Idiot Aussies: Grow Up and Take Responsibility

By Alexander Downer

I don’t know about you, but it’s always nice to get emails. Once upon a time you’d look with pleasure at a handful of letters which dropped through the letter box. Now all you get are those threatening looking envelopes with windows. Or if you’re Tom Koutsantonis, those nasty missives which tell you about passing unknowingly through a speed camera.

But this is a generalisation. At the height of the Schapelle Corby affair I received 5000 emails in one day from fellow Australians pleading with me to save “our Schapelle” from the horrors of the Indonesian legal system. Or, to be a bit more honest, the few I looked at said that.

I’m sure my successor as foreign minister, Stephen Smith, had his in box bursting last week as people demanded he save the beer mat mum, Annice Smoel, from the ravages of the Thai police.

I felt for him especially when the media started demanding he “do something” to save her.

After about 10 minutes as foreign minister I was a little surprised to learn I was “responsible” for miscreant Australians who got into trouble in foreign countries.

No, no, no, don’t get it wrong – drug traffickers, drunks, kleptomaniacs and fraudsters weren’t responsible for their own stupidity – I was.

It’s about time that great nanny in Canberra, the Federal Government, turned around and told people they are responsible for their own decisions.

I was in Lebanon the other day and went down to the southern cities of Sidon and Tyre. They’re fascinating places – old Crusader castles, bustling souks, colourful little food stalls with generous owners offering you a taste of their wares.

But I couldn’t help remembering the awful events in those same places three years ago when Israel went to war with Hezbollah.

There were said to be 20,000 Australians in Lebanon at that time and a hefty percentage of them were demanding the Australian Government save them and fast.

Lebanese support groups hit the airwaves screaming that the Government was too slow getting those Australians who wanted to be evacuated to safety. But hang on, Australia’s about 15,000km from Lebanon and we don’t dock ships in the eastern Mediterranean ready to ferry Australians to safety.

And there was something else. We’d issued a travel advisory months earlier warning Australians of the dangers of southern Lebanon and the risks of going there.

It didn’t matter – apparently we had to get them out.

We were lucky. The Australian ambassador, a petite, charming professional called Lyndall Sachs, worked day and night chartering ferries and providing comfort to the evacuees, who hadn’t cared about the travel advisories, and whisked them to safety.

It was one of the great achievements of an Australian diplomat. Almost singlehandedly, she managed to get around 5000 Australians to Cyprus and Turkey.

We then chartered planes to take them back to Australia. I hope they built shrines to her. Some did, at least metaphorically.

But some just whinged. They felt seasick on the ferry and that was our fault. Could they get frequent flyer points for the free flight back to Australia? And all this cost around AUS$30 million.

I’ll tell you this – I didn’t get 5000 emails of thanks but I got plenty of abuse because we weren’t fast enough, the ferries didn’t go from their port of choice and we were slow because we were racist, and so on. I mean, we’d warned them and told them not to go to the south of Lebanon. They went all the same. And when the proverbial hit the fan it was, you guessed it, “our fault.”

Then there was Hurricane Katrina, which flooded much of New Orleans. A mother of an Australian who arrived in New Orleans the day the hurricane hit came to see me in Stirling and demanded I get her son out. Americans couldn’t get out but I had to get her son out. I asked if he’d heard the warnings from the U.S. Government that week to avoid New Orleans.

She started shouting. He doesn’t follow the news, he doesn’t watch TV or read the newspapers. I see, I said. It was my fault he was in New Orleans, was it? What were we to do? Fly helicopters from Australia to America and pick up Australians and leave the Americans behind?

I didn’t have the guts to say this as foreign minister but don’t you think you should take responsibility for yourself when you go overseas?

If you’re too dumb or idle to read the travel advisories and too mean to take out travel insurance when you go overseas then you ought to take responsibility for your own behaviour.

Sure, if there’s a catastrophe like the Bali bombings or you’re trapped in a corruption scam the government should try to help. But not if you’re too lazy and silly to help yourself.

Remember two things when you travel. First, there are no special laws for Australians overseas. Foreigners make the laws over there, not us. And secondly, foreigners do things differently and they’re entitled to.

If you go to a Muslim country and get wildly drunk and women start dressing down (if you know what I mean) it can be bloody offensive to the locals. You’ll soon be in trouble.

And learn to take responsibility for your own behaviour. Stealing is wrong, even stealing beer mats. I know, I know, the beer mat mum had a few drinks but, no, she wasn’t drunk and she was charmingly polite to the local police.

But she was in a foreign country with a different culture and all of us ought to respect that.

Alexander Downer was Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister from 1996 to 2007. This article is reprinted with kind permission from the Adelaide Advertiser.

Filed under: Opinion

One Response to “Idiot Aussies: Grow Up and Take Responsibility”

  1. Bill Says:

    BRAVO!! If only the US and all countries would hold their citisens responsible for their actions abroad, the problems would decline quickly. Going to the rescue every time a ‘brat’ spray paints a car in Singapore certainly is no way to teach responsibility! If you travel, you must know and obey the laws of that country. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.