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Julian Burnside on Tampa, Turnbull and the ‘unthinkably awful’ Peter Dutton

Fotis Kapetopoulos speaks to Julian Burnside QC who will be delivering the annual Walter Lipmann Oration on Thursday, September 13 at the Melbourne Town Hall presented by the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria.

It is a cold, wet and dark afternoon at the lawyers’ end of Melbourne’s CBD. The office of human rights advocate and barrister Julian Burnside QC is warm and welcoming, like an old wood-lined library.

Burnside may look professorial but he’s a voluble annoyance to the architects of Australia’s cruel regime of processing irregular arrivals and those who dog-whistle racial fears.

Burnside gained prominence in the 1990s acting for the people of Ok Tedi against BHP; Alan Bond in fraud trials; Rose Porteous against Gina Rinehart; and the Maritime Union against Patrick Stevedores.

The Tampa Affair in 2001 was a defining moment for Burnside. The Howard Government sent SAS troops onto the Norwegian tanker Tampa to stop it from landing on Christmas Island with 434 refugees it had rescued off the sinking wooden boat Palapa. The government’s response began to coarsen our collective attitude towards refugees.

“The Tampa Affair was John Howard’s last hurrah, he was on the skids electorally,” says Burnside.

 “The captain of the Tampa headed towards Christmas Island which was on his route and Australia forbade him from entering our territorial waters, he defied them so Howard sent the SAS and then there was a standoff.”

Burnside recalls how a solicitor who had briefed him on a complex commercial case thought of a “clever case theory for ending the standoff”.

“He asked me to act and I said yes, not because I knew anything about maritime law, which I didn’t, and not because I knew of anything about refugee policy or law, because I didn’t, but because I feel the heat,” he says.

Human rights are not complex for Burnside; they are premised on simple human feeling.

Burnside imagined how it must feel on “that steel deck in the tropical sun; so that very simplistic empathy brought me in the area”. 

The judgement was handed down in Melbourne on the afternoon on September 11, 2001.

“Eight hours later the attack on the Twin Towers occurred, and that was when the Australian government began calling refugees ‘illegals’, it was when it all started.”

Human rights are not complex for Burnside; they are premised on simple human feeling.

“If for one moment you stand in someone else’s shoes you know that everyone needs to be treated fairly.”

Paintings and photographs hang and rest against the walls of his  office. Burnside’s love for the arts is equal to his passion for human rights. Books, papers, reports, magazines and cluster around him and on a bookshelf behind his large wooden desk, as he occasionally swiping across his iPad.

“I’m a bulimic Tweeter. It’s  a useful way of getting out a message to a lot of people and when I see bullshit I try to correct it.”

He will be talking tomorrow night about multiculturalism in honour of the late Walter Lippmann, one of the designers of multicultural policy, a founder of the ECCV and a prominent advocate in Victoria’s Jewish Community in the 70s.

But Burnside is not a policy boffin.

“I am not interested in politics – I grew up in Melbourne in the ’50s and I remember how mono-cultural we were and how boring it was” he says.

“Sunday lunch was meat and three veg, all over-cooked. I remember when post World War II immigrants came from Greece and Italy, the people of my parents’ generation – not my parents – would call them ‘refos’, ‘wogs’, ‘i-ties’.  

“They complained about how these new immigrants ‘dress differently, they have too many children, they are too religious’ the same as we hear now about Muslims, Africans and others,” he says.

“The mono-cultural years of my childhood gave way as we discovered that people from other countries had something interesting and useful to add; food is an a starting point and from there we can build.”

“I remember a time when there was nothing more unthinkable than eating squid and the Italians and Greeks were buying it at a dollar a kilo in the ‘70s,” he laughs.

I tell him stories of my father being harassed for having a moustache and my mother being called a ‘whore’ for wearing off the shoulder dresses, having long hair and not wearing a pillbox hat. And me growing up being with the word ‘wog’ etched on me.

Burnside points how the first ‘ethnic’ comedy performance which took over Australia in the ’80s, Wogs out of Work turned the word back on itself, making it an empowering word.”

Australians, I argue, may be harsh but we are soft compared to places in some European nations where the migrant is a migrant forever.

Burnside takes time, thinks and responds, purposefully, openly and simply.

“True, we do not have long standing hatreds, but we need someone to pick on, maybe because we think our hold on this land is tenuous having taken it off the Aboriginals,” he counters.

“We look suspiciously at those that comes in from the ‘wrong’ countries, the Chinese during the Gold Rush, then against Greeks and Italians, we imported anti-Irish bigotry from England, then had a Protestant- Catholic divide, and that has been now replaced by Christian versus Muslims, which is weird.”

He highlights how before World War II this divide was “Christians against the Jews” referring to the 1938 Conference of Evian when delegates from 32 nations and representatives from relief organisations met to discuss the German-Jewish refugees.

“Thomas White, the Australian representative at the Conference famously said ‘We do not have a racial problem in Australia and have no intention of importing one,’” says Burnside.

 Like many of us, Burnside says he had great hopes for Malcolm Turnbull but “he turned out to be disappointing”.

And yet, like many of us he too was relieved Scott Morrison became PM, instead of Peter Dutton.

“Morrison was a terrible immigration minister, but Dutton was unthinkably awful,” he qualifies.

The fact that the Right is eating so many Liberals is not a point he misses. “There’s a right-wing shift here and across the world.”

But Burnside is a pessimistic optimist, “It will turn back again, but many will be crushed under the wheels.”

He points out of the large windows onto Melbourne 30 floors below. “Melbourne is a preeminent multicultural city, and multiculturalism is I think natural to us here.”

Julian Burnside QC will be speaking at the ECCV Walter Lippmann Oration on Thursday 13 September at 6pm Melbourne Town Hall Supper Room.

4 responses to “Julian Burnside on Tampa, Turnbull and the ‘unthinkably awful’ Peter Dutton

  1. I am so happy to read this. This is the type of manual that needs to be given and not the accidental misinformation that is at the other blogs. Appreciate your sharing this greatest doc.Most impoprtant point is choosing words

  2. Politics certainly brings out the opportunists, hey, but I’m terribly cynical, I believe that behaviour probably was well under way before humans stood upright. I don’t believe the far right have cornered the market.
    The fact that the cunning far right have harnessed the ‘accent’ of the battler so successfully only proves to me how far the so called left has lost it’s way. The only way to counter it in my opinion is to expose it for the fakery it is, by allowing the real battler to speak. I certainly tire of hearing of the strugglers circumstances via an aloof, intellectualized debate. I cannot count the times on the ABC when while talking of extreme hardship, panelists break out in laughter about one thing or another someone has said that has tickled their funny bone.
    grrrrrrrr
    I believe a lot of people do have the best of intentions, but lack the perspective of experience. Labor has lost perspective. Their track record hasn’t been flash either, and their voting with the LNP on policy is disgusting but luckily for them, often hidden from view. And I think they are quite happy to have the LNP do some of their dirty work done for them, regardless of what they say.

  3. Julie, I absolutely agree. And the worst of it is that this has been caused since Tampa – by Govt. Party Policy….. This brought to mind the money that has been put into armaments (as an example) by successive Governments. Take the submarines for example. 12 submarines for $billions and we have only enough sub-mariners to have two available at the one time currently – and how much of this Industry therefore the money, has been “shifted” to the few wealthy dealers of this mass destruction – and the personal wealth that has been amassed by the few in the need of the Parties of the Right to bomb out of existence the people that that Right wing Party – now your Govt., doesn’t “like”. “But under/unemployment is only going to get worse, housing stress is only going to get worse, and people already resent immigration into areas that previously there was none. The haters are back and have multiplied.” ALL of this could be quenched if the dollars created by our Govt. that pays for just these armaments – would go to the Social Welfare bill instead uplifting the drowning numbers of poverty stricken Australian citizens . It also DOESN’T mean we sacrifice our own defense capabilities either. We ARE a monopoly currency issuing Govt. BOTH can be achieved. But again – it is only the Far Right party policy that demonises the poor, encourages racism, creates the victims – like the German Jews of WWII, and enriches an individual at the expense of the millions who can’t even get a response from their local Govt members – but the war lobbyists and haters of the media – can. Politics.

  4. There has been significant changes since the early immigrations to Australia. There was the same dog whistling, true. ‘They’re taking your jobs, they’re buying your houses, they have it better than you do, they don’t assimilate, they’re criminals’ baa baa baa baa.
    But then, importantly, there was a massive boom in employment. There was a huge boom in housing. ‘They don’t assimilate’ was easily solved by moving into areas low in migrants, and huge numbers could and did. As a result, some of that early racism toward new aussies seemingly faded into the background as they revelled in the new dog whistles, that of the land of the fair go and the lucky country.
    But under/unemployment is only going to get worse, housing stress is only going to get worse, and people already resent immigration into areas that previously there was none. The haters are back and have multiplied. First Nations people are still as under threat as they’ve ever been and on so many levels are treated as bad, if not worse, than immigrants. For over two centuries they’ve been telling us Australia is racist. I have eyes, I have ears, I believe it. I believe it takes a special kindof ignorance not to. Racism is left and right. It’s behind and in front of you. It’s above you and below you. It’s everywhere. Hard times are coming, and that rarely brings out the warm and fuzzies in anyone, let alone racists.

    Julie

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