The harsh sentencing of Australian businessman Matthew Joyce in Dubai yesterday brings into sharp relief the Government's messaging on consular matters and the problems it encounters regularly in dealing with what I've called Australia's consular conundrum.

The conundrum is multi-dimensional, but one key aspect is this: Australians are traveling and living overseas in greater numbers than ever, and they are becoming more demanding of government to assist them when they encounter difficulties overseas. At the same time, political leaders respond to public and media pressure to service high-profile cases, raising public expectations of what governments can do to assist the nation's citizens in distress overseas.

Mr Joyce's family must be devastated. Various accounts of the case suggest at the very least that he has been subject to lengthy delays in having his case heard, and there are reports of related legal decisions in Australia which have not been taken into account in the Dubai courts. Dubai is not part of the UAE federal judicial system, and it has its own court system. Its ability to manage financial crimes has been called into question in the past, and there have been reports of harsh penalties for what Australians might regard as trivial offences.  

No matter how much we wish otherwise, Australians traveling and working in places with different political and legal systems and religious frameworks are subject to those systems and, on occasion, their vagaries and injustices. In responding to cases like those of Matthew Joyce, our government, and particularly our foreign minister, should clearly spell out the limits of Australia's ability to intervene in the legal systems of other nations. Julie Bishop made that point this morning. Foreign Minister Bob Carr did not.

Senator Carr has made 'more than 40' representations to the UAE Government and Ms Bishop has made it clear that she would do the same if in government, saying 'we would do all we could to make representations' to the UAE Government in an attempt to secure the fair and speedy resolution of Mr Joyce's case.

There is no doubt that the Australian Government, and its diplomats, will do their best to assist Mr Joyce and his family. But there is a doubt that their efforts will be successful, and that is a message that must be made clear to Australian citizens overseas.

Photo by Flickr user The Comedian.