May I acknowledge my Parliamentary Secretary Senator Brett Mason, Ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps, members of the Smartraveller Consultative Group and Natalie Hensby, our face of the Smartraveller campaign, colleagues, Members, Senators, members of the media, thank you all for being here.
In the last financial year, Australian residents made over nine million trips overseas for holidays, to study, for work – with 160,000 of these trips for 12 months or more. The majority of these overseas trips – 7.6 million in all - were made by residents with Australian citizenship.
For the vast majority, overseas travel is a positive; it can be a life-changing experience. But for others, it can be life-changing experience in a very different way. Something goes wrong, and they find themselves arrested, a victim of crime, in hospital or even caught up in a major international crisis and that’s when they call on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for help.
I want to acknowledge this morning the head of consular, (who’s just moved himself to the back of the room because he knew I had my eye on him), Justin Brown, who has done a fabulous job. He has this unflappable, zen-like quality whenever he’s confronted with a crisis and I have come to depend on Justin’s wise counsel and advice.
Consular assistance of course is one of Department’s core functions. Last financial year alone, nearly 15,000 Australians were assisted overseas by DFAT and Austrade consular staff around the world, and it was often in tragic or really challenging circumstances.
To give you a sense of that, last year more than 1200 families had a loved one pass away overseas; another 1200 people were arrested, and 1300 admitted to hospital. On any given day, the Department’s consular team is actively managing around 1300 cases. Perhaps the media can put that in perspective. On any single day, we are managing 1300 cases. Now that’s a long list of statistics, but it gives you a sense of the workload managed by our dedicated consular team each and every day.
I am so proud of the work of the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s highly professional consular staff around the world – whether it’s the high profile and demanding work they undertook supporting families and responding to the Malaysian Airlines MH17 catastrophe, or Malaysian Airlines MH370, more day-to-day consular work that is in fact their bread and butter.
I want to build on this strong platform for the future. The Strategy I am launching today introduces important enhancements and changes to DFAT’s consular work. It builds on the significant improvements that we’ve already made since the 2002 Bali bombing, which was a watershed moment for consular services in this country. That tragedy resulted in greater investment in staff and more training and development; better crisis response and contingency planning mechanisms; more cooperation with our consular partners and improved messaging to the public on safe travel.
By 2016, this Strategy will enable DFAT to have an even more efficient and effective service to support Australians overseas. We are enhancing our assistance to those who are the most vulnerable – including women and children - or who have experienced the most difficult circumstances. We are improving links with domestic organisations, tour companies and the like, to improve our services and extend our safe travel messages. We will improve our Smartraveller website - www.smartraveller.gov.au - and its content to make it is more user-friendly for the travelling public. We will prioritise consular outreach to the groups of people who are most likely to require consular assistance. These changes will help us to respond better to changing needs and to react more effectively to crisis situations.
We’re also updating our systems, improving them and making better use of social media – that is the leading mode of communication particularly for young people and particularly those travelling overseas. We’ve got a Facebook and Twitter account for Smartraveller messages and an increasing number of our overseas posts are also using social media in getting messages to travellers.
But there is only so much the Government can do to help.
One of the important themes of this Strategy is to promote a stronger culture of self-reliance and personal responsibility in the travelling public. Our consular staff are a finite resource and with rising demand for our services, because of the increasing numbers of people travelling, year on year, there is clearly a need to tackle the demand side of the equation as well.
The television series “The Embassy” which aired on the Nine Network just a few weeks ago, not only made some of our consular staff household names, but it also provided an insight into some of the high and, in some cases unreasonable, expectations of the travelling public. That’s why one of the key aims of this Strategy is to lift the overall level of public understanding about consular services.
Our consular staff are not there to pay for the repairs to your jet-ski; they are not there to pay your hotel bill; they are not there to lend you a laptop or to provide you with office space in the embassy to do your work. Consular officers cannot get you out of jail, or issue you a new passport so you can evade justice. Consular assistance is a ‘last resort’ service where our Embassy staff can assist - often when people have no other avenue to turn to.
This new Strategy is all about trying to create a different culture among Australian travellers, encourage people to go overseas of course, but have a culture that embodies the natural resilience, the common sense, and the self-reliance of Australians.
It is my hope that “The Embassy” program will have contributed to that – by showing Australians that while our consular officers more often than not go above and beyond the call of duty to help their countrymen and women in genuine distress, there is a limit to what they can do – not to mention the legal constraints in the host country.
This is a really serious issue, and it’s why I have decided to introduce the scope to limit consular assistance in some circumstances. In a very small minority of cases, individuals have acted illegally or have deliberately or repeatedly acted recklessly and negligently, putting themselves and others at risk despite warnings. In addition, some individuals have a pattern of behaviour that has required multiple instances of consular assistance in the past.
I want to send a very clear message – consular assistance should not be seen as a right, it is a privilege, and if you deliberately or wilfully abuse the system, you will only receive the absolute minimum level of assistance and advice.
At this time, I have decided not to introduce a cost recovery system for consular services, but it remains a live option, and one we will consider again if necessary to address the issue if necessary in the future.
In October, I was pleased to be able to launch the CHOICE Guide to Buying Travel Insurance. Insurance is a key part of our messaging and Natalie Hensby who we have here today is a perfect example of how taking up travel insurance in advance saved her hundreds of thousands of dollars after a terrible accident in Thailand.
All too often, consular staff have to deal with Australians who are seriously injured overseas and end up with enormous hospital bills or need to be evacuated home. We have seen too many families who have had to re-mortgage their homes or lose their life savings when things have gone wrong. Australians must understand that travel insurance is not an optional extra.
If you cannot afford insurance, you cannot afford to travel – it’s as simple as that – and the Government is not a back-up insurance policy.
I’m pleased that this Strategy recognises that we need to work together with others to get those messages across – in the travel industry, the insurance sector and with non-government organisations.
There is no doubt that the MH17 tragedy has been the most difficult experience that I could have imagined as Foreign Minister. Indeed, when the phone went off on the early morning of Friday the 18th of July - I know it’s never good news when the phone rings at 2am but not in my worst dreams did I imagine that our consular staff would be dealing with the shooting down of a Malaysian airline over a war zone in Eastern Ukraine and every one of the 298 passengers on board were killed, including a significant number of Australians. Our consular response to that tragedy, that cruel twist of fate, was extraordinary - but we know that we can always improve, so improvements to our crisis response is also part of this Strategy.
There will be more regular practical exercises, more systematic contingency planning and better stakeholder engagement. We are working more closely with our close consular partners, including striking a deal with the French Foreign Ministry on reciprocal assistance for our nationals in Africa and Asia, so where they have a mission and we don’t, we’ll be working with the French. We are also strengthening our consular sharing arrangement with Canada.
Our traveller registration system is being reviewed to ensure it remains as effective as possible, especially in giving Australians the best possible timely information and advice.
Of course, central to an effective consular service is a team of people well equipped and well trained to do the job. This Strategy identifies the importance of ensuring our staff have the right training to manage a difficult and diverse workload and respond appropriately to public demand. We are committed to investing in our front-line officers, especially those on the 24 hour helpline, to ensure their work is both sustainable and of a high standard.
No government has endless resources, and this Strategy recognises the importance of Australia working together with our friends and allies overseas to do things more efficiently. The UK, Canada, the United States and NZ are our closest consular partners. We share information, we share ideas – and, in some locations, we work together to deliver services to each other’s citizens. This gives Australians a more effective and efficient consular service, and one with a greater reach than we would have otherwise.
I am committed to ensuring that DFAT’s consular and crisis management services remains dynamic and agile enough to deal with a rapidly changing world. We are so interconnected, where an event on one side of the globe can have an impact on Australia in ways that we couldn’t possibly imagine. This Strategy gives us a roadmap to chart that course of being able to respond to situations as they arise.
I am also pleased to launch today an updated version of DFAT’s Consular Services Charter, which has been revised to factor in this new Strategy. This is the first document that consular clients typically receive when they have contact with a consular officer – and it outlines, in general terms, what our consular officials can and can’t do.
I want to extend my thanks to all of those involved in the development of the Strategy. It is a strong framework to improve what we already do, and how we do it. It is designed to ensure Australians are as self-reliant as possible, but that they receive the highest quality consular assistance when they really need it.
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