Megan Hunt

Vice Consul, Brisbane

Guest blogger for UK in Australia

Part of UK in Australia

28th August 2015 Canberra, Australia

From despair to bliss: a day in the life of a consular officer

Brisbane's famous Jacaranda trees

Brisbane is a riot of colour, from the frangipanis to the flame trees and the blooming Jacarandas (nicknamed students’ ruin because if you haven’t started revising for your exams by the time their purple flowers bloom – it’s probably too late!). I am standing outside a hotel in the city centre – that moment all consular officers know too well as they compose themselves and wait to meet a family who have lost their loved ones.

Brisbane's famous Jacaranda trees
Brisbane’s famous Jacaranda trees

On this day I am meeting the father of a young backpacker who lost her life in an off-road accident. Queensland’s vast outback and coastline are popular with young travellers who clamber into huge troop carriers to explore the state’s natural beauty. The risks are there: young inexperienced drivers; difficult terrain; unsealed roads; remoteness. It is not the first such death we have dealt with and the industry is trying self-regulate and do more to raise awareness. I make a mental note to work on our “in country” campaigning too.

The father is accompanied by his other daughter, two years older than her sister. We travel to the mortuary. We are there to identify his daughter’s body. While formalities could have been arranged from the UK, the family need to be here to comprehend and to accept what has happened. We meet Pat – an Irishman who works as a Senior Counsellor. I know him well but this morning we greet formally. The room is designed to be calm – blues and greens, a seascape on the wall – yet the despair and sadness of those that find themselves here is palpable. Pat knows that shock will only allow you to take small steps in comprehension. He explains what they will see. He has two envelopes on the table. The first envelope contains a black and white photograph of the young woman. When they feel ready he will open the second envelope. It is the same photograph, but in colour, allowing them to take in the image, little by little, before he takes them into the room where they will see her body.

There are many tears and questions. We go through the stages of what will happen and how her return will be organised. We make arrangements for the family to visit the site of the accident. The local policeman, the first on the scene, will meet them and take them to where the accident happened.

I have to contain my emotions as I travel back to the office. We have a marriage ceremony scheduled that afternoon. Laura Morgan, Pro-Consul, has dressed the boardroom beautifully. The handwritten marriage certificate is almost complete and there is excitement in the office. We have been presiding over same sex marriages in Australia following the UK Marriage Act 2013 and the Foreign Law Order of 2014. The Act allows British citizens to marry in British diplomatic posts overseas, where, like Australia, the local authorities do not object and there are no facilities for a same sex couple to marry under local law. At least one of the people must be a British national. It is a popular consular service – in Brisbane we have held 14 conversions from civil partnerships and 15 marriages since June 2014 when the law came into effect.

It is the happiest part of the job and we have had some wonderful moments. We have agreed to bagpipes on one occasion, and declined the releasing of doves on another! This time we will see a “ring warming ceremony”. I’m relieved to learn that this involves passing the wedding rings from one guest to another as they wish the couple health and happiness. The brides look beautiful. The mother of one joins us on Skype from the UK. It is 4am in Scotland but she is dressed to the hilt with wide brimmed hat and corsage. The legally required words are dry and unemotional, but when I declare them “married” the whoop of delight is electric. The other mother hugs me and says: “It’s all about acceptance you see pet. Makes me proud to be British!” I agree!

Very often I’m asked what consular work is. As I hope these examples highlight we deal with more than issuing emergency travel documents. On any given day we help Britons in a range of situations; sadly many cases involve helping people during difficult and distressing circumstances.

Consular work is all about the range of human emotion and human connection. And that’s what makes it so rewarding.

6 comments on “From despair to bliss: a day in the life of a consular officer

  1. My colleague just forwarded me this link – so completely touching and inspiring. All in a day’s work eh? Thank you for everything you do for the country!

  2. You are an Angel Megan, and the world is lucky to have you. I would have also asked you what consular work is and what it entails, but good enough you have outlined it clearly.
    Be blessed.

  3. What an absolutely wonderful blog. It is so clear that you love your job and are brilliant at what you do. Thank you for sharing.

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