Julian Burnside: “I worry where our democracy is going”

Nick Dent
Written by
Nick Dent
Associate Publisher, Time Out Australia

Human Rights Arts and Film Festival kicks off at five cinemas across Melbourne on May 3. On May 12, the festival is screening the world premiere of Judy Rymer’s Border Politics, wherein human rights lawyer Julian Burnside AO QC travels the globe to compare how different nations are responding to the refugee crisis.

Burnside, 68, is a Melbourne-based commercial litigation barrister who became involved in human rights causes after 2001 when he was asked to act pro bono in the Tampa case. A refugee advocate and fierce critic of the Australian government’s border protection policies, Burnside recently brought an application to Federal court to allow a suicidal ten-year-old child on Nauru come to Australia for psychiatric treatment. The application was successful, the judge ruling in defiance of the government.

In the film, Burnside says: “I worry that our parliamentarians have so debauched the democratic system by lying to us repeatedly, inducing us to tolerate what is intolerable. I worry where our democracy is going.”

Good morning Julian, and did you just hear the terrible news about the screwdriver attack on Manus?
Yes, well, the fact that people are still held there, and on Nauru, is just breathtaking. The effect on children is appalling... All the research into children’s mental health shows that continued isolation and the sort of treatment they experience there is seriously damaging for them. And ironically, self harming and attempted suicide is almost unheard of in pre-pubescent children. Except in Australia’s detention system.

So what is the premise of Border Politics?
I was cast as a kind of a David Attenborough. I was taken to various places to look at what other parts of the western world were doing in relation to refugees, and I must say I learned a lot of stuff about what was going on which really shocked me. I didn’t realise just how bad Australia is compared to a number of other countries, and how harsh the west is becoming. There’s much more enlightenment in some other countries than there is in Australia.

"Self harming and attempted suicide is almost unheard of in pre-pubescent children. Except in Australia’s detention system"

I hear that the ABC and SBS have refused to screen the film.
I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me a lot to be honest. Because the ABC are frightened of the government at the moment. And if you’ve got the government and the opposition making common cause on an issue then you can understand why the ABC might be a little bit hesitant about weighing in on the opposite side of the question.

Attitudes to asylum seekers are very different in several of the places you visit: Germany and Scotland, for instance.
Yeah. Scotland is quite a small country and in the 12 months leading up to when I was there last year they had resettled in the community about 1,000 Syrian refugees. Which is a much better achievement than Australia seems to have managed despite our larger population and much larger land area. In [Scotland], the Syrian refugees were genuinely being made to feel a part of the community. And I had conversations with various people and I said, “How is it you’re managing it?” And they said, “These people are human beings. They need help.” And I thought, wouldn’t it be sensational to hear an Australian politician speak like that?

Then there’s Jordan, which emerges as the hero of the film in a way…
Absolutely. Jordan has Israel and Palestine on the west, Iraq on the east and Syria on the north. And depending on what’s happening from time to time, they get people walking in asking for protection. And Jordan is not a rich country because it doesn’t have oil. The population is about half Australia’s. They have about a million refugees living in the community.

The most impressive thing about Jordan was the refugee camp at Zaatari up in the north, a few kilometres south of the Syrian border. There’s 80,000 people there are the moment, at its peak it had 140,000, and inside there are 2,000 shops that have been opened by refugees, including a shop where you can hire bridal gowns. That struck me as the most eloquent indication of the sense of optimism that people have. Refugees in Jordan feel a sense of hope for the future. People in our detention system feel absolutely hopeless.

You also visit the former site of the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais.
I saw two really touching things there. One was, caught in the razor wire, about 20 feet above the ground, was a person’s shoe, which shows how desperate people are. The second thing, on a wall, on a culvert adjacent to a Jungle, was a Banksy [artwork], a lifesize work of a person carrying an Apple II computer. And if you look closely you realise it’s Steve Jobs. The point was that Steve Jobs’s parents were Syrians. A characteristically acute observation by Banksy.

“I didn’t realise just how bad Australia is compared to a number of other countries”

There’s a powerful scene where you discover an enormous mountain of life jackets in Greece.
That was on Lesbos. On Lesbos there’s this enormous field where broken boats and discarded life jackets have been gathered together, and the number of lifejackets is staggering. The arrival of refugees on Lesbos has pretty much mucked up its tourist trade and yet the people welcome them with open arms. They used to have people stand at the lighthouse and watch for refugee boats in trouble and they would go out and rescue them and bring them ashore. None of this ‘stop the boats’ stuff.

The Tampa affair changed everything for you didn’t it?
Ha! To my shame, before Tampa, I didn’t really know what [Australia was] doing in relation to refugees, but doing that case I came into contact with people who knew a lot about the situation, and our policies and behaviour. It gave me something where I thought I could make good use of my limited abilities. One thing I’m fairly good at is speaking publicly and in my naivety I thought, I’ve being invited to talk about this stuff, and once people know what’s going on they’ll think it’s wrong and as long as 50 per cent plus one think it’s wrong then government policy will change. I thought it would take six months. It was a bit of a miscalculation!

Of course I got criticised a lot by members of the legal profession because it’s not the done thing to speak out. At a fancy social function in I think, 2003, the wife of a very senior colleague said, “Oh, do you think it appropriate that a man of the bar should speak publicly about these matters?’ And her comment really stung because part of me agreed with her. My reply was: “Well, do you think it appropriate to know about these things and remain silent?” And that resolved it in my own mind.

Human Rights Arts and Film Festival runs May 3-17.

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