Amb McKinnon made his position clear to The Phuket News during a visit to the Class Act Media offices in Kathu last Tuesday (Apr 30), accompanied by Australian Consul-General for Phuket Craig Ferguson.
“Most important is that people need to follow the travel advice,” Amb McKinnon said.
“It’s amazing how many Australians just pack up and go and don’t give a second thought… anywhere,” he added.
“Before travelling, people need to learn what the environment is, what the risks are, what the positives are – and pay attention to that.”
Mr Ferguson, who has spent nigh on two years on the frontline in Phuket assisting Australians in need, agreed. His advice was simple: “Spend some time reading the Australian government’s travel advice for Thailand on www.smartraveller.gov.au
“This advice says that Australians should overall exercise a high degree of caution. It gives helpful information safety and security, local laws and where to get help. You can also subscribe to receive an email every time we update the travel advice,” he noted.
Further than reading up on the risks and dangers – as well as the attractions to enjoy – while travelling to Thailand, and Phuket in particular, Amb McKinnon pointed out how many people do not take out adequate travel insurance to cover the activities they will engage in while on holiday here.
“Don’t skimp on it. Take out the right travel insurance for situations you think you are going to face. It is common for people to use just standard coverage provided credit card companies when people pay for their holidays using their credit cards, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that at all – but I wouldn’t want to leave it to chance. Take out good travel insurance for the risks that you’re facing, whether you are going to rent a motorbike or do any adventure activities. Just make sure you’re covered,” he said.
“And be sensible when you’re travelling. How many people have never ridden a motorbike before and then rent a scooter here because they think it is just a little thing, that they won’t get hurt – and then don’t wear a helmet because no one else is wearing a helmet, so they think that will be fine too.
“People just shouldn’t take risks and do things that they wouldn’t do back home in Australia,” the Ambassador said.
“Of course it’s the combination of these three things – not being aware of the risks, not taking out appropriate insurance for those risks and then taking those risks that you wouldn’t take at home – that can together be quite catastrophic, and we see the results of that,” he added.
Amb McKinnon pointed out that the number of incidents that the Australian Mission in Thailand had to deal with each year made the Australian Embassy in Bangkok one of the busiest Australian Government Missions in the world.
“Even more than Washington D.C.,” he noted.
Mr Ferguson’s experience shone through on the issue: “Have comprehensive travel insurance making sure it covers you for the places you’ll visit, things you’ll do and any pre-existing medical conditions
“Recent research by the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) revealed that 18% of people travelled without insurance, 44% of travellers take part in dangerous activities that their insurance didn’t cover and 13% had an expectation that the Australian Government would contribute to their medical expenses,” he noted.
Mr Ferguson also encouraged Australians to make sensible travel decisions and use common sense.
“Do some reading, know a bit about where you are going. Be aware that you are subject to local laws,” he said.
“Wear a helmet when riding a motorbike. Watch out for your mates and stay in touch with family and friends back home. Doing these things will help you avoid becoming a consular statistic,” Mr Ferguson pointed out.
Amb McKinnon was in Phuket last week to attend several of the activities conducted by the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 (IDE) deployment, which saw the Royal Australian Navy flagship HMAS Canberra, which at 27,000 tonnes is the largest ship in the RAN fleet, and the HMAS Newcastle make port in Phuket.
During their four-day stay, Australian military personnel worked with the Royal Thai Navy, police and disaster-prevention agencies in a number of training activities, including a tabletop exercise on maritime security in which they teamed up to solve a simulated search-and-rescue.
Amb McKinnon rated the visit an important opportunity to cooperate in security and stability for the region.
“Thailand is a very important security partner for Australia,” he said.
“Our cooperation spans defence, counter-terrorism, border protection, combatting transnational crime and preventing human trafficking and people smuggling.”
On land, the personnel assisted with the clean-up on Koh Siray, one of the poorest areas of Phuket, home to around 10,000 people, including a village of 1,000 sea gypsies, Myanmar fishing workers and disadvantaged families with very poor housing.
Under the Asia Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), originally established in Australia and now established in Thailand, the overall project aims to contribute to building sustainable communities, including water, waste, energy and biodiversity, with a strong commitment to social justice. APEN’s current project is bringing community groups and agencies together to transform the community on Koh Siray.
On April 29, some 40 sailors from the HMAS Canberra joined a clean-up of the village and helped establish the kindergarten as a sustainable centre with fresh drinking water and a garden.
The visit was part of a wider project sponsored by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which aims to transform Koh Siray into a self-sustained ecosystem, reduce waste to zero, break the poverty cycle by empowering local waste management and increasing commercial gain by creating products to sell in local markets. (See stories here and here.)
At Patong Beach last Tuesday morning, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) landing craft, including two amphibious vehicles, made their way onto the beach to deliver a huge store of much needed life-saving equipment to Patong’s lifeguards. (See story here.)
Aboard the HMAS Canberra in Phuket last week, Amb McKinnon surprised guests by giving a 15-minute welcome speech in Thai. Few people know that he had studied Thai language for three years at Australian National University (ANU).
“But that was a very long time ago – about 25 years,” he laughs.
Back then Amb McKinnon was wide-eyed student looking to expand his horizons. “I visited Thailand a few times to put it to use. But not Phuket – up north: Chiang Mai, Chaing Rai, Mae Hong Son – I’m not a fan of beaches,” he explained.
Amb McKinnon openly pointed out that he had never before been required to use his Thai-speaking skills in a work context. This is his first posting to Thailand.
“I underwent a six-week intensive to brush up on my Thai,” he said.
Amb McKinnon has for past six years been looking after national security at the Prime Minister’s Office in Australia, dealing in international matters, intelligence and border security.
A senior career public servant, Amb McKinnon has held positions within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Before arriving in Thailand, he was Deputy Secretary at PMC.
He has previously served overseas as Deputy Head of Mission, Australian Embassy, Tokyo and before this as Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Tokyo.
In Australia, Mr McKinnon has served as Deputy National Security Adviser, PMC, Deputy Commander, Joint Agency Task Force – Operation Sovereign Borders. He had earlier served in a range of security, managerial and trade negotiations related positions in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
From 2017 to 2018, Amb McKinnon was responsible for the establishment of the Department of Home Affairs and the Office of National Intelligence. From 2016 to 2018, he was chair of the board of the National Security College at the Australian National University.
His efforts and accomplishments did not not go unrecognised. In 2018, Amb McKinnon was awarded the Public Service Medal for outstanding public service in the field of national security.
Even before he embarked on his civil service career, Amb McKinnon graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Asian Studies) and Bachelor of Economics from the Australian National University, and a Diploma in Law from the New South Wales Legal Practitioners Admission Board.
He speaks Japanese and, of course, Thai.
“I would be very determined to give any public presentations in Thai, to give briefings to Thais in Thai and give public presentations in Thai. I feel doing so would be appreciated,” Amb McKinnon told The Phuket News.
“Senior Thai officials speak excellent English, but that’s not the point. If briefs were provided in Thai, it will make us more effective in our work,” he said.
On the point of effectiveness in providing consular services and support, Amb McKinnon gave high praise to Mr Ferguson for his role in setting up and operating the Australian Consulate-General in Phuket.
“Craig is very modest about it, but he has done a fantastic job here,” he said.
“The challenge for his successor will be to keep it up, and even to improve it, but with the model set there are no excuses,” Amb McKinnon explained plainly.
Mr Ferguson pointed out that his transfer has been approved and that he will be leaving the island in the coming months.
“The changeover will see a gap of about six weeks, during which a representative from the embassy will be coming down and filling in,” he explained.
“I’ll be leaving about late July, and my successor will be arriving in early September,” he added.
On the issue of the Australian Embassy no longer issuing statutory declarations, especially those to support applications for long-term permits to stay in Thailand, Amb McKinnon explained, “We saw it as just witnessing the documents, but the Thais saw it as confirmation, that we were saying that the information in the documents was true, that the applicant had the amount of money or income they claimed they had.
“As soon as we realised that, we stopped doing them anymore and other major missions stopped at the same time,” he said.
“The whole point of a statutory declaration is that if I sign a statutory declaration deliberately in Australia I can be subject to sanction under the law, but that cannot happen here – so the whole thing loses its weight as a statutory declaration.
“We are not giving any statutory declarations anymore on anything unless it relates to something in the Australia. I understand if this is an inconvenience for some people, but if people cannot meet the criteria for retirement visas, if they don’t have the B800,000 required in a Thai bank account and the required income to sustain themselves for the remaining months, then maybe they’re not the kind of people that Thais want here,” he said.
“It does sound a bit mean, but it does make me angry to hear about Australians who retire here and get into an accident, get treated in a Thai hospital and leave the bill with the Thais. I think it’s a bit unfair.
“They should have money and should have the means to support themselves. That’s the whole concept of Thais allowing them to retire here in this country,” Amb McKinnon said plainly.
VOTING FROM AFAR
A closing note during the interview last week was dedicated to the upcoming Australian federal Election, to be held on May 18.
In answering the question “Can Australians in Phuket vote in the upcoming federal election?”, Mr Ferguson explained, “No in-person voting is being provided at the Consulate-General though Australians may register as an overseas postal voter via the AEC website (www.aec.gov.au) and have ballot papers sent to them by mail.
“In-person voting will be possible at the Embassy in Bangkok. Further details can be found on the wmbassy’s website (http://thailand.embassy.gov.au),” he added.