Higher airfares, passport fees proposed to pay for Aussies in trouble

Australians should pay extra for international airfares or passport fees to help fund consular services for those who get into trouble overseas, the Lowy Institute says.

The demands on Australian consular services overseas are growing at a time when staffing levels have stagnated due to chronic under-resourcing, a policy paper the think tank issued on Tuesday finds.

Cheaper airfares mean more Australians are heading overseas while the type of travellers, the places they go and what they do are contributing to a significant increase in the need for consular assistance.

As well, far fewer Australians take out travel insurance when heading overseas than travellers from similar countries.

"The Australian public's perception of the services government can provide overseas has grown to a point where they seem to expect that the full suite of welfare services will extend to them across the globe no matter where they go or how they behave," Lowy research fellow Alex Oliver writes.

Several high-profile cases such as that of Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor who was captured by militia in Libya have stoked a vicious cycle of high public expectations and political intervention.

"Ministerial involvement in a consular case can be as much a public-relations trap as an opportunity," Mr Oliver writes.

"This cycle must be broken."

Politicians need to manage the media and public expectations of what help diplomats can actually give.


Mr Oliver suggests imposing a levy on passport fees or airline tickets to permanently boost the funding available for consular assistance.

A $20 premium on top of the cost of a passport could raise up to $40 million a year, he says.

Similar schemes are used in the UK and the Netherlands.

As well, Mr Oliver says DFAT should get the money it makes from notarial services like witnessing and authenticating documents in Australian embassies around the world.

Currently the money raised from the 180,000 such fees charged each year goes into consolidated government revenue, not back to DFAT.

A travel levy was also suggested last October by a parliamentary committee as part of an inquiry into the parlous state of the country's foreign service.

At that time, Foreign Minister Bob Carr poured cold water on the idea, but last month Carr warned Australian travellers that the government "can't be your nanny".

"There is one message I have got and that is personal responsibility," he said.