Legal eagle

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 born in the year Robert Menzies came to power. I used to think governments were an uninteresting, benign, unnecessary feature of existence and it was only in 1998 that I began to wake up and realise that things were actually a disaster.’

So does the man who uncovers the problems harbour the solution?

At a packed suburban church at one of Burnside’s more recent addresses, an Iranian asylum seeker asked ‘When did Australia get such a cold heart?’ It was a question on the minds of everybody present.
Burnside offered the response of a growing culture of xenophobia that has developed in Australia since the rise of Pauline Hanson in 1996. He believes that this has ‘hardened’ Australians.
‘Pauline Hanson set a kite flying which Howard then exploited. This set a tone in the top levels of government’.

However, he believes that ignorance is no longer an excuse. He contrasts the present experiences of asylum seekers with the experiences of those Indigenous people from the stolen generation.

‘[At the time of] the stolen generation, the majority of Australians had no idea about what was going on and so they can’t be blamed for the misguided social theories. But now most Australians, unless they live under a rock know what we’re doing. They know that people kill themselves in detention centres. They know that we are putting innocent people on Nauru and locking them up until they go mad.’ But Burnside realises the criticisms from political opponents will discredit those who advocate for open borders.

‘When a person comes to Australia to seek asylum and they come without papers, it is legitimate to detain them initially for perhaps three or four weeks for the purposes of security and health checks. After that, they should be released into the community on some kind of interim visa with reporting arrangements.’

‘They should receive full Centrelink benefits and be permitted to work. That then would … satisfy basic humanitarian requirements that any civilised country should recognise. Let’s not play into the hands of the opposition by advocating for open borders.’

Burnside believes that there is hope for Australia yet.

‘I think the High Court will have children out of detention by mid-year. As awareness of the refugee crisis grows, I think in time there will be more and more legal assistance for these people. Australia is an immensely privileged country and I do believe we will get there.’

A passionate patron of the arts, Burnside is also partial to tea, biscuits and a good old yarn. He is a classic crowd pleaser, insisting people call him Julian because ‘“Mr Burnside” makes me feel old’.

Despite his many pursuits, Julian Burnside has committed himself to the fight for human rights for the rest of his career. Determination and charisma are essential qualities for the crusader, especially when they feel they are fighting a losing battle.

The website of Julian Burnside QC is at  

Kate Stowell is studying journalism at RMIT.



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