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Schapelle Corby burst her own balloon

Date

Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

Schapelle Corby's release from Kerobokan prison in Bali.

Schapelle Corby's release from Kerobokan prison in Bali. Photo: Justin McManus

PETER Greste, the Australian reporter facing trial in Egypt over allegations of lying and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, made a moving call the other day for Australian support for his situation, asking in particular for a diplomatic intervention from Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

If I were Greste, I'd think twice about that. This is no reflection on the persuasive skills of the Prime Minister, nor of his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. It involves commonsense understanding that sometimes one's jailers dislike your being the stick with which their government is beaten. And thus treat you worse.

A very good example can be seen right now in Indonesia with the case of Schapelle Corby, who may be returned to prison over the antics of her family, particularly over its relationship with Channel Seven, since the poor, sad and apparently now demented woman was released a few weeks ago.

In 10 years not a thing that has been said or done in public, here or in Bali, by any of her strongest supporters - including members of her family - has helped Corby. One can say that Corby was not her own worst enemy only after reflection that her champions were worse.

There never seemed much doubt about her guilt, after generous lashings of presumption of innocence. Due weight to everything said on her behalf, generous discounts for the ranting (on her behalf) of some of Australia's leading jocks, and the natural and loyal, though not always convincing, testimonials of some members of her family does not create doubt. Nor do the more bogus cries of entitlement from the woman herself, or attempts (in my case not very successful) to overlook some snobbery about her bogan-ness. Nothing from her legal team, media advisers or her entourage - even the uninvited entourage of conspiracy theorists and obvious whackos who attach themselves uninvited to such causes - advanced her argument or raised any reasonable doubt.

Nor did the attentions, sometimes welcome and exploited, other times uninvited and inconvenient, by the tabloid media, commercial television or magazines that prosper from the celebrity of non-events such as Corby. Even, perhaps particularly, writers who made good money for themselves out of her from books, photographs, the purchase of interviews or sometimes, apparently, the betrayal of confidences.

Reptiles of the press, particularly of that sort, have no real interest one way or another in securing Corby her freedom, or proving her innocence even if she were. She has been simply a commodity who was at least for a time successful in attracting readers, watchers and fantasists. Like Lindy Chamberlain or Pauline Hanson, she was thought of above average fetchingness compared with others in her situation. As soon as her usefulness evaporates, or her use-by date arrives, people like her are discarded - hardly ever the richer or the better off.

One can feel a little sorry for Corby because she received a long sentence for what, by Australian standards, was not a very big crime. And she served a longish proportion of it, too. But the sentence was probably the greater for the notoriety of the case, for the non-stop abuse of Indonesia and its justice system by all her friends and self-styled champions, and even by the diplomatic attention and representations made in the case. It is a little admitted part of the foreign policy of every country on earth - Australia as much as Indonesia, the United States as much as Togo - that almost all of its elements are based on domestic policy considerations.

There may be - as some statesmen and theorists claim - such things as permanent facts and permanent interests. But the interchanges between statesmen are primarily informed by public opinion in the country of the politician concerned. This seems to be true, incidentally, regardless of whether the politician is elected or is a dictator or tyrant. Even dictators have to look over their shoulder.

Diplomatic representations made by one country usually affect the domestic policy of the other. When an Alexander Downer, or a Bob Carr, or a Julie Bishop - or worse a John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott makes personal representations to the powers of another country about the status of some person in their judicial system, they are asking a favour, exercising a discretion, drawing on their stock of credit, perhaps even tacitly offering an inducement. The Downers, Carrs and others know perfectly well that their interest might hurt more than it benefits, but they too are subject to local pressure - and sometimes arguments that they are ''doing nothing''.

Thanks in part to the media circuses, diplomatic representations do not pass unnoticed by the public in the other country. They are seen - as we tend to see them when similar representations are made to our people - as requests for special treatment, exemption from the rules everyone else has to follow, or instances of there being one law for some and another for the rest of us.

And when, as so often happens, representations are being made at just the same time as ''friends'' of the aggrieved person are loudly insisting that the charges are baseless, the officials corrupt, the system and the judges incompetent and so on, it is less likely that public opinion in the country concerned will see why a special exception should be made.

Public opinion in Bali and Indonesia now perceives that Corby got special favourable treatment from the Indonesian government. That is very unpopular there. Many perceive, and they have good foundations for that perception, that Corby then set out to exploit that favourable treatment by seeking (unsuccessfully as it seems to have turned out) to sell her story and, no doubt, further abuse the Indonesian justice system in the process.

That impression is a political problem for politicians up for election in a few months. In all of this, the goodwill, if any, secured in Australia by Indonesia's doing some sort of favour to the Australia government ranks very low compared with the local odium among voters. We don't get a vote in the Bali elections.

That's even assuming, as I wouldn't, that the fate of Corby had any sort of unwanted adverse effect on Australian tourism to Bali.

This does not mean that discreet consular work, and evidence that the workings of the system are under media and diplomatic scrutiny does not assist Australians in trouble with the law. And the work of Amnesty and PEN shows us the value of world opinion in proper treatment of prisoners, particularly political ones.

What doesn't seem to work well is loud external public pressure on the levers - or, worse, loud abuse by foreigners of the workings and officials of other justice systems. Unless of course one wants only to be famous, then infamous, rich, then poor and abandoned.

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