Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Legal eagle

  • 22 May 2006

A veteran of the public-speaking circuit, Julian Burnside QC spends four nights a week addressing community groups about the Federal government’s policy on refugees.

‘Let us be absolutely clear about this: Australia treats asylum seekers abominably—we imprison them indefinitely, we torment them, we are willing to return them to torture or death’, said Burnside recently.

The seasoned QC has impressive qualifications. Burnside completed a Bachelor of Economics and a Bachelor of Laws at Monash University. He became a barrister in 1976 before taking silk in 1989. Burnside defended Alan Bond and interrogated John Laws and Alan Jones as counsel assisting the Australian Broadcasting Authority’s ‘cash-for-comment’ inquiry.

These credentials are simply a prelude to his pet cause; the rights of asylum seekers in Australia’s detention centres. Burnside’s name has become synonymous with refugee advocacy and the denunciation of government ministers and journalists.

‘A careful analysis of the Australian criminal code [Section 268.12] suggests that Mr Ruddock and Mr Howard are guilty of crimes against humanity by virtue of their imprisonment of asylum seekers … I think our Federal government has lost touch with basic human decency. They have simply lost their moral bearings altogether.’

Burnside accuses the Australian media of refusing to report the government’s ‘escalating atrocities’. But he knows that his antagonising of the Howard government makes him the kind of fodder conservative shock-jocks and tabloid media either rip to shreds or ignore altogether.

Burnside laments that the mainstream media largely ignores his cause. He has also become infamous for criticising those whom he considers to be journalistic underachievers, and consciously praises those reporters who share his political leanings.

‘The media have been appalling on the asylum seeker issue. The misreporting and under-reporting has been shameful. The exceptions to this are journalists like David Marr (host of ABC’s Mediawatch), Marian Wilkinson and Margot Kingston’, says Burnside.

But Burnside is not worried that his overtly left tendencies will leave him subject to criticism.

‘I can see the risk of being described as a bleeding heart leftie. But I’d rather be a bleeding heart than a stone heart’, says Burnside with a wry smile.

Burnside demonstrates a certain considered flexibility in his political views. He openly admits that his current anti-conservative philosophy is not one that he has always subscribed to.

‘In the 1996 election, I voted for John Howard and before then, I had voted Liberal my entire life. I grew up in a Liberal household. I was