The Government will pare back consular services to Australians who repeatedly get into trouble overseas and may eventually also introduce a cost-recovery fee.
Australians who over-use consular services overseas when they find themselves in trouble may have restricted access to diplomatic support, under a new consular strategy launched today.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has warned Australians travelling abroad that they cannot assume that their embassy or consulate staff will bail them out.
“Our consular staff are not there to pay for the repairs to your jet ski,” the minister said. “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 for you to do your work. Consular officers cannot get you out of jail or issue you with a passport so you can evade justice. Consular assistance is a last-resort service.”
She said it should “not be seen as a right – it is a privilege”.
Julie Bishop said Australian diplomats dealt with 1300 consular cases overseas every day and approximately 1000 Australians on average were in jail or detention overseas at any given time.
But she said there was a limit to what diplomats could do to help and Australians had to take more personal responsibility when they travelled overseas. She urged people to take out travel insurance and be aware of the limits of diplomatic assistance.
“Australians must understand that travel insurance is not an optional extra. If you cannot afford insurance, you cannot afford to travel.”
“Consular assistance should not be seen as a right. It is a privilege."
And she sent a strong warning to anyone who repeatedly sought diplomatic help to an unreasonable degree: they would face restrictions on the extent of consular assistance in future.
“In a very small minority of cases, individuals have acted illegally or have deliberately or repeatedly acted recklessly or negligently and put themselves or others at risk 02 despite warning,” she said. “In addition, some individuals have a pattern of behaviour that has required multiple instances of consular assistance in the past.
“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.”
She said she had decided not to impose cost-recovery fees on people using consular services at this stage “but it remains a live option and it's one we'll consider again if necessary to address this issue in the future”.
“We're not going to leave people stranded,” she said. “We're not going to leave genuine need unaddressed but we do have to recognise that there are some who game the system. And we're alert to it.”
Ms Bishop said a small minority of Australians who travelled abroad deliberately engaged in political or other activity which they knew to be unlawful and then sought diplomatic help when they were arrested.
“If you go to Bali and you are importing large amounts of drugs into Bali, what planet have you come from? Seriously? Post Schapelle Corby, post the Bali 9 - and yet people still think it's ok to import drugs into a country where they have signs the size of movie screens saying 'the death penalty applies to drug trafficking in this country'.”
Ms Bishop said the Government is actively considering opening new consular outposts in holiday destinations popular with Australian tourists, such as Phuket in Thailand, because of the consular workload.