The Lowy Institute recently released a paper Consular Conundrum: The Rising Demands and Diminishing Means for Assisting Australians Overseas by Alex Oliver. While the paper is correct in some areas – especially the expectations that Australians have of the Government’s consular services – this is a rather superficial analysis.
Early in his first term as Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer provided the Government response to the Senate Consular Services Report of 1996. Among other things, Downer stated
We made an election commitment, in “A Confident Australia“, that consular protection would be a primary function of Australia’s foreign policy, not a diversion of secondary importance. That election promise has been fulfilled.
Oliver’s paper argues that, starting with Downer in 1996, successive governments have succumbed to the temptation to stoke public opinion by raising expectations for Government assistance to Australians overseas. Indeed, this seems to be correct. Most recently Foreign Minister Bob Carr has played the media card with the detention by the Libyan militia of ICC lawyer Melinda Taylor with multiple press releases and interviews when he could have operated behind the scenes and not raised expectations even further.
But Oliver goes too far when she suggests that DFAT is under-resourced. Comments such as
… DFAT has been stretched to the limit by decades of competing demands and under-resourcing (p. 3)
The chronic under-resourcing of Australia’s foreign service has made the growing consular load even more unmanageable (p. 6)
A quarter of a century of efficiency dividends has exhausted DFAT’s ability to find further savings (p. 8)
are mere assertions, and I maintain that there is substantial capacity for DFAT to improve its value to Australia by more effective organisation and management within existing resources. It is an incredibly inefficient organisation which needs a management shake up.
As for increasing consular demands, the chart below shows that there has been no systematic increase in consular workloads beyond that implied by the number of Australians travelling. Indeed, as the number of travellers increase, the capacity to service one-off major events should improve. There could be economies of scale in the provision of consular services for such large events (if not for the small day-to-day consular activies such as visiting an Australian prisoner).
The Report’s claim that
Since 2006, however, staffing levels have stagnated, with only 15 positions dedicated to consular work across all of Australia’s 95 overseas missions (p. 7)
seems odd since there are two large branches devoted to consular work in Canberra (the Consular Operations Branch and the Consular Policy Branch) each headed by a DFAT senior executive service officer and significant consular services throughout posts around the world. Three posts I know well have well over 15 officers devoted to consular services between them (both A-based and locally engaged staff). The arbitrary distinction of A-based an locally engaged staff is an artiface of DFAT’s structure and it is wrong to suggest that LES staff are necessarily worse at providing consular services than A-based officers; indeed many LES staff are very experienced Australians.
We should be cautious at accepting as evidence comments such as
According to experienced consular officials, these [consular] cases are becoming increasingly complex and demanding (p. 4)
without independent (external to DFAT) evidence. This is one of the concerns I have with Lowy Institute reports – they are produced with the close co-operation of DFAT (see, for example, the acknowlegements on page 10 and the references from pages 11 to 13) which is hardly an impartial source of information as to its own funding. This cosy relationship is further evidenced in The Secretary’s review in the introduction to DFAT’s annual report
Australia’s under-representation abroad compared to other countries has been well documented in studies by the Lowy Institute and others (DFAT Annual Report 2011-12, page 7).
This is self-referencing and hardly stands up as solid research. (An aside: is the Lowy Institute the public relations arm of DFAT? A question for another day).
What then of the increasing number of Australian travellers? Well they buy passports – and Australia’s passport fees are very high. For example (using a new adult passport application fee (total price)):
- Australia AUD 238
- UK: GBP 72.50 = AUD 105.75
- NZ: NZD 140 = AUD 112.44
- US: USD 135 = AUD 129.60
- Canada: CAD 87 = AUD 82.21
Australia’s passport fee is very high, yet this Lowy Report recommends an additional ‘consular levy’. That is a very bad idea – wouldn’t Australians paying such a levy expect even more from consular services?
The report also gives some examples of queries received by DFAT’s consular emergency services (ie: the phone line), such as
Could DFAT feed my dogs while I’m away?
This, again, is not evidence of underresourcing – the DFAT person would have just answered ‘no’. Hardly a very expensive effort. If DFAT is getting a large number of these types of requests it might suggest that expectations should be further managed, but citing a few egregious examples is creating a strawman and does not show a systematic problem.
I do agree, however, that governments have been fanning expectations from our citizens for services that would be considered outrageous if asked within Australia. If a relative is imprisoned within Australia there would be outrage from the Daily Telegraph if the Government paid the transportation costs to visit the jail. In respect of the Taylor case, for example, Carr could have worked behind the scenes and noted that Taylor is enjoying a large tax-free salary as an employee of the ICC which has sufficient resources and clout to look after its own employees. Carr could have said that Australia was assisting the ICC in pressuring the Libyans rather than grandstanding.
It is worth adding that expectations from ministers and parliamentarians for services when they travel overseas are also inflated. It is notable that DFAT establishes a separate office in the hotel in which the minister stays (even for one night) at vast cost and caters for the whims of ministers much as rock stars expect. The taxpayer pays a small fortune for ministers to stay at five star hotels but then DFAT provides services which could normally be expected of the five star hotel (effectively we are double paying). With parliamentarians having sky-high and unrealistic expectations of DFAT services overseas, perhaps the ordinary Australian expecting DFAT to offer dog minding services is not unreasonable.
- Yes, expectations of consular services are too high
- DFAT is well resourced and the Lowy Report does not provide evidence of any need for additional funding
- Australians pay too much for their passports and there is no justification for an additional consular fee.