Consular Non-Assistance: The Demon of Australian Policy

It is about time that the Australian Parliament consider having a viable foreign affairs department or abolish it altogether.  Affairs might as well be relocated to Washington, D.C. The libertarians would have a point were they to assert that claim.  A government that does nothing for its citizens, yet demands everything of them, including following a monastic code of staying out of trouble, is an unnecessary task master.

This situation became painfully apparent when Australia’s current and one might hope brief foreign affairs minister Bob Carr made the astonishing claim that too many resources were being provided to Australians oversees as it was.  At a debate with shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop at the Lowy Institute, Carr claimed that “too much diplomatic time is being taken up by looking after Australians who in many cases should be looking after their own safety and wellbeing” (The Age, August 7).  This, it seems, is the Calvinist view of assisting citizens: be good, and good shall come to you.

The clumsily named DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) is evidently losing fat where it shouldn’t.  Missions are being closed.  Australian citizens are becoming a trifle bother.  Finding yourself in prison is evidently more a case of your fault. And money is being expended in such efforts as the Bradley Manning trial, sending Australian officials to “report back” to Canberra on how frequently such celebrities as WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are mentioned.  A convention of abandonment is taking root.

The tactic Carr uses in this case is one of selfishness.  It has become a matter of style and technique, his default position in the face of uninventiveness.  If you want to appeal to that streak of the electorate, rebrand refugees as economic scroungers in search of plenty and Australian citizens who seek assistance as avaricious.  In the debate, he cited one instance of an Australian wishing for an airlift from conflict afflicted Egypt in 2011.  The problem here, sneered Carr, was that the individual in question wanted a free trip with frequent flyer miles attached.

According to Alex Oliver, in a brief for the Lowy Institute (March 26, 2013), a “consular conundrum” exists.  More Australians are making trips. (How unfortunate.)  Last year, the number of trips made overseas exceeded eight million.  The remark that stands out in Oliver’s brief is one that contrasts the “resourceful” Australian packed with resilience and a variant of the stiff upper lip compared to the complainer, the careless traveller who demands that his or her rights be protected.  Rights are only reserved for the well behaved.

Oliver takes a leaf out of the Carr book of shibboleths and tut tutting: “The growing incidence of Australians overseas demanding that government intervene in their cases no matter how trivial, foolhardy or avoidable their predicament, would seem at odds with the national culture that prides itself on resilience and resourcefulness.”

The total absence of any description of rights and the genuine crisis some citizens face is simply not entertained.  The government should, for instance, “impose a consular fee on the cost of a passport or airfare.”  (The joys of stinginess.)  And tell citizens that (Oliver terms them a form of media management) DFAT is, at the end of the day, a limited body and one specifically confined to the provincial mission of trade.  Far better to claim, then, that it is meek, secondary and, in most instances, irrelevant.

The suggestion coming from Australia’s bureaucratic set is that its citizens are simply asking too much.  Naturally, what the brief fails to note is that certain prominent Australians will, and have been abandoned, if they are considered too hot to handle.  Carr has claimed that, “There are cases where an Australian in trouble has a reasonable expectation that we will insist on them being treated with due process, and we will look after their welfare”.

At this point, Julian Assange’s silvery head rears to remind him that this is far from the case.  Assange remains the red hot poker Canberra wants to stay clear off. He receives calls of the asinine sort from embassy officials.  None of these are ever centred on the logistics of how he might leave his current quarters or receive the diplomatic representation appropriate to his station.

Specifically, Assange has asked for consular assistance in matters such as due process and fair trial, of which little has been forthcoming.  In May 29 last year, Gareth Peirce, lawyer representing Assange in London, sent a letter to Ken Pascoe, Consular-General of the Australian High Commission.  The contents of the letter centre on matters between the Australian, Swedish and U.S. governments.

The tardy and heavily delayed response, dated July 19, was a pitifully bereft one indeed.  “In circumstances such as these, the Australian Government’s role is primarily a consular one.”  Furthermore, “As extradition is a matter of bilateral law enforcement cooperation, the Australian Government would not expect to be a party to any extradition discussion between the United States and Sweden or between the United States and the United Kingdom.”  Therein lies the meek submissiveness of the satrap.

Representations on Assange’s behalf have been refused.  Diplomatic guarantees for his safety have not been sought.  This would be out of character for those countries within the European Union and would be unacceptable for the United States.

What this government has gone into in a big way are pungent smoke signals of presumed relevance. Money has been splashed at attaining an all too temporary UN Security Council Seat.  That, presumably for the Carr cronies, is money well spent, despite the near redundancy of Australia’s role on that body.  Desperate are those who wish to be members of a club that validates bombs and engagements.  No more second team operations; Rudd, Carr and company are in the A-League now.

Carr was never a high yielding dividend for policy, accept as a vile extension of corporate largesse or unreflective projections about Uncle Sam’s power.  One would think he was ill-suited to run the department of foreign affairs.  But then again, an entity as anorexic as DFAT deserves what it gets, a master who is ruining it, as well as the legal worth of Australia’s citizens.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: Read other articles by Binoy.