Department Foreign Affairs & Trade  
Annual Report - Contents
 
DFAT Annual Report 1998-99






Consular Services : Sub-program 2.2

Description

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.

Table 33 Consular Services (2.2) Resources Summary

 

1997-98 Actual ($’000)

1998-99 Budget ($’000)

1998-99 Budget and Additional Estimates ($’000)

1998-99 Actual ($’000)

Appropriations

       

Running costs

26 597

27 937

30 240

31 290

Other program costs

153

181

181

150

Total appropriations

26 750

28 118

30 421

31 440

Less adjustments

1 926

1 005

3 330

3 965

Total outlays

24 823

27 113

27 091

27 475

Staff years

125

n.a.

n.a.

148

n.a. Not applicable.

Objectives, Performance Indicators and Result

Objective



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

Indicator



The successful implementation of the Government’s response to the recommendations of the Senate inquiry into the department’s management of consular affairs.

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.

Figure 34 Consular Services (2.2) Organisational Chart

Figure 34

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.

Indicator



The accessibility of consular services, as demonstrated by the availability worldwide of consular advice and support provided by overseas posts, the Consular Branch and the 24-hour Consular Operations Centre in Canberra, and through consular cooperation arrangements with other governments.

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.

Table 34 Number of Australians Travelling Overseas Compared with Number of Australians Requiring Assistance Overseas

 

1996–97

1997–98

1998–99

Australian travellers*

2 220 000

2 600 000

3 100 000

Australians requiring assistance overseas

16 788

23 456

20 133

Percentage of Australian travellers requiring assistance overseas

0.6

0.9

0.65

Number of visits to consular website

n.a.

248 853

577 482

Number of travel advisory notices issued**

n.a.

n.a.

122

* 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.

Indicator



The promotion of awareness among Australian travellers of potential trouble spots and an understanding of the extent of assistance that can be provided by Australian Government officials, as indicated by the number of Australians seeking consular assistance compared with the number of Australians travelling overseas, and by the dissemination of departmental consular information to consular clients, including the dissemination of travel advice to travellers and to the travel industry.

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.

Table 35 Consular Services Provided to Australian Travellers

 

1996–97

1997–98

1998–99

Australian travellers*

2 220 000

2 600 000

3 100 000

Australians given general welfare guidance and assistance

13 000

19 000

15 551

Hospitalised Australians given guidance and assistance

625

774

681

Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes

115

108

107

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

460

590

548

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

185

95

57

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

1 200

1 210

1 659

Australians arrested overseas

340

420

476

Australians in prison overseas (as at June 30)

162

168

158

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

701

1 091

896

Total number of Australians provided with consular assistance**

16 788

23 456

20 133

Overseas notarial acts

32 100

34 250

40 285

* 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.

Indicator



The responsiveness of the department to specific consular crises.

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.

Indicator



The number of travellers’ emergency loans granted to Australian travellers overseas in accordance with the guidelines laid down in the consular instructions.

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.)

Table 36 Number of Travellers’ Emergency Loans Issued Compared with Number of Australians Travelling Overseas

 

1996–97

1997–98

1998–99

Australian travellers*

2 220 000

2 600 000

3 100 000

Australians requiring assistance overseas

16 788

23 456

20 133

Number of travellers’ emergency loans issued

701

1 091

896

* Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Indicator



The expansion of, and improvement to, the department’s consular services, including the honorary consul network and consular sharing arrangements.

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).

Table 37 Number of Consulates Headed by Honorary Consuls

Year

Number

1998–99

42

1997–98

40

1996–97

33

1995–96

28

1994–95

24

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).

Table 38 Number of Consular Sharing Arrangements with Canada

 

1996–97

1997–98

1998–99

Places where Australia provides consular services to Canadians

13

19

19

Places where Canada provides consular services to Australians

13

17

17

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.

Indicator



The extent of progress of bilateral consular negotiations with China.

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.

  • As part of our service to Australians living and travelling overseas, permanent Australian overseas posts set up temporary polling booths on behalf of the Australian Electoral Commission up to two weeks in advance of the federal election in October 1998. Over 65 000 votes were cast at these posts, compared with 46 000 votes at overseas booths for the previous federal election in 1996. The photo shows the Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Mr Philip Flood, casting his vote at Australia House, London, in September 1998. photo: AP-AAPIMAGE

Indicator



The extent of progress of negotiations with Egypt and Lebanon on child abduction issues.

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.

Indicator



The progress of negotiations for prisoner transfer arrangements with Thailand and with the Council of Europe.

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.

Indicator



The successful upgrading of computer software for consular case management.

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.


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