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The World

Jan 7, 2014

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.

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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.

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25 comments

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25 thoughts on “All expenses paid: is consular help too generous?

  1. The Pav

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

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

  7. mikeb

    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

    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

    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

    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.