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. 

For eleven years I was head of consular services for the Canadian Government and since retirement I have continued to follow the matter in considerable detail. The problems highlighted by Ms Oliver in her latest paper, Consular Conundrum, are similar in Ottawa: more citizens traveling at both ends of the age spectrum; a government reluctant to provide additional resources and a blind adherence to the idea that more can be done with less; citizens and politicians who believe that mere waving of the national wand will produce miracles in a foreign land.

As part of the solution to these challenges, Ms Oliver recommends large, widespread publicity efforts to condition travelers to prepare for the problems they may encounter in foreign countries. I have serious reservations on the value of such efforts, as they are rarely successful, extremely expensive and seldom sustained to the point that they influence behaviour. Canadian consular history is littered with a variety of such efforts and it is not unfair to say that they have bordered on the useless except that it gives ministers the illusion that they are doing something. One exception is the very targeted campaigns aimed at a select audience in a narrow time frame.

Another of Ms Oliver's recommendations is a consular fee or levy.

In 1996 Canada instituted the $25 Consular Service Fee that is collected at the time a passport is sold. Over the intervening years this has generated over C$1 billion in revenue and in recent years, with close to five million passports being sold annually, annual revenue of close to C$125 million. The Consular Service Fee is paid by those likely to need consular services and is cast at a level sufficient to meet the costs. Interestingly, there was very little adverse public comment when the fee was implemented and even today it is non-controversial.

Ms Oliver mentions technological innovation in her paper but there is a much bigger story here. Australia probably trails most countries in its efforts to use technology to lessen the costs and burdens of providing consular services. Canada was the first to deploy the Consular Services Case Management System (COSMOS) to manage consular services, a system I designed and implemented. It has allowed a range of services to be more effectively delivered and managed and at the same time, provided management with information on which services could be improved and costed. 

Early on, I thought other countries could benefit from such software, and it has since been purchased by New Zealand, Spain, Ireland, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK, with several other countries poised to purchase. Australia, since the late 1990s, has looked at the system but has preferred to try and develop its own system, with little success. In the process it has spent many millions and today it is about to try again. It is a common failure in the IT world for those in the back room to believe they can do better even when 'off-the-shelf' technology is available. They rarely do.

Finally, the international consular policy environment is sadly deficient and has not had coherent attention since the signing of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations in 1963. It is fifty years old this year and even at the time of its negotiation it was such a compromised document that it offered little (except Article 36) by way of governmental commitments to assist those in consular difficulty. It was the sad result of lowest common denominator treaty-making based largely on historical norms that a diplomat at the Congress of Vienna would recognise.

I have suggested for a number of years that it is time for the UN to establish a review conference for the Convention to see if additional supporting mechanism and principles can be included. The argument against doing so is the danger that we could lose what little protection there is in the existing document; I would argue that little would be lost in trying to do better.

Great attention is given today to the globalisation of most areas of human activity. Last year 1 billion people traveled to a foreign country. There is hope that the movement of peoples to the far corners of the world for education, tourism, business and family connections will bring about a long lasting desire for peace, tranquility, fraternity and economic progress.

The signs are there, but happenstance is a poor guarantee that the casualties along the way are not only minimised but helped. Of course, national governments retain responsibility for this, but there must be an acknowledgment that all governments need to work together. As we wander into the heart of the 21st century, no better monument can be created than a concerted effort by all governments to take the 1963 treaty and give it the norms that are necessary in today's world.

Photo by Flickr user US Army Africa.