With Australians making 8 million trips overseas a year, and taking with them increasingly high expectations of the service they will receive from their government if they get into trouble, it’s time for the Australian government to show some mettle.

It needs to start putting some real support behind the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which looks after all these people, and it needs to find a way of paying for that. A consular levy of $5, added to the cost of an airline ticket at point of sale, would be the first step in the long process of dealing with the increasingly challenging task of looking after Australians overseas.

Difficult to look after Australians overseas? Surely not — aren’t they the same plucky characters who demonstrate time after time their resilience and resourcefulness in meeting the challenges of natural disasters like Cyclone Yasi and the Queensland floods in 2011? Strangely, for some Australians this resilience and resourcefulness seem to dissolve when they get on a plane bound for adventure and recreation overseas.

Picture this: early in 2011, thousands of Australian tourists and citizens were caught up in the Arab Spring uprisings. In early February it became increasingly difficult for them to get out of Cairo on commercial flights, with demonstrations and protests obstructing traffic, looting, street violence, and shutdowns of internet and mobile networks by the Mubarak administration.

Like the US, Germany, the United Kingdom, China and various others, Australia arranged for free evacuation charter flights out of Cairo for the 600-odd nationals trying to leave. After the first flight left full, the government promised “a jumbo a day” until everyone was out.

In the face of severe difficulties imposed by curfews, jammed communication networks, overcrowded  airports, blocked roads and thousands of calls to its Cairo embassy and consular emergency line, DFAT clicked into crisis management mode, pulled extra staff in from around the region, managed emergency telephone lines and arranged for emergency evacuations, combed the airport in flouro jackets trying to find Australians caught in the departure hall scrum, managing ever-changing passenger manifests as people scrambled for any available flight out.

“When our political leaders keep upping the ante in high-profile consular cases … they only make their own jobs harder.”

And then came the quintessential Aussie consular moment. A couple, about to board their chartered Qantas evacuation flight, asked the DFAT officer if they would be getting frequent flyer points for their free flight.

Kevin Rudd, foreign minister in the Gillard government at the time, was roundly criticised in the press for failing to get Australians out of Cairo fast enough. Julie Bishop, shadow foreign affairs minister, joined in, saying other countries had their evacuation plans in place much sooner.

Reality check: this is a nation that, under successive governments of both colours, has stripped bare the nation’s foreign ministry, slashing its overseas workforce (the ones who are there on the ground and the first to respond in a crisis) by a third over the last two decades, and failing to stump up the cash to meet the growing need for DFAT’s services — whether they be services for Australian travellers, services for Australian businesses trying to set up overseas, or services to government advising on the difficult policy challenges of this century.

When our political leaders keep upping the ante in high-profile consular cases, like evacuations from airports hit by strikes or lobbying to secure the release of an Australian from prison overseas after a foolish prank, they only make their own jobs harder. Next time someone gets stuck, no matter how avoidable or foolish their predicament, they will call for the foreign minister or prime minister to jump on a plane, and they will demand that DFAT works harder to get them out.

This can’t go on. For the price of a cup of coffee at the airport, Australian travellers should start to fund the services they increasingly say they need, and take more responsibility for their actions overseas. Political leaders need to be aware that over-servicing in one case only causes them problems in the next. And government should direct more attention to consular affairs, showing some real commitment to DFAT so it can better balance its increasingly demanding workload.

*Alex Oliver is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and author of the policy brief Consular conundrum: the rising demands and diminishing means for assisting Australians overseas, released yesterday