Retired Australian soldier Warren Rodwell was taken at gunpoint from his house in the Philippines over a year ago. Photo: Leigh Henningham
Every year, there is moralistic outcry regarding the general responsibilities of the Australian government to help citizens who get into trouble overseas. Media commentators condemn the injustice of a particular case and inevitably end up demanding the Australian government do ''more''. As Fairfax journalist Peter Hartcher noted, the Department of Foreign Affairs' response to Senator Nick Xenophon's detention in Malaysia ''displays the usual limpness of Australian governments in defending their citizens abroad''.
This outcry largely ignores the surprising DFAT figures: at least two Australians a day are arrested for crimes overseas, more than 250 are incarcerated in overseas prisons at any one time and more than 200,000 Australians require consular assistance each year. It's a herculean workload for Australia's 160 consular officers, who are sparsely distributed around the world.
Despite DFAT's commendable efforts, a handful of sensational cases, such as Jock Palfreeman, Schapelle Corby, the Bali Nine and Annice Smoel, sustain the popular opinion that the Australian government simply ''doesn't care''. This mentality ignores DFAT's ballooning consular responsibilities and anaemic budget, while the increasing demand and expectation of a DFAT safety net for Australian travellers sets a dangerous precedent that undermines the role of individual responsibility.
In the past five years, the number of overseas trips taken by Australians has increased by 57 per cent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. If this trend continues, we can expect ever greater numbers of Australians requiring consular assistance.
Yet DFAT's ability to meet demand for consular services, in the wake of international emergencies (such as natural disasters and political instability) and individual day-to-day capacity, is diminishing.
Since 2009-10, the consular services budget has decreased almost 11 per cent. At the same time, the number of cases where Australians were provided with consular assistance increased about 9 per cent and the number of active consular cases over the past five years has increased by 60 per cent.
This increasing incidence of Australians demanding comprehensive consular services threatens to undermine DFAT's ability to perform its more traditional, and arguably more important, role of diplomacy.
One of DFAT's core mandates is to ensure ''the protection and welfare of Australians abroad''. However, expectations of consular assistance have become increasingly unreasonable, especially when considered in the context of DFAT's diminishing consular services budget.
This gap between capabilities, increasing demand and expectations was identified by former DFAT secretary Dennis Richardson in the department's 2011-12 annual report, claiming that consular services faced the prospect of ''a widening gap between expectations and reality of what government can and can't do for Australians abroad''.
Sensational reportage of particular cases and attendant political responses or intervention, such as Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaking to a 14-year-old Australian boy arrested in Bali for drug possession, increases general public expectations of consular services.
Former Australian soldier Warren Rodwell, who has been held hostage in the Philippines by Abu Sayyaf for over a year, is another example.
When Mr Rodwell relocated to Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay, he took a risk (much like the drink driver who believes he can drive without incident), despite an explicit DFAT warning: ''Do not travel. The security situation is extremely dangerous.''
Sparked by the release of a ''proof of life'' tape, which has been pored over by a legion of body language experts offering their divine insights, the tragedy of Mr Rodwell's circumstances has undermined any recognition of personal responsibility. In June 2011, Mr Rodwell was briefed about possible security risks in Ipil and offered security protection that he refused, allegedly claiming that he was a retired member of the Australian Army, armed and capable of protecting himself.
In light of diminishing resources and increased incidence and expectations of Australians requiring consular services, there must be a pragmatic national debate over the responsibilities of the government to citizens who are responsible for getting themselves in trouble overseas.
The expectation that the Australian government should help overseas citizens regardless of their situation undermines the role of personal responsibility.
Tim Pascoe is an intern at the Centre for Independent Studies.