4 June 2005

Australia votes 'non'

Howard's neighbourhood watch
Australia's relations with Indonesia are fundamentally different to those we have with any other country - not just better or worse, but with deeper and different consequences. It is Australia's only strategically important neighbour. So when things go well with Indonesia, the consequences for Australia can be very good.

While he was prime minister, Paul Keating observed that 'the event of greatest positive strategic significance to Australia in the postwar years was the election of President Soeharto's new-order government. Had it not been for that cohesive event - if the archipelago was breaking up - we would not be spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, we would be spending 6 or 7 per cent.'

We often count the cost of things going wrong but seldom the benefit when they go right. If Keating was right, that would be the difference between Australia's defence spending of $17.5 billion budgeted for next year and a notional $52.5 billion. The benefit of a strategically benign Indonesia, in his estimation, was $35 billion a year.

But when things go badly with Indonesia, the risk of injury or death to Australians escalates, more so than in any other relationship we have. As when Australian forces entered East Timor to halt the rampaging Indonesian-led anti-independence militias in 1999, or when 23 Australian troops died facing off against Indonesian forces during the Confrontation in 1963-66, problems in Indonesia are more likely to mean that Australians are placed in harm's way.

Sunk by defence team that didn't rise to the challenge
The decision by the Denpasar District Court to sentence Schapelle Corby to 20 years in jail was not surprising, given the evidence against her.

The prosecution established a prima facie case against her relatively easily. There was no dispute that the cannabis was in her bag when it was opened at Bali's Ngurah Rai Airport. Their witness said Corby had admitted it was hers. She denied this - as might be expected, regardless of whether she was guilty or innocent.

The Indonesian system has enshrined the presumption of innocence in legislation as a human right, but once a prima facie case is established - that is, the minimum required to establish the elements of the charge - the burden effectively shifts to the defence to counter the prosecution case. This is true of almost all legal systems, including, in most cases, our own. Corby's main problem was that her defence team did not rise well to the challenge of countering the prima facie prosecution case by proving her baggage-handler hypothesis.

Her lead Indonesian lawyer, Lily Lubis, is young and relatively inexperienced and this was, reportedly, her first drugs case. She seemed frequently out of her depth and broke down in tears in court. The key evidence she presented was given little weight, as would likely be the case in Australia, because it was either not directly related to Corby's circumstances or was unreliable

Indonesian trial for Australia
There are scores of largely anonymous Australians awaiting trial on drug offences in Asian jails, including 11 more in Bali and two on death row in Singapore. On Wednesday, a Sydney man of Vietnamese origin was given the same sentence as Corby in Vietnam for sending heroin back home through the post; the story barely made the evening news.

So why the obsession with Corby?

She is young, beautiful and charismatic. Her cell is dark, foul-smelling and overcrowded, a forbidding place in a land that few Australians understand. The language swirling around her is impenetrable, the judiciary difficult to comprehend. For many it is a simple case of good against evil, of supporting the underdog, the innocent victim of a corrupt and untrustworthy system. It's black and white.

And there is the crunch. Are Australians, with a predominantly European heritage and Western outlook, letting their latent fear of being swamped by populous Asia rule their emotions over what should have been a routine court verdict?

Opinion polls suggest that the main issue is not Corby's guilt but her perceived inability to get a fair trial in a country that is still associated, in the minds of many Australians, with the excesses of the Suharto era, human-rights abuses in East Timor and West Papua, crooked police and banana-state politics.

One survey, conducted over two days by a radio station in Corby's home state of Queensland, found that almost half of the respondents believed the court verdict was an injustice; yet less than a quarter were convinced of her innocence and believed she should be freed.

Okay, it's a long way from voting 'non' to the European constitution to getting hysterical about the Corby verdict and sentence, but both acts are driven by the same cause. The Indonesia relationship is as important as Hartcher's piece says. Our political elite needs to do a better job of communicating that than they have up till now.