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Australia's consular conundrum

26 Mar 2013 11:18

Yesterday I sat down with my colleague Alex Oliver to talk about her new Lowy Institute Policy Brief on Australia's consular conundrum (Alex also has an op-ed in in today's Australian).

I'm fascinated by this topic because it's such a classic example of the clash between politics and policy. The political incentives are all towards making consular issues an ever more prominent part of the Foreign Affairs portfolio. The fact that this is unsustainable without extra funding is obvious to all, but the incentives for fixing the problem rather than muddling through are low. As you will see at the end of the interview, Alex has a solution, but it will take political courage to implement it.


27 Mar 2013 11:40

Alex Oliver's new Policy Brief on the Consular Conundrum tells some great stories to highlight a key problem, and comes up with some very good ideas about how to fix it (I wish I'd come up with the idea of a consular levy on passports or air fares when I looked at this issue a few years ago).

But Alex also wisely places the consular issue in the broader context of DFAT's workload and the question of the priority that ministers, and ultimately voters, place on the different functions we expect our diplomats to perform. If we assume that they are rational actors, the fact that ministers and voters have been willing to see resources swing so sharply from what one might call 'real' foreign policy to consular work shows that they value the later more than the former. 


2 Apr 2013 09:44

Ann Harrap worked for DFAT for 20 years and was most recently Australia's High Commissioner to South Africa. She is now an independent consultant.

I couldn't agree more with Alex Oliver's policy brief on the consular conundrum facing DFAT, in particular her comments about rising media, ministerial and public expectations. For years, there was a joke around Canberra that DFAT was really the Department For Australians Travelling, an acknowledgment of the sometimes skewed emphasis of the Department on service rather than policy delivery.

As High Commissioner to South Africa I was well aware of the expectation that I should become personally involved in consular cases, especially if an incident hit the media. 

In some circumstances that is entirely appropriate, and the role of the Head of Mission in contingency planning and preparedness is vital. I spent weeks working with mission and Canberra staff on plans to prepare the more than 10,000 Australians who traveled to South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup for the potential security and health risks. 


4 Apr 2013 09:30

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.


8 Apr 2013 11:26

Katherine Ellena is a Research Associate with the US Naval Postgraduate School and a former New Zealand diplomat. The views expressed here are hers alone.

One of the key (but less remarked-upon) recommendations in Alex Oliver's policy brief The Consular Conundrum  relates to the managing of public expectations for consular services, something New Zealand's MFAT – like DFAT and its political masters – has struggled to do.

The establishment of government programs such as www.smartraveller.gov.au and www.safetravel.govt.nz have been useful in publicising travel advisories, providing information on consular assistance and encouraging traveler registration so that governments may track citizens in an emergency. There is a sense, however, that these services also raise expectations.


10 Apr 2013 16:09

Stephen Bartos is Executive Director of ACIL Tasman and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Finance.

Alex Oliver's Policy Brief on the Consular Conundrum points to the problem of rising expectations: 'successive Australian governments have progressively "bid up" the servicing of consular cases over the last two decades'.

Loss of self-reliance is not confined to Australians traveling abroad. Laura Tingle paints a picture in her Quarterly Essay Great Expectations of an Australia with an exaggerated sense of entitlement. We not only want our governments to do more, we then hate them no matter what they do. She says 'as a nation, a polity, we have not sat down and worked out what exactly we expect "the government"...to be and to do'.


9 May 2013 16:40

Gar Pardy was the Director General of the Consular Affairs Bureau in the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs for more than a decade until he retired in 2003.

The Lowy Institute's Alex Oliver is one of only two or three researchers and commentators in the world of foreign policy who broadens foreign policy matters to include consular issues. 

For the most part, consular affairs is the ugly duckling of foreign policy matters and rarely receives the intellectual attention it deserves, except when citizens are in difficulty in a foreign country and there is national clamour for governments to mount up and ride to the rescue. The understanding of what is to be done or can be done is as scarce as water in the Sahara. And there are few signs that understanding is becoming deeper or that there is even an urge for greater depth.

Ms Oliver has followed the consular policy scene in Australia for some years and has done comparative research in other countries in the hope that there are examples, programs and policies that might be of value to those who make the decisions in Canberra. 


14 May 2013 15:22

Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.

Gar Pardy, formerly with the Canadian MFA, has just added Canadian solutions to the exchange of best national practices on the growing consular affairs problem. The Lowy Institute's Alex Oliver calls it the Consular Conundrum, an apt name for the tension between the declining funds available for consular help to get citizens abroad out of trouble and the rising number of citizens getting into such trouble.

Let me add a Swiss perspective. The Swiss public, in absolute numbers quite a bit fewer (8 million) than either Australians or Canadians, make up for it by being among the world champions of long distance travel per capita. Over the last couple of years a few quite incredible cases of traveling foolishness by Swiss citizens stand out:


17 May 2013 10:22

Alex Oliver deserves congratulations for her continuing focus on the problems that confront DFAT, both as a result of the excessive demands made for consular assistance and the continuing reduction of its financing.

As she is very much aware, consular demands are a long-standing issue and I readily remember the Jehovah's Witness who roundly abused me in Phnom Penh over fifty years ago when, as a junior foreign service officer, I told him the Australian embassy could not intervene to prevent the Cambodian authorities expelling him for proselytising while in the country on a tourist visa.


20 May 2013 16:16

Kien Choong responds to our Consular Conundrum thread, in particular Alex Oliver's proposal for a levy to pay for DFAT's consular services:

I don't think a levy in travel is an efficient way to finance consular assistance. A true user-pays levy would be to send the bill to the individuals receiving consular assistance. If the bill is not paid, get the Australian Tax Office to collect payment based on the individual's taxable income much like the loan for higher education.

Payment is only collected if the individual's taxable income exceeds say $40,000 per annum. DFAT's colleagues in Treasury should be able to design something suitable. The money collected should I think still go to general revenues. Consular assistance should still be funded from the general budget allocated to DFAT. Just a suggestion. Treasury should be able to come up with something better I am sure. But a levy won't be an optimal way of raising revenues I think.


22 May 2013 08:31

Nikola writes:

The current debate on a consular levy has seen some good points with both sides of the argument highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of introducing a consular levy. I will try to contribute to this debate by proposing a middle ground solution.

As pointed out by readers and contributors, it would not be fair to 'penalise' Australia's whole traveling population based on poor decision-making by a minority few, nor can the ever increasing strain on consular resources be ignored. While increasing the passport fee by let's say $25, as pointed out by Gar Pardy, may raise sufficient revenue to subsidise the rising cost of providing consular service, it would be an unpopular move for any government (with a growing travelling population) to make. In fact, any solution requiring introduction of a levy, increase in taxes, or introduction of fees targeting the mass or a specific demographic group is bound to be met with fierce opposition.


23 May 2013 16:25

Andrew Farran writes:

A comment on the item Australia's Consular Conundrum in Dubai, in particular the concluding observation: '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.'

It is by no means the case that representations, government to government, should be the end of the matter where there has been a flagrant abuse of process in the target state. Dubai, like Australia, is bound by international law, a rule-based system on which Australia, and presumably Dubai, relies for its security and wellbeing in many respects, more so now that Qantas is so closely tied up with Dubai in their airline operations.

While in general governments should defer to the legal processes of the country where a citizen is detained, this principle is not absolute, especially where there are indications of a failure of natural justice or other factors that would taint a legal process.

Exceptions are well known and date back at least to early last century, and upheld by international courts and tribunals since, as stated in the 5th Edition of Oppenheim's International Law: