Indonesia elections 2014: impersonating Prabowo

With the Indonesia Presidential elections coming up soon, I was asked to participate in an election preview and given the task of delivering a campaign speech as Prabowo Subianto, a former military commander who has been accused of some horrific human rights abuses. Continue reading

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The identity crisis we had to have

There is a fundamental disconnect between how many Australians perceive our country on the world stage, and the reality of our regional relations, writes Alison Martin. (Article originally published on SBS News.)

Less than three months into the top job, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has taken his first bumbling steps into international diplomacy and, through a mixture of inexperience and arrogance, has inadvertently shone a light on an awkward truth we need to face: Australia isn’t as important as we think it is. There is a fundamental disconnect between the way many Australians – including our leaders – perceive Australia and its international relationships, and the reality of our status in the region and more broadly.

Abbott’s inability to proffer the apologies recently demanded by both Indonesia and China is borne of the same misplaced ego as that of the school bully. Similarly, it reveals the stark reality of Australia’s insecurity about its place in the region and the world. Abbott’s new, unpractised government has unwittingly steered Australia into the identity crisis we had to have.

With its preoccupation with boats and a tendency to frame foreign policy for the approval of a domestic audience, Abbott’s new government has clearly failed to come to grips with Australia’s diminished importance in relation to Indonesia, or for that matter, China. For a country that has been spying on its neighbours for years, Australia hasn’t done a great job of understanding the changing power dynamics in the region.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa have now sent the message loud and clear – no phone tapping required this time – that Indonesia will not be bullied by Australia any longer. The swift escalation of the phone tapping crisis was due in part to Abbott’s inability to appropriately respond to this clear message, as a result of his utter miscalculation of Australia’s power and influence in the region and the world.

Australia would do well to learn some hard lessons if it is to prevent further long term damage to the relationship.

“They’ve run headlong into the brutal reality that the distribution of power in Asia has shifted,” ANU Professor Hugh White said of the deterioration of relations between Australia and key regional powers. “They are dealing with both an Indonesia and a China that are stronger than they understood.”

It has been almost 20 years since Keating declared: “No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia.” In the intervening years Indonesia has undergone a dramatic transformation in economic prosperity and democratic stabilisation, with Australia acknowledging its progress both officially and rhetorically.

Yet Australia’s dealings with Indonesia maintain an undercurrent of colonialism – witness for example the expectations around cooperation on people smuggling, or the fact that Australia felt justified in spying on the Indonesian President and his inner circle despite having signed the Lombok Treaty of 2006, which was supposed to ensure a framework for security cooperation between the two countries.

The Prime Minister’s unapologetic response and suggestions by some commentators that we should be neither surprised nor outraged reveal more of the colonialist gaze with which Australia views its neighbours.

It is incorrect to characterise the hacking of the personal phones of the President, his wife and inner circle as appropriate intelligence gathering, as Abbott’s statement to Parliament attempted to do.

The personal nature of the spying revelations exposed the underlying problem at the core of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia: that in spite of years of diplomacy and goodwill building, there remains a sense of mistrust and suspicion (undoubtedly exacerbated by these latest revelations). Such encroachment on the privacy of individuals under no stated suspicion in a friendly country clearly oversteps the boundaries of acceptable neighbourly behaviour. The failure to apologise lays bare the bully persona Australia has assumed in the region.

Attempts to obfuscate the issue by limply suggesting possible links to terrorism are reckless and damaging, leveraging the speculative suspicion and unease that is so often used to justify surveillance overreach. The phone tapping also disregards Australia’s official acknowledgment of Indonesia’s sovereignty, both through the Lombok Treaty with Indonesia and the Amity and Cooperation Treaty with ASEAN countries.

Most of all, the latest incident betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the shifted power dynamics between Australia and Indonesia, and indeed Australia’s diminishing significance in the region. Indonesia’s prompt, assertive response is revealing: clearly it is aware of its own expanding importance and influence, and is willing to exert them when necessary. Indonesia is now also aware that in matters of spying, as one of the “five eyes,” Australia is the running dog of the US – so anything Canberra learns, Washington will soon know too.

Similarly, the swift response by China to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s recent criticism exemplified the difficulty of Australia’s position in the region: we cannot be the US government’s Deputy Sheriff in the region whilst also expecting relationships with our nearer neighbours to flourish. By weighing in on the matter of Beijing’s imposition of an air-defence zone over the East China Sea, Bishop tacitly fell into line behind Washington, which has publicly stated it would militarily support Japan in a territorial dispute.

The latest diplomatic crisis seems to have quietened but what it has revealed about Australia’s misplaced sense of importance in the region is an important lesson for Australia’s new government. And if we are to be Washington’s eyes and ears in the region, then we cannot also be Indonesia’s trusted ally, or for that matter Japan’s best friend.

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Indonesia: the economy is strong, the future is young

Half of Indonesia’s population is under the age of 30 and its economy is projected to be twice that of Australia by mid-century. This is the generation which will shape the future of Australia’s relationship with its nearest neighbour. So why can’t Australia make it work? (This article was originally published on Continue reading

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Abbott’s soundbite diplomacy with Indonesia

‘More Jakarta and less Geneva.’ It sounds catchy, but what does it actually mean? Alison Martin on how the Coalition’s favourite stereotypes are the biggest barrier to Indonesia-Australia relations. (This article was originally published on New Matilda.) Continue reading

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Who will put the roof back over NSW?

A new report has revealed the dire state of social housing in NSW but the O’Farrell Government is still making punitive policies. Alison Martin on the human cost of decades of neglect. (Article originally published on New Matilda.) Continue reading

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The wicked genius of offshore processing: out of sight, out of mind and out of reach of empathy.

Somewhere at this very moment, in the dimmed corridors of Parliament house in Canberra, Cabinet is discussing the fate of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat.

For those who’ve come across the seas*

Considering the comparatively tiny number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, they sure do cause a lot of knicker-twisting in Canberra!

Perhaps it’s because they represent a great and complex global challenge.

The issue of people fleeing persecution and seeking refuge is a tricky one. It can quickly grow beyond what we can hold within our realm of understanding. It’s an ungainly beast of many parts, many inconsistencies and variables: so many people, so far away, so many problems. How on earth can we fix this mess?

The natural response is to shun engagement with the issue altogether: this is too difficult, it is impossible, it will always be this way. And why is it our problem anyway?

But there are parts of this beast that are within our capacity to change.

What if we were to apply empathy and imagination?

We are capable of great depths of compassion and generosity – as human beings, as Australians.

What if we were to approach the issue from another direction? To deal with it in manageable chunks? What if we were to look at the specific parts of this monumental challenge over which we can have control?

We need to begin somewhere. We can start by breaking this enormous and overwhelming challenge into manageable parts and addressing these parts one by one.

Stranger danger!

The thing about strangers is this: we don’t really give a shit about them.

Also, they’re a bit scary. And weird. Oh, and their food smells funny.

Remember a couple of months ago when everyone was talking about the SBS doco Go Back to Where you Came From? It was all anyone could tweet about. The show had us all aflutter with indignation and hope in equal parts.

“I just don’t like black people” said Raquel from Western Sydney.

Raquel was defiant in her sense of entitlement and she wore her self-professed racism like a badge of which she needn’t be ashamed.  She declared that she came from a long line of racists: “my grandfather was a racist…”

“I don’t like asylum seekers and refugees, I think they should stay where they belong.”

The show enlightened its participants but equally importantly it shone glaring fluorescence into the darkest corners of our nation’s fear of strangers.

“When the boat crashed coming into Christmas Island, I thought: serves you bastards right,” said Raye from Queensland.

WHOAH! Breathtaking, right?

The participants retraced the incredible journeys of many asylum seekers – a process which triggered predictable transformations in their viewpoints. Hard-wired beliefs were challenged simply by the recognition of humanity in people who were previously strangers. That’s the miracle of empathy: getting to know someone and understand what motivates them allows us to feel their suffering and in turn triggers a natural human response – to help. By the end of their journeys the participants on the documentary wanted to help because they has seen the suffering of asylum seekers and it had echoed within them, triggering the basic human response of compassion.

If my family was in danger, what would I do? If I lost a baby because civil war prevented me from accessing medical care, how would I feel?

“The big problem of this world is to educate the system to touch hearts. If I touch your heart, immediately you are able to understand me,” said Masudi, a refugee in Kakuma Refugee Camp, north-west Kenya.

It is simply human nature to protect people we know and care about above those we don’t know (or worse, those of whom we are frightened, or those by whom we are threatened).

When we can recognise shared humanity in other human beings we can begin to understand what motivates them.

Empathy, miracles and educating the system to touch hearts

Empathy can unlock incredible depths of human understanding and compassion. And this is perhaps the greatest flaw (or most wicked genius) of our government’s continued bumbling string of policies relating to asylum seekers.

If these policies didn’t have such awful ramifications for so many human beings, Australia’s strategies for dealing with asylum seekers would be absolutely hilarious.

“Let’s not process them in Australia, let’s spend millions of dollars sending them to other countries where other people can deal with it!”

“Let’s create a legal fiction which allows us to disown certain parts of Australian waters so we can pretend that alleviates us of our international humanitarian responsibilities!”

Offshore processing allows the government to pursue its strategy of dehumanising asylum seekers.

If we can’t see them, if we can’t hear their voices or have conversations with them about their stories, then we will never have the opportunity to engage the most basic and instinctive of human reactions to suffering: compassion.

Yeah, remember compassion? It’s been a while. We’re pretty good at it when it come to other Australians though.

Fleeing danger! Seeking safety! Yep, it really IS that simple

Seeking asylum is a pretty simple concept. It isn’t about queue jumping. It’s not about terrorism, or imposing culture, or stealing jobs, or having better opportunities to make more money. Seeking asylum isn’t even about a quest for a better life (although a better life is a happy by-product).

Seeking asylum is about following the simplest human instinct, common to us all: it is about fleeing danger (or persecution, as it’s termed under international law).

It is important not to conflate the concept of asylum seeking with other forms of global movement such as migration. Migrants might choose to come to Australia because we have a wonderful lifestyle and many great opportunities. But asylum seekers do not “choose” Australia. In fact, they have no choice to make, so they simply seek safety. They seek a life without danger, for themselves and their children.

While many Australians might be scared of dangers they imagine to be attached to these strangers, the vast majority of asylum seekers simply want to escape genuine persecution.

Ahhhhh! But the problem is SO BIG!

It’s easy to look at the huge numbers of displaced people and the many complicated problems that contribute to irregular global movements of people and to feel overwhelmed and helpless. But that’s no excuse for inaction. And it’s certainly no excuse for fear mongering.

Our government must be made accountable for our international humanitarian obligations with regard to asylum seekers.

Interestingly, Australia was once a leader in this area. In fact, we even helped draft the Refugee Convention. (I know, right?! Hard to imagine.)

Yet recent history has seen us performing legal acrobatics to avoid not only the international obligations to which we have committed, but also basic standards of humanity.

Sure, it’s a complicated issue. But we can take this huge challenge with all these moveable, unwieldy parts and we can begin by locking down just one section of it. We can start with this one section – contemplate its contents and examine our own capabilities. We can engage our compassion, our creativity, our innovation and resources, and we can use these to create solutions.

We can begin by processing asylum seekers in Australia

It’s what most Australians want and since our leaders refuse to lead us with compassion, humanity and vision, it’s time we start leading them.

We can end mandatory detention

We all know about the horrifying effects of the government’s mandatory detention policy – a policy which persists, and which shames us all. Mandatory, indefinite detention throws already traumatised and vulnerable people into an excruciating limbo – with often tragic consequences.

There are genuinely effective alternatives to mandatory detention. We can build on the successes and learnings of existing community programs and we can work to expand their capacity.

Upon these beginnings we can build further progress

We can start looking at our humanitarian program and how we can better facilitate the inevitable global movement of people that occurs as part of the reality of our world.  Australia can take a leadership role in the region, rather than scurrying around and unearthing ever more ridiculous legal gymnastics to evade responsibility.

With these beginnings, we can assemble cumulative building blocks toward a broad and sustaining justice – a justice that can define this government.

There is little point in making Australians feel guilty for an appalling recent history of asylum seeker policy. Instead we should focus on looking forward and creating genuine mechanisms to address the challenges of global movement.

We simply need to remember what it is to be human and to have the capacity for compassion.

It is not good enough to say this problem is too big and too complex. We are each individually and collectively capable of so much more. We simply need to get started.


*What do you think the chances are that somewhere at this very moment, Julia Gillard is saying: “oh, to hell with it, we have boundless plains to share!” Yeah, pretty slim.

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The Censors In Fiji’s Newsrooms

A genuine democracy won’t take root in Fiji without media freedom. Before it considers engagement with the Bainimarama regime, Australia should insist on a free press, writes Alison Martin. (Article originally published on New Matilda.) Continue reading

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Kissing the underside of the clouds, then telling other people they can’t go there.

Marriage is perhaps the greatest leap of faith one human can make with another. To choose one person to love, every day, ever after, until your heart rests in your chest.

Even to a failed woman, such a leap of faith is the stuff of miracles and inspiration. To contemplate the rest of your time on this earth and to choose to share all those moments with someone else! How exhilarating that must feel. It’s like pondering all the space in the universe and realising you’ve found perfection in the atmosphere right where you are. WOW.

Perhaps it is because I am a failed woman that I am bewildered by the fact that there are some people who seek to prevent others from committing to such a monumental act of faith. It is unfathomable.

Sure, I haven’t taken that leap. But there have been times when I’ve felt so blissful that I could have leapt up and kissed the underside of the clouds. So I know how exhilaration feels. Imagine coming down from such a place and telling others that they’re not allowed to go there. It’s hard to understand how anyone could do such a thing. To me, it’s irredeemably unjust and selfish. The fact that some people want to take that incredible, inspiring leap of faith but are being prevented from doing so is at once confounding and unacceptable.

I’m not going to bother re-canvassing the extreme oddness of the claim that some relationships are marriage-worthy and others are not. I’ve tried to understand the arguments but I still have trouble connecting with the contention that just because something once was a certain way, it was meant to be that way forever.

Last week New York legalised gay marriage, which is truly inspiring and wonderful.

I think empathy goes a long way. Perhaps if more people contemplated the exhilaration of marriage, they wouldn’t want to deny it to anyone else – no matter who they chose to hitch their wagon to. It seems naff to talk about equal rights when really it just comes down to this: any two people who are brave enough to take the greatest leap of faith together should be allowed to link arms and do so with the support of the community in which they live. Those who argue against gay marriage seek to tear apart that which we should be reinforcing with the strongest thread we can gather. Relationships between human beings need all the help they can get. I say if people are trying to kiss the underside of the clouds, we should all be hoisting them up on our shoulders to get them there.

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Disappointing Disney

I am a failed woman. It is becoming increasingly clear and quite impossible to camouflage. I just don’t want the things that this world thinks I should aspire to.

Let me explain. There’s a certain age – which begins generally around the late 20s – at which there’s an expectation (though not universal) that we will at least want some incarnation of the fairytales on which we were raised. Of course this ‘wanting’ is one of those two-edged swords, whereby we are expected to want these things, but we are pilloried if we show that we want them too much (desperate woman!) Of course even if you’re accused of wanting them too much, at least you’re striving for something that fits within the contours of generally acceptable behaviour. At least you are not colluding to upset the very balance of the world. Because if you have difficulty mustering up any urge to find a forever-partner, set up camp and begin procreating (even in the abstract sense) then you must be treated with caution. What is it that you’re up to, then? What on earth can motivate you?

It is perhaps the same way in which people of faith regard those without it – with extreme bewilderment. As in: what drives you then? Who are you answering to?

All this, coming from a girl whose nickname in some martial arts circles is that of perhaps the most famous fairytale princess of them all. Some of my best friends still introduce me as Cinderella before catching themselves and realising that it sounds – at the very least – quite odd.

I guess that’s why the fairytale-makers always gave their princesses such great shoes and castles. To give us failed women something to wish for that doesn’t involve a man and ‘happily ever after’. (PS do they have mortgages and divorce in fairytale land?)

"So when you say 'every after' do you mean, like, forever? ... oh! ummm... well anyway, it's midnight soon so better be getting back to my carriage..."

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Cinderella’s Fool-Proof Recipe for Joy – just 10 simple steps to a sky filled with ribbons!

Feeling a bit blue? Slightly soggy at the edges? My fairytale alter-ego has developed a Fool-Proof Recipe for Joy which should clear that Sadness right up. And don’t worry if you’re not a confident cook – I’ve been known to set off fire alarms* and when I say Fool-Proof, I mean it. All you need to do is follow these simple steps:

1. Get out of bed. (It’s hard to cook up a fresh batch of Joy if you’re paralysed under a doona of heavy grey clouds).

2. Think about your favourite form of exercise and quickly go and do it. Try not to get too caught up trying to find the right sports bra or a matching pair of socks. Your boobs won’t mind a little extra bounce and it’s important to get those endorphins flowing as quickly as possible. If you can’t think of your favourite form of exercise, go for a long walk and look at the sky. If it’s raining, make sure you’re not wearing pretty shoes. (And yes, that means you should go even if it’s raining. Stop being a pussy.)

3. Now have a really good think about which of your friends has ears most shaped like seashells. Find this friend (or family member) and fill her seashell ears with stories about your Sadness. Explain the lifespan of your Sadness, as best you can remember it. Ask your treasured friend if you can borrow some love – she will certainly have it to spare because love multiplies when given. Take your treasured friend’s love and put it together with whatever love you can find of your own, then incubate it all in a warm environment. (If you live somewhere cold like Scandinavia or the South Pole or Tasmania in the Winter, you can always put Love in the oven – or if you’re in a real hurry, pop it in a microwave-proof bowl and microwave on high for 5 minutes, stirring once). When the Love is cooked, consume it hungrily, preferably over a glass of good red wine and a funny conversation with your treasured friend.

4. Ok, so now have another good think about all your friends, family members and even acquaintances – which of them has the most adorable animal? Animals, and particularly the baby versions, have been carefully engineered by Mother Nature to make your heart swell with joy. The thing about animals is that they are palpably jubilant at the sight of you. And it’s a wonderful thing to elicit such elation. Buy a box of chocolates (for your friend) and treats (for the animal) and spend the afternoon having a good cuddle and a play. (Remember to cuddle your friend too! Friends are just wonderful for cuddling.) When cuddling, don’t squeeze so hard that the animal (or your friend) yelps.

5. Find a child young enough to still believe, and have a long conversation with him or her about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. Between the two of you, see if you can get to the bottom of some fantastical mystery, like why doesn’t the Easter Bunny ever grow into a rabbit? And why are teeth worth money to the Tooth Fairy – is she on-selling them to someone else, or perhaps building an enormous mouth made up of all the teeth of all the children all over the world? And what happens if Santa Claus gets Man Flu on Christmas Eve and Mrs Claus says he has to stay in bed instead of driving the sleigh across the night sky delivering presents?


6. If you know someone with a baby, lucky you! See if you can arrange a visit and a cuddle – hold the baby very, very carefully, lean in close and take the deepest breath you can gather into your lungs.

7. Go outside without any sort of communication device. Find a place with as little motorised transport noise as possible. Take off your shoes, open your ears and try to shape them into seashells, good for listening. Hang out for a while. Open your arms and let love pour in. Don’t worry about holding onto it, there’s an endless supply and if you hold it too tight you’ll smother it out!

8. Go to a cafe you’ve never been to before, preferably one in a bookshop or an art gallery, where you’ll be surrounded by tangible reminders of the beauty of human creations. Order something with lots of calories in it and eat it as slowly as possible. And, obviously, have a cup of tea too. In fact, you can add tea at any point in this recipe and it will only make the result more delicious. (Red wine also works but tea is preferable – and also suitable for alcoholics and those who are hungry for joy but haven’t yet reached legal drinking age).

9. Ok, your Joy should be well and truly cooking by now. It’s very important that this step is not to be attempted until you’ve completed all the other preparation (it is quite an advanced step and requires that all the others have been completed to ensure you’re ready). Now, make two cups of tea: one for yourself and one for your Sadness. Sit on the couch with your Sadness, hold it in your hands, turn it over and get to know its edges. Find out where your sadness was born and as much as you can about where it grew up. Then, ask it to stay for dinner and feed it a good carby meal laced with love, understanding and acceptance. By the time you get to dessert you should be noticing a distinct change in your sadness. Call a cab and be sure to give your Sadness a good long cuddle as you say goodbye. Shut the door firmly when it leaves, but accept that it will be back again, one day, and you may need to make it another cup of tea and reacquaint yourself with its edges. (But at least you’re past that awkward ‘getting to know you’ stage.)

10. Now, turn back to the kitchen because you should be smelling the delicious baked goodness of a fresh batch of Joy, which is now ready for you to enjoy. So open the oven and let it out! You’ll be tempted to grasp it firmly in your fists but it’s best to unfurl your fingers, open the windows and let it ribbon up into the sky, leaping and twirling high above you, where it will remain, wherever you are in the world.  Feel that Joy? Go and look in the mirror and notice the way it shines out of your cheeks. We can see it too! Joy is very sexy. You should totally go out into the world and show people your new Joy Face. And it’s catching! (In a good way.) Your Joy Face is very kissable, so this is a great time for first dates and social occasions. And whenever you’re feeling a little hungry for Joy, remember to tilt your head and enjoy the look of the ribbons against the sky.


*I have set off more than one fire alarm whilst cooking – most memorably, when half asleep and lighting an industrial-sized grill in preparation for my job cooking full English breakfasts for posh people on holidays in the Cotswalds in England (yes! Strangely, I was entrusted with this task). I’m not sure what happened, but there was a candle involved, and some sort of clumsy attempt that ended in the hotel being evacuated. At 5:30am. Cue bleary-eyed posh guests in dressing gowns on cobblestones. And me, sheepish, bewildered, apologetic and SO Australian. It was a particularly proud moment. I also recently set off a fire alarm with nothing but the shower steam. Yes, I am THAT person.

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