Set in the Australian Embassy in Bangkok, the recent television series The Embassy provides a compelling insight into the myriad cases and challenges managed by our consular officers overseas.
Many Australians will agree that our consular officers are a national asset, helping the minority of Australians who find themselves in trouble while traveling overseas. Over nine million of us traveled overseas last year. While our Consular Emergency Centre hotline received over 53,000 calls, only 14,500 ended up requiring consular assistance. On any given day, there are around 1300 active consular cases around the world, ranging from arrests to hospitalisations, deaths and welfare queries.
Yesterday I launched Australia's new three-year Consular Strategy. First overhauled in the aftermath of the Bali bombings, the Strategy introduces a second wave of improvements to cement Australia's consular service as world's-best-practice, ensuring that our consular and crisis management work remains effective, efficient and agile enough to respond to the changing world and the needs of travelers.
In this digital age, the Strategy acknowledges that our public outreach through the smartraveller website (which had over 17 million hits last year) and use of social media must be stepped up, particularly in crisis situations. The Strategy outlines strengthened links to global consular partners, as well as improved connections with business and expatriate communities to extend the reach and impact of services and messages. Assistance for the most vulnerable, in the most difficult circumstances, is prioritised.
While the Government will continue to introduce innovations to meet changing circumstances, there are sound limits on our consular resources.
Nobody should argue against helping those in genuine trouble, but far too often our valuable consular assets are being diverted to help those who are more than capable of taking personal responsibility to solve their problems. The Embassy showed the high, and in some cases unreasonable, expectations that a small minority of the traveling public have of our consular staff. It also demonstrated that there is a limit to what our consular officers can do — and that Australian laws and practices simply don't apply in other countries.
Our Strategy recognises that Australians have a well-founded reputation as intrepid and independent travelers. It seeks to embed that culture of self-reliance, common sense and personal responsibility.
The Government is sending a clear message to individuals who have unreasonable or unrealistic demands: consular assistance is not a right and if you deliberately or wilfully abuse it, you cannot expect more than the absolute minimum level of assistance and advice.
Introducing cost recovery for consular services is not the Government's preferred approach because the vast majority of travelers do the right thing. However, some will only change their behaviour if presented with a negative consequence.
The CHOICE guide to buying travel insurance recently commissioned by the Australian Government was an opportunity to say again: If you can't afford insurance, you can't afford to travel – it's as simple as that. The Government is not your back-up insurance policy.
Photo by Flickr user oscar.