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Julian Burnside fights injustice
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Julian Burnside fights injustice
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"I suspect that most people are basically good. What divides us is a lack of full understanding of the other person’s position."
9 July 2014

Julian Burnside fights injustice

Interview by Sofija Stefanovic
Photography by Hilary Walker

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.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

This post is sponsored by our friends at Kooks wine.

What does this mean?

This post is sponsored by our friends at Kooks wine.

What does this mean?

SOFIJA STEFANOVIC: First things first: you were a fan of My Fair Lady when you were young, is that right?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: Ha! I was. I suppose I still am!

Oh yeah?

Yeah. It was partly because I was always interested in language. And, there’s not too many musicals about philologists. [Both laugh].

My Fair Lady came out at around the time I could see my parents’ marriage was not good. I was eight and my father was increasingly absent. Rex Harrison, who played Henry Higgins reminded me of my father quite a lot. He was similar to look at. So it all sort of lined up to make me like the musical.

That’s interesting, because English is my second language, so I always identified with Eliza Doolittle.


Are you still interested in language?

Yep. The aspect of language that interests me is its ability to change. I like the quirkiness of it. I like the way it is deeply enmeshed in the real world and it takes you into strange places. I write essays on language. I never know how an essay’s going to turn out. I start writing and then I find myself ambling around. It’s like a nice stroll in the country.

So you’re into law, human rights, art, music, language. Are you one of those people who has lots of interests and manages to be on top of everything by sleeping two hours a night?

No. I wish I could sleep two hours a night. Actually, I need about six hours. I make extra time by filling in the little gaps in the day. Everyone has five-minute gaps here and there, and I always try and do something in those gaps. I work a longish day. And I don’t go to the footy or play golf. I don’t read newspapers. That buys you a lot of time.

Do you read?

In my work, of course, I read a lot. But you mean “real” reading? Much less than I’d like. It’s only when I get a break that I get a chance to catch up on reading.

In those five-minute gaps?

No, no, no, no, no! You can’t do proper reading in five-minute breaks. Maybe that’s one reason why I quite like short stories. You know, David Sedaris and Saki and people like that… I really enjoy those because you can read them in a 10-minute gap. But serious reading, reading novels—I don’t do it nearly as much as I used to because I’ve got less time. By the end of the day, I’m quite tired.

I can imagine.

Which is good if I want to sleep efficiently. I can have a couple of strong black coffees, go to bed and just crash.

How do you clear your head?

I don’t. I try and blot out the distractions. I always go to bed plugged into my iPhone and I listen to podcasts.

Which ones?

My favourites are A Point of View, This American Life, Greg Proops’ podcast, BBC Friday Night Comedy and Background Briefing.

Have you ever read Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat?

Yeah. Years ago.

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

# Julian Burnside fights injustice
# Julian Burnside fights injustice
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There’s an interesting case study in there, about patients in a neurological ward. And they are listening to a speech by a politician, who is trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Half of the patients understand meaning, but not intonation and they are crying, and the other half understand intonation, but not meaning and they are laughing.

A story that comes to mind is one by James Thurber, written in the 1950s about a lemming who’s on his way home after a big night out. He falls over, hits his head on a rock, sees stars and starts blathering and running off towards a cliff, shouting meaninglessly. And other lemmings hear him and see him and start running after him, all of them with different reasons for running and not quite understanding. And they all go over the cliff. Some shouting, “We’re saved!” and others shouting, “We’re lost!”

Is that the one with the moral about running from something?

The moral to that one is: “All men should strive to learn before they die what they’re running from, and to, and why.” Which I still reckon is about the most succinct, “unchallengeable” single sentence of philosophy. It captures a truth that I think everyone needs to understand.

It’s a bit frightening as well. I mean, do you know what you are running from, and to, and why?

I’m gradually getting a clearer idea, yeah. I came across that story when I was in Year 8 at school. I remember being struck by it then, and it’s never lost its appeal. Articulating what I’m running from, and to, is really quite difficult. But it’s ultimately based on an instinctive idea of what’s right and what’s not right.

Something you deal with a lot.

When I got involved in the whole asylum seeker thing, I became aware that my involvement was going to damage the paid part of my work. That has obvious consequences for someone who’s quite interested in money and the nice things that money can get. But it didn’t take a moment’s thought to conclude that damaging my career didn’t matter—resisting something that was terribly wrong was much more important. Now, I don’t know how you tease that out intellectually, but the fact is: there’s something profoundly wrong about mistreating innocent people. And having seen something wrong happening, it makes sense to try and resist it.

 So how come everyone doesn’t try and resist wrongdoing?

Shakespeare once said, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…and enterprises of great pith and moment…lose the name of action.” There are many reasons why people don’t do it. Some people put their own interests ahead of other people’s interests.

Self-interest is a pretty powerful force.

Paul Keating recognised that clearly enough when he said, “In any two-horse race, put your money on self-interest for a win, ’cause you know it’ll be trying.”

 So what about how politicians behave today? Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said that refugees should be referred to as…

“Illegal arrivals.”


Scott Morrison’s been really persisting with the idea that they’re illegal, criminal, dangerous, they shouldn’t be placed in the community near vulnerable people—all of that sort of stuff. He does that so that he can mistreat them and get political benefit. I think that’s despicable. His explanation for saying that they’re illegal is complete bullshit. He explains it as a matter of law and it’s nonsense. I suspect he knows it’s nonsense, but it suits him politically to do it.

Do you think that he’s driven by self-interest?

I have some difficulty working out what motivates him. I suspect that self-interest is a large part of it. I think he has large political ambitions because how else can a person who is conspicuously religious use lies about defenceless people as a reason for treating them badly? I think he’s a dishonest hypocrite, to be quite blunt about it.

And if you had five minutes alone in a room with him?

I would try to understand him.

Oh. That’s not what I expected you to say.

I suspect that most people are basically good. What divides us is a lack of full understanding of the other person’s position. So I try to understand the other person’s position.

If we look back to say, Malcolm Fraser in the 70s and his attitude towards Vietnamese refugees, it was much more welcoming than what we’re doing today. What’s happened?

We don’t have a political leader anymore. If you imagine a hypothetical political leader coming on the scene, the first thing that person would do is say publicly from a position of authority: “They’re not illegal, they haven’t broken the law, we don’t need to be protected from them. They’re not a danger to us. What we’re doing so far is utterly incompatible with our view of what it is to be Australian.” Howard started the rhetoric of “illegals,” of “queue jumpers.” And in government, Labor could have said, “We’re going to change everything because you’ve been misled about the facts.” But they didn’t.


There’s a very powerful sentence in one of Arundhati Roy’s essays. She said, “A thing once seen cannot be unseen, and if you’ve seen a moral wrong, to stay silent is as much a political choice as to resist it.”

I’ve thought to myself, "If I prefer my self-interest, if I decide, this is someone else’s problem, I’m going to keep making a lot of money doing the stuff that I’m good at, how will I see myself with my dying breath?"

Do I really want to look back and say, You should have done something about that? Or will I look back and say, I’m glad I did something about that? I’d much rather the second. I know that’s sort of grandiose.

 Let’s back up. Tell me more about when you were a child. I know that your father left.


What else was going on? Did you think about refugees?

No! I didn’t even think about being a lawyer. I stumbled into doing law accidentally. I stumbled into being a barrister accidentally. I stumbled into doing human rights work accidentally. Everything’s just been accidents.


So, I was born in 1949. Dad was a surgeon, Mum had been a nurse and, being a mother in those days, she didn’t have to work. So she did charity work. It’s part of our DNA that if you have the ability to do something useful for people, you do it. It was very characteristic of Australia back then.

I guess you would have thought about things being just or unjust then? Maybe when your mum was doing charity work, or when your dad left?

It’s sort of difficult to talk about, but it does go back to a few specific things. Justice and injustice is one thing, but it’s very closely allied to compassion or the ability to empathise with other people—which can be quite a burden at times. But I remember, back in the days of vinyl recordings—you know, I remember when long playing recordings came in—how embarrassing! There were two records that we were given as children. One of them was a recording of The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde. I absolutely loved that record. It’s really quite a sad story about self-sacrifice.

Is that about the statue and the sparrow, who gave their lives for the poor?

It is, exactly. I’m sure that story influenced my thinking a lot from the age of four or five. The other record, I can’t remember any of the stories except one. It’s about a family who live in a forest in Bavaria or somewhere. Dad goes off every day into the forest to work. At mealtimes, grandfather, who’s getting old and doddery, will sometimes bump his bowl off the table. It’s a terracotta bowl and it breaks. So one day the father comes home and he gives the grandfather a wooden bowl to eat out of. Which is deeply humiliating, but at least it won’t break if he knocks it off the table. One day the father comes home from work and the son is on the front porch, whittling. The father says, “What are you doing?” And the son says, “I’m carving a wooden bowl for when you’re old.” I can remember distinctly recognising in that story what it’s like when you place yourself in someone else’s shoes; what it looks like from that other position. That’s been useful at times, but sort of disabling at other times.

Empathy makes you vulnerable. If you can’t help but see things from the other person’s position, then you also can’t avoid feeling the discomfort of their circumstance.

So, Scott Morrison chatting to people who have come here on a boat. Do you think that would change something?

It depends on the spirit in which it’s done. But if it was done with a genuine desire to see the world from the other person’s position, then yes, it would make a big difference.

You’ve written about privilege. Will you tell me a little bit about that? You’re in a privileged profession. And you’re part of the “privileged class.”

What can I say about privilege? I think the point is, if you’ve got privilege of any sort, it’s probably more a matter of luck than anything else, and sharing your luck with other people is probably a good idea. I think privilege brings a sense of responsibility with it.

“With greater power comes greater responsibility”?

Yeah. Well I don’t think of myself as having great power, but with privilege…

Isn’t privilege power?

Well power is a privilege. But that’s not a privilege that I have.

You’re in the media a lot. That’s powerful, isn’t it?

Not if people don’t listen.

[Laughs] do people really not listen?

Some people listen. But if I try to get my views across in the Murdoch press or on one of the shock-jock stations in Sydney, it’s a very different thing. That’s when you recognise you don’t have any power.

Some people call you a “lefty.”

Yeah, yeah. They call me “lefty.”

Are you a lefty?

I don’t think so. I mean just between us, I voted Liberal all my life up to and including 1996. I did that out of habit, not conviction. In fact I met my wife Kate at an election night party on the second of March, 1996. I had just voted for John Howard, and unknown to me, Kate was grieving Paul Keating’s demise. I didn’t discuss the election with her.

So she was sort of on the rebound from Paul Keating?

Yeah! We started going out, we got married in ’98, and then in 2003 I was invited to give the inaugural Don Dunstan lecture in Adelaide. At that point, I’m already being tagged as a rusted-on lefty, and I thought, Well that’s complete crap! So in order to establish some credibility I started my talk by explaining that I had always voted Liberal, I’d grown up in a Liberal household, and that I voted Liberal in ’96 but not since then. Kate said later she wouldn’t have even gone out with me if she’d known!


’Cause she’s a lefty, I’m not.

I still regard myself as a conservative, actually.

I think I’m conservative in the old-fashioned way. I think the institutions of government and society should be preserved, unless there is a clear case for changing them. I think society should be governed by basic enduring values like “You don’t mistreat people.”

 You often use the word “compassion.” We don’t really hear that in politics today.

Oh. It’s used now as a term of abuse. I remember sometime in the mid-2000s a politician on the Liberal side referring to the “compassion industry.” And I thought, There’s a slur! Ha!

What’s the “compassion industry”? Just people being nice?”

I think it was a reference to the sort of people who were speaking out about refugees. It’s interesting that the word “do-gooder” is used unmistakably as a term of abuse. Mild abuse, but still, it’s not regarded as good. I suppose “do-badder” must be… a good thing?

I heard you get a lot of hate mail.

Yeah, it’s sort of kicked up again. In the early 2000s I got a ton of it. I answered all of it. I did it on the rather simplistic idea that if I was going to try and change Australian views, this was a self-selecting group who disagreed with me, so I might as well…

…one by one…

…try and persuade them.

And did you?

Two really interesting things happened. Hate mail tends to be pretty vigorous and unrestrained and quite rude. So I would reply to all of it along the lines, ‘Dear so and so, thank you for your email, I gather you don’t agree with me, but did you realise…’ And give them a few basic facts about refugees. You know: they haven’t broken the law, they’re running from terrible things, they’re coming in small numbers… that sort of thing. Most of them responded, and every response was polite. From screaming to polite in one step. I think it indicates a kind of pathology in society, which we need to keep an eye on. It’s very interesting. People need to be heard. The simple courtesy of listening makes a big difference to the problems that trouble a person.

Do you think the abusive tone of the first letter is because people think they won’t get a response?

Oh yes, certainly. Many of them said, ‘I didn’t expect to hear from you,’ and some of them said that they didn’t expect to hear from me, as distinct from getting a response from my office. I imagine they thought I had some big infrastructure. Ha! But the other interesting thing was that typically, their response would raise further questions, so their view opposing mine was now much more measured. I would reply to that saying, ‘Well, there’s these other facts.’ At the end of it, about 50 per cent of them ended up saying, in substance, ‘Thank you for discussing this with me. I agree with you now.’ About 25 per cent ended up saying, ‘Thank you for discussing this with me. I don’t agree with you but I think it’s good you speak up for what you believe in.’ Really, really, really good responses, you know?


The other 25 per cent, not so good.

During this whole conversation you’ve been very kind about others. Do you have anyone who you dislike? Someone with whom you’ve tried to empathise, and then you’ve thought, No, they’re just not a decent person.

Make no mistake about it, I think Scott Morrison is a despicable, contemptible person, but I haven’t had the chance to explore the basis for his views because I haven’t discussed it with him. George Brandis doesn’t impress me very much. But there may be explanations for his strange attitudes.

You’re very optimistic.

Yeah, I’d kill myself if I wasn’t optimistic [laughs].

 So is the key to solving the world’s problems appealing to people’s better nature? Relying on the idea that people are inherently good?

It may not solve the world’s problems, but I think it’s the better way to do things.

I would much rather work on the assumption that people are capable of being good than work on the assumption that they will continue to be bad.

And what about evil then? How does that come into it?

I read an interesting book last year by Simon Baron-Cohen called Zero Degrees of Empathy. It’s Borat’s brother or cousin or something. He’s a neuroscientist at Oxford. The point he makes is that some people have empathy to a great extent, and some people have none at all. Those are psychopaths, and a psychopathic personality is likely to do evil things. That leads to some interesting thinking in the criminal justice system. Imagine the worst psychopathic killer you can imagine. Do you punish that person, or do you simply put them away so that society’s protected from them? If it’s a function of hardwiring as a result of their upbringing and so on, if they, in truth, have zero degrees of empathy, and they have psychopathic behaviour as a consequence, how do you blame them for that? It’s like punishing a dog for biting the postman.

But you do put them away, right?

You put them away, for sure.


For as long as they’re a danger to the community. At the extremes, I think criminal conduct is beyond anything that could be called “free will.” It’s just a function of the person’s mental makeup. And if that’s right, then punishing them is completely wrong.

Sure. Also psychopathy is very uncommon in the population, there’s about one per cent of the population who would diagnosed as psychopaths. But it’s more common in criminals. And it’s also highly represented in people who hold positions of power, such as CEOs.


So bringing us back to what we were talking about before, and politics, do you think this sort of evil plays a role?

I’m sure it does. And let’s suppose some hypothetical politician…


Whom I find contemptible…

…is a psychopath?

And let’s suppose that there’s clear evidence that this person is a psychopath, and that explains their contemptible behaviour, I will then be able to understand them. I will still find them contemptible, but at least I’ll be able to understand it.

I really can’t understand the psychology that enabled both major political parties, without breaking ranks, to approach the last election by trying to out-promise each other in the cruelty that they would show to refugees.

The idea that both were able to promise to be cruel to refugees and think that they’d have an advantage tells you something very depressing about their mentality and about the community.

Yes, doesn’t that tell us something frightening about the community?

But the community is being misled by the dishonesty of the politicians. They work both sides of the street by saying, ‘Of course, we don’t want people drowning at sea.’ In brackets—we’d much rather they stayed home and get killed there. Then it won’t be on our conscience. Why is our conscience more troubled if a person drowns escaping to safety in Australia, whereas our conscience is not troubled if we learn that that person was beheaded by the Taliban in Quetta?

What’s the answer?

What’s the difference? Well, Peter Singer would argue that there isn’t any difference, and that our conscience should be equally troubled by both. The reality is that our conscience is more troubled by the death that happens at our feet. That’s the ethics of proximity. If you just read a newspaper report of, you know, ‘People being blown up in a mosque in Quetta,’ it’s a religious thing and it was the Taliban. People think, Oh, that’s awful, and then they check the sports results. But you don’t see people sitting in front of a news broadcast watching human beings crashing onto the rocks at Christmas Island and then flipping to see the sports results.

I read about a case you had where an 11-year-old girl tried to hang herself in a detention centre. Is this something you think about a lot?

It is, actually. It’s the thing that keeps me from falling over in despair and exhaustion, I think.

I think that I would fall over in despair and exhaustion thinking about that. It’s so tragic.

No. Look, the sort of stuff I have done has been tiring at times. But whenever I felt like pulling back, I can’t help but have a vision in my mind’s eye of an 11-year-old girl hanging herself alone in a cell in Maribyrnong and thinking, We did that, and we should never cause that sort of thing again. We are, of course, doing it right now. But that’s no reason to stop trying so that we don’t go further down that path.


By the way, I bumped into a psychiatrist a few months ago who had an involvement with that family after that little girl tried to kill herself. They live in Sydney now. He’s kept in touch with them, and she came dux of her school when she finished Year 12 and she’s now engaged to be married. So in a funny way the whole thing worked out surprisingly well. Children are awfully resilient. I’m very pleased to know it ended up like that rather than the way it might have.

Do you have a call to action for our readers?

Can I translate “call to action” to “what would I do if I had three wishes?”


Magic wand, first wish: I would create a political leader. Because we need one in this country. Second: I would want that leader to explain from a position of ultimate authority that asylum seekers aren’t criminals, haven’t broken a law, haven’t committed an offence, they are, almost all of them, genuine refugees legally entitled to our protection, and mistreating them is cruel and wanton and stupid and expensive. And the third would be to introduce my rural scheme for dealing with asylum seekers. I think it’s not a bad idea.

Tell me more.

The essential elements are: instead of throwing people off to Nauru and Manus Island, I would say, initial detention for no more than one month for preliminary health and security checks. Then, release into the community with interim visas with a few conditions. One: they’re allowed to work. Two: they’re allowed to have access to full Centrelink and Medicare benefits. Three: they have to stay in touch with the department regularly, maybe by checking in at a branch of Australia Post or Centrelink every couple of weeks. And fourth: critically, that they have to live in a specified country town until their refugee status is determined. Taking last year’s arrival rate, if every single boat person came in that way and stayed on Centrelink benefits for the whole time—which is very unlikely, but if they did—it would cost the taxpayer 500 million dollars a year. All of that 500 million dollars would be spent within the local economies of country towns: on accommodation, food, clothing. At the moment, in our increasing attempts to seem nasty and mistreat people and to make the idea of coming to Australia look unpalatable, we’re spending four billion dollars a year.


Now, four billion dollars a year to harm a group of people, or 500 million dollars a year to help them and to help the rural community? But we need a leader who can sell that.

Yes, we do.

I think there’s a few country towns who think it’s not a bad idea, ’cause, self-interest, you see. I’m hoping to get country towns to put a bit of pressure on the National Party to persuade the Coalition that maybe they should do things differently. And instead of damaging people we could actually help country towns.

So, would you ever get into politics?

No. Not ever.

The best advice I ever got was: “Never wrestle with a pig, cause you both get covered in shit, and the pig loves it.”

Before the 2007 election, I was approached to stand for a significant seat. It took less than a millisecond to say no.

And it’s the “wrestling with pigs” argument?

Yeah. I’ve seen very good people go into federal parliament and they’ve ended up dispirited, depressed, defeated, because their good ideas are simply strangled at birth. Plus I’m too thin-skinned. You know, being criticised hurts. It actually hurts getting hate mail and being criticised by various people in the press. I’m developing some scar tissue, but I think politics would be brutal. I just don’t think I’d survive it.

Sofija Stefanovic

Sofija is a Dumbo Feather contributor who’s interviewed the likes of Julian BurnsideAkram Khan and Abigail Disney. She lives in New York. She is writing a memoir called Miss ex-Yugoslavia (Penguin, 2018). She also hosts the literary salon Women of Letters in New York City.

Photography by Hilary Walker

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