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.
We contacted fan group organisers, provided briefings for large touring groups, used Twitter and Facebook to distribute consular messages and hired mobile homes to serve as 'moveable consular offices'. In the end, the number of consular incidents was very low and the awareness and prevention strategies clearly helped in that. But the staff time and effort was obviously at the expense of other foreign and trade policy priorities.
I like the idea of some sort of fee for consular service but see some problems with an across-the-board levy on passports or airline tickets, the main one being that it simply serves to perpetuate the high expectations of the traveling public. DFAT staff are already told by consular clients that they pay their taxes so 'deserve' assistance. Such a cry would become even louder if Australians effectively 'pay in advance' for the consular service.
I also wonder about penalising the vast majority of Australians who take sensible precautions to avoid getting into difficulty in the first place and who do not see the government as the first point of call if they do. After all, according to the figures in Alex Oliver's paper, there were 20,000 consular cases out of 8 million trips taken per year – that is only 0.04% of travelers requiring some form of assistance.
An alternative would be a fixed, compulsory, 'after-the-event' payment from those who use consular services, graded according to the scale of service provided. After the Lebanon evacuation, it was suggested that those who had made use of consular services make a voluntary contribution to help offset the very high evacuation costs. Only a small percentage ever did. An arrangement could be made with the tax office to deduct the funds from consular service recipients or at a minimum the Department could make the future issuing of a passport conditional on the payment of the consular contribution (as is currently the case with repayment of consular loans).
Personally, I would like to see Australians complete a 'fit for travel' test or checklist before they receive a passport – a bit like the citizenship test for new arrivals. At the very least it would be an opportunity to put the key consular messages front of mind and remind travelers that with the privilege of a passport comes the responsibility to ensure their own safety and welfare in the first instance, including through actions such as taking out insurance.
Photo by Flickr user Codilicious.