Crikey is inviting Australian travellers all over the world to send in their stories about consulate staff working for the Foreign Affairs department. Blow the whistle if necessary or give them a pat on the back. Here is a sample of what has come in so far.

I’m surprised at the general slagging offered by Flip Peters. Aside from gratuitous commentary on how British the Australian HC is and how dare the Embassies in Vienna, Rome and Paris adopt local hours (what would he suggest they do – Australian hours in the middle of the night?), the rest of it smacks of conspiracy theory. Perhaps he’s spent too long in the Middle East. From my experience, the Embassy and its staff in Tel Aviv do an excellent job dealing with the difficult situation of treading a narrow line between highly polarised and emotive local positions.

If he thinks the Embassy’s the English Speaking arm of the Israeli government, he should direct his ire at the Australian government. The Embassy is simply doing what it’s been told by Canberra. And the poor petal doesn’t get invititations to Australia Day functions (assuming it even has an Australia Day function). Please. Is he pissed that he’s not on the Embassy’s Social A list? Perhaps he slurps his soup. Finally, on not getting the vote forms. I live in the US and also didn’t receive them until it was too late to vote. The reason had nothing to do with my political views or current occupation, but everything to do with delays at the Electoral Commission in Australia.

From my experience in the Middle East and elsewhere, the folks at the Embassies do a great job looking after Australians who get into trouble or need help. Compared to what’s on offer from other countries, this is one thing the government does right.

Name withheld

Three cheers for the Australian consulate in Damascus, Syria

While on a solo, two-year backpacking jaunt through Asia and the Middle East several years ago, I had no problems requiring consular assistance, so have no whinges.

Quite the opposite. After lobbing overland into Damascus and staying at a groovy courtyard crash palace near Martyr’s Square, I, a few Aussies also there and a Canadian, heard rumours that the Aussie embassy was worth checking out.

Now, the Martyrs Square precinct in Damascus is not Koh Sanh Rd, or Kuta, or Goa, or even Paharganj.. Not many fun places in which to kick back in a place with six storey high portraits of President Assad draping buildings, so the scent of a good Friday night out was irresistable, and despite having only a vague knowledge of its location, we travelled to the Oz embassy via a series of public minibuses one fine balmy evening.

We approached the gate and were admitted. If memory serves, we found our way either out the back or to a basement, to find: Yes. The Roo Bar. A bar teeming with consular staff, blue-helmeted UN personnel, and a good many consular staff from far less partying consulates nearby.

We had to buy a card for ten beers (This particularly impressed the Canadian in our midst), and got stuck into it, playing pool, darts, etc, and having a whale of a time. Several of my companions snuck out and frolicked in the embassy pool, and were kindly asked to remove themselves before redressing and returning to the bar. It was a great night and I’m still not sure how we got home.

It was fun and relaxed and a bloody good advertisement for Australia. I didn’t hear of any other country’s consulate having pissups anywhere.

Dave

>b>Embassies that go native

Dear Crikey

Many Australians in our Embassies, Consulates and High Commissions “go native”. This is partly due to the fact that they employ locally recruited staff, deal with the foreign ministry officials of the host country and also locals seeking visas or assistance are their primary contact with ordinary people.

So, the High Commission in London is more British than the British, the Embassies in Paris, Rome and Vienna adopt local working hours and work conditions and so forth. The Embassy in Tel Aviv takes things a step further. It seems to regard itself as an English-speaking arm of the Israeli Government.

I worked as part of a NGO living and providing humanitarian support in the Occupied Territory (West Bank) for several years. There was no local consular assistance except through the British Consulate in Jerusalem and our only links with the Australian Government were via Tel Aviv. Amman (Jordan) was as close as Tel Aviv, but virtually impossible to get to in a hurry.

Having worked in Europe before and after, I am aware of the courtesies extended to Australians overseas by Embassies etc. The Tel Aviv Embassy made it quite clear that I would expect no invitations to the Australia Day function etc. “Too bad”, you may think, except that the reason given was that I wouldn’t be welcome due to the nature of my work (saving the lives of refugees) and where it was undertaken (in land illegally occupied by Israel).

Subsequently, ballot papers for State and Federal Elections were posted to me the day before they had to be returned to be counted. My democratic rights weren’t important.

Then, when the US threatened to bomb Tehran in 1998, the Embassy made it clear to me that I could expect no support from the Embassy should Iraq retaliate by sending missiles towards Jerusalem and Israel, because I had chosen to live with “the Arabs”. They suggested that I should travel to Jordan, ie in the direction that the missiles would be coming from. Thanks guys.

Still, based on the recent comments of Lex Loser and the Rodent on the Middle East, the Embassy was probably only spouting Government policy.

Yours truly, Flip Peters

Good work in Vancouver

Dear Crikey,

I had a good experience with a Consulate, this time in Vancouver, Canada.

I had lost my passport after a big night out in Boston, Massachusetts, (where you need a passport to get into any bars/clubs – drivers licences are not allowed), but made the mistake of not realising this until I was in Seattle, and about to take a bus to Vancouver.

The assistance offered in Seattle was terrible, and I was informed the easiest way to deal with things was to go back to New York, or wait in Seattle for 3 to 4 weeks.

After a little bit of initiative, I had arrived in Vancouver sans passport, and they were only too helpful. 24 hours later, and a vote in the Republican Referendum done at the same happy venue, and I was on my way again with a shiny new passport, complete with work visa sorted!

Stuart

A troublesome Singapore birth

I’ve been reading with interest the stories on Australian embassy staff, having had a fairly horrible time with the high commission in Singapore after the birth of our daughter last September.

For Grace to stay in Singapore she had to get an Australian passport immediately, so we could apply for her dependent’s pass. This was obviously an opportunity for one gigantic bureaucratic nightmare, exacerbated by the fact all the staff at the high commission seem to have a built-in rudeness quota (a staff requirement?).

Initially we had to apply to register Grace as an Australian citizen, which entailed two visits to the high commission and several hours of waiting, plus $100 bucks in fees. Easy so far, I thought.

The passport was another matter. Granted I should have taken more care, but then again, so could the high commission staff. Our witness (a high profile Singapore doctor) accidentally filled out his bit in blue pen instead of black. So when we presented ourselves at the high commission we were told in no uncertain terms to fuck off by the staff, who couldn’t explain to us WHY it had to be in black pen (for computer purposes? we have no idea) or show any sort of understanding.

So try again we did. Suitably black-penned forms were taken back. But what’s this? the photos were a little “grey” and Grace’s eyes weren’t open quite enough (seriously, they got our a ruler).

Third time was the charm, with Grace frighteningly wide-eyed in her pictures (even now Singapore immigration reel back whenever they open her passport). In contrast, the Singapore employment office were positively helpful and efficient, which if you know much about them is pretty scary.

I understand there is a process that has to be followed, but do these people have to be totally devoid of flexibility, understanding and humour?

Cheers, Jane

No visas on a Friday in Harare

Like the Pommie plonker I am, I misunderstood my permanent resident’s visa and I left Oz with it having run out. I arrived in Harare on a Thursday evening a few months before things became hairy.

Realising that this would be my only chance to renew the visa without expensive changes to flights I decided to delay my safari by one day.

Guess what? Friday was the only day the Australian High Commission didn’t issue visas. After pleading with an African women with attitude she agreed to do it for me. I gave her my application andI went down to the mall below to try a cash point which didn’t work. So I queued for a couple of hours in the bank with the chearful locals. When I returned I was harangued for taking so long and was told to come back at later that day.

I must admit I chewed through my nails that day as I was given the strong impression that I may not get the visa on time. But I got the visa and was thankful as they didn’t have to turn it around so quickly.

But I could have done without the attitude.

Ed

Cannot praise them enough

Some 15 years ago, my sister-in-law was diagnosed as having a highly malignant brain tumour. Her husband was at a conference in Brussels and could not be contacted as the conference was in session. I was asked to make arrangements to get him home as soon as possible. This was at 7.00pm on the day of the diagnosis.

At 7.30pm I contacted the Consular Branch duty officer in Canberra and they gave me the number for the Embassy in Brussels. I called the Consular officer and told him of the situation. He drove to the Conference venue, had my brother-in-law paged during the proceedings (there were hundreds of delegates in many simultaneous sessions) and drove him to his hotel. While my brother-in-law packed, the Consular officer organised a flight to London and an almost immediate connection to Australia. He then drove him to the airport. About 30 hours later, my brother-in-law was back home.

I wrote to the then Secretary of the then Department of Foreign Affairs congratulating him on the performance of his staff. I had no response.

PS – Following surgery, my sister-in-law was given 12 months to live, at best. Today, she has a normal life expectancy and in the intervening period has had two more children and completed further postgraduate studies.

I cannot speak too highly of our overseas representatives, their initiative and their professionalism.

Anon

Lonely Planet knows more than New Delhi high commission

Dear Crikey,

The report on useless consular officials reminds me of the New Delhi high commission. I was working on the Lonely Planet India guidebook and was set to visit the troubled North-Eastern region.

The North-East is home to a dozen or so rebel armies, including the obscure but nasty United Liberation Front of Assam, the Bodo Liberation Tigers and various armed factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland.

Suffice to say travelling there is uncertain at best, and for much of the 1990s the Indian government forbade foreigners from visiting most of the region.

So anyway, I decided to call in on the high commission to get the lowdown on the latest travel advisories.

How dangerous would it be for me to travel there? The consular official seemed to have barely heard of the region. So how do you decide whether it is safe for Australians to visit, I asked?

‘Oh, I think we mostly read the Lonely Planet guide’, she replied.

Gulp.

Impossible to reach anyone in Italy

Ever tried calling the Australian embassy in Italy?

I had reason to do so last week, and it’s a frustrating impossibility to reach a real person.

It’s one phone menu after another — and once you finally think you’ve found a way through to a switchboard operator, you get “mailbox full’ and the line drops out.

I’d hate to be trying to reach them in an emergency – and don’t bother about email.

I’m still waiting for the reply to the one I sent last week.”

The consulate staff in Italy should work Australian hours

Of course each consulate and embassy is different and probably influenced by the culture in which they find themselves. However I do remember asking a senior staff member at the Australian Embassy in Rome to assist with some introduction (trade) to an Italian Government organization on the Friday before an Australian national holiday (on the Monday). When I eventually got through to the particular official I was left in no doubt that I was spoiling their long weekend and that if I did not make it to the Embassy before 10am I should leave it until the following Wednesday! If we still manage to turn up for work in Sydney before a holiday, why can’t they?

‘Eric Exporter’

Great service after ferry fiasco

A number of years ago I was travelling through Europe on a very tight budget. I was in Paris and needed to get back to London to catch my very cheap flight home. As with many travellers, I timed it so I could get back to London with a few hours to spare to catch my plane, and with only enough money left so I didn’t starve on the way.

As is usual, even with the best laid plans, something went wrong. An hour or so out into the channel from Calais to Dover, the ferry developed trouble and had to turn around and go back to Calais. That left me in the position of not being able to get to London in time to catch my plane, and with no money to do anything else.

Apparently there was no Australian consulate anywhere nearby, so after much jumping up and down by me, refusing to move until I got some assistance and definite information, the ferry company called the British consulate in to help.

The Consul (Ambassador?) himself travelled to Calais to sort the situation. He personally bought me breakfast (or by this time nearing lunch) at the ferry terminal, and had his staff telephone the airline to get me on the next plane out.

When it was established that I could not get a plane for 3 days, he organised with the Australian Embassy in London to lend me money to get me through the three days. As I would not reach London before closing time, he arranged for somebody to stay at the Embassy until I did arrive.

He also organised accommodation in London for the 3 nights I would be there. He then gave me an after hours telephone contact number in case I had trouble at the Australian Embassy in London, before putting me on the next ferry.

Over and above the call of duty, and much appreciated.

Kathleen

Very good and very bad

Dear Crikey,

As a long-term Sandgroper expat living in Asia I was very interested to read of the experiences of your various contributors. It is certainly true (like any government department) that good – and very bad – service can be expected from time to time.

What is outstanding in the consulates and embassies that I have had dealings with is the lack of understanding of the role that they play. Certainly helping fellow citizens is a very low priority when compared with arranging wine tasting nights and other money wasting exercises. The scale of the waste of tax dollars is staggering, but that’s another story.

Case in point: my first child was born in Singapore earlier this year. The next day, I drop by the embassy in the early afternoon to apply for a “Certificate of Citizenship by Descent” – the first step to getting an Aussie passport. All I have to do is drop in the form. Unfortunately, the poor dears work so hard in the morning (9am to noon) that they need a nap in the afternoon and can’t accept documents once the sun has reached its zenith. Must be some kind of record for shoddy public service! I would have throttled someone if it hadn’t been for the Gurkhas guarding the building (supposedly from Islamic terrorists; more likely p’d-off Australians).

Another round of pims anyone?

Steve

Plenty of help when stranded by Ansett in Bali

My partner and I found ourselves stranded in Bali last year when Ansett collapsed! In the event we never did set eyes on the consulate in Denpasar, but the woman at the other end of the phone line was extremely helpful and professional. And her advice — to contact Qantas — was enough to provide us with a relatively trouble-free return to Oz just 24 hours late (so, a big thanks to the folks at the Flying Roo, as well).

Sure, the consulate staff never actually walked over cut glass to get us home, but in the midst of what I can only imagine to be general and massive mayhem, they did manage the situation in a very efficient and friendly manner. We would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their help.

Murf

Shot in the Philippines

With all the criticism of DFAT and our overseas posts I thought I would relate a story where they actually did a good deed (it may be isolated).

A few years ago a friend of mine was in the Philippines and her companion got shot – innocent victim of a drive by gang shooting – and needless to say she was in a panic and didn’t know what to do.

She phoned me in a bit of a state and I phoned DFAT in Canberra (it was Sunday) and in about three hours they had located them in Manila (I didn’t even know what hospital they were in – you sort of forget to ask vital information like that).

They sent a person from the embassy to check they were okay (with follow up visits until they could relocate her companion to a hospital back here), contacted the parents in Australia and phoned us back that evening to tell us that everything was sorted.

I reckon they (Canberra and Manila) did a fantastic job, particularly as I didn’t have all the information I should have.

Cheers, JT

DFAT provide plenty of warnings for Spanish trouble

I work for a travel agency that sends Australians to Spain (of all ages). Unfortunately, tourists get robbed in Spain – and many times the tourists themselves have not been vigilant enough (despite being warned by us and the Dept of Foreign Affairs).

Our experience is that the Embassies and Consulates do an excellent job – looking after large numbers of distressed Australian tourists. It is not just lost passports unfortunately – there are deaths, rapes, assaults, injuries, etc etc. They do a very good job! Your report simply does not ring true. Did you contact Consular Section in Dept Foreign Affairs and ask about number of complaints compared to number of cases handled? Perhaps you are were more interested in trying to be amusing.

I understand why none of my friends and colleagues have heard of your magazine with reporting like that.

Roger

Do they ever work in Croatia?

A seasoned traveller writes:

“Just what is the role of these guys?

The Australian consulates that I have been in touch with over here in Europe are shocking.

The one in Croatia keeps hours like 11am to 1pm and carried an attitude of “Don’t lose your passport because I really cannot be bothered filling out the forms to get you a new one.”

Or the guy in Spain, whose outlook is “Look I really can’t tell you whether or not you should report being beaten by police officers and left to die in the snow. It probably would just be more hassle for you and they’d make you stay until Monday to talk to a judge. I could come up there but not for a few days, so…”

Is this some sort of paid holiday? Are they not supposed to be there to help Australians overseas? I’d be interested in Crikey readers’ experiences with these useless layabouts.”

Name withheld

The old missing Aussie passport problem

Dear Crikey,

I thought I’d add my two penn’orth to the Whistleblower piece on Australian officials overseas.

About a year ago I had to return to the UK at very short notice due to a close family bereavement. Although I’d held Australian citizenship for two years at the time I’d never got round to obtaining an Australian passport so I left Australia on my British one as I had no time to make any other arrangements. I was warned by immigration officials on departure that I would be unable to reenter Australia on this passport but a panicked phone call by me to the Department of Immigration elicited the information that the Australian High Commission in London would be able to assist me under the circumstances.

Having landed in London, driven 250 km and sorted out various family matters I phoned the High Commission. Having been passed through several officials I explained my situation and circumstances in detail and was told that I’d have to obtain an Australian passport. OK, no problem. How? They’d post me out an application form to my UK address. Great. “Oh, and you’ll need an identifier who is either a professional person or an Australian citizen who’s known you for over a year to countersign the form”. “Hang on a minute, I’m in a country where I haven’t lived for five years and where I barely know anyone at all, let alone any professionals or Australians, how do I sort that out? Is there no way round the requirement?”. “No. Goodbye” Click. Buzz. Or words to that effect. No assistance, no compassion and, as it turned out, no accurate information.

Fortunately my wife was still in Perth and was able to go and hammer on the counter at DFAT. DFAT in Perth gained full marks for helpfulness and understanding, phoned the High Commission in London and tore strips off them for their behaviour, then explained to me that it was perfectly possible for me to obtain a passport without an identifier although it would only be a limited validity document to get me home.

To be fair to the High Commission, when I dropped my application (minus identifier) off, the bod behind the counter was also most helpful and understanding and told me that this was a pretty routine situation. However that provides even less excuse for the initial misinformation that caused myself and my family significant anxiety.

In summary:-

Official on phone in passports section of High Commission 0/10

DFAT Perth office: 10/10

High Commission counter staff: 10/10

Although I suspect that I was unlucky enough to deal with the only unproffessional prat in the building (someone’s bound to go native from time to time I expect), the incident left enough of an unpleasant taste that, in future, I’d be inclined to try to get most things sorted out from the Australian end if at all possible.

Regards, Hugh

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