The Foreign Minister's new consular strategy, which she wrote about here this morning, signals a harder new direction in the Government's approach to providing consular assistance to Australians in distress overseas.

The new strategy is the culmination of a year's work by the Minister and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, after the Minister invited submissions in December last year, (here's ours). The basic challenge for Australia's consular services, as the Minister outlined in her speech yesterday at the launch, is that the number of traveling Australians continues to increase almost exponentially – at 9 million trips last year, they've doubled over a decade and are five times the number 25 years ago.

With an increasingly anaemic budget, DFAT cannot continue to provide a gold-plated consular service at this rate of travel growth. And this is what the Minister was referring to when she said: 

I have decided to introduce the scope to limit consular assistance in some circumstances...[where] individuals have acted illegally or have deliberately or repeatedly acted recklessly and negligently and put themselves and others at risk despite warnings [or where there has been] a pattern of behaviour that has required multiple instances of consular assistance in the past.

This is a clear signal of a new and sterner approach. The Minister emphasised that consular assistance is a privilege, not a right, and that priority will be given to the most vulnerable and those in the most difficult circumstances. Assistance will be reduced to 'the absolute minimum level' if Australians 'deliberately or wilfully abuse the system'. Travelers are urged to take more responsibility for their actions, take out appropriate travel insurance, and not flout the laws of other countries.

Importantly, the Minister left as a 'live option' the idea of introducing a cost-recovery system for consular services. The way she phrased it, an up-front consular levy (which I have proposed in the past) is off the table, but the fall-back option of recovering the cost of services – which could range from hourly charges for advice and assistance to charging for emergency evacuation from crisis zones after traveling against government travel advisories – is a distinct possibility.

Of particular relevance to DFAT's consular work is Australia's overseas diplomatic footprint. Its embassies and consulates are the front line of the consular work and bear the majority of the burden on staff and resources. In the Q&A yesterday, I asked the Minister about the status of the Government's review of its overseas network. This network is  small and overstretched, with limited or no representation in the majority of countries in the world. We have no consulate in Phuket, for instance, one of the most popular overseas destinations for Australian travelers, and in a country where the highest number of Australians die overseas every year. In response to my question, the Minister said the review had been finalised and was being considered by the Government. While the Minister has advocated for increased funding for her department and an expanded diplomatic footprint, this looks increasingly unlikely after the ominous hints in the press yesterday.

Just as well, then, that the Government has introduced a consular strategy that attempts to conserve some of the Department's scarce resources. It will need them.

Photo by Flickr user Jeremy Little.