Annual Report 2004-2005

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Your location: Performance > Outcome 2 > Output 2.1 > Reporting against effectiveness indicators

OUTPUT 2.1: Consular and passport services

Reporting against effectiveness indicators

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The department delivered a range of high-quality consular and passport services to Australians travelling and living overseas and to their families in Australia. We effectively managed the consular and passport implications of, and led whole of government responses to, a significant number of international crises:

These incidents tested the department's crisis management arrangements. Refinements to our systems following these events included the creation of a new crisis management information technology system that can share information between Canberra and remote locations overseas where consular officers are sent to assist Australians. Centrelink call centres were also linked into the new system to ensure a greatly increased capacity to manage inquiries from Australians concerned about mass casualty incidents overseas.

In its second year, the Government's $9.7 million smartraveller travel advice and consular services information campaign continued to promote safe overseas travel. We issued 447 travel advisory updates for 152 countries, providing Australians with up-to-date advice on security and related conditions in major overseas destinations.

We established the Smartraveller Consultative Group, a high-level body chaired at parliamentary secretary level, to enhance cooperation between government agencies and key travel industry representatives on safe travel issues.

In 2004–05, of the 4.7 million Australians who travelled overseas 25 731 required significant consular assistance. A large number of cases attracted strong media interest. The department's efforts to provide information to the media rose by 70 per cent compared to 2003–04.

The department continued to face an increased demand for passports. The number of travel documents issued rose by 16 per cent from 2003–04 to 2004–05. Despite this, the average issue time for a passport decreased from 9.4 days to 5.8 days, a significant improvement and well within the department's advertised ten working day service level. In response to growth in demand, average passport staff numbers across the passports network in Australia increased by 19.2 per cent from 239 to 285.

Arrangements to regionalise passport production, introduced in December 2003, led to greater security and efficiency in issuing passports overseas. During the year, posts issued 6481 emergency passports. The three production centres in London, Washington and Canberra produced 41 756 full validity passports for their respective overseas regions. Of these, 91.6 per cent were returned to the initiating posts within ten working days.

The department drafted the new Australian Passports Act 2005, passed by Parliament on 8 February 2005, to replace the Passports Act 1938. We developed and implemented supporting policies and procedures to bring the Act into force on 1 July 2005.

The department introduced new arrangements for reporting lost and stolen passports to Interpol and some other countries to curtail possible illegal use of Australian passports overseas. We continued research and development on the use of biometric identifiers in passports with very strong preliminary results.

Passport training was a major focus, with increased attention to regional post training and to staff proceeding on long-term postings. The use of online passport services continued to be well received by the Australian public, with 56 per cent of applicants visiting the website to access information and services. This growth in online services contributed to reductions in costs in other facilities, such as the Australian Passport Information Service call centre. The department made further enhancements to the online service to support the new Passports Act.

Consular services

Australians can now access consular services in 172 locations overseas. The department opened a new embassy in Kuwait and the Minister for Foreign Affairs agreed to the establishment of a new consulate headed by an honorary consul in Phuket, Thailand, which remains an important tourist destination in Asia with increasing business opportunities. Canada agreed to provide consular services to Australians in Algeria under the Consular Sharing Agreement. There are now 23 locations where Canada provides consular services for Australians. Australia, in return, provides similar services for Canadian citizens in 21 locations.

The department looked for additional opportunities to meet the needs of the increasing number of Australians travelling overseas. We concluded a Service Level Agreement with Austrade establishing a comprehensive set of service level standards for the delivery of consular and passport services at Austrade-managed posts. To help deliver consular services, Austrade funded a web-enabled version of the department's consular management information system (CMIS), a tool that will improve Austrade's ability to deliver consular services overseas.

The department completed a review of the Honorary Consul Program to examine the coverage and effectiveness of our honorary consul network. The findings and recommendations are yet to be considered by ministers.

Travel advice: protecting Australians overseas

Against a backdrop of continued strong media and community interest in the department's consular information services, we continued to refine the format and presentation of travel advisories. Travel advisories provide up-to-date, practical information about most destinations to which Australians travel, helping them to make informed decisions about travelling safely. We issued 447 travel advice updates during the year, and the number of destinations covered by travel advisories grew from 144 to 152.

The department continued to give urgent priority to alerting Australians to possible terrorist and other security-related threats that could affect their safety overseas. We liaised closely with the National Threat Assessment Centre (NTAC) to ensure strong linkage between travel advice and NTAC country threat assessments. We worked to ensure that our advice remained credible in the public mind and was not blunted by a perception that risk is overstated. Timeliness and a move from prescriptive to more descriptive language, with detailed explanations of the risks in each country, helped travellers reach a more informed decision on travel to particular destinations. We actively engaged partners in the travel industry to promote our travel advisory service and general safe travel messages.

Now in its second year, the Government's $9.7million three-year travel advice public information campaign, smartraveller, continued to promote safe overseas travel through targeted national television and print advertising, and the smartraveller website. Market research confirmed that the Internet continued to be the most popular method of accessing travel advice. The smar traveller website recorded 217 000 page-views per week (a 32 per cent increase over the average for the previous year). More than 65 000 clients have email subscriptions to travel advice updates (up from 42 000 last year). The automated smartraveller telephone service (1300 139 281), which ensures travel advisories are accessible to Australians without Internet access, registered an average of 2528 calls per month.

The department's 14 different consular information publications continued to generate strong public interest, with 1.5 million printed brochures distributed throughout the year. We continued to promote online access to the brochures, including through the smartraveller website. To provide security and events-related information to the record 14 000 Australians who travelled to the Anzac Day commemoration services in Gallipoli in April 2005, the department distributed 15 000 copies of a new Travelling to Turkey for Anzac Day? brochure to travellers, travel agencies and tour operators.

The department continued efforts to combat the abuse of children overseas. Reflecting particular concern about the safety and welfare of children placed in child care facilities at hotels in Bali, the department engaged Child Wise (an internationally recognised child protection advocacy NGO) to conduct two training workshops for hotels in Bali on risk minimisation strategies to help prevent child abuse.

The department initiated outreach to representatives of the Australian–Lebanese community and travel agents to raise awareness of potential consular difficulties affecting Australian minors travelling to Lebanon, including forced marriage and child custody issues, as well as military service obligations affecting holders of Australian–Lebanese nationality.

Who reads travel advice?

An increasing number of Australian travellers are reading the department's travel advice:

Responsiveness to consular crises

Photo - See caption below for description
The Secretar y, Michael L'Estrange, with representatives of the Tsunami Disaster Response Team receiving a joint citation for their work. Photo: Michael Jensen
Enlarge image :: Photo gallery
Photo - See caption below for description
In advance of Prime Minister Howard's visit to Banda Aceh on 2 Februar y 2005, Elizabeth O'Neill (Counsellor, Public Affairs, Australian embassy Jakar ta) (centre) and Andrew Chandler (First Secretar y, Defence, Australian embassy Jakar ta) (right), and Major Matt Grant (Defence Headquarters Task Force, Banda Aceh) (left), inspect the damage caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Enlarge image :: Photo gallery

The Indian Ocean tsunami presented a significant new challenge in both scale and complexity for the department's crisis response systems (see box below). More than 15 000 Australians were reported as missing to the department's consular crisis hotline. Working closely with other agencies, we and several of our overseas missions coordinated relief flights and medical assistance and provided consular assistance to hundreds of Australians stranded by the tsunami. Within a fortnight following the tsunami, we were able to account for 10 500 Australians. Tragically, 26 Australians lost their lives. An unprecedented number of staff was recalled to duty across the department's network to serve either overseas or in Canberra to provide consular services to Australians affected by the crisis (see box below).

The department received over 85 000 calls to its hotline in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. To improve our hotline capacity, we collaborated effectively with Centrelink call centres. We deployed consular information systems to Centrelink and provided systems training for Centrelink staff. This will ensure increased capacity and a more efficient hotline service in the event of a future significant incident overseas that generates a large volume of consular enquiries in Australia.

The department developed technologies to enable access to key consular management information systems for consular staff deployed in the event of a significant incident in a remote overseas location. We consolidated a close working relationship with the Australian Federal Police and, through it, with state and territory police forces. This helped us locate Australians reported as unaccounted for as a result of crises overseas.

The tsunami, the Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta and hostage taking in Iraq provided thorough tests of the department's consular crisis mechanisms. After each event, the department, together with other agencies represented on the Inter-Departmental Emergency Task Force (IDETF), conducted a series of debriefing exercises to identify areas for improvement, including enhancements to communications technologies and systems. These have been implemented.

Emergency Response Teams (ERTs) were despatched twice to Iraq to respond to hostage incidents (the first proving to be a hoax) and to Thailand following the tsunami. In the Iraq hostage cases, in addition to departmental officers, the ERTs included representatives of the Department of Defence and the Australian Federal Police. The Indian Ocean tsunami response team used Australian Federal Police expertise in forensics and disaster victim identification. A medical team and counsellors from Centrelink were also included in that ERT.

In planning for the large numbers of Australians travelling to Athens for the Olympic Games in September 2004, we invested considerable effort to develop contingency plans for that event. That experience, and lessons learned from the tsunami crisis, underpinned contingency planning for the 90th anniversary of Anzac Day in Gallipoli. We deployed our new remote access technology to the Gallipoli peninsula and to Centrelink in time for the commemorations. This provided a useful test for the system.

Indian Ocean tsunami: the consular response

The Indian Ocean tsunami presented an unprecedented challenge to the department's consular service.

From the early afternoon of 26 December 2004, the department moved quickly to activate our crisis centre and our emergency call unit. Both were fully operational by 6.00 pm Canberra time. The first Inter-Departmental Emergency Task Force (IDETF) meeting, chaired by the department, was held at 9.00 pm that night and brought together senior representatives of all relevant agencies to coordinate whole of government policy and operational responses. The IDETF met a total of 22 times between 26 December 2004 and 14 January 2005.

The consular complexities posed by the tsunami were unique in scale and geographic scope. The department activated a consular response in six countries, including in remote locations. Our hotline took over 85 000 calls, with over 15 000 Australians reported as unaccounted for.

In the immediate aftermath, our diplomatic posts in Thailand, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka worked with local authorities, hospitals and hotels to account for, and provide assistance to, affected Australians. Temporary offices were established in Phuket and Krabi in Thailand, and in the Maldives. Consular officers and local staff worked tirelessly in the field locating and assisting Australians. We helped Australians with medical treatment and emergency shelter, replaced travel documents and facilitated departures from affected areas. We worked closely with Virgin Blue and Qantas to ensure relief flights were available to as many Australians as possible who wanted to leave. Staff worked closely with the Australian Federal Police to put victim identification and support arrangements in place and assisted the repatriation of the remains of Australians killed. Forty additional staff were deployed to the region to supplement consular staff on the ground.

The department had teams in Canberra working around the clock coordinating with teams on the ground to confirm the safety of Australians and identify those unaccounted for, and to support and inform next of kin of developments. Over 300 staff, 150 of whom voluntarily returned from leave, worked on the tsunami response in Canberra.

Since the tsunami, the department has strengthened its crisis management systems to deal more efficiently with such large-scale events. The hotline has been expanded through an agreement with Centrelink call centres. We have developed a remote access consular emergency database that can be deployed in remote locations overseas and, through other systems, to Centrelink.

Assisting Australians overseas

The department assisted 25 731 Australians in difficulty in over 152 countries. This was significantly more than the previous year due to the high number of welfare and whereabouts enquiries for Australians possibly affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami. We managed greater numbers of serious category consular cases, including medical evacuations, deaths, welfare, whereabouts and repatriations. The department also dealt with additional cases of arrests of Australians overseas, continuing the trend of recent years.

Consular officers dealt with many highly complex cases in isolated areas or countries with unique cultural, health and legal systems, often unfamiliar to Australians. The abandonment of a 12-year old child, a fisherman lost at sea in a small dinghy and a tourist attacked by a hippopotamus in an isolated game park were examples of the diversity of cases the department managed.

A number of high-profile cases and issues—including Australians detained for drug trafficking offences (some facing the death penalty), search and rescue operations, and kidnappings—contributed to misconceptions about what the consular service can deliver. Through targeted public campaigns in the media and on the Internet, the department promoted realistic expectations about the level of assistance that can be provided to Australian overseas travellers, and to highlight the risks they face and their responsibility to minimise and avoid exposure to risks.

The department continued its constructive cooperation with consular partner governments (Canada, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom) to identify common problems and share solutions, with a strong focus this year on the tsunami response. The Consular Sharing Agreement with Canada again proved its usefulness, with Canadian consular officials assisting a number of Australians overseas where we are not represented, for example in the Caribbean region during the devastating Hurricane Ivan. We provided similar assistance for Canadians in other locations.

To improve service delivery to consular clients, the department introduced a new complaints handling mechanism that enabled consular clients to provide feedback on our services. Since its introduction on 1 December 2004, only 47 of the 372 items of correspondence recorded gave negative feedback. We investigated all complaints and, where warranted, took corrective action.

The demand for notarial services grew again this year, representing a 54 per cent increase over the past four years. Given the increase, we undertook a review of notarial services. Recommendations on how to deal with the resource implications are being considered by the department's Senior Executive.

The department delivered a wide range of services on behalf of other government agencies to Australians either resident or visiting overseas. For example, our missions overseas provided voting services for the 2004 federal election. Overseas voting centres issued a total of 69 000 ballot papers. The largest voting centre for the federal election again was Australia House in London, which issued over 20 000 ballot papers. Working with the Australian Electoral Commission, the department streamlined the electronic despatch of ballot material and ensured Australians overseas were well informed about the election through our website and the issue of a special consular bulletin.

Iraq hostage: response to the kidnapping of Douglas Wood

On 15 June 2005, 63-year old Australian engineer Douglas Wood was rescued by Iraqi forces after being held captive in Iraq for 47 days. Mr Wood's safe release followed exhaustive efforts by the Government—in Australia, Iraq and other countries—by Mr Wood's family, and by Muslim community leaders.

Within two hours of learning of Mr Wood's kidnapping, the department activated its Crisis Centre and convened the first of 54 Inter-Departmental Emergency Task Force meetings. An Emergency Response Team (ERT), headed by Nick Warner, a departmental Deputy Secretary, was despatched to Baghdad within 12 hours. The team included personnel from the department, the Australian Federal Police and the Department of Defence.

The department's response to the kidnapping followed our established crisis management response procedures. It also drew on a specific hostage crisis strategy developed last year. This framework proved to be robust, allowing the Government to respond quickly to the specific circumstances of Mr Wood's kidnapping.

During Mr Wood's captivity, consular officials, together with the department's senior staff counsellor and AFP personnel, were in daily contact with his family, providing support, assistance and the latest information from Iraq on the case. The department worked closely with the family on a public information strategy emphasising Mr Wood's family relationships and responsibilities, and his poor health. This message was disseminated widely in Iraq through the print and visual media and the Internet.

Following the rescue, the ERT implemented a staged repatriation strategy that ensured Mr Wood received medical and psychological assistance and facilitated a quick reunion with his family. Mr Wood and his family have since expressed their strong appreciation for the efforts of the department and other government agencies.

  2000–01 2001–02 2002–03 2003–04 2004–05
Australian travellers 3 716 790 3 508 200 3 429 960 4 080 300 4 745 5401
Hospitalised Australians given general welfare and guidance 766 722 864 666 638
Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes 138 116 203 81 167
Next of kin guided or assisted with disposal of remains in relation to overseas deaths 547 639 681 547 642
Australians having difficulty arranging their own return to Australia given guidance and assistance 71 81 109 66 1599
Inquiries made about Australians overseas who could not be contacted by their next of kin 1 712 1 838 5 767 711 16 5452
Australians arrested overseas 568 649 649 728 736
Australians in prison overseas (as at 30 June) 208 180 184 215 166
Australians in financial difficulty who were lent public funds to cover immediate needs (travellers' emergency loans) 738 739 610 454 395
Australians given general welfare and guidance3 16 9754 19 9144 10 129 9 478 6 283
Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty 21 723 24 158 19 196 12 946 25 731
Notarial acts5 67 319 74 932 73 514 87 545 100 851
Total number of Australians provided with consular assistance 89 042 99 090 92 710 100 491 126 582
  1. This figure draws on ABS data and includes permanent departures, long-term departures and short-term departures of Australian residents.
  2. Whereabouts figure includes tsunami-related inquiries (15 178).
  3. Includes the following sub-categories: assaults (135), theft (4619), welfare of children (256) and other serious welfare matters (1273).
  4. Includes minor non-case inquiries which in subsequent years have been recorded separately under quantity information.
  5. These statistics include notarial acts performed by overseas posts, Canberra and state and territory offices in Australia.

Passport services

Photo - See caption below for description
The Secretar y, Michael L'Estrange, with representatives of the M-series Passport team recognised for producing a world class, highly secure travel document. Photo: Michael Jensen
Enlarge image :: Photo gallery

Demand for Australian travel documents grew significantly during the year with 1 260 831 documents issued compared to 1 086 366 during the previous year, reflecting the strong, ongoing interest of Australians in overseas travel. The continued strong performance of the Australian dollar and competition within the travel industry on airfares appear to have contributed to this trend.

The number of passports reported as lost or stolen by Australians increased to 37 616, up from 33 954. The department has sought to address this trend through tighter controls on the replacement of lost and stolen documents under the new Passports Act. As a result of the department's concerted efforts, in conjunction with Australia Post, the number of passports reported as missing in the mail was significantly reduced to 129, down from 498 last year.

The department re-appointed Australia Post as its agent to conduct passport interviews for a further five years, ensuring Australians continue to have ready access to passport services. Interviews conducted by Australia Post agencies over the year increased slightly to 85.4 per cent of all applications lodged in Australia.

The use of the department's online passport services increased significantly: 179 403 applications were completed online (82 504 in 2003–04); 57 877 applicants viewed online the status of their application in the production process; 372 327 applicants were advised by email that their passport was ready (186 032 in 2003–04). The department selected a service provider to implement a content

management system to improve online passport services. This initiative is scheduled for completion by September 2005. The department let a tender for the provision of an appointment system to manage attendance at interviews in passport offices. The new arrangements, to be implemented in early 2006, will allow passport applicants to book ahead for interview, reducing waiting times for applicants and improving staff time management.



The Australian Passport Information Service (APIS) call centre, operated by Centrelink on the department's behalf, provided advice and assistance on all passport matters to the public on a seven-days-a-week basis. APIS handled 1 303 822 calls (a decrease of 12.9 per cent due to growth in use of the online services). The APIS network expanded in August 2004 to receive passport calls from Australians resident in New Zealand and registered 6980 calls.

Passport technology

The department developed a biometric identifier for Australian passports, working closely with other Australian Government agencies, international organisations and foreign governments. A trial of the electronic passport (ePassport), incorporating a contact-less chip that stores an electronic copy of the information on the data page of the passport, began in May 2005 (see box below). Over 2400 ePassports were issued for this trial. Provided the outcome of the trial is successful, the Australian ePassport is scheduled to enter into full production in October 2005.

Passport security

The department established a new Passport Fraud Section in June 2004 as part of our strategy to enhance the security of the passport issuing system. We worked closely with other agencies as a member of the Commonwealth Reference Group on Identity Security to develop a national approach to identity protection and verification. Memorandums of understanding were signed with New Zealand, the United States and Interpol to enable the exchange of lost and stolen passport information to increase our capacity to detect and prevent the misuse of those documents. A total of 301 passport fraud cases were detected.

Passports client service charter

The department revised the Passports Client Service Charter to incorporate changes to reflect the Australian Passports Act 2005 and to state more clearly our service level commitments.

Client survey gives thumbs up to passport service delivery

An external client satisfaction survey conducted in early 2005 indicated that clients considered the department's delivery of passport services to be of a high standard, with some areas showing substantial improvements since the previous survey conducted in 2003.

New Passport Act

The department coordinated the drafting and approval of the Australian Passports Act 2005, which came into force on 1 July 2005. The new Act, which replaced the Passports Act 1938, strengthens the capacity and integrity of Australia's passport system. It includes increased penalties for breaches of the Act and stricter procedures for dealing with lost or stolen passports, including additional fees to replace such travel documents.

Under the new Act, law enforcement, border control and counter-terrorism authorities are supported by clearer powers for the minister to refuse or cancel a passport in connection with serious offences. The new Act regulates the use of emerging technologies, such as biometrics, which will better protect passports against misuse.

ePassport—preventing identity theft

The department's ePassport project aims to protect Australia and the identities of Australian passport holders by making sure the person who uses the passport is the person it was issued to.

The ePassport project involves the adoption of biometric passport technology to improve identity verification processes and to reduce identity-related fraud through the use of facial recognition technology.

A three-year biometric passport research and development project has proven that facial recognition technology works and that inter-operability with border control systems can be achieved at national and international levels.

Australia has already mass produced ePassports using equipment designed specially for this purpose. Personalisation facilities have been established and data has been written to, and read from, the microchips embedded in the centre of these documents.

The Australian ePassport has been extensively tested and is currently being used by about 2400 Qantas staff. A live trial involving Qantas, United Airlines and Air New Zealand air crew is under way at Los Angeles and Sydney airports.

If this testing is successful, Australia's ePassport will be rolled out to all new and replacement Australian passport applicants from October 2005. The ePassport will ensure that Australian citizens have a world class passport that provides an unprecedented level of security for the bearer's identity and protection against fraudulent use.

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