Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
Sofija Stefanovic on Julian Burnside
Julian Burnside is a barrister who is famous for his stance on the Australian government’s detention of “boat people” (he hates it). He is known for providing free counsel to asylum seekers, and is forever in the media talking about our government’s “abominable” treatment of boat people.
He’s had refugees living at his house since 2001. He claims it was “necessary” for him and his wife Kate Durham to open their place up, after they started the Spare Rooms for Refugees Program, encouraging Aussies to show the welcoming spirit (that the government had forgotten), by offering spare rooms to refugees in need.
When he’s not helping asylum seekers, you can find Julian Burnside at his commercial law practice, making big bucks. Or, you might find him chairing the board of Chamber Music Australia. On top of that, he’s the founder of the not-for-profit gallery and theatre space fortyfivedownstairs, which supports emerging artists. Julian Burnside is a fundraiser, human rights advocate and author of a series of essays on etymology. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia, and was elected an Australian Living Treasure.
Waiting at his chambers, looking at all the red books on the wall, I am nervous knowing I’m about to take a full hour of a living treasure’s time. But the more I think about it, the more I see that treasure or not, Julian Burnside’s been saying the same things since the late 90s, using words like “compassion” and “human rights” to appeal to the government and the people of Australia. Yet things are still grim for refugees arriving on boats and if his cries have been falling on deaf ears for such a long time, maybe he’s bitter and depressed, I speculate. At this moment, Julian Burnside comes out to greet me in a tie the colour of sunshine.
I sit opposite Julian at his desk—which is enormous—while a concerto for two pianos by Mozart plays in the background. Julian is happy to share stories, some of them anecdotes about his life, others tales from history and literature, which he weaves into his contemplations on the world today. I notice his favourite stories are those with morals. He uses phrases like “the right thing to do.” He helps people because it’s right. Not helping would be wrong. There’s no fogginess in between.
After the interview, I wonder why my ribs are sore and I realise it’s because I’ve been leaning forward, rapt for the entire hour, as if trying to cross the vast expanse of Julian’s desk towards the beacon of his tie.