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The rising cost to DFAT of Australians travelling abroad

There was the request for advice on how to get a polecat out of a roof. Another asked whether consular staff could help pack his bags. And a plea to an embassy to pay a prostitute.

The anecdotes from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop this week gave punters plenty to laugh at. But the updated consular strategy released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade — revealing a stricter approach to the provision of consular services — was also an acknowledgement that the combination of stagnating budgets and needy, itchy-footed Aussies is causing headaches.

One foreign affairs watcher believes the department’s “anaemic” budget is stretching resources like never before. And a former diplomat told The Mandarin the government is signalling further funding cuts — and more personal responsibility for Australians overseas.

Releasing the Consular Strategy 2014-16 on Wednesday, Bishop said it “emphasises there must be less latitude to the small minority who have unreasonable demands of consular assistance or whose actions are wilfully reckless”. While the Foreign Minister insisted the measure would have a “miniscule” effect on the bottom line, the decision to release the traveller tales was undoubtedly part of an effort to stem the problem of consular assistance chewing up an ever-larger portion of DFAT’s budget.

In the 12 months to November 2013, Australian residents made 8.8 million overseas trips — a number that has doubled in the last decade, and is five times greater than 25 years ago. This has led to a doubling in the number of arrests, deaths and hospitalisations of Australians overseas over the last 10 years. Under-25s and over-55s, who are more likely to require help, have doubled and tripled respectively in the past decade.

DFAT is faced with a dilemma. When situations aren’t handled satisfactorily, there can be a backlash from the media and politicians — but every time a case is handled well, it raises expectations. It doesn’t help that some of the most high-profile cases are situations in which consular services are not supposed to intervene, meaning the exception becomes the rule.

[pullquote] “We have one of the smallest diplomatic networks … of all developed nations, and the smallest in the G20.” [/pullquote]

Meanwhile, DFAT’s budget has barely risen. Staff numbers at the department rose 6% between 1997 and 2013, compared to 60% for the public service as a whole. The department’s share of government expenditure has halved over the last decade and it has been subjected to 29 successive years of efficiency dividends.

DFAT’s resources “have stagnated, and its budget is looking increasingly anaemic”, says Alex Oliver, director of polling at the Lowy Institute.

“We have one of the smallest diplomatic networks (or ‘footprint’, as the minister calls it) of all developed nations, and the smallest in the G20. We often don’t have representation in very important places, such as Phuket, which is one of Australia’s most popular travel destinations,” he said.

Consular services, she argues, are “constantly stretched” — particularly when crises hit, like the Bali bombings, the Arab Spring or the Boxing Day tsunami. In these situations, the agency ends up having to “rob Peter to pay Paul”, in the words of former DFAT secretary Dennis Richardson, taking resources away from regular diplomatic work to help in the crisis.

“So, in anticipation of a continuation of this increasing consular burden, the department and the minister are attempting to rein in travellers’ expectations of the gold-plated consular assistance some seem to expect, so that they can focus the department’s limited resources for consular service on those who need it most — the vulnerable, those who unavoidably find themselves in severe difficulty, child abduction, forced marriage, serious illness or injury, victims of crime and so on,” she told The Mandarin.

‘Managing expectations of travellers’

One of the recommendations Oliver made in her submission to the review into consular strategy was that the government “manage expectations and refine DFAT’s consular messaging”.

Oliver adds that “it’s interesting that the Minister in her speech yesterday deliberately left open the idea of charging for consular services — something she’d ruled out in the past but now leaves as a ‘live option'”.

Former diplomat Bruce Haigh believes the changes suggest the government may be moving towards cutting foreign affairs funding in next year’s budget, after slashing foreign aid this year.

He says governments are at least partly responsible for the inflated expectations of Australian travellers, arguing that, going back to the Howard era, they have “created an environment of expectation because an Australian abroad was a very important and special person”.

But Haigh thinks “if you’re travelling abroad and something happens, if you’ve got your faculties, it’s your responsibility”. Especially if you’ve been caught doing something stupid, like selling drugs. “You’ve made that decision, it’s got nothing to do with the Australian taxpayer,” he told The Mandarin.

In his experience working in postings overseas, it’s common to encounter Australians making unreasonable demands, who sometimes do things like make threats to complain to politicians back in Australia if staff refuse to help. Haigh believes spelling out, clearly and publicly, where the boundary is would allow staff to get on with their jobs.

He says Bishop and DFAT “should set out clearly what sort of cases they are going to handle. If evacuation is required, they should become involved — if it gets difficult. It’s not difficult to get out of America, but it is difficult to get out of Peru, for example.

“It’s a judgment call. I don’t have any time for people who come to the embassy and say their wallet was pinched and ask us to call their bank to cancel their cards. They should be able to do that themselves,” he said.

One area where the lines are particularly blurred is Australians living in other countries, he says, with around 1 million doing so at any time. Currently, dual citizenship or where people pay tax, vote or usually live are not taken into account. Haigh says this is an area of confusion for departmental staff.

“Australians living overseas is one they should spell out. If you know what the rules are, you’ve already limited your expectations,” he said.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.