Features Australia

Getting the misery right

The death-circus surrounding the Bali executions has faint echoes of a famous musical

4 April 2015

9:00 AM

4 April 2015

9:00 AM

Oh what a circus, oh what a show! Argentina has gone to town, Over the death of an actress named Eva Perón. We’ve all gone crazy, Mourning all day and mourning all night, Falling over ourselves to get all of the misery right!

The opening words of Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s fun funeral song from Evita could easily be appropriated for more contemporary, more local purposes. The executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran had been on the cards for a decade, far longer than Evita’s relatively short period of ill health, but the mania surrounding their pending deaths has become no less of a circus than that of the so-called Spiritual Leader of the Nation of Argentina.

But there are two distinct differences between the two death-shows. In the case of Evita, the misery was led by the sad and confused denizens of Buenos Aires. All commerce, recreation, and activities of government ceased immediately upon news of her death. In the days following her passing, over three million people paid their respects at or near her body, although many could only get as close as ten city blocks. Millions more visited her body once it was embalmed and displayed at the headquarters of her political party. Her tomb is, even today, one of the country’s most visited cultural attractions. As Che Guevara sings in the musical, Argentina became famous around the world, not because of the First Lady’s death, but because a bemused press corps had never seen such a palaver or gratuitous, yet real, grief. Not so for Chan and Sukumaran, about whose fate the Australian public is largely nonplussed. In this case, the circus is a creation of the Australian media and the Australian Parliament.

Of course, the most obvious difference is that the Argentines had the decency, propriety, and good sense to wait until Mrs Perón had breathed her last. The unseemly circus surrounding the so-called Bali Nine Duo (was there ever a more stupid collective noun used to sell TV exclusives?) will basically be over by the time the bullets enter their bodies. Australian papers and current affairs shows have fallen over themselves ‘to get all of the misery right,’ pre-mortem. They have got the photos of family members right (the favourites were, evidently, the understandably dazed-looking elderly parents, pushing luggage trolleys at Sydney or Denpasar airports). They have got the exclusive interviews right, not only with family and friends, but with narcissistic ‘officials familiar with the execution process’ and ‘court officials familiar with the case.’ But most of all, the media is falling over themselves to get all of the timelines right. There was no end of these things!


The Australian’s efforts have, to date, probably been the most impressive. Not only do they start live-blogging days before each suggestion that execution is imminent, but their timeline was easily the most snazzy! It featured everything from the lads’ arrest at Denpasar Airport (which elsewhere it poignantly juxtaposed with their final flight from the same airport) to ‘Final Moments’ which at one stage was 1 January to 31 December 2015. I took this to be a nod to the number of ‘last moments’ and ‘final countdown’ stories the Oz’s readership has already been subjected to, and a promise of more to come! In between there are clickable links to stories with names like ‘appeal’, ‘rejection’, and (in Chan’s case) ‘the Godfather’. The timeline is accompanied by the requisite graphics providing macabre details such as a map of the route the armoured vehicles transporting the pair will take. Say what you want, but the papers have got all of the misery right. The media’s funereal liturgy would put even a Peronist Requiem Mass to shame.

However, it is in the parliament where the real South American howling and wailing is taking place. Photos of foreign minister Julie Bishop and the opposition’s Tanya Plibersek earnestly discussing the case on the floor of the House of Reps have became favourite fare for press gallery photographers. But my favourite remains photos of the candle-lit vigil held by MPs outside Parliament House, with Tony and Bill standing side-by-side and eyeing each other off with more-opposed-to-the-death-penalty-than-thou suspicion.

Surprisingly, despite all the slimy bi-partisanship, the parliamentary enthusiasm for saving Chan and Sukumaran doesn’t seem to have taken hold in the community. Some MPs are now reporting complaints from constituents about the government’s seemingly obsessive response to the Duo’s predicament. Talk of prisoner swaps – with the Israel-Hamas imagery it evokes – seems crazy to most Aussies, while the prospect of Australian tax-payers funding life imprisonment sounds frivolous in a time of budgetary emergencies. And while no one doubts the good intentions of Bishop and Plibersek, nor the obvious and remarkable (and unique) rehabilitation of Chan and Sukumaran, there seems little support for continuing what is assumed to be a losing fight; the numerous and continuing delays in execution should not be understood as hope of reprieve, or as possible reservations by Indonesia about killing prisoners. Of course, most Aussies abhor the death penalty, but few are inclined to think that our government’s pontificating to other countries on the subject is appropriate. In fact, the circumstances of this conviction probably lend more support to the legitimacy of the sentence – this is not the case of a poor, mentally handicapped, black man in Texas, where the prosecuting attorney also happens to be running for governor, and where the DNA evidence is slightly dodgy; the Bali Nine were caught and filmed with massive amounts of drugs strapped to their bodies.

And yet, here we are, engaged in an expensive human rights battle with an opponent that doesn’t care if it loses. It’s all part of a macabre pre-execution circus that Australia is tired of, and that would make despotic South American regimes blush. Che continues:

It’s quite a sunset, And good for the country in a roundabout way, We’ve made the front page of all the world’s papers today.

Again, similarities and differences. Australia’s media and political hysteria is making international news, in Jakarta if nowhere else, but good for the country? Not even in a roundabout way.

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