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All expenses paid: is consular help too generous?

The government wants to charge a Greenpeace protester for helping him — which might not be such a bad idea, given the high cost of consular services. But politics can decide who gets a bill.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has threatened to charge environmental rat bag Colin Russell for the $35,000 in consular help that got him out of a Russian prison. But if she wants Russell to pay, why isn’t she sending a bill to Schapelle Corby?

The Russell case may be just an excuse for the Abbott government to bait greenies, but it has highlighted a serious push for reform of Australia’s consular services, seen by some as too generous and expensive.

The government will help you out to quite a significant extent if you get arrested or fall ill overseas — and almost all of the time it will do it for free, and it will do it if you don’t have travel insurance. Some believe it’s time the government restricted the circumstances in which it will hold your hand on holiday. And there is some support for cost recovery in cases like Russell’s and Corby’s.

Russell, a radio operator with Greenpeace, was arrested by Russian authorities for protesting against oil drilling in the Arctic in September.  He was charged with hooliganism but was released last month. On his return he said the Australian government should have “gone into bat a little bit more for me”.

An irate Bishop responded with “of course the Australian government is going to support those in trouble, but there are circumstances where questions are raised why taxpayers should foot the bill”. She pointed to people who deliberately break local laws and don’t have comprehensive insurance as prime targets for a user-pays system — i.e. Colin Russell.

It’s interesting that the government does not appear to be considering cost recovery for Schapelle Corby, convicted in 2005 of smuggling drugs into Indonesia. Corby, a tabloid favourite, remains in a Bali prison and has received extensive consular assistance for nine years.

Nor has Bishop raised consular cost recovery from Matthew Joyce and Marcus Lee, businessmen detained in Dubai for four years on fraud charges (both were recently acquitted).

So would cost recovery be used only for people the Abbott government didn’t agree with, or the tabloids didn’t sympathise with?”

While Bishop went public with Russell’s bill, a DFAT spokeswoman declined to tell Crikey how much taxpayers had spent to help Corby, Joyce and Lee; “each of these cases has been complex and protracted and involved a considerable investment of departmental consular resources, but specific costs have not been estimated”.

So would cost recovery be used only for people the Abbott government didn’t agree with, or the tabloids didn’t sympathise with?

Dr James Cotton, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales, gave tentative support to Bishop. He said in cases where an Australian knowingly broke the law in a foreign country, “I think its reasonable to seek [cost] recovery”. Cotton said there was “some merit” in seeking costs from Russell and from Corby — and from Joyce and Lee because they were in Dubai to make money so could afford to pay.

The department’s being eaten alive by consular. It will be the Department For Australians Travelling,” Cotton told Crikey.

Consular refers to any help offered to Australians overseas, as opposed to more glamorous diplomatic work. Demand for consular services has mushroomed since the 1990s because more Australians are travelling and they are expecting more help — and the government has obliged (remember the “bar mat mum”?). Meanwhile, staffing at DFAT has been cut, and consular work — which is not highly sought-after by staff — is taking up a bigger share of the DFAT pie.

Last financial year there were more than 8 million overseas trips by Australians. Almost 12,000 Australians received consular help, and at any given time the department is dealing with 1300 cases. In 2012-13 there were 1372 hospital cases, 28 medical evacuations, 1247 deaths and 1365 criminal cases. Criminal cases take up about half the time spent on consular matters deals because they’re time-consuming.

DFAT’s consular services budget is $76.2 million for 2013-14, plus $550,000 for emergency loans for travellers. That budget is forecast to rise steadily.

The department’s Consular Operations Handbook shows why there’s such a high demand — Australia is quite generous. Every person arrested or detained gets a visit (sometimes many), and in some serious cases the legal defence is paid for. Consular staff will identify bodies, going so far as to record scars (staff are instructed to “describe them as accurately as possible, with linear measurements in relation to adjacent physical features”), and arrange for a corpse to pass quarantine so it can be transported home. DFAT gives emergency loans to travellers for all kinds of reasons, and will pay for medical evacuations — which can easily cost $60,000 — in some circumstances (DFAT says it tries to recover that money afterwards).

Full consular assistance is given to permanent residents and dual nationals even if they have not lived in Australia for many years and get into trouble in their other home.

There’s a review of consular services underway, and Cotton’s submission says this last service should be scrapped. He told Crikey he knew of dual nationals living at home in South America who had called on the Australian embassy when they hit trouble due to nefarious activities. “Are you really rescuing Australians from trouble, or is somebody using Australian documents for their own convenience?” he said.

The government’s issues paper that accompanies the review suggests focusing consular help on countries where “standards are lower”, rather than the United States and Europe. It also takes aim at demanding Gen-Y travellers: “Young travellers are significant users of consular services: the ‘25 and under’ age group has the highest number of cases.”

The Lowy Institute has been on the front foot on consular services, calling for a $5 fee (Crikey’s “Schapelle tax”) on all overseas plane tickets.

But while there are calls to restrict consular assistance, make the user pay or reduce expectations — a familiar call from former foreign minister Alexander Downer, for example — Cotton says it is not necessarily a bad thing that Australia helps its citizens generously. “We are the kind of country where we tend to help each other in foreign parts. I think that’s a cultural expectation.”

The deaths of a Queensland mother and daughter in Bali on Saturday, which Australian authorities appear to be heavily involved in sorting out, is an example of a case where few taxpayers would cavil over the cost.

25
  • 1
    The Pav
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Don’t have a problem with charging. Far too many Australians run to the Consular Service expecting help for the most trivial matters (lost luggage for heavens sake!)

    It should be preserved for genuine need ( eg Bali bodies) and where Australians fall foul of the law that they have adequate representation and fair due process. If an Australian is found guilty overseas after a fair trail then that’s it. We might not like the punishment but its their law. We don’t like it when our sovereignty is challenged or mores challenged.

    Can’t believe Corby is still getting help and should be required to contribute. The book sales and promotions have made this a real earner for her family.

    Save the service for those caught up in disasters etc

  • 2
    bluepoppy
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    The only reason the Coalition is raising this is because it involves environmentalists. Coalition groupies still think the environment is a separate entity from humans (as voiced by Corey Bernardi) rather than a whole ecosystem of which all parts have an effect.

    If it was a corporation in trouble they would be in there guns blazing with nary a thought about payments. There was no concern about costs when ASIS aided Woodside to bug the Cabinet Office in Timor with follow up assistance by ASIO to raid the offices of a lawyer acting on Timor’s behalf at the Hague.

  • 3
    drmick
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    The irony of Bishop, with a weddings parties or anything attitude towards illegally, immorally and unethically claiming our money for attending Ginas parties and her business friends weddings, trying to claim the high ground here is pathetic and galling in the extreme.
    Do they think no one is watching or dont they care?

    Cant expect much else from a political party that sets up young drug mules to be executed in another country or a shyster lawyer that tried to minimise payments for people dying from her employers asbestos.

  • 4
    Philip Bond
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    If we extend user pays principles to consular support, can we extend to parliamentary travel and superannuation? From my observation, politicians from both sides are there to serve the party at the expense of the electorate/voters. User pays, yes please.

  • 5
    exasperated77
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    If Greenpeace want to undertake high risk activities in countries with undemocratic governments why should the Australian taxpayer foot the bill for there activists? Why doesn’t Greenpeace have insurance to cover the costs of there own risktaking?

  • 6
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Good point drmick. How about some cost recovery for politicians’ travel expenses? - especially if the MP knowingly flouts the rules …

  • 7
    mikeb
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    No doubt it is an ant-greenie poke. There is merit in determining assistance based on merit but then who decides on that merit? In Corby’s case there is some doubt as to her guilt and certainly until she was convicted all help should be available. As for Russell - he knowingly broke the laws as a stunt but nevertheless Aust authorities should be relied on to assist where the punishment doesn’t fit the “crime”. Can you imagine yourself, accused overseas for a crime you didn’t commit, being refused help or being rendered broke in receiving help?

  • 8
    Terry of Tuggeranong
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Over-servicing of Australians in a spot of bother overseas began under Hayden as Foreign Minister and really got moving under Downer when it was realised the numbers involved and that there ‘might be a vote or two in it’!!! They stepped up again when we started servicing ‘Australian residents’ as well as citizens. Things really got out of hand when Howard decided that there ‘really was a vote or two in it’ if he could harness the Australian expat community by having Bob Menzies son-in-law (Peter Henderson) conduct a tame inquiry into dual nationality. Ask the god-forsaken Consular staff in DFAT what they think of governments of both colours over the approaches taken to consular assistance over the last 20 years or so since we stopped servicing Australian citizens only. As for charging this is another Abbott government kite. Once they realise that someone overseas in strife wants immediate and embracing assistance and will change their voting habit if they don’t get it this kite will hit the ground

  • 9
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Ah! but the Colin Russel is not as good looking as Schapelle Corby; drugs were not involved, nor is he tabloid material, therefore he should pay. Ms Bishop knows all about who should and shouldn’t pay when it comes to government money - she has form. Schapelle on release can look forward to a book deal, even a mini-series on tabloid TV, in total probably worth a million or two, last but not least continuing appearances on morning chat shows will all amount to $$$$++. For this government you don’t make future celebrities pay, that’s not the coalition way. Besides they don’t care about environmental issues as Colin Russel does.

  • 10
    Felice Ye
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    The reason we have a government at all is so that we can be better off collectively than we could be individually. If we can afford to help Australian citizens overseas — and given our relative wealth, it is hard to imagine that we cannot — we should.

    Further, allowing charges to be passed on on a case-by-case basis opens up the possibility of the government of the day playing ideological favourites, as pointed out in this article.

  • 11
    Jimmyhaz
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    The more I read about Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison, the more I feel that they must be an experiment to transform slime to humans gone horribly wrong.

    On a serious note, there would be no foot-dragging by this government were it not an environmental activist who was in trouble, yet another example of them placing their ridiculous ideology in front of their responsibilities.

  • 12
    Brendan Jones
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    DFAT let down David Wilson, killed in Cambodia, and tried to hide it: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/contributors/an-insiders-view-david-wilson-should-have-been-saved-20100205-nidh.html

    Would *you* trust DFAT with your or a loved one’s life?

    Charging for access to government services requires the customer to ask if the Commonwealth public service can deliver the best value for money. Given the lack of accountability, incompetence, maladministration and corruption within the APS, they wouldn’t be my preferred “service provider.” http://www.smh.com.au/national/public-service-keeps-fraud-cases-private-20110923-1kpdr.html + http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/our-costly-complacency-on-corruption-20130303-2fe2f.html + http://victimsofdsto.com/psc

    So if the government told me the APS were going to hit me with a big bill for their “services”, I’d rather take my money elsewhere and hire a professional who gave a damn about the outcome.

    As for billing Shapelle Corby, what if she turns out to be innocent after all? http://thestringer.com.au/expendable-the-political-sacrifice-of-schapelle-corby + http://thestringer.com.au/schapelle-corby-is-innocent + http://thestringer.com.au/schapelle-corby-is-innocent-part-2-operation-mocha

    Agree billing should not be on a per-case basis, because discretion by selective enforcement is open to abuse: Bill your critics. Give financial support to your friends. http://www.icac.nsw.gov.au/about-corruption/conditions-allowing-corruption

    If we’re talking about billing Joyce and Lee “because they were in Dubai to make money so could afford to pay”, then what about the allegations ASIO spied for Woodside and BHP? If true, should they at least reimburse ASIO to recover their industrial espionage costs? http://www.smh.com.au/national/australia-accused-of-playing-dirty-in-battle-with-east-timor-over-oil-and-gas-reserves-20131227-2zzmi.html + http://www.smh.com.au/national/australian-spy-agency-helped-bhp-negotiate-trade-deals-20131106-2x1sw.html

  • 13
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    I’m with bluepoppy on this one. If the Coalition wants to charge money it should be everyone or no-one. Not just those who they disagree with politically.

  • 14
    Rena Zurawel
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    So, at last Julie Bishop said something reasonable.
    The way I understand it, the Greenies acted against the law overseas. Should they try the same trick in many other countries, the punishment would be more severe. And, actually, they should try their luck in Bay of Mexico, where the disaster has already happened. Oil spills are all over the world. Greenies should be very busy across the planet.
    One thing I do not understand: why on earth, the adventurous Green activists do not pay indemnity insurance? Are they really devoted to their beliefs?

    It is one thing someone breaches other countries’ laws deliberately; it is totally another if someone gets into trouble unexpectedly without the pre-meditated plans of… publicity stunt..

    Indonesian children are in Australian custody because they trespassed Australian waters.

  • 15
    michael crook
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Have had enough of the term ” user pays”in our culture the real users never pay!! Australian Consular help should be available to help all Australians in trouble, that is what consulates are there for. The cost is far less than the incredible help that our corporations get at home and abroad.

  • 16
    Kevin Korb
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Minister Bishop’s response to Russell, and more explicitly your editorial, seem to suggest that Russell’s and Corby’s case are analogous. The illegality of the actions for which Corby was convicted is not in doubt. Russell was not convicted of anything. Furthermore, the legality of his arrest and the impartiality of the courts to which he was to be brought are both in doubt. The latter kind of case is a prime example of when Australia should be acting in defence of its citizens. Bishop’s response seems more motivated by vengeance than deliberation.

    While Prof Cotton’s remarks re dual citizenship, etc., are worth considering in other cases, they have no bearing to these two cases, so they simply muddy the waters.

  • 17
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    That’s the flip side to the user pays argument michael crook - it’s $76 million out of this year’s annual budget of well over $300 billion. Is it worth changing the system? - and if you did so, would some people who really need consular assistance reject it because of the cost?

    According to the budget papers the projected increase in consular costs over the forward estimates is not enormous, it’s supposed to steadily increase.

  • 18
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Russell didn’t commit a crime. Simple as that.

  • 19
    PaulM
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Paying for consular services seems like one of those ideas everyone would like…until it is them who needs the service. Why do we have a Foreign ministry if not to protect and support the interests of Australia and Australians. If it stretches the departmental budget, stop cutting the budget.

    Here’s an idea!: retain medibank Private in public ownership and use the dividend stream to support recurrent expenditure.

  • 20
    Peter Calder
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help but wonder if Colin Russell’s only crime is being a citizen of the country whose leader missed Vladimir Putin’s “happy birthday” song at APEC.

    http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/vladimir-putin-gives-late-tony-abbott-cold-shoulder-at-apec-20131008-2v61f.html

    Being the leader of a nuclear power and one of the most powerful people in the world doesn’t mean he can’t behave like a petulant child.

  • 21
    peterjimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s a complicated problem and like most complicated problems, the solution is simple but usually doesn’t work.
    To deny assistance to Australians convicted overseas would exclude a lady jailed for fornication whilst being raped in some Arab states, an aid worker jailed by a corrupt government or homosexuals in countries where this is a crime.
    Schapelle Corby was found guilty in Indonesia but any fair reading of The Expendable Project would raise a serious question, at the least, whether she’s guilty of smuggling drugs.
    The only workable solution would be for consular assistance to be at the Department’s discretion, but that would raise a host of other issues.

  • 22
    GLJ
    Posted Tuesday, 7 January 2014 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Yes to the taxes being spent on the well fare of the taxpayers. That is the idea. Australian environmentalist working for world environmental outcomes inside Russian jail deserves the .000011 % of the tax take.

    Parliamentarians flying Perth to Cairns for a real estate deal and football games is not worthy of taxpayers hard earned. Is there any doubt?

    Yes PaulM must agree. When the daughter is in the Jail in Italy or Sri Lanka I would hope the Australian mentality would want to help. Because it is not just money it is contacts and clout.

  • 23
    Sean Doyle
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    Firstly, I’m not sure referring to Colin Russell as a “ratbag” is all that professional. Barely worthy of News Ltd let alone a reputable publication.

    Secondly, if there is to be a “user pays” system, there has to be some proper rules in place. I personally think that given that Australian passports are already amongst the most expensive in the world (my Irish one costs about $100-$110 for 10 years) that the case for demanding further taxes or fees in airfares, for example, isn’t all that great. Also, $70m in the context of the federal budget is barely small change found down the back of the couch, so it won’t do much for the surplus. As was also said, a few less weddings to attend for the government would pay back much more than if Russell were to write a cheque for $30,000. But of course, the Coalition knows that entitlement culture doesn’t exist in their ranks……

    Another issue is that travel insurance often includes a lot of stuff that isn’t of much/any use to a substantial number of travellers, which may be pushing up premiums and making it unattractive to budget travellers. I’d like to see a strictly healthcare/medical evacuation only option (perhaps in a somewhat similar way to how there is 3rd party and comprehensive car insurance) introduced, either by legislation or, dare we dream, offered by the government itself, whether through DFAT or Medicare.

  • 24
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Wot SeanD sed -perhaps the author, like so many at Crikey HQ is just too limited by their Garneresque/Monkeygrip mexican summer daze to smell the eucalypt. Or frangipani or tundra spruce.

  • 25
    grubbidok
    Posted Wednesday, 8 January 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    The whole point of introducing passport fees in the first place was to pay for Australia’s consular and diplomatic services. The system is already ‘user pays’, what Bishop is proposing is an *extra* fee.

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