Consular Services : Sub-program 2.2
The Consular Branch of the Public Affairs and Consular Division administers this sub-program. In Australia, consular services are provided by the Consular Branch in Canberra and through the department’s eight State and Territory offices. Overseas, these services are provided through 141 posts: 81 posts managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 17 posts managed by Austrade, one post managed by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, and 42 consulates headed by honorary consuls. In addition, consular services are provided through 17 Canadian posts with which we have consular sharing arrangements.
n.a. Not applicable.
Objectives, Performance Indicators and Result
The department completed implementation of the recommendations accepted by the Government arising from the review of the Australian Government’s consular service carried out by the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee in November 1997.
In light of this inquiry’s recommendations, we have continued to improve our liaison with, and services to, consular clients and their families. This includes, for example, facilitating contact with professional counsellors; further expanding our information campaign; and examining new approaches to, and consolidating and refining the service provided by the 24-hour Consular Operations Centre.
There was a significant increase in the numbers of Australians travelling overseas in 1998–99: approximately 3.1 million, an increase of almost 500 000 from the previous year. However, during this period, we assisted 20 133 Australians, which represents a decrease of 14 per cent in requirements for assistance compared with the previous year. This figure is 0.65 per cent of the total number of Australians travelling, down from 0.9 per cent in 1997–98. (The unrest in Indonesia in May 1998 contributed to the larger than usual number of Australian travellers requiring assistance during the previous period.)
Feedback received from consular clients and their families during the year, including a great number of letters of appreciation, was overwhelmingly positive. Nevertheless, we continued to give serious attention to the few instances of negative feedback.
* Australian Bureau of Statistics.
** Figures available from 1998–99 onwards.
n.a.: Not available.
To increase further the accessibility of our consular services, we continued to extend the scope of the 24-hour service provided by the Consular Operations Centre. All overseas posts are now able to access this service, with over 40 of these posts having online access. This service enables Australian citizens to request emergency assistance either by freecall telephone lines or through a reverse charge call system. We also continued to implement our consular sharing arrangements with the Canadian Government, cooperating successfully on a range of consular cases.
In order to minimise the number of occasions on which assistance is required, we continued to work to ensure that all Australians travelling overseas were fully aware, prior to departure, of traveller safety issues and of specific potential problems such as political or ethnic unrest. We also endeavoured to alert Australian travellers to potential consular problems and make them aware of the extent of the assistance we are able to provide.
* Australian Bureau of Statistics.
** Excludes overseas notarial acts.
As part of our ongoing comprehensive information campaign, we provided every Australian receiving a passport with a copy of our Hints for Australian Travellers. This booklet has been regularly updated and expanded over the past 20 years. In December 1998, a significantly revised edition of Hints for Australian Travellers was launched by Mr Downer in Sydney, generating wide press coverage. A further updated edition was published in April 1999.
We also maintained an extensive travel information site on our website, covering both consular and passport matters. This site received 577 482 visits in 1998–99, compared with 248 871 in the previous year, making it the most accessed area of the department’s website. The site contains a range of useful information for the Australian traveller, including Hints for Australian Travellers, frequently asked questions and travel advisory notices. It also addresses specific issues of potential concern such as sexual assault, arrest or imprisonment, dual nationality, missing people, women travellers and backpackers, and advice on particular destinations.
We ensured our travel advisory notices and quarterly consular newsletters were distributed to the travel industry through electronic networks such as Galileo and Abacus, which have a potential audience of 3 937 travel agencies throughout Australia. In 1998–99 we issued 122 travel advisory notices, which provided the travelling Australian public and the travel industry with timely advice about potential trouble spots. We also alerted these audiences to the potential impact of the Y2K millennium bug, not only through our travel advisory notices but also through liaison with the media. Our press conference and interviews with radio and television on this issue resulted in articles in the national print and electronic media, ensuring widespread awareness of the potential for Y2K problems. The department also continued to refine and update consular contingency plans in the context of the Y2K issue.
During the year, our public speaking campaign continued to promote greater community understanding of the consular assistance and services that Australians could expect to receive from Australian posts overseas. We addressed backpacker information nights held by the Youth Hostels Association of Australia in capital cities and regional centres, as well as tourism classes at five universities in three States, and a meeting of the Australian Business Travel Association in Canberra.
Among the most serious consular cases we dealt with during 1998–99 were those involving airline and train crashes, evacuations, natural disasters, murder, hostage taking, sexual assault, arrest and imprisonment, searches for missing people, death and injury. We also assisted in cases concerning repatriation, emergency loans, illness and destitution.
Working with Special Envoy Mr Malcolm Fraser and liaising with families and CARE Australia, the department mobilised extensive international support as part of a diplomatic strategy aimed at obtaining the release of jailed CARE Australia workers Mr Steve Pratt and Mr Peter Wallace. Also of particular note was the provision of consular services during emergencies, such as the kidnapping of Australians in Yemen and Uganda; the conflict in Kosovo; the sinking of the cruise ship Sun Vista off the Malaysian coast; the Thai Airways, Airlink and Vanair crashes; the death of an Australian peacekeeper in the downing of a United Nations plane in Angola; the murder of a prominent Australian businessman in Thailand; and the killing of an Australian missionary and his sons in India.
In all cases, we liaised closely with host governments and with the families of the victims. The department was also a primary source of guidance to the news media to help ensure that the reporting on the cases was accurate and balanced. In India, the Australian overseas post continues to assist the missionary’s next of kin.
Travellers’ emergency loans are public funds lent to Australians overseas in financial difficulties to cover immediate needs. The department provides these loans according to strict guidelines, and these loans are expected to be repaid immediately upon the traveller’s return. In 1998–99, we issued 896 travellers’ emergency loans totalling $105 445, compared with 1 091 loans totalling $431 000 in the previous year. (The large total in 1997–98 is primarily attributable to loans issued for assisted passages from Jakarta in the period 17 to 21 May 1998.)
* Australian Bureau of Statistics.
In line with the Government’s Charter of Service in a Culturally Diverse Society, the department introduced the Client Services Charter in January 1999. This charter demonstrates our commitment to providing a high-quality consular service to all Australians.
During the year in review, we expanded our consular services with the opening of a new embassy in Abu Dhabi, a new consulate in Dili, East Timor, and three new consulates headed by honorary consuls in other parts of Indonesia (in Balikpapan, Medan and Kupang). As a result of the opening of Australia-based representation in Bucharest (Romania), we terminated our honorary consul arrangement in that city. These changes brought the total of such consulates to 42, up from 40 in the previous year.
In 1999–2000, Australia-based representation will also replace honorary consulates in Lima (Peru) and Zagreb (Croatia). Funds released by these closures will be used to establish two additional consulates in the United States: in Houston (Texas) and Miami (Florida).
We have prepared a draft Code of Conduct for Honorary Consuls of Australia, to help honorary consuls to exemplify the values of the Australian Government. This code will be promulgated shortly.
We continued to maintain consular sharing arrangements with Canada. This includes 17 locations where Canada provides consular services to Australian citizens, and 19 locations where Australia provides consular services to Canadian citizens (locations are listed at Appendix 16).
We met our consular sharing partners—Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States—in New Orleans in April 1999 to consolidate further our consular sharing arrangements, especially on Y2K matters. We plan to host an additional meeting in November 1999. As a result of these meetings, contingency planners have shared information and coordinated activities by exchanging draft travel advisory notices and holding regular monthly conference calls. At our posts around the world, consular coordination and information sharing meetings increased, especially on Y2K matters. Virtually all posts now participate in regular meetings with the missions of the other four consular sharing partners, and many have pooled their efforts to gather information on the state of host governments’ Y2K readiness.
We achieved significant progress towards concluding a bilateral consular agreement with China during successive rounds of negotiations in October 1998 and April 1999. The resulting draft agreement is expected to be the basis for final negotiations in August 1999. The conclusion of a final agreement will greatly improve our ability to assist Australians travelling in China.
In close cooperation with the Attorney-General’s Department, we made progress in negotiations with Egypt on a bilateral agreement for protection of the welfare of children. We expect the agreement to be ready for signature by the end of 1999.
We also facilitated the drafting of a bilateral agreement with the Lebanese Government for protection of children. The response to the draft from the Lebanese Government, received on 31 May 1999, is currently being considered by the Attorney-General’s Department.
We facilitated further negotiations on prisoner transfer arrangements by officers from the Attorney-General’s Department and Thai authorities in Bangkok in June 1999. Enabling legislation from all States and Territories is required before agreements on prisoner transfer arrangements with Thailand and the Council of Europe can be finalised. Western Australia passed necessary enabling legislation in June 1999, leaving the Northern Territory as the only State or Territory yet to pass appropriate legislation.
With support from KPMG, we completed a review of our consular information management system in January 1999. As a result, the department decided to develop an in-house consular management system as part of the overall departmental information management strategy.