Roslyn Wells is a Sydney-based public affairs and international relations professional. She was formerly Director of Public Affairs at the Australian Consulate General, Hong Kong.
As Alex Oliver shows in her thought-provoking new Policy Brief, Consular Conundrum, the public pressure on DFAT and the Foreign Minister to act in high profile consular cases can be intense, propelling them up the priority list ahead of other more important work.
Some consular cases clearly do warrant intervention by DFAT and the Minister, as was the case with Australian ICC lawyer Melinda Taylor, who was detained in Libya. During my time as Director of Public Affairs at the Australian Consulate General in Hong Kong, the major consular case was the kidnapping of Australian-Chinese businessman James Peng, who was seized in Macau and imprisoned in China after falling out with a business associate who was also, saliently, the niece of Deng Xiaoping.
This was a long-running case, closely followed by the contingent of Australian correspondents in and around Hong Kong. It was also politically sensitive and complex, involving multiple jurisdictions and governments in Macau (then a Portuguese colony), Hong Kong, China and Australia. James Peng was released six years later after continuous efforts by DFAT. In retrospect, the James Peng case was a forerunner to that of Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu, currently imprisoned in China.
In his recent Interpreter post, Professor Hugh White asks: What do we want from DFAT? It's an important question, because at current funding and personnel levels DFAT must make some hard decisions about where to direct its efforts. Throw in the wild card of needing to respond to large-scale unforeseen events and situations, and the strain this puts on people and budgets is obvious.
Our overseas missions are already operating on tight budgets and have to be resourceful across the board, including in their public diplomacy programs. I know this from personal experience, having started my job in Hong Kong just as the One Nation controversy exploded, with damaging fallout to perceptions of Australia across Asia, daily negative media coverage and a real threat to our economic interests in the region, particularly the education and tourism sectors. It felt like being downwind of a nuclear reactor accident, dealing with the toxic fallout but being unable to stem the flow at its source.
In response Consul General Geoff Walsh, my team and I devised and mounted an ambitious public diplomacy campaign called The Many Faces of Australia to communicate the diversity of modern Australia to key audiences in the Hong Kong community. The campaign included commissioning Australian photojournalist Lorrie Graham to photograph the 'many faces' of Australians, which were then exhibited in Hong Kong and later toured southern China, with a reciprocal exhibition by a Hong Kong photographer.
We also produced books of the Many Faces exhibitions and they became effective tools in disseminating the diversity message more widely. A two-week visit to Australia taking leading Hong Kong journalists to meet politicians and officials and see the reality for themselves was also helpful.
Of course, none of this can be done without adequate funding. To carry out the Many Faces of Australia campaign, which ran for two years, we needed to augment our modest public affairs budget, so we secured corporate sponsorship and set up a cultural exchange collaboration with the Hong Kong Government. Then-Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer was supportive and came to Hong Kong to launch the exhibition.
The work DFAT does is real and important, and it's crucial to adequately fund our diplomatic missions so they can respond to issues and events properly, and promote Australia's interests effectively. With more Australians traveling and living overseas than ever before, the pressure on DFAT's consular officers to help Australians who find themselves in predicaments (whether of their own making or through being caught up in natural disasters, uprisings or other political events) has escalated. Yet DFAT's budgets and resources have diminished.
To help address this shortfall, Alex Oliver proposes a $5 consular levy on overseas airfares. According to her research, Australians take 8 million overseas trips a year, so that would mean a cool $40 million that could be directed towards consular assistance. That's a simple, fair way of helping to resolve DFAT's consular conundrum and diplomatic dilemma.
Photo by Flickr user johnmcga.