The Phuket News spoke to Mr Ferguson about his new post and what services the new Consulate-General can provide to Australians living in or visiting Phuket.
What’s the difference between an Honorary Consul and a Consul-General?
As the name suggests, Honorary Consuls represent a country’s interests on a voluntary or unpaid basis, whereas a Consul-General is a full-time professional diplomatic position. This is what I do for a career and I am posted here from Australia for a three year term.
Australia’s interests in Phuket were served very well by Larry Cunningham OAM from 2007 to 2013 and then by Michelle Hawryluk after that. Considering the amount of work our Honorary Consuls were doing in Phuket, the Australian government recognised that it was time to expand our diplomatic footprint here.
This reflected the strength of the bilateral relationship Australia has with Thailand as well as the number of Australians that holiday here or call Phuket home. Our upgraded diplomatic presence in Phuket now means there are expanded consular and passport services available to Australians in this part of Thailand.
What services does the Consulate-General in Phuket provide that were not available in Phuket before?
The new Consulate-General has a full-time staff of five and we are open and available Monday to Friday in dedicated diplomatic premises. Resident Aussies will be happy to learn that we can now provide full Australian passport services in Phuket.
Previously, Australians had to travel to Bangkok, or wait until the Embassy scheduled an outreach visit to Phuket. Now we can issue new passports and replace expired, full or lost passports for Australian citizens. Ordinary passports are ready to be collected within three weeks (and often it is quicker). We can issue emergency passports for Australians who may have lost their passport and need to travel urgently.
We are also seeing a strong demand for our notarial and document legalisation services such as witnessing Statutory Declarations or other legal documents. We offer all these services, by appointment, at the new Consulate-General premises. Where fees are payable, we collect these by credit card only, as we are a fully cashless office. Visas for travel to Australia will continue to be handled by the Australian Embassy Bangkok.
Which action or service provided by the Consulate is the most common?
People often ask what ‘consular services’ mean. When Australian officials provide assistance to an Australian who has encountered difficulties overseas – for example if they have been in an accident, have been a victim of crime, or if their friends or family in Australia are concerned about their whereabouts – this is called consular assistance. The Australian Government’s Consular Services Charter (available at smartraveller.gov.au) clearly sets out what we can and cannot do.
How many Australians live in Phuket?
The figures can vary depending on how “live in Phuket” is defined, and of course, what type of Thai visa is held. People’s lives tend to be more transient these days and I know quite a few Australians who live part-year in one location, say Phuket, and part-year somewhere else.
It’s also common for people to live and work overseas for a short period, then move on to another location to do the same thing. So the numbers can be difficult to keep track of. But talking to Thai officials and long-term residents on the island we believe the number to sit somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000.
Are the “honorary consul meetings” back?
The Australian Ambassador to Thailand Mr Paul Robilliard was recently in Phuket. During his visit he and I called on senior Thai officials in Phuket, including the Vice Governor Mr Chokdee Amornwat, who invited me to attend these meetings.
I commend the Phuket authorities for engaging with the Consular representatives in this way and I look forward to attending my first meeting in the near future. As diplomats, we can be constructive in our feedback and suggestions, however we must respect Thailand’s sovereignty to administer Phuket the way it sees fit. It would be arrogant of us to think that we “know better”. My mandate as Consul-General is to advance Australia’s interests and I can only do this through engagement and ongoing dialogue.
What work is commonly involved when providing assistance to Australians in Phuket?
Australians are keen travellers and adventure seekers and it’s no doubt that Phuket is a place to come for some sunshine, relaxation and fun. Most Australians have a great time here but a number will find themselves in difficult situations.
The Consulate regularly becomes involved in cases of Australians being injured or unwell, victims of crime, lost passports, welfare issues and missing persons. In the most unfortunate cases we help when there has been the death of an Australian. Providing Consular Services means we spend a lot of time at hospitals, police stations, jail, courts and hotels.
In cases where Australians are accused of breaking Thai law, we do not give legal advice or intervene in local judicial proceedings. But we do take a close interest in the progress of the case, encourage Australians to seek independent local legal advice, and where necessary, and with the consent of the individual involved, act as a point of contact for family or friends back in Australia.
Many Australians do not understand that overseas legal and other processes can be substantially different from those in Australia. When Consular Assistance is called upon, there may be limitations to what can be done and Australians should have realistic expectations about this.
What pre-emptive measures does the Consulate take to help protect travellers?
Our Smartraveller campaign encourages Australians to take responsibility for their travel decisions. We’re trying to help Australians plan ahead and prepare for their safety when they travel. Recently we launched a new graphic encouraging Australians to “Stay Classy in the Air” (See photo gallery)
What is the most important advice you have for expats and travellers to Phuket?
The Australian Government’s travel advice for Thailand is worth a read, it is available at smartraveller.gov.au. There are four levels of travel advice, and Thailand (except the southern border provinces) currently sits at level two: Exercise a High Degree of Caution.
The advice reflects our assessment of the threats that travellers may face and is drawn from a wide range of sources. The travel advice is kept under close review, and is reissued several times a year, or even more regularly, in response to emerging events that we believe Australians should be aware of.
On the smartraveller.gov.au site (or on the free iOS/Android smartphone app), it is possible to subscribe to receive email alerts each time the travel advisory is reissued. We also encourage Australians to register with us. This can be done at the smartraveller.gov.au site or via the smartraveller app. There’s other ways to connect with us including Facebook (“Australia in Thailand”) and Twitter (@AusAmbBKK).
In the case of the recent bombings in Phuket, we received many queries from travellers asking what they should do. In all cases we refer to the travel advice as our single source of information. When situations like this occur, Australians should follow the instructions of local authorities, monitor the local media, avoid the affected areas and contact friends or family back home to let them know you are okay.
Travel insurance, or medical insurance is absolutely essential. The Australian government won’t pay for medical costs overseas and I have seen cases where families have had to sell assets such as houses in order to pay for high-cost medical treatment and repatriations. As the saying goes, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel!
The Australian Consulate-General in Phuket
Address: 6th Floor CCM Complex, 77/77 Chalermprakiat Rama 9 Road (the bypass road), Muang Phuket 83000 Thailand.
Phone: 076-317700 Fax: 076-317 743
Hours of operation: 8.30am – 4.30pm Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays).