The Embassy featured on smh.com.au

October 16, 2014

 
As we know by now, Australians are avid travellers and Thailand is one of their favourite destinations.While the majority embark on stress-free vacations, a relatively small number find themselves in need of consular help, be it the result of bad luck, unforeseen circumstances, bureaucratic red tape or their own stupidity.

Don’t be stupid: Australians who get into trouble overseas often only have themselves to blame.

Regrettably, says former ambassador James Wise, "a large proportion of the Australians who find themselves with problems in Thailand are in difficulty because they've done in Thailand something they wouldn't have sensibly done in Australia. It's as simple as that".Wise's observation is well illustrated in a segment of Nine's new six-part observational documentary series The Embassy in which four drunk yobs on a night out are taken into custody for their bad behaviour.

The cast of The Embassy.

"Would they have done that in Australia?" asks Wise rhetorically. "I expect not. I hope not. But they shouldn't do that abroad either. We expect visitors to Australia to abide by Australian laws. When we go abroad we should abide by the laws of whatever country we find ourselves in."The idea of basing a series around the people who cross the consular door in Bangkok was hatched by producers Laurie Critchley (Family Confidential) and Craig Graham (Border Security).It's a setting familiar to Critchley, who grew up in Bangkok, London, Jakarta and Papua New Guinea. The daughter of a "very distinguished Australian diplomat", in Wise's words, Critchley's involvement gave Wise the confidence that the world of the embassy and the people who work there would be fairly treated.To the best of his knowledge, The Embassy marks the first time cameras have been allowed inside a diplomatic mission and the proposal was treated with caution when it was first presented to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.As well as the usual concerns around the privacy of individuals, Wise says there were fears the show would be sensationalist in its approach.But the prospect of perpetuating the image of the bogan behaving badly in a country of cheap thrills terrified him less than the risk of not showing the support that comes from the Thai authorities and community."Because 99.9 per cent of the cases we have are solved to everybody's satisfaction, largely because Thai government officials and Thais generally provide us with a lot of support. What I was concerned about is that the media would not focus on that, not let the cases speak for themselves and go for those that tend to reinforce the prejudices that exist in Australia about our neighbours."For his part, Wise is satisfied the show doesn't do that.Filming of The Embassy wrapped up before the case of baby Gammy hit the headlines, but Critchley says the production wasn't looking for big news stories."We were interested in what happens on a daily basis  … there's enough drama and excitement at the grass roots level in a country like Thailand."Nonetheless, the topic of children born to Thai surrogates is dealt with in segments of The Embassy.Wise says that since India tightened regulations around commercial surrogacy, the embassy has dealt with about 200 cases involving Australian couples collecting children born to Thai surrogates in the past year or two.Wise hopes that the show will encourage travellers to take out health insurance and register with DFAT while abroad, and reverse the negative image that the media – and governments, it should be added – perpetuates about public servants."We have very committed, hard-working officers around the world and what you see in the program is people conducting themselves very professionally. It's a weird thing to me. In Australia there's an expectation that public servants somehow don't do a good job. They do."It's a view shared by Critchley. "People who do that work of advancing Australia's interests are very passionate about that work and what that means for Australians back home."We don't in Australia get a chance to see ourselves in the world very often and we don't get an opportunity to see what DFAT, on a very basic human level, can do for Australians."When you go away with your passport you go under the protection or support of the Australian government."

The Embassy, Nine, Sunday, 6.30pm.

Paul Kalina