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Xmas Island

Australia will pay for PM's about-face on $1000 Wuhan co-payment

By John Coyne

The planning and execution of an international evacuation operation of any type is a complex affair with significant financial and diplomatic costs.

The federal government's about-face on charging $1000 in cost recovery for Australians evacuated from Wuhan will increase these costs by creating new expectations for future support in the travelling public.

For each government-assisted international evacuation of Australians that has occurred, there have been scores of others that have, thankfully, not got past the planning stage.

In every case, whether it's an evacuation or just planning for it, someone must pay the bill: almost all of the time it's the taxpayer.

The Australian government has long had a policy that its citizens should contribute financially to the cost of any evacuation. This policy has two consequences. To some degree, it reduces the cost of international evacuations to the Australian taxpayer, though, to be crystal clear, in the case of the assisted evacuation from Wuhan, $1000 for each person evacuated would have come nowhere near meeting the actual costs.

More importantly, the policy sends a message to Australians living and travelling overseas: you are responsible for your own security and wellbeing while travelling internationally.

There have been exceptions. In 2002, the Australian government evacuated many of its citizens injured in the barbaric Bali bombing. And more recently, during the Arab Spring, Australians were removed from Cairo without making contributions for their evacuations.

In 2002, the number of victims in Bali and the severity of their injuries surpassed the local authorities' ability to deal with the situation, which is why the Australian government offered support and the Indonesian government accepted it. During the Arab Spring, Australians were at risk of imminent serious injury or death as a direct result of the security situation in Cairo. Neither of these conditions are the case in Wuhan.

Speak to any Australian consular official across the globe and you'll hear sad stories of Australians injured or caught up in all manner of calamities while travelling: many due to no fault of their own.

However, the reality is Australian officials have no power to interfere in the domestic affairs of another country and can do no more than remain strong advocates to resolve the complex problems of Australians living and travelling overseas.

The less-than-subtle message from government to Australians travelling overseas is that they must take steps themselves to avoid and prepare for emergencies. They must heed travel warnings and they must be ready to cover the cost. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns: "Australians need to cover their own emergency-related costs if they travel overseas without insurance, or if their insurance doesn't cover their planned destinations, activities or pre-existing medical conditions."

Until early yesterday, the message from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to Australian citizens caught in Wuhan was clear: if you want assistance with your evacuation to Australia, you must make a financial contribution. It was entirely consistent with previous government policy. There is no imminent threat to the life or security of Australian citizens who comply with medical advice in Wuhan.

The loss of $600,000 in payments from evacuees will have a negligible financial impact on the Australian government or the departments involved in the evacuation. The decision to reverse this position and provide free evacuations will, however, have effects on the public perception of the role of the Australian government in supporting its citizens travelling internationally.

My advice to Australians travelling is not to expect that your government can evacuate you now or in the future. Second, ensure you read and monitor the government's official travel advice. Finally, if you cannot afford travel insurance, you cannot afford to travel overseas.

Originally published by: Sydney Morning Herald on 03 Feb 2020