Consular Conundrum

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 “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)

and

The chronic under-resourcing of Australia’s foreign service has made the growing consular load even more unmanageable (p. 6)

and

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.

In conclusion:

  • 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.
Source: DFAT Annual Reports

Source: DFAT Annual Reports

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33 Responses to Consular Conundrum

  1. WhaleHunt Fun

    “Carr could have said…”
    Carr is a fatous prick who mouths off and knows nothing about anything of value or significance for this or the last century.
    He looks like and is, a frog dried in salt. You can buy them in Asia in markets. Labor out one in the Senate FFS.

  2. WhaleHunt Fun

    Whoops… “put one” not “out one”

  3. Splatacrobat

    In conclusion:
    •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.

    I concur

  4. WhaleHunt Fun

    The dehydrated frog proves the need to change the constitution to replace dead or near dead senators by a poll, not by appointment by some sleazy coal mining licence entrepreneurs gaggled together as a “party”.

  5. WhaleHunt Fun

    Maybe DFAT stands for de-fatted toad?

  6. Amfortas

    I guess this means no help for poor old Rolf Harris who is being hanged out to dry by the British Press with a noose around his neck. Not even a mention of his name here despite all the allusions to his home and age. Gillard and Carr must have had his ticket stamped on. His boomerang is bust and his Kangaroo has bolted and the Iconic Australian’s two little boys have been verballed by the fuzz.

  7. Blogstrop

    Why is it called the Lowy Institute? Has Frank something to do with it?
    How come every time I hear of its doings it sounds like a lefty think tank?

  8. 2dogs

    Looks like they should consider replacing the passenger movement charge with mandatory travel insurance. DFAT can then operate on a user pays basis, and travellers who do the right thing will stop subsidising those who don’t.

  9. Blogstrop

    Ok, checked wikipedia. Lowy family endowment, mixed bag of directors, Judith Sloan good, Garnaut and Fullilove involvement not so good.
    Supplementary question. When you’ve made a motzah in business by being a typical mall magnate, screwing numerous retailers for outrageous rents which then have to be recouped via high prices to the general public, then add coupling to their turnover for the purposes of turning the screw further, do you then expiate your sins by becoming an endower of lefty think tanks?

  10. Up and down

    Why is the answer to everything raising a tax what happened to spending within our means?

  11. duncanm

    I agree with your arguments – but Carr is a side-show to this. The salted frog(*) is a grand-stander par-excellence, and has no interest in helping any stranded travellers or anyone else.

    * – ™ Whale.

  12. Alfonso

    Creative rent solutions from the Westfield state are legend. Recall that the corporation often has a feed from your till because it is also extracts a percentage of your before tax turnover. Beautiful work.

  13. wreckage

    Creative rent solutions from the Westfield state are legend. Recall that the corporation often has a feed from your till because it is also extracts a percentage of your before tax turnover. Beautiful work.

    But it’s the internet that’s killing retailers. Snort.

  14. Up down

    Can someone explain to me why raising tax is always the answer

  15. Tel

    …then add coupling to their turnover for the purposes of turning the screw further…

    The government charges rent on your life and couples their tax to your productivity for the purposes of turning the screw — no different to what the shopping centre does. When they introduced income tax (purely for funding the war of course) they thought it was the best idea they ever came across.

    The basic principle is that all protection rackets must obey Willie Sutton’s Law, which makes sense when you think about it.

  16. Jim Rose

    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.

    I never understood what consular protection was.

  17. Abu must certainly be aware of the thread. Expect a missive any second, now.

  18. stackja

    Are former Guantanamo Bay inmates denied consular protection?

  19. Borisgodunov

    Foreign affairs is a nest of lefties,the frog would feel at home there!
    We should cut the number of consulates ,1in New York to cover the Americas,1in London to cover Europe and Russia,1in Dehli to cover India,Africa,and the moslem countries ,1inChina to cover North Asia and 1 in Singapore to cover South Asia and the Pacific.Resign from the Untidy Nayshuns,ALL foreign aid to be spent on Public Housing in Australia!

  20. Mother G

    After living at seven Posts (not with DFAT),I know Consular officers very often do not actually like dealing with people. As for Ministerial visits, the over servicing is legendery and spouses are dragooned into taking Ministerial partners around.

  21. Jim Rose

    Consular officers very often do not actually like dealing with people

    True, after all, they sit the same entrance test as the diplomats do.

  22. Paul

    “Consular officers very often do not actually like dealing with people”

    Skanks demanding to be gotten off drug charges in Thailand and elsewhere probably get a bit wearisome after a while.

  23. Mother G

    Paul at 1.29pm. Yes, it can be very wearisome.It can also be a belief within the Australian public at large that whatever they do outside their own country is ok and because they should be rescued because they are Australian and pay no heed to the laws of the country they are visiting.
    We were not part of DFAT but with another Dept. We took people in “distress” into our own home only to be told by them it was our duty as we were being paid by the public purse and what we put on the table for them to eat was not as good as they would get at home.

    We did over 25 years O/S, I would not give back a day of it as I learnt a lot but some Australians overseas can be very very ugly.

  24. Mother G, thank you for confirming what I have long believed. I’ve seen ugly Australians overseas as well; my usual tactic is to pretend not to speak English when they lurch up to me.

    18 or more years of a consequence-free environment can lead directly to the death-fall-from-a-hotel-balcony-while-pissed that seems to be so popular with our young people these days.

  25. Jim Rose

    Consular adevice web site includes this:

    When you are overseas, local laws apply to you and penalties, particularly for drug-related offences, can be severe and may include the death penalty.

    The Australian Government can’t get you out of trouble or out of jail.

    do some people not know that?

  26. Jim Rose

    I should add that a large part of Philippine consular protection relates to assisting victims of domestic violence.

    Pinay brides to be cannot leave until they have attended a seminar on the dangers of marrying foreigners.

    There are seminars on Monday for the middle-east, Tuesday for Europe, Wednesday for North America and Thursday for Australia and NZ.

    There was a serial bride sponsor up in Queensland whose latest wife had a habit of suddenly disappearing. The police dug up much of his farm looking for them.

  27. Abu Chowdah

    Abu must certainly be aware of the thread. Expect a missive any second, now.

    Nice passive aggressive move, there, Winston.

    😉

  28. duncanm

    Can someone explain to me why raising tax is always the answer

    because shut up.

  29. Richard Bender

    Perhaps worth pointing out that a now ex-minister once caused a great deal of consternation amongst DFAT types in LA by catching a taxi from the airport to his (three star) hotel rather than take the offered limo.

  30. NoFixedAddress

    when you get rid of “d’ fat” kindly get rid of oz trade

  31. Looks like they should consider replacing the passenger movement charge with mandatory travel insurance. DFAT can then operate on a user pays basis, and travellers who do the right thing will stop subsidising those who don’t.

    As if mandatory travel insurance is “doing the right thing”?

    As someone who has spent years of my life travelling and done extensive research on travel insurance, travel insurance is not worth a pinch of shit. There are so many exclusions in cover that literally the only thing you are covered for is acts of god like the Phuket Tsunami, which happens once every 200 years or so.

    Travel insurance is an absolute waste of money, to the point where it’s more of a scam than an actual industry.

  32. Also, I’d like to point out that it’s not just our passports that are much more expensive than the rest of the world. No other country charges nearly as much tax on airline tickets as Australia does.

    In return for this, you get absolutely diddly squat from the consulate. Why are they even there?

  33. How about all you “deniers” (C) of consular service efficiency rent/buy/borrow the ABCTV series “Embassy”.

    Watching that will reveal just how much de Fat do for us all.

    (Disclosure, DFAT are among my better paying clients).

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