Remarks at the launch of The Consul by Ian Kemish, Lowy Institute, Sydney

  • Speech, E&OE

Good evening Ian, Michael and Natasha.

I would like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respect to Elders, past and present.

I’d also like to acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people here with us this evening.

It’s a great pleasure to be here at the Lowy Institute for the launch of Ian’s book, The Consul: An insider account from Australia’s diplomatic frontline.

Ian’s book provides us with a personal perspective into the world of consular work, and its evolution through the rise of terrorism, cheap flights and the internet.

It’s a compelling read.

It takes us to all the corners of the world and shows us leadership in times of crisis, empathy in the face of tragedy, and celebrates the highest ideals of public service.

But most of all, Ian’s book left me feeling deeply proud to be Australian.

This is a sentiment I know many in our consular service share.

Ian, you wrote about your friend and colleague Roger, who died in a light plane crash in Vanuatu, and the kindness that consular officials showed Roger’s family, and yourself.

And you included a reflection Roger left you with on a rainy Canberra morning outside the DFAT offices:

“He turned to me, and without a hint of irony, said, ‘isn’t it a great feeling, knowing we’re doing this for Australia’”

And I’m pleased Roger’s former wife Chrissy is able to join us this evening.

In this book, time and time again the Australian spirit shines through.

When people are at their lowest, in loss and grief and terror, we see Australians standing in solidarity with their compatriots.

Following the 2002 Bali bombing, Ian tells the story of expat Australians, unprompted, turning up to help.

Volunteering to phone hospitals and hotels to search for the missing and injured.  

Demonstrating the Australian instinct to get in and help – an instinct DFAT’s consular division has professionalised through training and expertise.
Ian also tells us about Lyall Crawford at the Australian Embassy in Kathmandu who was responsible for the rescue of an Australian climbing party in the Himalayas.

The operation was part diplomacy: liaising with Chinese officials to allow a Nepalese military helicopter to enter Chinese airspace.

But mostly it was courage: having completed the dangerous rescue operation, Lyall agreed to go back into the mountains for a second day in extraordinary circumstances to recover the body of a deceased Australian.

All in the name of bringing an Australian home.

This demonstration of the Australian spirit continues beyond the conclusion of Ian’s book.

Diana Shi was part of the crisis team despatched to Poland to help Australian’s who were caught up in Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine.

Following the tragic death of Michael O’Neill, and with large parts of the country under siege, Diana and her team went to extraordinary lengths working with Ukrainian military, officials, and local funeral directors to recover his remains from the front lines and get them back to Poland.

Diana flew the remains back to Michael’s family in the close-knit community of Geeveston, Tasmania, less than 24 hours before his memorial service.

The actions taken by Lyall, Diana and those Australian volunteers in Bali in 2002 are not described in any DFAT policy document or procedure manual.

They did it because it was the right thing to do.

Kemish quotes former DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson in the book: it was put to Adamson that DFAT officers were people willing to get things done.

Adamson replied, “that’s not necessarily because we’re diplomats, it probably has to do with the fact we are Australian.”

This is why the Albanese Government will continue to resource and support our consular services and extend a helping hand to our nationals overseas – because we are Australian.

It’s the right thing to do and it’s what Australians expect us to do.

But in 2022 the task of delivering high quality consular services is significantly more challenging than in previous years.

The most pressing of these challenges is COVID-19, and its impact on the way we travel.

While I remain critical of decisions made by the former government that caused so many Australians to be left stranded in precarious circumstances, I would like to take a moment to recognise all the DFAT staff who served overseas during the pandemic through border closures.

That we sustained our overseas presence and that many of you went for extraordinary lengths of time without seeing your families or coming home is a testament to your resilience and commitment to service.

In many parts of the world, with borders closed, consular officers once again took on a far larger role than what their policy and procedures indicated they should be doing.

I have some sympathy – my electorate office became a front desk for pastoral support for my community as was the case at many of our overseas missions.

Today, with borders open and travel resuming, Australians are finding themselves subject to changing testing and isolation requirements, as well as unexpected costs from additional hotel stays and delayed travel arrangements.

Travellers are discovering their insurance may not cover them for specific COVID-19 related expenses.

And a travel industry which is struggling to awaken from its COVID hibernation is leading to delays, lost baggage, and cancellations.

Our advice for travellers is to:

  • Research entry, exit and testing requirements and providers before you travel.
  • Be prepared that if you test positive for COVID-19 you may be required to quarantine at your own expense, causing sometimes expensive delays and disruption to your plans.
  • And read the fine print on your travel insurance – check you covered for COVID-19 related expenses.

A second challenge is the growing number of consular cases involving serious mental health episodes.

The mental health epidemic we are currently seeing in Australia – in part due to the stress, isolation and disruption of the pandemic – is also playing out for Australians beyond our borders.

That’s why our consular officers are properly trained to understand and respond to these cases, but we need to identify further supports for those overseas.

And when people do return home, we need to ensure there are supports in place for them.

Our advice for travellers is to:

  • Be aware of potential triggers for a mental health condition including separation from family and friends and changes to normal routines.
  • Get enough prescription medication to keep you in good health while you’re away – and check those medications are legal in the country you’re travelling to.
  • Be aware that attitudes and beliefs about physical illness and mental health can vary greatly in other countries, and mental health conditions aren't always accepted the way they are in Australia.

A third challenge is ensuring our consular service is ready to respond to and support the diversity that is modern Australia.

In the book, Ian jokes that if a plane went down between Tashkent and Vladivostok there would almost certainly be an Australian on board.

He’s right – in decades past this would have been a wily mining executive or an intrepid backpacker.

Today, that’s just as likely to be a regular family reunion.

The face of Australia has changed – we are more diverse, and we are more likely to live complex cross-border lives.

Our consular services need to reflect this.

We should consider how we better support the families of Australian citizens including permanent residents and other visa holders, as well as dual nationals when they are in their country of other nationality.

Our assistance to these groups, particularly in a crisis, reflects modern Australia and our values.

Ian’s book is in many ways a story of innovation – the invention of Smartraveller, pop-up airport kiosks, and responding to a changed travel environment following September 11.

He observes that it was not enough for travel advice to be accurate and timely, it had to reach its intended audience.

The challenges we face in delivering consular services today mean we have to continue innovating.

DFAT has to think carefully about how they deliver services to new cohorts, with new challenges, with the same compassion and commitment that shines through in Ian’s book.

I am looking forward to working with Foreign Minister Wong and with DFAT to get this right.

Because how we help people in their time of need is an expression of us as a nation.

Before I conclude, I’d just like to share one further anecdote from the book from Ian’s time as Ambassador to Germany.

Ian travelled to Munich to meet with the local police chief in the wake of Oktoberfest to express his appreciation for their support in looking after the growing Australian contingent that attended the event.

The police chief reassured him the Australians were not his biggest problem.

Yet Ian then admits to visiting Munich each October for the rest of his posting… just in case.

In this regard Ian again showed a distinctly Australian approach to the provision of consular care. I salute your commitment, Ian. 

Thank you again for inviting me to help launch The Consul.

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