Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2018

The Pastor and the Painter (2018), by Cindy Wockner

This book was written by the Newscorp journalist who covered the story of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the drug traffickers who were executed in Indonesia in 2015.  It’s not the kind of book I’d usually read but I bought it because my local bookseller at Beaumaris books is holding an event featuring its author to coincide with World Day against the Death Penalty, a cause I have supported ever since Ronald Ryan was hanged in 1967 when I was a teenager.

Cindy Wockner developed a friendly relationship with Chan and Sukumaran and the book was written to fulfil a promise to continue the fight against the death penalty and not wait until the next Australian is on death row overseas and about to be killed.

Everyone in Australia knows the story of these two men.  They were the ringleaders of the Bali Nine, the ones who coordinated the exchange of drugs from a Thai importer to the ‘mules’ who were to carry the drugs, strapped to their bodies, from Bali into Australia.  All of them received very heavy penalties by Australian standards, some of them subjected to the death penalty which was since rescinded, except in the case of Chan and Sukumaran.  Australia (still!) has no prisoner exchange agreement with Indonesia so the remaining seven will remain in gaol over there for a long time yet to come.

The book, though a bit repetitive, makes a solid workmanlike case for the exceptional circumstances that apply to Chan and Sukumaran.  There seem to have been irregularities in the court process and the evidence, and there’s the possibility that the Indonesian Presidential elections influenced President Widodo’s refusal of clemency.  Also possibly relevant is Australia’s poor relationship with Indonesia and then Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ham-fisted hints of retaliation if the executions went ahead.  There was also a stupid intervention from an Australian radio station which claimed that Australians supported the death penalty, and the media circus that surrounded the entire proceedings probably only cemented anti-Australian sentiment in Indonesia.  A great deal of the book focusses on the rehabilitation of the two men, both of whom made a remarkable transformation during the years of their imprisonment awaiting execution.  (Chan became an ordained pastor and Sukumaran became a painter (hence the title of the book) but they also initiated rehabilitation and education programs in the prison and were active fundraisers for fellow prisoners in need).

But this exceptionalism cut no ice in Indonesia.  Nothing was going to sway public opinion there, and the President had been elected on a promise to clean up the drug industry, and Indonesia had surely noticed that Australia’s inconsistent position on the death penalty.  Australia had not asked for clemency for the Bali Bombers who were executed in 2008.

And therein lies the problem, which is not emphasised enough in the book.  If Australians believe that everyone deserves a second chance and that the outpouring of support for Chan and Sukumaran is evidence that the court of public opinion thinks that the death penalty is abhorrent, then our position should be clear and unambiguous, not just limited to spasmodic emotional appeals for those of our own nationality and not just for lesser crimes or for people who have shown remorse and rehabilitated themselves.  Wockner does not emphasise enough what needs to be said: that Australia should campaign actively against the death penalty around the world.  This means confronting our ally the United States, and our trading partners, China and the Middle East, and our neighbours in Southeast Asia including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, not to mention what’s going on in the Philippines under Duterte where extra-judicial killings bypass the their Senate’s refusal to reinstate the death penalty.

What Wockner does well is to capture the desperation of the situation and the horror of capital punishment for everyone involved.  She shows that it was not just horrific for the innocent families of the two men and for their friends, but also for everyone else involved.  It impacted on the lawyers, both defence and prosecution; on the prison guards who had come to like and admire the men; on their fellow prisoners; and on the anonymous members of the firing squad, specially selected to ensure that they had the fortitude to endure what they had to do.  There is also extensive coverage of the heroic spiritual advisers who were with the men throughout the last days of their ordeal, and had to be present at the hour of their death.

I was pleased to see that the author did not intrude on the grief of the families in the aftermath.

The book concludes with contact details for anyone who wants to help in the campaign against the death penalty:

  • Amnesty International who began campaigning 40 years ago and have seen the number of countries who have abolished the death penalty rise from 16 to 104
  • Reprieve Australia whose president is Julian McMahon AO who represented Chan and Sukumaran and also Van Truong Nguyen who was executed in Singapore in 2005, as well as numerous other cases around the world.

PS You can also listen to ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program featuring this book.

Author: Cindy Wockner
Title: The Pastor and the Painter
Publisher: Hachette, 2018, 311pp
ISBN: 9780733636943
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Beaumaris Books
Available from Fishpond: The Pastor and the Painter


  1. Our governments are too ready to accept punishments imposed by other countries when they can’t be imposed here. Illegal ‘rendition’ of ‘terror’ suspects springs to mind. These two were popular so we protested. We behave so condescendingly to Indonesia that our protests probably caused their deaths.


  2. […] Julian McMahon AO who represented Chan and Sukumaran and also Van Truong Nguyen (see my review of The Pastor and the Painter) who was executed in Singapore in 2005, as well as numerous other cases around the […]


  3. […] Myuran Sukumaran, the drug traffickers who were executed in Indonesia in 2015, and I reviewed it here.  Also present was Christie Buckingham, pastor at the local Bayside Church, who ministered to […]


  4. […] The Pastor and the Painter, by Cindy Wockner […]


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