CANBERRA – Thousands of Australians finding themselves in trouble overseas are facing the prospect of new charges for government help.
On Saturday, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop signalled a ”user-pays” approach to consular assistance after 11,927 Australians sought help in the last financial year.
”Of course the Australian government is going to support those in trouble but there are circumstances where questions are raised why taxpayers should foot the bill,” she said.
Ms Bishop outlined circumstances when government funding could be called into question: when people acted in defiance of local laws, travelled without insurance or ignored travel advisories.
She made her remarks after defending the government’s actions on behalf of Greenpeace activist Colin Russell, and criticised him for actions in September that led to his detention.
But Greenpeace spokesman Ben Pearson said: ”Charging for consular support, which is a right of all Australian citizens, sets a dangerous precedent for our democracy.”
A review of consular services was launched by the Department of Foreign Affairs in December, with a deadline for submissions of January 31.
”This review is all about reviewing the consular fee for those who make deliberate and purposeful actions which break the local law and who don’t take out comprehensive insurance and then require the consular’s help at the taxpayer’s expense,” Ms Bishop said.
Consulates are asked to deal with a range of problems, from medical emergencies to run-ins with the law.
”Common cases include arrests, accidents and hospitalisation, mental health issues, the death of a family member, schoolies-related issues and repatriation,” a spokesman for the department said.
DFAT says the Bali and Bangkok consulates are among its busiest, with almost 1 million Australians visiting each destination a year.
Hospital cases accounted for 1372 calls for help around the world – up from 1265 in 2012 – while assistance was given for 28 medical evacuations.
Consulates also stepped in to help 1365 Australians who were arrested or imprisoned and 1247 cases in which travellers died. Thailand, Greece, Vietnam, the Philippines, the United States and Indonesia were among the countries where most Australians died overseas. DFAT said the high death rate in Greece was attributable to ”natural causes” because of the older generation travelling there.
In Bali there have also been methanol poisoning cases from bootleg liquor, including the recent evacuation from Bali to Darwin of teenager Jasmine Baker. The cost of a medical evacuation from Bali to Australia is $40,000 to $60,000.
Ms Bishop said the activities of the Australian government on behalf of Mr Russell had cost $35,000 and she would look closely at recovering the costs.
Mr Russell was one of 30 Greenpeace activists arrested and detained in September when some of the group tried to scale a Russian oil rig in the Pechora Sea.