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Thursday, 23 June 1994
Page: 1954

Senator JONES —I direct my question to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Has the minister seen the recent articles in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, notably the one written by Andrew Field on 11 June, criticising the degree of support provided to Australians abroad by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade? If the minister is aware of the articles, could he say whether the criticisms are justified?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am indebted to Senator Jones for giving me this opportunity to correct some really very serious mis-impressions that were left by the articles to which he referred. They were extraordinarily inaccurate, offensive and unfair to a host of very hard working and dedicated Australian public servants. I think the record needs to be corrected.

  If the authors of these articles had made the effort to look at the facts—and the facts were always available to them on offer from the department, had it been contacted—they would know that in the financial year to date, for example, departmental officers have had an estimated one million contacts with the public on consular and passport matters. In the overwhelming majority of cases, that has occurred either without any complaint at all or in many instances with genuine expressions of appreciation for the role that the department has played.

  In this last year, for example, 10,123 Australians overseas have been provided with general welfare assistance, 397 have been assisted with hospitalisation and 152 with medical evacuation. There have been 440 instances of assistance to next of kin in relation to deaths of Australians abroad, 830 tracing cases for next of kin seeking to locate relatives and 708 cases of persons in financial difficulties being lent money by the government to cover immediate needs. Also, 241 Australians who have been arrested have been provided with consular support and 176 currently in prisons have been receiving regular visits and support as necessary.

  The author of the first major article complains of the requirement to provide a birth certificate when seeking to replace a lost passport—that is, if people want a permanent replacement on the spot rather than simply a temporary document to get them home or to their next location. I suspect he would be the first to criticise if a decrease in passport security led to the ease of movement of drug traffickers, criminals and terrorists being facilitated. There are stringent requirements, of course, for proof of identity and citizenship in passport issue, but these have not prevented the issue of 700,000 passports in Australia and 39,000 overseas this financial year alone, and another 4,300 which were replaced due to loss or theft. Clearly the author of these articles is also unaware of the department's service in providing emergency or compassionate passports in only a matter of hours if the occasion demands.

  It is also the case that my department runs a toll-free Australian passport information service, which has handled over 500,000 inquiries this financial year. A similar toll-free line is established during crises which may involve many Australians. Most recently, for example, we responded to more than 6,000 inquiries from families and friends after the Los Angeles earthquake. We have a very firm policy that Australians overseas receive the fullest assistance in times of difficulty and I think the figures speak for themselves. Certainly my own correspondence does: I got 81 letters on consular matters in the last financial year, of which only six were matters of complaint and a great many were rave reviews for the quality of the personal attention and assistance received from our officers.

  The department undertakes investigations and remedial action as necessary. Occasionally, of course, the case load means that performance may not be as perfect as we would wish. Sometimes something goes wrong. When it does go wrong we take action, and I certainly take action, to correct it. Sometimes there is, unfortunately, a highly unrealistic expectation as to what precisely we can do.

  Without going into any details in the time available, I have to say that Mrs Dewes's apparent expectations of what we might have been able to do for her missing son Peter last year—the department's actions were the subject of a pretty full-on criticism of the government in the second article referred to—really are rather misconceived. I have the greatest sympathy for the distress that relatives go through in these situations, but when someone disappears without there being any clear information about the time or location, there is only a certain amount we can do to persuade host governments in other countries to mount full-scale search operations. We did everything we could and accordingly I do not think the criticism in that article is well founded