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”.

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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.