Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has called for public submissions on the development of Australia's consular strategy for 2014-16.
This is a welcome move.
The UK has had a formal, publicly available consular strategy since at least 2007, and earlier this year published its 2013-16 strategy. A well-informed and executed consular strategy can set some ground rules for consular engagement in a transparent and publicly accessible way.
My policy brief earlier this year outlined the problems confronting Australia's consular service caused by record levels of Australians traveling and living overseas. Most of these problems were referenced in the Foreign Minister's issues paper.
These problems are compounded by the impact of decades of political neglect and under-resourcing of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), a point we've made repeatedly. The Government has indicated elsewhere that it will review Australia's diplomatic footprint 'to ensure that Australia's global diplomatic network is consistent with our interests.'
However, the Minister's latest media release presses home the point that 'consular resources are finite', and her call for submissions argues that 'consular assistance should not be the first resort' for Australians caught up in disasters or political turmoil abroad. This suggests that one of the Government's primary consular strategies will be to educate the traveling public about the level of service it can reasonably expect.
Great if it were that simple.
There is a vicious circle operating here which was outlined in Consular Conundrum and to which the Minister referred in her issues paper: media attention on prominent cases tempts politicians to override departmental protocols and consular service charters and provide higher levels of attention and service, bidding up the level of service Australians expect when they encounter trouble overseas. The pressures of the 24/7 news cycle suggest that prickly consular cases will continue to attract attention which foreign ministers find hard to resist (although as shadow foreign minister, Julie Bishop showed signs of restraint).
The task of 'managing down' public expectations will be long and hard, and will require consistent efforts from this and future governments. This strategy is necessary, but not in itself sufficient.
My policy brief controversially called for the imposition of a small ($5) consular fee or levy on the cost of every airline ticket. The Foreign Minister has rejected this idea. But the issue of resourcing for consular services, and for the DFAT as a whole, will not go away. It is a crucial consideration in this examination of the consular service.