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Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally

Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade :: 2001-2002 Annual Report
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Output 2.1:

Consular and passport services

2.1.1 Consular services

2.1.2 Passport services

Page Contents

Overview

The department provides consular and passport services to Australians travelling and living overseas and to their families in Australia. Consular services include assisting Australians who are hospitalised or imprisoned, helping families when Australians die, are injured or go missing and, when required, coordinating evacuations from trouble spots.

Under the authority of the Passports Act 1938, the department provides passport services to Australians through passport offices in state and territory capitals, and more than 100 diplomatic and consular missions overseas. Access to passport information is provided through the Australian Passport Information Service and the passports website . Interview services are also provided through Australia Post outlets. The department is continually looking at ways to develop and improve these services.

The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States had far-reaching consequences for our work in delivering consular and passport services. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the department handled 15 000 inquiries and provided close support to survivors and the families of victims. Over the following several months many Australians deferred travel in the face of international uncertainty and tension, resulting in a decline in passport issues and a corresponding fall-off in demand for most other passport services. This was outweighed by an unprecedented upsurge in public demand for advice about risks overseas.

Following the terrorist attacks the department focused on ensuring continued strong support for Australians overseas in the new, less predictable international environment. We reviewed all travel advice notices in consultation with the relevant overseas posts and marker governments, and recommended changes to Mr Downer. New travel advice Click to view related information - opens in new window was issued promptly, enabling us to satisfy quickly public demand for information. We also undertook an intensive review of all consular contingency plans.

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In the last six months of 2001-02 demand for passports services began to return to previous levels and the year finished with just 9.4 per cent, or 102 258, fewer passports issued than last year. The demand for travel advice and information also remained very high. The number of 'hits' on the travel pages of the department's website in June 2002 was 60 per cent higher than the figure for June 2001. This suggests that by the end of the period under review Australians were rediscovering their enthusiasm for travel, but were also consulting the department's advice more frequently before travelling.

In 2001-02 we helped more than 24 000 Australians in difficulty. This represented a 10 per cent increase on the previous year. The department's Consular Branch received 104 693 telephone calls during the year, a 17 per cent increase on the figure for 2000-01.

The department worked to make smarter use of technology in its delivery of services to the travelling public. By the end of the year staff in Canberra and at a number of posts in the Asia-Pacific region had access to our new Consular Management Information System (see below). This is an important tool for consular staff as they work to maintain high-quality services.

We issued 986 361 travel documents during the year. Preliminary work began on the development of a new passport and the introduction of biometric identifiers to streamline passport checking processes. Work continued on improving client service. Passports Australia's Client Service Charter won a government service charters award for excellence.

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Consular services Click to view related information - opens in new window

Accessibility of consular services
In 2001-02 the number of approved honorary consul positions was increased to 48, bringing to 164 the total number of locations overseas where Australians can obtain access to consular services.

Consular Operations Centre
Following a review of the department's response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, we established an emergency call unit to supplement the longstanding 24-hour Consular Operations Centre during periods of heightened activity. This increased significantly our capacity to manage incoming calls.

The department continued efforts to expand the number of posts that provide clients with after-hours access to the 24-hour Consular Operations Centre in Canberra whether as free calls or on reverse charges. At the end of the year 60 of the 80 consular posts managed by the department were connected in this way, and we were testing a new technical procedure designed to link all remaining consular posts to the Centre on a free call basis.

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The reach of the consular network

Australia's consular network comprises 164 points of consular service overseas. In addition to the provision of consular assistance, our staff overseas also provide the expert on-the-ground information on local conditions contained in the department's country-specific travel advice. As part of this network:

  • Of the 84 overseas missions (embassies, high commissions, consulates-general and consulates) managed by the department, 80 provide consular services.
  • Austrade manages 17 consulates that provide a full range of consular services in consultation with regional posts and Canberra. The Australian Commerce and Industry Office (in Taiwan) also provides consular services.
  • The Government has also expanded its network of consulates headed by honorary consuls-generally local business people acting on our behalf as required in return for a small honorarium. As of June 2002, bilateral agreements exist for 48 honorary consul positions around the world. Honorary consuls provide most, but not all, consular services. They may be foreign nationals or Australian expatriates.
  • In an additional 19 locations around the world, mainly in Africa and South America, Australians have access to consular services through embassies and high commissions managed by the Canadian Government. We reciprocate in Asia and the Pacific.

In the event that an Australian needs consular assistance in a country where none of these service points are located, informal arrangements exist with other consular services-including those of the United Kingdom and United States-to lend assistance to Australians in need.

Supplementing this extensive overseas consular network are the department's state and territory offices within Australia, and the department in Canberra, which coordinates and supports delivery of Australian consular services throughout the world.

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Improved technology
In March 2002 an online registration service (at www.dfat.gov.au/travel) developed by the department for Australian travellers and residents overseas was launched by Mr Downer. Australians can use this service to register their details with the department when they travel abroad. This information can be used to help locate Australian travellers in the case of natural disaster, medical emergency, civil disruption or personal tragedy. It is primarily intended for Australians planning to live overseas for substantial periods of time and those who have specific concerns about security risks based on our travel advice (found at the same website address).

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Consular Management Information System
In 2001-02 the department developed an online Consular Management Information System (CMIS) and rolled out this new database to posts in the South Pacific and Asia. This system boosts the department's capacity to maintain high quality consular services in the face of steadily increasing demand. The inclusion of an additional database of signatures and seals commonly requiring authentication helps strengthen our capacity to deliver notarial services.

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Table 11. Consular services provided to Australian travellers

  1997-98 1998-99 1999-00 2000-01 2001-02
Australian travellers [#] 3 031 900 3 188 700 3 332 300 3 452 000 3 467 000

Australians given general welfare and guidance

19 000 15 551 16 085 16 975 19 194

Hospitalised Australians given general welfare and guidance

774 681 656 766 722

Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes

108 107 103 138 116

Next of kin guided or assisted with disposal of remains in relation to overseas deaths

590 548 604 547 639

Australians having difficulty arranging their own return to Australia given guidance and assistance

95 57 60 71 81

Inquiries made about Australians overseas who could not be contacted by their next of kin

1 210 1 659 1 850 1 712 1 838

Australians arrested overseas

420 476 453 568 649

Australians in prison overseas (as at 30 June)

168 158 155 208 180

Australians in financial difficulty who were lent public funds to cover immediate needs (travellers' emergency loans)

1 091 896 775 738 739

Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty

23 456 20 133 20 741 21 723 24 158

Notarial acts

34 250 40 285 64 889[*] 67 319[*] 74 932[*]

Total number of Australians provided with consular assistance

57 706 60 418 85 630 89 042 99 090

# The 2000-01 and 2001-02 figures are estimates based on available ABS data. Previous years draw on ABS data.

* Figures include notarial acts performed by state offices in Australia.

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Keeping Australians informed
The department's consular public information program remained a key area of focus. Mr Downer launched a major new publication, Assisting Australians overseas, to a travel industry and media audience in March 2002. This publication outlines the range of services offered by the department and underlines what Australians can do to minimise difficulty overseas. We also supported Mrs Gallus in a series of letters and messages to the travel industry and media highlighting the importance of travel insurance, good preparation, maintaining contact with home and other 'safe travel' messages.

In 2001-02 the department issued 705 consular travel advice notices Click to view related information - opens in new window -a 73 per cent increase on the previous year. This reflected in part heightened international tensions following 11 September 2001 and the subsequent United States-led military operations in Afghanistan, and also the new departmental requirement that all travel advice notices should be reviewed and re-issued at least once every three months. Instability associated with events in Israel and the West Bank, tensions between India and Pakistan, elections in Zimbabwe and disturbances in Nepal required careful monitoring of risks and timely travel advice updates. Consistent with generally higher public awareness of possible risks, the number of subscribers to the department's automated travel advice subscription service increased by 330 per cent in 2001-02, from 1000 to 3300.

Our travel advice received significantly increased coverage in the Australian media during 2001-02. We recorded an average of three articles a week in the Australian travel media on the department's consular services, including our travel advice and website.

There was a 253 per cent increase in the number of registered 'hits' on the consular pages of the website in 2001-02. There were almost 5.6 million 'hits' recorded on the consular pages in total during the year. This peaked in mid October 2001, when 510 200 'hits' were recorded in one week. Before 11 September 2001 the average weekly number of 'hits' had been 65 000. By the end of 2001-02, the average weekly number of 'hits' had stabilised at 100 000.

In 2001-02 the department established a 'faxback' service for the delivery of travel advice to those Australians who do not have access to the Internet. In introducing the system the department was mindful of the significant number of travel agents without access to the Internet who are nevertheless approached by Australians for advice. The 'faxback' service recorded particularly high usage during the period of heightened tension between India and Pakistan in May-June 2002.

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Australian travellers can get advice by:

  • visiting the department's website at www.dfat.gov.au/travel. Country-specific travel advice is updated at least every three months, and an email subscription service is available.
  • overseas, by faxing any Australian post or by telephoning and asking to speak to a member of the consular staff; in Australia, by telephoning the 24-hour Consular Operations Centre in Canberra on 1300 555 135.
  • writing to the Consular Branch, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, R G Casey Building, John McEwen Crescent, Barton ACT 0221.
  • accessing advice through our consular faxback system, by telephoning (02) 6261 1299.

In 2001-02 the department expanded to 15 the number of consular publications Click to view related information - opens in new window. In addition to the major new publication Assisting Australians overseas (mentioned above), we produced a publication titled Living and working overseas to help Australian expatriates-we estimate this population to be around 720 000. Another new publication, Death overseas, is intended as a source of advice and assistance for the families and friends of Australians who die overseas, of which there are approximately 600 each year.

The department distributed 406 000 brochures directly to the public-compared to 270 000 the previous year. In addition, 986 000 copies of Hints for Australian travellers Click to view related information - opens in new window were issued with new Australian passports. The increase in direct distribution reflected the introduction of an online brochure ordering system, the participation of consular staff in a greater number of travel expos and more active cooperation with the travel industry generally.

Monitoring public feedback about our consular services and publications remained an important priority. In 2000-01 we established a new feedback page within our primary publication, Hints for Australian travellers. We also introduced a form for use by our posts in obtaining feedback from consular clients overseas.

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Responsiveness to consular crises
The consular crisis following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks was unprecedented in scale. Crisis centres and hotlines were established quickly in Canberra and the United States to manage the surge in telephone enquiries from anxious members of the public. Our Consul General in New York opened his home to Australians traumatised by the crisis, and the department made professional counselling available to them.

Terrorist attacks in the United States

Within three hours of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the department's Crisis Centre was up and running. Hundreds of calls from the media and the general public concerned about family and friends were received by the Media Duty Officer and the 24-hour Consular Operations Centre (COC).

The department set up a special 24-hour consular hotline, which was widely publicised through the media. Additional staff were called in to take the incoming calls, with many others volunteering to take shifts. The COC received over 15 000 calls in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Over 1500 people registered details of family members and friends for whose safety they were seriously concerned. Media interest was intense, with the department's media team fielding around 1000 calls in the first four days.

To help manage the powerful public interest, we established a special area on our website that included travel advice notices, information about the attacks and details of hotline inquiry numbers in Australia and the United States.

In New York and Washington our posts moved to 24-hour operations and three staff were redeployed from Washington to New York. Our Consulate-General in New York provided advice and counselling to Australians traumatised by the crisis, and assisted victims' families in New York.

As information about the victims emerged, the department made 8000 follow-up calls to those who registered the details of a family member or friend.

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A range of other high-profile consular cases and crises also required careful management during the year. Working in close support of Mr Downer, the department helped bring the case of Kay and Kerry Danes, an Australian couple detained by Laotian authorities, to a successful end in November 2001. We also successfully managed a case involving two Australian aid workers, Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas, who were detained by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for more than three months.

Australian passengers stranded overseas following the collapse of Ansett required the extensive support of the department, particularly our Consulate-General in Bali. In response to escalating tensions between India and Pakistan from May 2002, the department significantly upgraded its travel advice notices for both countries, and our posts in Islamabad and New Delhi implemented contingency plans and contacted registered Australians with warnings and advice.

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Passport services

Client access and services
During 2001-02 the number of Australians who used an Australia Post outlet to lodge their passport applications remained unchanged at 82 per cent of applications lodged in Australia.

The passport website (www.passports.gov.au) has proven a popular conduit for information concerning passport services. An average of 139 749 'hits' were recorded each month. Of these, 32 500 related to requests for the renewal of a passport. Phase one of the 'passport online' strategy (designed to meet the Government's Online Strategy) was completed and provided clients with improved information from the passport website. Phases two and three of the project are due for completion in 2002-03 and will provide enhanced online access to a wide range of interactive passport information, services and forms, including the ability to submit certain information online.

In response to client demands, we developed two new passport services and made them ready for introduction on 1 July 2002. The new services include guaranteed issue of a travel document within 48 hours when a $60 urgent fee is paid, and a five-year seniors' passport to be offered, at half the normal fee, to Australians who are 75 years and over.

The Australian Passport Information Service continued to provide an affordable and accessible service to all Australians for the cost of a local call. Over 1.2 million calls were handled in 2001-02, down by 13.6 per cent from last year, with all contractual performance standards met or exceeded.

On 30 April 2002, the department launched an interactive online computer-based training program to provide greater consistency throughout all passport offices in the application of passport policy and service delivery. Twenty-four modules were developed comprising 1200 screens, 660 case studies, 250 slides and over 200 assessment exercises. The program delivers a total of 15 hours training.

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Figure 16. Number of travel documents issued 1997-98 to 2001-02

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Security features of Australian travel documents
The development of a new series of Australian travel documents is well under way. The new series, which is scheduled for release in 2003, will incorporate the latest available technologies and security features to ensure that Australian travel documents remain among the most secure in the world.

Research also began on the use of facial biometrics for improved identity checking systems for passports and other travel documents. This will assist detection of passport fraud and enable more effective and secure processing of travellers at border controls.

Our capacity to identify and respond to passport fraud was increased further by the appointment of a fraud officer in each passport office and the secondment of an Australian Federal Police officer to the Sydney passport office to conduct investigations and refer cases for prosecution. These initiatives have seen the number of passport fraud investigations this year increase by 163 per cent to 520 cases (out of the 586 new cases of fraud identified during the year).

An ongoing program of internal sampling of approved passport applications was introduced in 2001-02. This project, when combined with our existing online identity validation capacity and the tightening of interview identity checking procedures now being finalised, will help reduce the instances of passport fraud.

In response to increasing security concerns, the department has made arrangements with Australia Post for all travel documents to be returned to applicants by registered post from July 2002.

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Passport Client Service Charter
The Passport Client Service Charter underwent its second revision in 2001-02. The charter has been developed through consultation with interested parties and is used as the standard against which our performance is measured.

Award for Passports Australia

In June 2002, Passports Australia won a government service charters award (silver category) for demonstrated excellence in integrating its Client Service Charter into core service delivery outcomes and organisational culture.

An independent client feedback and performance measuring mechanism was established to provide information on how well customer service obligations are fulfilled. Clients are invited to comment on the quality of service and external surveys are conducted regularly to evaluate the range and quality of services against client expectations. International benchmarking comparisons are conducted with other world leaders in the provision of travel documents and the results are used continuously to update and improve services.

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