The Department

2.2 Consular Services

Table 23: Resources Summary for Sub-program 2.2

Figure 34: Consular Services Program and Organisational Structure as at 30 June 1998

Sub-program Objectives

In 1997-98, the objective of sub-program 2.2 was to:

  • assist, and protect where necessary, the interests of Australians overseas in accordance with international law.

Description

The Consular Branch of the Public Affairs and Consular Division administers the sub-program and the Department provides consular services through its 79 overseas diplomatic and consular missions.

The sub-program pursues strategies designed to help achieve two of the Department’s corporate goals: to help Australian travellers and Australians overseas; and to provide clients with highly professional, efficient and effective services. These strategies include exercising, on behalf of Australian travellers, their rights under international law and practice; providing consular assistance through the network of Australian diplomatic and consular missions abroad as well as through the 24-hour Canberra-based Consular Operations Centre; improving the range and effectiveness of consular services by entering into new agreements with other countries; and continuing to develop an effective network of Honorary Consuls. By continually improving its processes and procedures, the Department seeks to enhance its ability to respond to consular problems, and by further public affairs activity, it plans to make consular services better known to the growing community of Australian travellers.

Performance Information

In 1997-98, the Department indicated that it would evaluate its performance using:

  • drafting the Government’s response to recommendations from the Senate inquiry into consular matters
  • implementing, to ministerial satisfaction, those Senate inquiry recommendations that the Government endorsed
  • issuing, in a timely manner, a new edition of Hints for Australian Travellers
  • establishing new consulates headed by honorary consuls
  • continuing the successful operation of existing consular sharing arrangements
  • incorporating new guidelines on dealing with victims of sexual assault into the Consular Instructions
  • introducing revised and improved consular training courses.

Performance Outcomes

The Department drafted the Government’s response to the report of the Senate’s inquiry into consular services, released by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in November. The Department subsequently began implementing the 17 recommendations arising from the inquiry which the Government accepted; the most significant are detailed below.

In response to the Senate inquiry, the Department published two new editions of Hints for Australian Travellers and developed proposals to redesign and further improve this key publication. In significantly upgrading its public affairs effort to alert Australian travellers to potential consular problems, the Department also published six new brochures on specific subjects to distribute mainly through the travel industry. These brochures addressed the concerns of victims of sexual assault, the problems of people arrested or jailed, dual nationality, missing people, the needs of women travellers and backpackers, and advice on Bali. The Department also prepared and distributed guidelines to posts on how to assist victims of sexual assault. To help promote greater community understanding of the consular assistance and services that Australians can expect to receive from Australian posts overseas, the Department implemented a public speaking and media liaison strategy; this resulted in travel media publicity for the new consular brochures.

Photo: Passport Officer, Paul Perriman, issues a passport to Ferd Mahler at the RG Casey Building in Canberra. Every Australian purchasing a passport receives a copy of the brochure Hints for Australian Travellers. (photo: Michael Jensen)

In accordance with the importance the Government attaches to the network of honorary consuls to extend the scope of consular service delivery, and as recommended by the Senate inquiry, the Department established six new posts headed by Honorary Consuls (Vilnius, Copenhagen, Durban, Karachi, Maputo and Skopje) and closed one (Port-of-Spain). This brought the total number to 40 at the end of the review period.

Also in response to the Senate Inquiry, the Department reviewed and enlarged the scope of existing consular sharing and cooperative arrangements with consular partner countries (most notably Canada) in Africa and the Pacific. The Department also made progress on negotiating a bilateral consular agreement with China and continued diplomatic lobbying to have more countries accede to The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. It also proposed the negotiation of bilateral agreements in this area. It continued to work on proposals for new agreements in international prisoner exchange, particularly with Thailand and the Council of Europe.

As part of a continuing strategy to improve consular services, the Department provided policy advice to ministers on the amendment of the Consular Fees Act 1995 to allow locally-engaged staff at posts to perform certain notarial acts for Australian travellers. The Act was amended in October; this will enhance the Department’s ability to help Australian travellers abroad.

A departmental review of consular training courses led to the introduction of several initiatives. One successful initiative was to invite Australians who had been imprisoned overseas to participate in the training course. Honorary consuls and locally-engaged staff from overseas posts also participated. In addition, the Department conducted a regional training seminar for honorary consuls in November in Paris.

The Department succeeded in being granted a limited waiver by the Privacy Commissioner from certain provisions of the Privacy Act 1988; this enhanced its ability to provide an effective consular service. The Department prepared guidelines for its staff detailing how the waiver is to be implemented.

As the number of Australian travellers continued to rise, the Department dealt with an increasingly complex caseload of Australians requiring consular assistance, including evacuations during political unrest, piracy, murder, hostage taking, sexual assault, robbery, arrest and imprisonment, searching for missing people, death and injury, repatriation, emergency loans, illness and destitution. Of particular note were the facilitated departure of large numbers of Australians from civil disorder in Indonesia and Cambodia; the Maccabiah Bridge disaster in Israel; a tourist bus crash in Paris; the South East Asia transboundary haze crisis; and the search for an Australian sea captain kidnapped by pirates in the South China Sea.

Photo: The Crisis Centre in operation during the departure of Australians from Indonesia in May: (from front left around the table to front right) John Caligar, Department of Defence, Paula Ganly, John Buckley, Ian Russell, Judith Wulff, Jenny Saville, Fiona Belgrove, Michael Nash, Chris Price, Marisa Gomes and Lydia Morton. (photo: Michael Jensen)

Table 24: Consular Statistics 1997-98

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