MEDIA RELEASE

MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
ALEXANDER DOWNER


FA144

26 November 1997

Government Response to Senate Consular Services Report

The Government's response to the Senate's report on consular services reflects the importance the Government attaches to the consular assistance delivered by my department to Australian overseas.

The response to the report of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee "Helping Australians Abroad, A Review of the Australian Government's Consular Services" was tabled in the Senate today.

The duty to protect our citizens overseas is a fundamental responsibility and one which the Government gives the highest priority. We made an election commitment, in "A Confident Australia", that consular protection would be a primary function of Australia's foreign policy, not a diversion of secondary importance. That election promise has been fulfilled.

Since coming into office, the Government has instigated a number of improvements directly aimed at raising the level and quality of protection and assistance for Australians overseas by:

•Creating a separate Consular Branch within my Department. 1 am pleased to announce that from today, concerned Australians will be able to contact the Consular Operations Branch from anywhere within Australia for the price of a local phone call by simply dialling 1300 555 135.

•Establishing a Consular Response Group which is giving a powerful boost to our ability to handle sensitive and difficult cases such as kidnapping and hostage situations.

•Setting up a 24 hour, Canberra-based Consular Operations Centre to assist with after hours emergencies. This allows us to help travellers in difficulties immediately.

•Enhancing our ability to provide information to travellers before they leave Australia through an improved computer database, improved Travel Advices and through advices which give information on specific topics, or which are targeted to reach particular sectors of the Australian travelling public.

•Encouraging universities to include principles of consular practice in their tourism courses.

•Improving training levels for consular officers in Australia and overseas.

•Further developing our consular sharing arrangements with countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom.

•Actively campaigning to encourage other countries to accede to The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects on International Child Abduction. This Convention provides a structure within which governments can handle the sensitive matters which arise in custody and access cases involving children whose estranged parents come from different parts of the world.

•Enacting legislation to allow for the international transfer of prisoners to and from Australia. This is an important humanitarian advance which will assist in the rehabilitation of prisoners and provide relief to their families. We urge the States and Northern Territory to pass the necessary complementary legislation.

•Providing appropriate assistance and support for Australians arrested and imprisoned overseas. While we do not condone Australians breaking the laws in other countries, as Australians, they are still entitled to have access to any consular assistance we can provide.

The Coalition played a vital role in the establishment of the Senate inquiry and it did so because of concerns over the handling of a number of high profile consular cases. In particular, as the Senate Committee unanimously found, the public explanation of Australia's position could have been better handled under the previous Government.

There are aspects of consular activity which will attract considerable media interest. I have instructed my Department to make every effort to provide assistance to the media. However, there will be times when requests for privacy are made by the families of those directly concerned or there are particular circumstances which involve the physical safety of Australians abroad which I hope and trust would be respected by the Australian media.

The Government welcomes the Senate Committee's endorsement of the untiring and valuable work done by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's consular officers around the world. Especially those who, beyond the call of duty, have gone to the aid of individual Australians in difficulty. I also pay tribute to those officers - their efforts do not go unnoticed.

I trust the Government's reform of consular services will be a cause for confidence in the minds of the Australian travelling public. Through provision of a focussed consular service, this Government is providing skilled and caring assistance to Australians in trouble. Most Australians who travel overseas conduct their business successfully, or enjoy their holidays and return home safely to recount their experiences to their families. However, for those Australians unfortunate enough to get into difficulties we have in place our mechanisms to help. These are amongst the best in the world.

Media Inquiries: Minister's Office: Innes Willox (02) 6277 7500 or

Department: Tony Melville (02) 6261 1555 or 0418


THE HON. ALEXANDER DOWNER MP

STATEMENT ON CONSULAR AFFAIRS

Consular work is at the core of my Department's activities and the Consular Branch of the Department is the "emergency room" of the foreign service. It provides essential services to Australians in difficulty overseas as well as their families in Australia. Each day we deal with cases which range from simple problems - often magnified by distance from home and alien circumstances - to matters of life and death.

Consular work is also at the core of the Government's duty to protect and assist its citizens. The duty to protect our citizens overseas is a fundamental responsibility and one which this Government gives the high priority it deserves.

It is unfortunate that commentators often pass over consular matters in order to concentrate on what is perceived to be the more "glamorous" areas of foreign policy, trade development and trade promotion. Today, universal travel seems to be the norm and it is a simple truth that more Australians are likely to be affected directly by events which may befall them, or family members, as they travel abroad.

By virtue of our history and geography, we are a restless nation. The same spirit of independence and adventure that drove our forebears, still drives many Australians today who set out in search for new challenges and experiences.

As the Australian economy increasingly engages with the rest of the world, there will also be an inevitable increase in the numbers of Australian business people who will request consular assistance.

This is why we made an election commitment, in "A Confident Australia", that consular protection would be a primary function of Australia's foreign policy, not a diversion of secondary importance. That election promise has been fulfilled.

Needs

It is truly surprising to be reminded of the number of Australians, who, through misfortune or misadventure, get into difficulties, are injured or die overseas in any one year. In the last financial year consular staff in Australia and in our missions overseas assisted in more than 16,600 cases. Of these, around 5,000 Australians lost their passports while some 700 found themselves in financial difficulties and were lent public funds to cover their immediate needs.

Consular officers provided help to about 620 Australians who were hospitalised, including 115 who were evacuated to another location - these startling numbers underline the vital importance of proper travel insurance taken out prior to departure overseas.

A further 460 Australians died while overseas and their families received significant assistance from Australian consular officials. My officers also handled around 1,200 enquiries relating to the whereabouts of Australians overseas.

It is inevitable that some travellers will simply suffer bad luck or fall foul of circumstances where they may not appreciate the dangers. Unfortunately some Australians, often through no fault of their own, are unable to resolve their difficulties. To assist these people, the Australian Government must operate an effective consular service.

Improvements and Initiatives

There is no excuse for governments being insensitive to the needs of families. It is imperative that the contact with families caught in such distressing circumstances be sensitive to their needs. The Senate Inquiry's bipartisan criticisms of the regime under the previous Government are telling in this regard. This Government, has strengthened and improved the handling of consular services and I have personally monitored some of the more difficult and sensitive cases. Indeed, I have made representations to foreign governments in a number of instances to seek better treatment of our citizens. On behalf of the Government I frequently speak with distressed families in Australia.

Since coming into office, we have instigated a number of improvements directly aimed at raising the level and quality of protection and assistance for Australians overseas:

•We are firmly committed to provide all assistance possible to the family members of Australians in difficulties overseas. To this purpose we have created a separate Consular Branch within my Department and I am pleased to announce that from today, concerned Australians will be able to contact the Consular Operations Branch from anywhere within Australia for the price of a local phone call simply by dialling 1300 555 135.

•We have created the Consular Response Group which is giving a powerful boost to our ability to handle sensitive and difficult cases such as kidnapping.

•We have established a 24 hour, Canberra-based Consular Operations Centre to assist with after hours emergencies. Travellers needing consular assistance after usual business hours who call our participating missions overseas will be connected directly to the Centre in Canberra. This allows us to help travellers in difficulties immediately.

•We have enhanced our ability to provide information to travellers before they leave Australia through the capture of information on a database, through improved Travel Advices and through advices which give information on specific topics, or which are targeted to reach particular sectors of the Australian travelling public. Well informed travellers are less likely to get into difficulties,

•We are encouraging universities to include principles of consular practice in their tourism courses.

•We have improved training levels for consular officers in Australia and overseas.

•We have further enhanced our consular sharing arrangements with countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom. For the first time in February this year Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States of America held formal discussions to explore mutual cooperation. On behalf of the Australian Government 1 express our sincere thanks to the Governments of Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States of America for their invaluable help to Australian citizens.

•We are actively campaigning to encourage other countries to accede to The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects on International Child Abduction. This Convention provides a structure within which governments can handle the sensitive matters which arise in custody and access cases involving children whose estranged parents come from different parts of the world.

•We have introduced legislation to allow for the international transfer of prisoners to and from Australia. That legislation is now in place. This is an important humanitarian advance which will assist in the rehabilitation of prisoners and provide relief to their families. We urge the States and Northern Territory to pass the necessary complementary legislation.

•We will continue to provide appropriate assistance and support for Australians arrested and imprisoned overseas. While we do not condone Australians breaking the laws in other countries, as Australians they are still entitled to have access to any consular assistance we can provide. The same principles apply to other countries' citizens in Australia.

The Senate Report

The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee has recently reviewed Australia's Consular Services. It did so because of concerns over the handling of a number of high profile consular cases. The Coalition played a vital role in the establishment of this Inquiry and The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cooperated fully with the inquiry.

In the last few years we have witnessed the traumatic outcomes to two kidnappings of Australians in Cambodia. My Department and 1 are determined to do all we can to avoid a repetition of the tragic outcomes of the Wilson and Wilkinson kidnappings. The Consular Response Group, to which 1 referred earlier, will play a vital role should there be another case in which an Australian is kidnapped abroad. It has already shown its mettle in the satisfactory resolution of the kidnapping of Justin Fraser in Somalia last year. The recent assisted departure from Cambodia is another graphic example of our commitment to support Australians in need of assistance.

In particular, as the Senate Committee unanimously found, the public explanation of Australia's position could have been better handled under the previous Government. This is an important area in which improvements are being made and in which the Consular Response Group can play a significant role.

In that respect, there are aspects of consular activity which will attract considerable media interest. 1 have instructed my Department to make every effort to provide assistance to the media. However, there will be times when requests for privacy are made by the families of those directly concerned or there are particular circumstances which involve the physical safety of Australians abroad which 1 hope and trust would be respected by the Australian media.

The Government commends the Committee's work and its Report. We welcome the Committee's endorsement of the untiring and valuable work done by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's consular officers around the world, and especially those who, beyond the call of duty, have gone to the aid of individual Australians in difficulty. I also pay tribute to those officers - their efforts do not go unnoticed.

It is significant to record that we accept 17 of the recommendations made by the Senate Committee. One recommendation has been partially accepted, three recommendations will require further study to assess financial and other implications, and one recommendation needs no implementation. It is also significant that of the 23 recommendations made, there is only one with which we will not be proceeding. This has been done because, if implemented, an unacceptable, open-ended financial commitment would be created.

I will just mention a couple of the Senate's recommendations here in order to point to our determination to use the report's findings as a guide to how we might improve our consular services even more.

•In "A Confident Australia" we highlighted the fact that we would upgrade the Honorary Consul system. Honorary Consulates play a valuable role in promoting Australia's interests into areas which are either not served or not served easily by fully accredited High Commissions or Embassies. The Prime Minister has just announced establishment of six new Honorary Consulates in Indonesia, namely, Ambon, Balikpapan, Kupang, Medan, Surabaya and Ujung Pandang. The establishment of an office in Surabaya was promised in our election program and the establishment of the other Honorary Consuls is further evidence of our commitment to our broad based relationship with Indonesia. I am delighted to announce today that the Government will establish a further eleven Honorary Consulates in Bratislava, Christchurch, Copenhagen, Durban, Guatemala City, Karachi, Kingston, Luanda, Maputo, Panama City and Skopje. 1 am especially pleased to note that several of the honorary consuls are women. Australia already has honorary consulates in some 30 cities around the world; those which we are in the process of establishing now, will result in an increase of over 30 per cent. We will continue this process.

•The 24 hour Canberra based Consular Operations Centre was opened on 13 October 1997 on a permanent basis. Our trial of this significant initiative was a singular success and the Centre has clearly demonstrated its ability to deliver considerable benefits to travelling Australians efficiently and at any time of the day or night.

•We are exploring the possibility of introducing an advanced computer-based system which will greatly increase our ability to deal with urgent consular cases. Fast reaction time is a vital factor in the successful handling of many consular cases and we believe the new system will significantly reduce response times and promote efficiency.

The Future

Before the 1996 election I made a commitment to make the provision of consular services a high priority for government.

Through provision of a focussed consular service, this Government is providing a skilled and caring service which can assist when Australians are in trouble. Most Australians who travel overseas conduct their business successfully, or enjoy their holidays and return home safely to recount their experiences to their families. However, for those Australians unfortunate enough to get into difficulties we have in place our mechanisms to help. These are amongst the best in the world.

Finally, the Government's strong commitment to consular services will not only assist Australians directly, it will also help them to draw upon their own resourcefulness and resilience to help themselves.

All Australian's can be confident that the Government will not falter in its determination to ensure that they receive the highest possible level of service whenever they travel outside Australia.