Alexander Downer is onto something here:
I was in Lebanon the other day and went down to the southern cities of Sidon and Tyre. They’re fascinating places – old Crusader castles, bustling souks, colourful little food stalls with generous owners offering you a taste of their wares.
But I couldn’t help remembering the awful events in those same places three years ago when Israel went to war with Hezbollah.
There were said to be 20,000 Australians in Lebanon at that time and a hefty percentage of them were demanding the Australian Government save them and fast.
Lebanese support groups hit the airwaves screaming that the Government was too slow getting those Australians who wanted to be evacuated to safety. But hang on, Australia’s about 15,000km from Lebanon and we don’t dock ships in the eastern Mediterranean ready to ferry Australians to safety.
And there was something else. We’d issued a travel advisory months earlier warning Australians of the dangers of southern Lebanon and the risks of going there.
It didn’t matter – apparently we had to get them out.
The mother of a friend of mine was in DFAT and ended up being one of the many officials involved in helping this evacuation. Called away in the middle of the night, it was her task to help hire boats and get people from Lebanon to Australia. Telling them to be responsible for their situation apparently wasn’t permissible. And in the press little thanks went her way for the rescue efforets.
Going overseas following the end of education is one of Australia’s great traditions and a credit to this nation. I went on a similar journey in 2007, and everywhere people remarked and loved the idea that Australians would finish school then jet overseas for a few months to find themselves and try to get to grips with the wider world. Yet this independence was always slightly buffeted by the knowledge that we had a professional diplomatic service who would invest significant resources in ensuring our safety and passage home. It was a security blanket we didn’t praise but still needed.
Yet Downer is right that this is an increasing draw on the resources of DFAT, not only because of the changing numbers and attitudes of Australians overseas, but also the media frenzy that follows any Australian in strife overseas (though the younger, female and blonder the better it seems). Yet it is also note worthy that Downer whilst in Opposition encouraged a public reliance on Government, and attacked his opposing number Gareth Evans for caring too little about ‘ordinary australians’.
Once again this presses the case for a critical new investment in DFAT. Over the period 2001-2008 DFAT saw it’s total budget decline 1.2%, it’s spending on traditional and public diplomacy drop 28% and, it’s spending on consular efforts (like keeping aussies out of foreign jails) jump 32%. Clearly without a significant increase in revenue, such changes are unsustainable and going to come at the cost of other diplomatic efforts. Hugh Whites paper on this issue is perhaps the best recent discussion of the issue, but reveals the difficulty of setting any clear boundaries. The government both needs to encourage self-reliance yet can never say “No” to a stranded Australian, nor especially those in groups stuck in conflicts not of their own making such as the Lebanon conflict. And finally, however guilty and pathetic, there is also the capacity of the media to whip up a storm which the government will be simply be powerless but to respond to.
Obviously a message of self-resilience and paying for their own travel insurance will be needed. But this is also something that will just have to be accepted by governments, and require significant additional spending. The real cost however is less the time & effort of diplomats, than the potential risk to trade and social links between Australia and regional countries. That is the real risk governments face going to the mat to defend and speedily return home Australians who have acted up overseas. And not one easily overcome or solved. Every case will still require case by case circumstances to overcome, allowing for emotional families or sensationalist media figures to revile in.