It was only a massage. But the young Australian man found that a ‘difficult’ situation arose whilst visiting the Bangkok massage parlour. The story goes that he was less than happy about his experience and decided to trash the entire parlour, resulting in his arrest and being subsequently charged by Thai police for wilful damage, assault and threatening behaviour.
As an Australian citizen, the man then sought assistance from the consular section of the Australian Embassy in terms of resolving his predicament and legal costs. Not cheap in a foreign country.
This story is only one of many tales about Australians getting into serious trouble whilst overseas, and then seeking the services – at no cost to themselves – of Australian consular officials to assist them.
And as reported recently in The West Australian (‘Embassies may rebuff Aussie pests’ Tuesday 3rd December) assistance from our overseas consulates may no longer be ours ‘as of right’.
Apart from officials routinely handling enquiries such as, ‘Can you help me with feeding my dog whilst I am away on holidays?’ or, ‘Will the sand in Egypt affect my asthma?’, Australian consular officials are finding themselves trapped by consecutive governments cutting back the number of diplomatic staff in overseas postings, whilst the numbers of Australians travelling overseas is booming like never before.
Last year Australians made an astonishing eight million overseas visits and over 50% of all Australians now hold a current passport, with 1.7 million new passports being issued in 2013 alone.
Bali remains our favourite destination with 890,000 Aussies travelling to their paradise island in the past twelve months. Over 380,000 visitors were from WA, and many of these tourists were young people heading-off overseas for the first or second time. And herein lies the danger: In past years almost all overseas travel was arranged by an experienced travel agent, yet today it’s just a simple task to ‘jump online’ and book your low-cost airline ticket and hotel within minutes.
With Bali only three hours away, what is often overlooked are the ‘essentials’ such as travel insurance and importantly, advice that when overseas you are subject to the laws and rules of a foreign country. Sadly on too many occasions this lack of knowledge, or just plain lack of respect, sees Australians either in trouble with the law or injured as a result of their own stupidity, ignorance or bad behaviour.
It is at this point when the local Australian Consulate is often contacted for assistance. And Australian consulate officials – including our consulate in Bali who deals with hundreds of enquiries every month - have a very good record of prompt and efficient service to Australians in need. But with this boom in travel, combined with a reduction in the number of consular staff based overseas, something had to give.
This dilemma has now lead Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop to examine whether Australians, who get themselves into trouble overseas as a direct result of their bad behaviour, should contribute to the cost incurred by our government in order to assist them.
Last year, Greenpeace activist, Colin Russell was a case-in-point as he obviously felt he had the ‘entitlement’, as an Australian passport holder, to unlimited support from our government after being arrested for illegally climbing onto a Russian oil rig in the Arctic as part of a protest. Despite Russell being a paid employee of Greenpeace, the Australian Government and the foreign minister spent significant amounts of time and taxpayers funds in order to secure his release from a Russian jail-which they successfully did.
As to whether Russell had a ‘moral issue’ to fight is a separate matter. The question is should the Australian taxpayer fork-up every time a protestor seeks to take-on a foreign country?
Likewise, back in Bali should a drunken tourist from Perth, who ends up being arrested for fighting and abusing local staff, have the right to expect the Australian Government to not only get him out of jail but to also cover all his costs associated with the crime he committed?
This issue is not about taking a hard line against Australians who through no fault of their own find themselves in serious trouble whilst overseas. Most Australians rightly would expect that our government should be ready to help our citizens where they can; remembering of course that our consular officials have no power to override local laws or to direct police.
As foreign minister Julie Bishop reminded us this week, when releasing the Consular Assistance Strategy Paper that we need to modify our expectations as to what the government can provide for people who travel overseas and get into trouble. Furthermore, when the predicament is caused by their own misbehaviour or recklessness, then perhaps they should make a financial contribution to getting themselves out of trouble.
A harder line by our government on this issue is well overdue and it may also force many travelling Aussies – young and old - to take responsibly for their own actions whilst overseas; starting with acting responsibly and respectfully whist a guess of another country.
Ross Taylor AM is the President of the WA-based Indonesia Institute (Inc)
(This article originally appeared in The West Australian Newspaper - 8th December 2014)