Australian Politics

Twirling towards freedom

A letter from Ubud
Reflecting on the failures of Australian politics and media

As the afternoon light fell away before a red moon rose over Ubud, Bali, last week, local school children conscientiously cleaned their textbooks in celebration of Saraswati, the Balinese Hindu goddess of learning. At their homes, their parents will have done the same to all of the family’s books. In Balinese art, Saraswati is depicted as a beautiful, four-armed lady standing atop a giant lotus. For companions, she has a white swan, symbolising wisdom, and a peacock for beauty. In her four hands, she carries a manuscript, a lute, a lotus and prayer beads to symbolise the arts, education and science. I’m in Bali along with four other Australian and four Indonesian writers for a week-long residency, and as we discuss the news headlines from our respective countries over breakfast each day, the celebration of wisdom and knowledge has struck us as an increasingly quaint idea.

Over our first shared meal, we attempted to summarise the political climates of our countries to each other.

“Joko Widodo is one of the people,” the Indonesian writers said of their newly elected president. “There is a lot of hope. Prabowo Subianto’s party bought a lot of votes, and there’s been a lot of corruption.”

“We call Tony Abbott the Mad Monk,” the Australian writers explained. “He’s hyper-conservative, and the burqa and niqab might have just been banned from parliament – women wearing hijabs may have to sit in the glassed-off areas they put schoolkids in.” And what about the other political parties?

We shrugged. “They’re almost the same.”

We’ve struggled to explain the sudden, rampant fear of terrorism that has been stoked by the Australian press. After the closing-night ceremony of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, I caught a lift back to my hotel with two local teenagers. After I hopped into their minivan, I realised they were both drunk, and that one was giving the other a driving lesson. “We’ve had some small drinks,” they explained, as they careened down the dark, mercifully empty road. The car swept up the drive to my hotel, its headlights revealing a security guard fast asleep at his post. Rubbing his eyes furiously, blinking in the light, he stumbled out of the guardhouse and neglected to pass the bomb detector over and under the car.

My boyfriend and I imagined his brief exchange with the driver: “Are you terrorists?”

“No, just drunk teenagers.”

“In you come, then.”

The security gate swung open.  

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was started 12 years ago to heal relations between Australia and Indonesia in the wake of the Bali bombings. Here, despite the very real reminders of the threat of terrorism, people seem happy and comfortable. It’s hard to articulate why, back home in Australia, we need to be afraid of bins in train stations.

As any group of writers tends to do, we’ve been lamenting the future of the industry. The journalists in the group, myself included, have spoken about the dangerous effects that Australia’s new privacy and security laws will have on our craft and the freedom of the press. The morning that the Courier Mail’s headline ‘Monster Chef and the She Male’ ran, we didn’t feel that we had much left to defend. Yes, we said, that paper really is the most significant source of news for one of our largest cities and states. That same morning, the Jakarta Globe published the news, without a single mention of Mayang Prasetyo’s line of work or gender. For the first time, I found myself apologising for my country, as well as my profession.

As the week has passed, the hotel’s internet connection has sputtered out and failed, and we’ve been left with less news to report. The consensus among the group is that this isn’t such a bad thing. We’re here to write, after all, and now we’re free to do so in a perfectly isolated tropical bubble. In the real world, the news will no doubt continue to be distorted and spun, fear will continue to be invented and propogated, but we’ll all just have to read about it next week.

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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