Burnside talks about ‘Border Politics’

Julian Burnside in ‘Border Politics’

While innumerable men, women and children flee their homes, we watch world leaders jockey for air time on the subject of refugees and asylum seekers.

From Obama’s ‘We all have to do better as leaders in tamping down rather than encouraging the notion of identity that leads us to diminish others,’ to Trump’s ‘One hundred and ten thousand refugees in just a single year and we have no idea where they come from folks – this could be the great Trojan horse, and I don’t wanna be known in 200 years for having created the Trojan Hose with a different name,’ and from former Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison, ‘You have sought to illegally enter Australia by boat. If you have a valid claim, you will not be settled in Australia. You will never live in Australia, to asylum seekers detained on Manus Island sewing their lips together – we just can’t close our eyes to this any more and hope it goes away.

Refugees have the right to a safe haven yet many of those who have the power to make that happen are putting their energy into creating xenophobia rather than extending a helping hand.

A new film Border Politics follows human rights barrister Julian Burnside as he traverses the planet examining the harsh treatment meted out to refugees by most western democracies.

Produced and directed by documentary filmmaker Judy Rymer, this contemporary story is about the threat to human rights, the loss of democratic values, and our increasingly heartless treatment of ‘the other’.

Eve Jeffery caught up with Julian Burnside last week as he prepares to bring the film to the Brunswick Picture House on 15 July.


Border Politics is a huge undertaking. Why?

Because the way any country treats the most vulnerable goes toward defining the country’s character.

Why are Australians so frightened of refugees?

Good question. I think it is because dishonest politicians are doing what they can to inflame Islamophobia and vilify asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ (which is false, and most politicians know it’s false).

We see bloodied Syrians on the news then we switch over to the latest reality cooking show. How has this disconnection arisen?

Because our generation has never experienced anything like it: we simply can’t identify with the victims.

How much damage did the ‘children overboard’ lie cause asylum seekers?

Like all lies told about refugees, of course it damaged Australia’s capacity to empathise with refugees. What is remarkable is that politicians know how easy it is to set the public against any group. Remember this famous observation: 

 ‘… the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.’ 

That was said by Hermann Goering at Nuremberg in 1946.

How responsible are the media for refugee outcomes?

The Murdoch press deserves a large share of the blame: they repeat the lies of the politicians without comment. But they know the facts.

Are we turning into America inasmuch as we are being groomed to believe we are superior humans, therefore entitled?

I don’t think so. But we are turning into America in our willingness to believe anything our political ‘leaders’ say.

On your travels who was the leader or expert who impressed you the most?

Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland) and Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany).

If governments are taken out of the equation, do you feel communities worldwide would support refugees?

If they knew the facts, yes. In my opinion, most people in the West are better than the politicians who lead them.

Is Donald Trump the worst fascist in history?

No. Hitler was worse, and I think Putin is a fascist these days and is worse than Trump. But it’s a near-run thing, especially now that Trump has urged scrapping the need for due process in asylum claims.

Do you think the average Australian mums and dads have open arms?

Yes, without doubt. When my wife Kate set up SpareRooms For Refugees in 2001, urging ordinary Australians to offer free accommodation for refugees in their homes, the response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive.

How will Australia be viewed in the future on this issue?

I expect that in 20 or 30 years there will be a royal commission into our treatment of boat people from 2001 on. I think Australia will look back and condemn the politicians most responsible for it: Howard, Ruddock, Rudd, Abbott, Morrison, Turnbull, Dutton… but they will all be safely dead by then.

How has your work in this area changed you? 

It has put me in touch with the reality that law and justice are different things. And it has started me thinking that, whatever they say, politicians are not much interested in justice or common decency.

Do you still have faith in the law as an instrument of good and not evil?

If enough lawyers are willing to stand against injustice, yes. And there are more lawyers doing that than you would realise.

How can the law help us move forward on this issue? 

The relevant parts of the law need to be completely overhauled. That said, the legal system in Australia works well: Australian lawyers are competent and hard working; Australian judges are honest and diligent. Legal education is well designed and thorough. Most lawyers are concerned about injustices in the system; many more lawyers do pro bono work than the public realise. Despite its bleak reputation the legal profession is, by and large, competent and well motivated. 

How do we do a 180 and become heroes?

Overhaul the laws relating to asylum. If I had any say in it, first of all I would close down offshore detention, which I regard as a grotesquely expensive, cruel, absolutely awful system. I would accept that boats will start coming again, arriving with people seeking safety. And when those people arrive, I would say okay, put them into detention initially but limit that detention to one month and use that month for security and health checks. At the end of a month, I would say, release them into the community on a visa until their refugee status is finally determined – the visa has four principle conditions. One is that they must stay in touch with the department. The second: they are allowed to work. They have full access to Medicare and Centrelink benefits. And until their refugee status is decided, they must live in a specified rural or regional town. 

Now that would mean that we are no longer harming them while we are protecting them and keeping them safe.

I did some calculations on how this would look. The biggest number of boat arrival in Australia in modern times is 25,000 in one year. That was a spike in 2012–13. The ordinary average is a few thousand or fewer. Let’s assume the record number of arrivals of boat people becomes the new normal. Let’s assume that every single one of them stays on full Centrelink benefits for the whole time. Very, very unlikely assumptions, but make them. What would that cost? That would cost $500m a year. Because that’s 25,000 times full Centrelink benefits. Of course that $500m would be spent in the economies of rural towns where they are staying: once you have paid for rent and food, there’s not much left over. Country towns need workers. They need income. And all of that money would go into those towns. 

What are we spending now? About $5bn a year. Ten times that amount. Ten times that amount to do harm; or 10 per cent of the present spend to do good, not only for the refugees but also for the towns that they live in. Now if they come with children, children tend to assimilate into new environments very readily. That makes it highly likely that even after they get refugee status they would stay on in those towns, and that would be to the benefit of those towns… $5bn is an unimaginably big number but I’ve got a new unit of measurement: it’s one million Geelong chopper rides every year.

A film like this may just ‘play to the choir’. What is the plan to lift it out of the silo? 

Encourage people to see the film: and maybe Trump’s abusive policies will wake people to the problem. 

It’s in our interest to be concerned. 

Remember what Pastor Martin Niemoller said: 

‘When they came for the Communists
I said nothing, because I am not a Communist.
When they came for the trade unionists
I said nothing, because I am not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews
I said nothing, because I am not a Jew.
And when they came for me
There was no-one to speak for me.’

If we don’t wake up soon, we will ALL be in trouble.

Julian Burnside and Judy Rymer will screen their film Border Politics with a live Q&A at the Brunswick Heads Picture House on Sunday July 15 at 5pm.

Tickets are Adult $18 | Concession $18 | Child (U15) $12 

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One response to “Burnside talks about ‘Border Politics’”

  1. Caryl Highton says:

    God – I wish I could be there on Sunday. But I’ll be with Julian Burnside every step of his humanitarian way.
    He’s absolutely right – there’s no connection between The Law and justice in this country, none more so than in the Family Court. The trouble is the only way the law can be changed to effect justice is for ppliticians to enact new just legislation. And this will never happen with the current breed of cold, hard-nosed politicians who won’t do it in their own self-interest. They want to perpetuate the lies, they want us to believe refugees are a threat to us, they won’t relent for fear of appearing weak or sensitive. Their attitude to refugees is a dark smear on their character – if ever they had any. I’m ashamed to be Australian as long as the current bottom-of-the barrel crop are running the madhouse.

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