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OUTPUT 2.1: Consular and passport services

Reporting against effectiveness indicators

On this page: Overview :: Consular services :: Passport services




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The Prime Minister, Mr Howard, inspecting the site of the Bali bombings. (Photo: Reuters)
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The tragic bombings in Bali on 12 October 2002 had a major impact on the department's work in delivering consular services to Australians. The crisis itself imposed unprecedented demands on Australia's consular and emergency services. The department played a pivotal role in the Government's response, coordinating the emergency medical evacuation and responding to 30 000 calls from concerned Australians about the welfare of friends and family members in Bali. The Consul-General was helping Australians at the scene within half an hour of the bombings, and our Crisis Centre was activated within hours. Support for the survivors and families and friends of the victims has been a major priority for the department in Canberra and Bali since October 2002.

A downturn in international travel, resulting from uncertainty particularly following the bombings, the war on terrorism and the spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, resulted in an eight per cent decline in the number of passports and travel documents issued. We took a number of initiatives during the year to improve our passport services, including introducing a half-price seniors' passport and a priority processing service. The Passports Australia website delivered more than 35 000 page-views a week and the Australian Passport Information Service effectively handled over 1.1 million inquiries during the year—although this represented a decrease from the previous year, again reflecting the downturn in international travel.

Against the backdrop of heightened concern about security, the department devoted considerable effort to developing a new security-enhanced passport, which is on track for release in December 2003. Plans to incorporate facial recognition technology into passports were also advanced. In May 2003, our biometric identification initiative received a boost when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted facial recognition as the international standard for travel documents. This decision was based on a technical report written by the department on behalf of ICAO's New Technologies Working Group.

We planned carefully to prepare for possible consular emergencies in the event of conflict in the Middle East, and our Crisis Centre was activated again during the military campaign in Iraq. Detailed contingency planning was also in place to protect Australians visiting Turkey for Anzac Day ceremonies.

A key priority over the past year has been our response to community interest in travel advice, which reached unprecedented levels following the attacks in Bali. The department performed strongly in meeting community needs with timely and accurate advice on a range of breaking issues, including terrorist threats, the Iraq crisis and the outbreak of the SARS virus. We gave particular priority to conveying clear and timely advice to Australians about credible information of terrorist and related security threats in South-East Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. We improved the dissemination of travel advice and strengthened our engagement with the travel industry—including through the launch of a new Government–Industry Charter for Safe Travel—to ensure this information is reaching Australian travellers.

In 2002–03 we helped more than 19 000 Australians in difficulty (compared to over 24 000 last year). This decrease reflects revised reporting requirements rather than a decrease in workload. Posts now report separately on consular casework and non-case-related consular activity such as travel advice.

The Australian National Audit Office undertook an audit to assess the effectiveness of the department's passport-issuing processes in Australia. It concluded that the Australian passport administration is regarded as a 'better practice provider' of passport services.

In December 2002, the department's Passports and Consular Branches were joint recipients of a Special Commendation in the Prime Minister's Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management.

Consular services

Accessibility of consular services

The department is continually striving to extend the reach of the consular network. At the end of 2002–03, Australians were able to seek help from 165 locations overseas, including Australian embassies, high commissions and consulates, as well as Canadian consular posts in locations where we have no resident representation. Over 80 posts now facilitate after-hours assistance through free or reverse-charge connections to our 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre in Canberra.

Consular services include helping Australians hospitalised or imprisoned overseas, helping families when Australians die, are injured or go missing overseas, and, when required, coordinating evacuations from trouble spots.

Charter for Safe Travel

On 11 June 2003, Mr Downer launched a new, voluntary government–industry charter to promote safe travel by Australians overseas. The Charter for Safe Travel is founded on the Government’s and travel industry’s shared commitment to help Australians travelling overseas keep informed about overseas conditions and return to Australia safely with an enthusiasm to travel again.

Under the charter, the Government and industry will work together to encourage travellers to consult the department’s travel advisories before they travel, and to provide clients with a copy of the travel advice when they book for countries with security problems. In particular, agents will draw our advice to the attention of their customers who intend travelling to countries where the department recommends the deferral of all or non-essential travel.

Under the charter, the Government and industry have pledged to strengthen the existing cooperative dialogue and to work together to address new and emerging issues affecting the safety of Australian travellers overseas.

While industry and Government have committed under the charter to promote jointly travel advice and safe travel messages, the charter recognises the fundamental responsibility of the individual to keep informed of developments overseas by monitoring closely the department’s travel advice both before and during travel.

The establishment of the charter marks a significant milestone in closer practical cooperation between the Government and the travel industry to ensure Australians are aware of the department’s travel advice as they prepare and undertake overseas travel.

Travel advice: protecting Australians overseas

The department's consular information program, including travel advisories, was a key priority in 2002–03. While demand for travel advice has grown steadily over recent years, community interest in our safe travel messages reached unprecedented levels following the Bali bombings. We responded robustly to this interest, and improved the dissemination of our advice. Our travel advice service represents international best practice and our record in alerting Australians to risks overseas is strong.

The closest attention continues to be paid to information about terrorist and related security threats that could endanger Australians overseas. The department has increased the number of destinations covered by travel advisories from 109 to 139. Our travel advice warned of the risk of terrorist attacks in Mombasa three weeks before the 29 November 2002 attack, and of the imminent threat of an attack in Riyadh four days before the 12 May 2003 attack. Careful monitoring and up-to-date advice was also provided to the Australian public about credible threats against Australian interests in a number of countries in South-East Asia, the Middle East and East Africa—regions where the threat of terrorist action has been of greatest concern—as well as other regions.

We delivered regularly updated and accurate advice to Australians in response to the spread of the SARS virus, in the lead-up to Anzac Day ceremonies in Gallipoli, and on other occasions such as the Cricket World Cup in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

We have strengthened our engagement with the travel industry to ensure that this information readily reaches Australian travellers. This culminated in Mr Downer's launch of a new Government–Industry Charter for Safe Travel in June (see box on page 128). We began to roll out a network of automated consular information kiosks that provide up-to-date travel advice to people in international airports and other venues. Work on a new domestic public information campaign on travel advice, to be launched in 2003–04, is well advanced. Further activity on this important priority will be underpinned by new funding announced in the 2003–04 budget of $9.7 million over the next four years.

We made other important advances in improving the dissemination of travel advice. It remains easily accessed by Internet, phone and fax, and the number of subscribers to electronic travel advice updates has increased from 3000 to over 25 000. We enhanced our travel advice website by including clearer explanatory information about how travel advice is produced and what it means. A feature is a new seven-tier travel advice scale that helps our clients better to assess the safety and security conditions between different countries. This process of product enhancement is continuing, drawing on client feedback. The number of visits to our consular pages on the Internet (www.dfat.gov.au/travel) trebled. In the aftermath of the bombings in Bali, access to the web page was running at over 518 000 page-views per day.

Demand for travel advice via telephone inquiries and to our faxback service was strong, reflecting wider community concern about the security environment overseas. Media interest in travel advice remained at a heightened level, with an average of ten articles appearing a week in the print media, compared with three articles a week the previous financial year.

In addition to travel advice, we have continued to disseminate to the Australian community a range of special topic consular brochures. We publish 15 different brochures, dealing with issues such as dual citizenship, living and working overseas, and death overseas. In 2002–03, we distributed over 1.2 million paper brochures, a 14 per cent decrease on the previous year. This decrease is attributable to an overall slowing in the number of Australians travelling overseas, the drop in the number of passports issued to which we attach our Hints to Australian travellers brochure, and greater access to publications online.

Responsiveness to consular crises

The terrorist attacks in Bali on 12 October 2002 resulted in the largest loss of Australian lives overseas in Australia's peacetime history. The department responded quickly. Within three hours of the bombings, at 5am AEST, our Crisis Centre was activated to coordinate the whole-of-government response to the crisis (see box on page 131).

The department gave close attention to contingency planning and crisis management throughout 2002–03. Careful planning was undertaken to prepare for possible consular emergencies in the event of conflict in the Middle East, and to protect Australians visiting Turkey for Anzac Day ceremonies. The Crisis Centre was again activated for the duration of the military campaign in Iraq, and played a key role in the Government's successful management of the consular implications of the conflict through the Middle East region.

The department convened inter-departmental emergency taskforces to address the terrorist threat to Australian interests in East Timor (September 2002) and the Philippines (December 2002), both of which required the temporary closure of Australia's embassies.

Assisting Australians overseas

The difficult international environment continues to present challenging situations for consular officers. During the year we managed a range of difficult cases, including retrieving the body of an Australian journalist killed during the conflict in Iraq and returning the body to Australia for burial. In an operation requiring unprecedented cooperation between the governments of Australia, China and Nepal, we coordinated the rescue of three Australian climbers and the recovery of their colleague who had been killed in a mountain climbing expedition in Tibet. We helped a number of children caught in international custody disputes to return to their families in Australia.

The Australia–Thailand Prisoner Transfer Treaty, on which the department and the Attorney-General's Department cooperated closely, came into force in September 2002. The first transfer to Australia under the agreement took place in April 2003. This treaty—and Australia's accession in January 2003 to the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons—provides the basis for the prospective transfer of Australian prisoners serving sentences in as many as 52 countries.

The consular role includes the provision of a wide range of services to Australians travelling, working or with business interests overseas, including on behalf of other government agencies. In 2002–03, we provided electoral facilities for the Victorian and New South Wales state elections in many of our overseas posts. In recognition of the need for continuous improvement in the provision of the wide range of consular services, we completed a comprehensive revision of the guidelines for consular work overseas in 2002–03.

Consular response to the terrorist bombings in Bali

The terrorist bombings of 12 October 2002 killed and injured many Australians and other nationals. This tragedy imposed unprecedented demands on the department’s consular services in Bali and Australia. Our consular crisis machinery was activated within three hours of the bombings.

The Inter-Departmental Emergency Taskforce, chaired by a Deputy Secretary of the department, met within hours to coordinate a whole-of-government response. A major medical evacuation of Australian citizens began within hours of the bombings and was completed within 36 hours. A total of 66 injured Australians were evacuated. The department’s Emergency Call Unit handled over 30 000 telephone calls in the first days of the crisis and recorded details of almost 5000 individuals for whom family members or friends had concerns.

The magnitude of the response required a concerted effort from all areas of the department. Over 700 staff volunteered to work in the Crisis Centre and Emergency Call Unit. In Bali and Jakarta our posts moved quickly to respond to the unique demands placed on them. Experienced consular, medical, military and policy personnel were immediately sent to Bali. The department helped Australian medical, police, forensic and other experts in their critical role in assisting Indonesian authorities put in place appropriate disaster response arrangements, including for the identification of victims’ remains. In all, 32 departmental officers served in Bali.

Direct feedback we received reflected an overwhelmingly positive response from family members and the public for our efforts to assist Australians. We provided help on the ground to other consular partner governments, including New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

After reviewing our response to the Bali bombings, we made a number of improvements to our crisis management machinery. We strengthened the management and operation of our Crisis Centre, including revisions to its guidelines and to the contingency planning and crisis management and evacuation manual.

Since this unprecedented crisis we have established a ‘consular reserve’ of staff who have been trained in crisis management and are now on an on-call register. In response to the need for additional capacity to respond to inquiries about family and friends, we doubled the size of the Emergency Call Unit and instituted arrangements to handle any overflow more efficiently.

Passport services

Client access

Passport offices in nine cities around Australia and diplomatic and consular missions overseas provide Australian citizens with passport services under the Passports Act 1938. Australia Post conducts interviews throughout Australia on behalf of the department and information about the passport issuing process and requirements is readily available from the Australian Passport Information Service and the passports website.

A downturn in international travel, resulting from uncertainty, particularly following the Bali bombings, the war on terrorism and the spread of the SARS virus, resulted in an eight per cent decline in the number of passports and travel documents issued by the department: 906 049 in 2002–03 compared to 986 316 in 2001–02.

With more than 1600 outlets nationwide, Australia Post provides most Australians with ready access to passport services. In 2002–03, the number of Australians using Australia Post to lodge their passport applications in regional and rural areas increased slightly to 84.5 per cent of all applications lodged, compared to 82 per cent in 2001–02.

The Australian Passport Information Service (APIS), which provides an accessible service to all Australians for the cost of a local call, handled 1 123 133 calls in 2002–03. This represents a seven per cent decrease from the previous year. The majority of calls related to travel document renewals. APIS met or exceeded all contractual performance standards and continues to play an important and cost-effective role in passport service delivery.

Figure 14. Number of travel documents issued 1998–99 to 2002–03

Figure 14. Number of travel documents issued 1998x99 to 2002x03

Enhancing our services

The department continued to enhance the standard and consistency of service provided to passport clients by Australia Post through an outreach training program covering a wide range of metropolitan and rural centres. We expanded a random review of postal outlets under a 'mystery shopping' program, whereby employees of the department sought to obtain passport services from post offices without identifying themselves. These programs gave us an independent assessment of service levels and contributed significantly to a national reduction in Australia Post error rates.

Two new passport services introduced in July 2002 were well received by the travelling public. A total of 6140 applicants over the age of 75 took up the offer of a half-price seniors' passport and 112 525 applicants opted to pay the $60 priority processing fee to have a passport issued within 48 hours. Of those paying the priority processing fee, 546 applicants subsequently obtained reimbursement on approved grounds: compassionate travel (433); passport not produced within 48 hours (24); and others (89).

During 2002–03, the department further advanced the 'passports online' strategy. This initiative will provide clients with enhanced access to a wide range of interactive passport information, services and forms, including the ability to submit certain information online. The project is due for completion in late 2003. The Passports Australia website continued to be popular with an average of 35 000 page-views recorded per week.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) completed a performance audit of passport services in April 2003. The auditors found the department operated sound processes for the delivery of passport services. It concluded that international benchmarking and other relevant feedback indicated that the Australian passport administration was regarded as a 'better practice provider' of passport services. The ANAO made four recommendations relating to performance management, performance monitoring, IT security procedures and operational processes. The recommendations will be considered for incorporation into the continuous improvement program conducted by the department's Passports Branch.

In December 2002, the department's Passports and Consular Branches were joint recipients of a Special Commendation under the Prime Minister's Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management.

Passport security

The development of the 'M' series of Australian travel documents continued throughout 2002–03. The first release of the booklets is scheduled for December 2003. They will incorporate new and enhanced security features, ensuring that Australian travel documents remain among the most secure in the world.

We began to develop a centralised production centre for passports, selecting a site in Canberra where around 80 per cent of all passports will be personalised. Overseas, we have identified two regional production centres, London and Washington, to personalise passports applied for overseas, and work has begun to ensure they will be operational in time for the release of the 'M' series documents.

The 2002–03 Budget provided the department with $3 million for research and development of a biometric identifier for the Australian passport (see box on page 135). The aim is to determine whether biometric technology can be used to strengthen identity verification processes and fraud detection capabilities. Proof of concept has been achieved, with research during 2002–03 showing that facial biometrics matching does work. Further funding to continue the project was obtained in the 2003–04 Budget. A case for implementation in 2004–05 will be put to the Government.

The department's initiative to use registered mail as the standard mail delivery system for Australian passports in Australia has proven successful. The average monthly number of passports reported missing in the mail in the second half of 2002–03 was 21, compared to a monthly average of 162 in 2001–02, when this system was not in use. While this initiative has significantly improved the security of passport delivery to clients, we are continuing efforts to improve the system.

We took or advanced a number of important policy initiatives in the passports area. We began a review of the Passports Act 1938, with a particular focus on security aspects and strengthening of sanctions for wrongdoers. The online validation service with state registrars of births, deaths and marriages was extended to Victoria and negotiations to extend it to other states and territories continue. We made considerable progress on the development of new passport application forms that include strengthened requirements for proof of identity. The new forms will be introduced globally from September 2003.

The department implemented several initiatives during 2002–03 under a national strategy to detect and prevent passport fraud. These initiatives included the development of a reference CD on identity documentation for passports staff and involvement in Australian Government working parties to strengthen identification requirements and fraud detection. We made progress in fraud and review audit programs in state passport offices and in participation by passport fraud investigators in nationally accredited training programs. Significant progress was also made in data cleansing of passport information.

Passport Client Service Charter

The department commissioned a client service survey to assess whether we were meeting our Passports Client Service Charter obligations. The overall results—89 per cent of customers rated the services as good or very good (the highest rating available in the survey) with only two per cent finding the service poor—indicated that our client service standards were met.

Revised passport guidelines

A human error resulted in an Australian embassy issuing a passport to an Australian citizen facing serious criminal charges overseas. The department has since issued revised instructions to all overseas posts emphasising that under the Passports Act 1938, the Minister has the discretion to refuse a passport in certain situations, including where a person might endanger the health, safety or rights and freedoms of other persons either in Australia or abroad. The instructions also underline the requirement for such matters to receive high-level attention, including formal dialogue between the head of the post and senior officers in Canberra.

Biometrics in Australian passports

Based on the results the department has achieved with biometrics, Australia is well placed to become the first country in the world to use facial recognition technology in its passports. Research has shown that facial biometrics matching does work and is able to detect persons who have applied for a passport in a false identity. Provided our development work is successful, a biometric could be a feature of Australian passports in the second half of 2004.

Under the proposed system, a person’s passport photo will be used to create a detailed electronic portrait of their face. This portrait will be stored on a tamper-proof microchip inside the passport. A computer will then compare this portrait to the face of the person presenting a passport at a border control point.

If adopted, facial recognition will improve identity verification processes and reduce fraud. It will also allow for more efficient and secure passenger processing at entry points in Australia and aid other countries in their border security.

The department has been at the forefront of efforts to have this technology accepted worldwide as an effective means of boosting passport security. We wrote the technical report that formed the basis of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s decision in May 2003 to adopt facial recognition as the international standard for biometric identifiers in travel documents. This means that all countries intending to use biometrics are now obliged to use the ICAO-approved identifier to enable worldwide interoperability.

As our work to date has been entirely consistent with the ICAO decision, Australia has a head start.

Table 11. Consular services provided to Australian travellers
  2002–03 2001–02 2000–01 1999–00 1998–99
Australian travellers 3 429 9601 3 467 000 3 452 000 3 332 300 3 188 700
Australians given general welfare and guidance 10 1292 19 194 16 975 16 085 15 551
Hospitalised Australians given general welfare and guidance 864 722 766 656 681
Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes 203 116 138 103 107
Next of kin guided or assisted with disposal of remains in relation to overseas deaths 681 639 547 604 548
Australians having difficulty arranging their return to Australia given guidance and assistance 109 81 71 60 57
Inquiries made about Australians overseas who could not be contacted by next of kin 5 7673 1 838 1 712 1 850 1 659
Australians arrested overseas 649 649 568 453 476
Australians in prison overseas (as at 30 June 2003) 184 180 208 155 158
Australians in financial difficulty who were lent public funds to cover immediate needs (travellers’ emergency loans) 610 739 738 775 896
Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty 19 196 24 158 21 723 20 741 20 133
Notarial acts4 73 514 74 932 67 319 64 889 40 285
Total number of Australians provided with consular assistance 92 710 99 090 89 042 85 630 60 418
  1. From ABS data.
  2. This figure reflects changes made in statistical collection to better record consular casework of a more serious nature. Non-case consular work of a more general nature is now reported in quantity indicators as ‘overseas post non-case inquiries’.
  3. This figure relates to inquiries about actual cases at posts. Total inquiries, including non-case-related inquiries in Australia and at overseas posts, are reported under quantity indicators.
  4. These figures include notarial acts performed at overseas posts, in Canberra and in state and territory offices.


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