Saturday, January 04, 2014

Supplying Consular Assistance and Mandatory Insurance

It is hard not to agree with Julie Bishop that there is merit in reviewing how Australia provides Consular assistance to travellers in trouble overseas. 

Reports suggest that it is not thought that Australia should do less, but that there are circumstances in which citizens might be required to repay the cost of that assistance.  These include where citizens don't take insurance or they wilfully engage in breaking the law of countries they visit.

The issue has been raised again because of the case of Greenpeace activist Colin Russell.  In an article the Guardian seems to have prodded him to give the traditional reply that the Australian government "could have gone into bat a little bit more for me".

There is a problem with consular assistance in that somehow people think that it is the Australian government's responsibility to conduct a whole defence on their behalf, or worse, that somehow Australian consular assistance is a means to have the Australian citizen's conduct considered under the provisions of Australian law.  This is like presuming that the Treaty of Nanjing providing the British with "extra-territorial rights" in China existed for Australians for the whole world (when the right was actually relinquished in 1943).

The related issue is the crazy definition that Greenpeace and others apply to "peaceful protest." Even in Australia deciding to climb onto a structure is not a "peaceful protest."  But the offences took place in Russia and it is the Russian definition, not the Australian definition, that counts.

By all means be a martyr to your cause by wilfully breaking the law in another country to highlight its politics or your issue - but you didn't do it for Australia and deserve no more than standard assistance. 

This is exactly the same argument that applies to Julian Assange.

The second is the expectation of provision of assistance for "insurable events".  The most common is repatriation of a citizen who falls ill overseas, but can include the cost of proper legal representation.

The Minister has suggested that one case where citizens could be required to repay would be when they hadn't taken out insurance. 

More useful would be to actually require citizens travelling overseas to take out a minimum level of travel insurance.  This is no more extreme than the requirement on owners of motor vehicles to have third party personal insurance.  It would not be hard for an Australian leaving the country to present a certificate of insurance at passport control when leaving the country. 

But the most important issue is getting people to understand that when travelling overseas it is the foreign law, not the Australian law, that applies.

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