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Questions about Corby

Rob Goodfellow, Melbourne.

Why have so many people taken up Schapelle Corby’s cause with passion and conviction?

Why it is that everyone has “an opinion”.

Is it the heart-breaking spectacle of a distraught young woman facing an uncertain future that has galvanized the sympathy of Australian society? Is it the intimate “reality-TV” format the media has used to portray her plight that has evoked such a strong reaction? Is it the harsh sentence of 20 years in Bali’s squalid Kerobokan Prison that has stirred the emotional cauldron?

Or is there something deeper at work in the hearts of ordinary Australians?

Corby is of course a real person in a terrible predicament — but she also represents beliefs Australians have about themselves.

Schapelle Corby is an “Aussie battler”. It is her ordinariness that defines her. Battlers all over Australia have identified with Schapelle Corby — not because they necessarily understand the issues — that’s not the point — it is because they believe in her.

This has become very personal.

Australians believe that Schapelle Corby is a victim. This is because many Australians feel they are victims too. They are edgy, angry and confused by the fundamental insecurity of living in a rapidly changing society and an increasingly dangerous world. At home they are nervous about the disintegration of essential services like health and education and public transport. They are terrified of an interest rate rise. They are apprehensive about the government’s sweeping industrial relations reforms. And, above all, they are worried they might not have a job next week.

The Corby case has created a focus for these frustrations.

The Corby case likewise plays on Australian’s deep fears of the north — in particular, the fear of Asia. This is not a new thing. It can be traced back to the immigration of Chinese laborers during the 1850s gold rushes and to 1901 when the colonies federated, arguably for reasons of defense — from Asia; it is seen through the bombing of Darwin and the threat of invasion by the Japanese during World War Two, through the turmoil of the Vietnam War and in the Bali and Australian Embassy bombings.

As a nation Australia has only had a short period of people-to-people engagement with our immediate neighborhood. Indonesia, for example, is a place of which much is believed but little is actually known — not unlike the Corby case. What is known however is that every night on television ordinarily Australians with little knowledge of Indonesia see a terrified young woman swamped by foreign police as she is jostled from prison to court.

Most Australians “feel” that Schapelle Corby is an innocent woman. This is in part due to the considerable efforts of Corby’s backer, Gold Coast mobile phone salesman Rob Bakir and her Bali-based legal defense team, who have been spectacularly successful in placing the case squarely in the court of Australian public opinion.

So effective has this media campaign been that Corby supporter Glenn Jeffers was able to infer with impunity that the Indonesian leader, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, somehow “owed Australia” the 27 year old former beauty student’s freedom — out of gratitude for Australia’s one billion dollars tsunami aid — and the lives of the Sea King helicopter crew who were killed on the Indonesian island of Nias last month.

“Mr President we have seen enough innocent lives wasted in the past year. Please sir, let’s not waste another innocent life”, pleaded Jeffers outside the court in Bali after the verdict was announced last Friday.

His final exhortation was symbolically delivered in perfectly practiced Bahasa Indonesia — “Schapelletidak bersalah” — Schapelle has done no wrong.

Jeffer’s comments come with a forewarning: The “Free Schapelle: Boycott Bali: Give us our Girl Back’ campaign will soon appear on t-shifts, baseball caps, car bumper stickers, and refrigerator magnets — not to mention the exclusive magazine contract, the book, the TV mini-series and the movie.

The strong feelings held by most Australians are however not necessarily based on an informed knowledge of our northern neighbor and their justice system. They are not even based on the prosecutor’s case or on an understanding of internationally accepted judicial process.

This extraordinary case is about more than guilt or innocence: But rather that Schapelle Corby is a painful representation of life’s uncertainties — uncertainties that can wash over us like a tsunami at any time.