Occasionally Australian television offers up a show that is on New Mandala‘s “must watch” list. And I’m not talking about The Bachelor or Beauty and the Geek. On Sunday night at 6:30 pm, Channel 9 launched a much-spruiked series titled The Embassy. It’s a cleverly organised look at the workings of Australia’s large mission in Thailand, with a specific focus on the business of consular assistance.
The political context for this show is important. In Australia there have long been concerns about the demands of Australian travelers who get into strife, or just do something silly, while they are abroad and expect Australian officials to bail them out. The resulting consular assistance burden has become contentious. Almost a million Australians a year travel to Thailand and so it is inevitable that Bangkok provides a terrific backdrop for getting to grips with the issues. In The Embassy we are shown “behind the scenes with unprecedented access”.
Right up front it’s also worth suggesting that this show has many layers of purpose. I can imagine that negotiations between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the producers sought to protect the Australian government’s interests, and messages. Based on the first episode it looks like they have all done a very smart job. The episode highlighted the skill, finesse, compassion, pragmatism and good humour of Australian diplomats and the Thai consular staff.
In this one-hour episode, the Embassy team dealt with issues across the gamut of human experience: imprisonment, drunken urination, young love, a wet passport, and surrogacy. The show itself follows a predictable enough reality television style, familiar to anyone who has switched on a set during the past decade. We are introduced to different characters from the Embassy and from among the range of Australians and Thais drawn into its orbit. The star of the show is Trudy, a senior consular officer (pictured, second from left), who dispenses her good judgement with wit and charm.
Episode 1 begins with drama. The Embassy, we are told, is there for “when things go wrong”. This “trouble in paradise” theme re-emerges a few times as the cameras gallop around the kingdom getting to grips with the work of the consular team. The incidents all blur together and I guess that the hope of the producers, and those who approved the creation of this show, is that Australians will take comfort in the fact that skilled professionals can assist in a crisis, including when Australians lurch close to the precipice.
The first of the storylines in this first episode dealt with David who overstayed his visa on Koh Samui and ended up locked up in immigration detention in Ranong. It is not a pleasant way to spend a few weeks and by the time the Australian Embassy puts a Thai member of the team, Bee (pictured, far left: formerly a Qantas flight attendant), on the plane down to Surat Thani, David was very much worse for wear. On the road from Surat Thani to Ranong, Bee’s journey was slowed by a big southern Thai, anti-Yingluck mobilisation characteristic of early 2014. During this sequence we are told that “Thai prison is a horrible place to be for even one night”. David apparently lost 25 percent of his weight in his few weeks locked up.
With some negotiation on David’s behalf, the Embassy secures his release and within a few days, by the way it was presented, he was on his way home to Australia. Given his distressing circumstances (as David says, “I can’t figure out how I deserve this”) he wanted to convey the message that people need to look after themselves and take care. David ends his cameo on national television with the hope that youngsters watching the program won’t make his mistake in over-staying their visa.
For a change of pace the next segment deals with a Melbourne law student, Declan, whose passport is soggy. His story is that sweat saturated his money belt and the passport was destroyed. The consular team have a bit of fun at his expense but remind us that a “passport…is a lifeline back home”. Trudy is matter of fact about the situation: “it’s a crappy thing to happen”. We are told that she used to be a primary school teacher.
In this case, the Embassy promptly assists with a replacement, and also helps out by writing a letter to explain the situation to the Lao and Cambodian authorities; countries for which Declan had visas in his wet passport. In one scene, Declan struggles to get a phone to work and Trudy tells him that “they’re speaking Thai, press zero for the operator”. It’s a light hearted moment. With a quick photo montage we then see the young man make his way merrily across Southeast Asia. He even manages to flash a “thank you Trudy” sign. Great TV.
Then things start to rumble in different directions. Down in Phuket some other young Aussies are having a big night out: “red bull and rum”. Wal — a retired Australian public servant who owns a Phuket restaurant and volunteers with the Tourist Police — takes centre-stage. As he tells us: “urinating off the balcony, that’s crazy”. What follows is a chase through Phuket’s nightlife to find the Aussie lads who have caused a commotion. Wal isn’t pleased with their efforts and finds them disrespectful of the Thais.
Eventually, once he and the police have caught up to them, he puts Trudy on the phone. We see her take the call at home, with her daughter scrambling around. The audience is then reminded that, at the Embassy, “diplomacy never sleeps”. Trudy tries to get the young man to see sense but he fumbles his lines, and ends up calling the people around him “Taiwanese”. Trudy is dark: “it’s embarrassing when we get that kind of ignorance from Australians”. “Try and be good”, she insists. Wal hammers home the point: “these kids don’t understand how justice works in Thailand”.
We then see another side of the Australian experience of “good times” in Thailand. Cameron, a store-packer from Newcastle, has gone missing and his Mum is worried about his safety. It turns out that he’s fallen madly in love with a young woman in Pattaya and has overstayed his visa. He is called “irresponsible, young and in love”. His family end up spending a large amount of money, including on wasted flights, to try and get him home. We learn that this isn’t his first experience of going AWOL in Thailand. The Embassy appear relieved when he eventually shows up, and they then escort him to Suvarnabhumi airport and out of the country. He is, we’re told, “lucky not to be in gaol”.
We then learn that the 22 May 2014 military coup has occurred. The narrator suggests, somewhat inelegantly under the circumstances, that “there is peace in Bangkok”.
But then the Embassy has to deal with the capstone case for the episode: Matt and Wayne, gay dads seeking to get passports for their surrogate children to take them home to Australia. The main complication presented here is that Rung, the surrogate, and a young single mum herself, needs to sign the paperwork. There never seems to be much doubt that this will happen but she is very emotional about the situation. Matt and Wayne say all the right things and appear genuinely concerned to maintain a relationship with their childrens’ surrogate. At the same time we learn that the Embassy has been dealing with five surrogacy cases per week. From what the camera sees, it is emotional and complex work with high stakes for all involved.
Before we know it: the episode is finished, “and so ends another day in paradise”. Based on the promotional clip it looks like next Sunday’s show will be back in Pattaya and also up north where a young Australian woman is getting married to a local guy. My guess is that plenty of New Mandala readers will want to tune in.
But is this more than good TV? Can we take away some serious lessons?
First, over the years, I’ve had a fair few interactions with Australian diplomats abroad. I must say I have a universally positive impression of their efforts on behalf of Australia and Australians. The rare occasions when I may have needed some assistance have been greeted with smiles, efficiency and prudent advice. I hope to continue avoiding the dramatic entanglements that would require abrupt consular support. But the fact of life for those of us who travel a great deal is that you can just never tell when your number will be up. It is a comfort to know that support can be requested in an emergency. And the “reality” show reinforces my positive “real world” impression.
Yet I’m sure not everyone is so positive about their experiences with Australian diplomats. There’s a chance that some of that tension might emerge in future episodes.
Second, with that in mind, the genius of The Embassy is that it gives a deeply personal accounting of the day-to-day challenges faced by Australians in Thailand, and the responses that Australian government representatives can offer. The first episode was upbeat and slightly theatrical. But, for mine, it worked a treat. What the first episode achieved was the right balance between personal drama and official competence. Everyone, perhaps except for the drunken urinators, emerged from the episode with their dignity fully in tact. Maybe as the series develops we’ll start to get some different impressions of the complexity of the Embassy’s consular work.
Third, I assume there is abundant upside for Australian officials in communicating precisely what they can and can’t do on behalf of Australians in Thailand, or anywhere else. The show certainly helps to advertise levels of consular support, but also gives people a chance to sit at home and mutter disapprovingly, if they feel inclined, into their favourite beverage. Last week the Lowy Institute had a discussion about the series, which included the former Australian Ambassador to Thailand, James Wise, who has recently returned from his posting. Other senior government officials were also involved in that session. I reckon they would be quietly pleased with what The Embassy has already shown.
My final guess — based on a few too many evenings spent watching reality television classics — is that at some stage in the series there will be incidents that the officials can’t fix so easily, and we are likely, for instance, to see Australians graze against the harsh realities of Thai law. I, for one, will continue to tune in and enjoy the insights The Embassy can offer. Where else could you get a clear explanation of the difference between “reasonable drunk” and “stupid drunk” at 6:30 pm on a Sunday night?