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Reckless travellers call tune without paying piper

18 January 2014 258 views One Comment

AUSTRALIANS are travelling overseas in record numbers.

No longer considered a luxury, an overseas holiday is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Also the internet enables direct booking of international flights and accommodation without the necessity to seek advice from a travel agent or any other informed source. This means that many first-time travellers may arrive in another country without any advice or warnings about different laws, cultural sensitivities and the inherent risks of being in unfamiliar territory.

Considering the markedly different laws regarding social behaviour which apply in popular tourist destinations, the potential for problems is huge. In many countries it is illegal to carry what may be regarded as common prescription and non-prescription drugs. Behaviour considered tolerable at home or regarded as merely inappropriate can sometimes result in serious criminal charges.

The statistics speak for themselves. About 12,000 Australians received support from Australian consular officials and diplomats during the past 12 months.

Pushed From the Wings

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs makes a significant effort to warn those heading overseas of the risks of travel through its impressive Smart Traveller website. Containing a database of information about individual countries, it provides detailed advice on security, safety and some common pitfalls.

One piece of consistent advice is for Australians to take out comprehensive travel insurance. Uninsured Australians have sometimes incurred hospital and medical bills costing tens of thousands of dollars, following horrific injuries from motor vehicle accidents or from “adventure activities”.

Matters can also become extremely complicated when an Australian breaks the laws of another nation and is subject to its legal system.

There appears to be a common misunderstanding about the ability of Australia’s diplomatic staff to intervene in legal processes. Some Australians expect that they can be extricated from detention or arrest if an embassy official simply demands their release. But any attempt to intervene in the legal processes of another country carries high risks. Indeed such intervention can often be counterproductive and potentially make matters worse.

Moreover the idea that Australian politicians can simply pick up the phone to a government official overseas and secure a positive outcome is naive and misguided.

It is to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s credit that she has been seeking to educate Australians about what she refers to as the “strict limits” of consular support.

Such support for those subject to another legal system includes providing the names of legal counsel, checking on conditions under which they are being detained, providing food, toiletries and updates to family. Our officials do not make judgments about the charges, which ensures that all Australians receive equivalent support regardless of their alleged misdemeanours.

At any one time there are hundreds of Australians in jail overseas, charged with crimes that range from relatively minor to extremely serious. Consular support can involve significant costs to the taxpayer, running into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel costs and staff time.

Most Australians would not begrudge support to their fellow citizens who find themselves in trouble when travelling overseas. However the recent case of Greenpeace activist Colin Russell, who was arrested after his group attempted to scale a Russian oil drilling platform in the Arctic, has resulted in legitimate debate about whether in certain circumstances the costs of consular support should be repaid.

Russell was a paid employee of Greenpeace, an environmental activist organisation which planned and engaged in behaviour designed to provoke a reaction from the Russian authorities and to draw global attention to their activities.

Russian authorities reacted predictably, arresting the group and charging them with crimes that could have resulted in lengthy jail terms. Russell and his colleagues were initially held in Murmansk and then in St Petersburg, thousands of kilometres from the Australian embassy in Moscow. Providing consular support required our diplomatic staff to undertake extensive travel within Russia with associated costs for accommodation, meals and more.

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The total cost is estimated to run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Russell was also supported by the Foreign Minister, with personal representations to senior Russian officials.

This ministerial and consular effort was apparently not enough for Russell, who complained on his return to Australia that the government had not done enough to support him. His demand for more action from the government was in stark contrast to the thousands of Australians whose situations never achieve headline status and who struggle through their difficulties without lobbying by senior political officials.

Bishop responded to Russell – who claimed he had no regrets about his time in detention and would do it all over again – by suggesting that either he personally, or Greenpeace, should consider paying for the costs of consular support if he continued with activities overseas that would inevitably risk breaking laws and being placed under arrest again.

Most Australians would agree with the principle that if a person took action they knew was likely to lead to arrest, then they should bear the cost of the subsequent support. The principle of personal responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions could be extended further when it comes to those who refuse to take out travel insurance when going overseas with the express intention of engaging in risk-taking behaviour.

Bishop is rightly intent on moderating the expectations of Australians who end up in trouble overseas.

As she argues, costs for consular support must be sustainable and directed to the areas of greatest need. Also overseas travellers must have realistic expectations of what can be achieved on their behalf, should they become subject to another nation’s legal system.

Australians ought be aware that the laws of other nations can sometimes seem unfair or have penalties that many of us may regard as severe. But in the same way that foreign nationals are subject to the laws of this nation when visiting our country, Australian travellers must understand they are subject to the laws of the nations they visit.

These are important matters that deserve informed public debate. But in the interim don’t be surprised if in foreign affairs and elsewhere, the notion of “personal responsibility” for our actions and decisions is ramped up to become a key watchword of Tony Abbott’s Coalition government.

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir ‘My Name is Ross: an Alcoholic’s Journey’, is now available as an e-book

The Weekend Australian, January 18-19, 2014, COMMENTARY, p 16. 

One Comment »

  • Richard Laidlaw said:


    Ross Fitzgerald makes some excellent points about reckless travellers in his commentary (Weekend Australian, Sep. 18).detailing statistics on calls on Australian diplomatic and consular facilities overseas in the past 12 months.

    The work that Australian consulates do is not well understood, especially among that cohort of impecunious or troubled Aussie travellers, their relatives and (regrettably) the media, who seem to think the list of duties includes getting them out of trouble or safely home. It doesn’t, nor should it.

    A basic common sense rule is that if you can’t afford travel insurance you shouldn’t travel. To that one might add a rider: If you’re don’t think that matters, you should stay home.

    As Fitzgerald notes, the Department of Foreign Affairs runs a Smart Traveller website. Smart travellers and Australians living overseas make good use of it.

    In Bali we know only too well that the growth in low-cost air travel options and cheap holiday packages has brought many demerits along with its many benefits. It has created a cohort of travellers who frankly look (to those who see them in situ) as if they should have stayed home and wrecked the joint there instead.

    Governments have a duty to assist citizens in distress in extraordinary events. But if your “event” is not extraordinary, if it arises from your own negligence or idiocy, or even plain bad luck, take responsibility. Call your insurer, not your consulate.

    Richard Laidlaw

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