-distributed diplomatic network. We are a wealthy nation ranked 13th in the world on the size of our economy, but with only the 27th largest diplomatic network - smaller than those of Belgium, Portugal or Chile. Many of our missions are tiny, with very few staff. Lima – the embassy which has “done nothing” for Australians in Peru – is one of them. If a staff member at an embassy or consulate gets sick (and some have), the self-isolation rules and remote working constraints are crippling. Back at headquarters in Canberra, remote working is limited because of the security requirements for the department’s communications systems; many staff remain at work, practising social distancing in the office.


Several years ago these issues were raised in a Lowy Institute policy brief to government. The brief highlighted the vicious cycle created by steeply-rising numbers of Australian travellers, escalating expectations of the assistance government could provide, and the political pressure to over-deliver on helping Australians in trouble abroad. The department and then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop helped to break that cycle by sending clear messages to Australians (and to the media which stoked their expectations) of what the government can and can not do to help them. Some progress had been made. But this crisis is reactivating that cycle and that is not in our interests.

Back here in Australia, coronavirus has produced an “every man for himself” mindset when it concerns stocks of toilet paper and pasta, and the degree of care individuals bring to the imperative of social-distancing. There has been little of mateship on display. But this “every man for himself” attitude crumbles in the face of adversity abroad. Now, it’s “I can’t do it myself”. Our resilience is not what it used to be.