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DFAT\'s Cairo woes

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COMMENTS

3 February 2011 11:24

The common perception of the diplomat is of a champagne-swilling elitist hobnobbing it on the cocktail party circuit.

Perhaps this is why, budget after federal budget, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade gets such a drubbing. It's on again this year, with reports that DFAT's budget will be savaged again to save another $45 million or so. That means around 20 overseas positions (and more here in Australia) will be cut, and represents more than half of the Department's spending on consular services ($72 million last financial year).

Then along comes a crisis, like that in Cairo this week. And now we find those cocktail sippers hobnobbing it around Cairo airport in 'fluoro jackets bearing the message "Australian Embassy"...combing Cairo airport for Australians in trouble' (reported in The Australian yesterday; print only). DFAT has reinforced its small embassy in Cairo (six staff) with twenty more staff from around the region. It has organised an emergency flight a day for as long as the crisis requires.

But predictably, DFAT has come under fire for its management of the crisis. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop said Australia lagged behind other countries in evacuating their citizens. DFAT is in good company when it comes to complaints about its response. Canada's DFAIT took it on the chin as well, despite having organised flights for Monday and Tuesday.

But how did Australia's response (and DFAT's performance) stack up, really' 

Sure, the US got in quickly, evacuating 1200 on Monday and more on Tuesday. India, Israel and Canada flew people out on Monday and Tuesday as well. But the UK, according to this Wall Street Journal report, said on Monday that it wouldn't organise evacuation flights, then changed its mind on Tuesday, sending a plane for 200 to Cairo on Wednesday. Prime Minister Gillard actually announced Australia's first evacuation flight on Monday. As of that day, France and Germany were not providing flights, nor was South Africa. India, Israel, China, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Japan were. Finland's flight was due for Wednesday as well. 

DFAT head Dennis Richardson says he can 'understand why people in that situation (at Cairo airport) would feel very frustrated and annoyed'. He admits that DFAT may have made mistakes, but says that 'to characterise the response as tardy, slow or ineffective is just not right'.

On the basis of this brief informal survey, Australia's response was faster than some and slower than others. About what you'd expect from a nation of our size.

But there is a deeper issue here, one that we've raised several times before. The number of Australians traveling overseas every year has skyrocketed from 1 million ten years ago to 7 million now. The demand for consular assistance has risen in tandem. But the size of DFAT's diplomatic corps overseas — the frontline of its operations — has contracted by nearly 40 per cent in the last twenty years.

As I've argued here and elsewhere, the chronic underfunding of Australia's diplomacy leaves us with a Department struggling to perform even its most basic functions. This somewhat farcical account of Mitchell and Sarah's mum narrating her encounter with consular staff only emphasises the crisis within the Department. Starved of funding, training and coordination may well be languishing.

If Australian travelers want a caviar consular service, it's going to cost more than peanuts. 

Photo by Flickr user Floris Van Cauwelaert used under a Creative Commons license.

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