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A matter of borders: Julian Burnside appears for IA

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Julian Burnside QC addresses the audience in Melbourne (Image supplied)

Barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside gave an address at an Independent Australia event, in Melbourne, on Australia's current treatment of refugees. Dr Binoy Kampmark was in attendance.

THE HUMAN, claims Aristotle, is a political animal. But not all humans like the political animal, finding fault in chasing high office and the grease that seems to accompany the process. Nastiness can discourage. Manipulation, distortion and cutting matters short with the voter — these can do wonders to put a dampener on things. By the same token, those very problems can do the opposite: I saw something unacceptable and I wished to change it.

The occasion of Julian Burnside QC’s address to the gathering sponsored by Independent Australia and held on the grounds of the Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library, provided an ideal forum for the notable advocate to come clean.

He had already announced his intent in running as a candidate for the Greens in the Federal seat of Kooyong:

Politics is broken in this country. The major parties are both, I think, ineffective.”

Burnside started with a stabbing flourish. Not only should we thank Indigenous elders current and past for the lands taken, but we should also acknowledge the fact that having done so, there was no intention of giving them back. The grief of loss would be, to some extent, permanent.

The address, loosely titled ‘On Border Matters’ was revealing enough. It honed in on a paralysing condition of Australian politics, one that has made cruelty towards outsiders an orthodoxy. It has given individuals such as the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, room to gloat and delight about a system of torture and torment in the name of saving people from naval demise. His “Christian spirit”, as Burnside acidly noted, did not seem troubled by those boats attempting to reach Australia over 18 years and yet turned back to Indonesia, often in orange lifeboats courtesy of Canberra’s sponsorship. 

Julian Burnside at the Independent Australia event in Melbourne (Image supplied)

On being turned back to Indonesia, such individuals risked being returned to countries they fled in the first place. Jakarta has not deemed signing the United Nations Refugee Convention a necessary matter.

Australian governments have merely shrugged.

Burnside said:

“So that is the source of Morrison’s delight: we are indirectly sending people back to a place of persecution, in plain defiance of our central obligation under the Refugee Convention.”

The central premise of doing so is hypocrisy. Dying at sea is tragic, Burnside tells us, but deaths on the ocean in attempting to reach Australia have been used by Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton and Morrison to provide “vaguely respectable” excuses for “harsh policies”. 

Worrying about drowning does not lead to worrying about tormenting those who survive in camps.

Burnside explained: 

“Let me be plain about this: when Abbott and Morrison say they are worried about refugees drowning on their way to Australia, they are lying — they are deceiving the public.”

The entire language of the refugee debate, Burnside insists, is based on a set of maliciously confected misunderstandings. To use the term “illegals” is a nonsense; it is not an offence to come to Australia without binders of documentation when seeking protection. The language of criminality became vogue in the aftermath of the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.

Auspiciously and dreadfully, the Tampa judgment of Federal Court Justice Tony North had been handed down at 2:15 PM Melbourne time. Few remember that case went against the Government, with the Justice requiring “that the respondents release the rescuees onto the mainland of Australia”. The refugees onboard the Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, kept at sea by Australian authorities and refused to dock at the mainland, were found to have been unlawfully detained.

Prime Minister John Howard wasted little time in making hay from the catastrophe of the burning World Trade Centre in New York and the smouldering Pentagon in Washington, D.C.: the refugees had to be demonised as “illegals”, “queue-jumpers”, seen as morally suspect for throwing their children into the sea. The infamous “Pacific Solution” was born.

The terminology was equally problematic regarding people smugglers. Certain names were reiterated in the address, conspicuous examples of noble “people smugglers” in history: the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who assisted Jews to escape to Switzerland before he was martyred by the Nazi regime; the businessman Oskar Schindler, who rescued over a thousand Jews from deportation to Auschwitz; and Captain Gustav Schröder, with his cargo of 900 Jewish passengers on the St. Louis, which made way for the Americas from Hamburg in May 1939, vainly hoping to seek refuge from the predations of a violent anti-Semitic regime.

Despite failing to dock in Cuba and the United States, the valiant Captain’s obstinate determination in not returning his passengers back to a German port paid off — Belgium, Great Britain and France reached an understanding with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to each take certain numbers. 

Burnside ruefully reflected:

“Those countries who denied the St. Louis the right to land might look back now and ask whether their decision was a policy of success or a humanitarian tragedy.”

People smugglers do, after all, service a need.

“When you are running for your life, you will take whatever services are available.”

In April 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd initiated a shift in policy: asylum seekers were not the ones to be demonised, people smugglers – “the scum of the Earth” – were.

Burnside said:

“He seems to have forgotten temporarily that his great moral hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a people smuggler.” 

Seeking freedom and safety are powerful incentives, visceral objects. “Our compassion for the drowned,” Burnside iterates, “should be harnessed to a genuine rethink of our refugee policy”. If the risk of perishing at sea poses no deterrent, people should not be punished “for trying to escape”.

Food may well be the language of love, but politics can only ever be the practice of the possible. Burnside cannily suggests authentic offshore processing as a possibility, one that would eschew political considerations in favour of fairness, balanced with an increased annual refugee intake (from 18,750 to 50,000). Waiting times in Indonesia would drop as a response; that country’s co-operation would have to be enlisted and arrivals would be permitted to work while their claims were assessed. 

The dangers of getting on a smuggler’s boat would also be emphasised:

“This sort of offshore processing would, in fact, solve the problem of people risking their lives at sea.”

Burnside, aware of any attack by Fortress Australia advocates, is clear on not advocating open borders. “Initial detention” of arrivals without papers was “reasonable”. But the time had to be kept to a minimum of one month and involve health and security checks. Release would follow into the community subject to three conditions — the arrivals would have to stay in touch with the Department of Home Affairs “until their refugee status has been determined”; they would be permitted to work or study and allowed access to Medicare and Centrelink benefits in the interim, and they would have to reside in a regional town till their refugee credentials were assessed. 

The economically minded might take issue with such arrivals, dogmatically asserting the value of offshore detention as easier on the public purse. Not so, argues Burnside. Even given a spike of rates – the number of arrivals from 2012, say – and the assumption that all would receive Centrelink benefits, the cost of processing their claims in Australia would be cheaper than the annual tag of $1 billion a year bill for offshore processing. They would also spend allowances in regional towns (rent, food, clothing) and boost flagging regional economies. Even behind a humanitarian impulse, a political instinct can be detected.

The dangers of politics are all too evident. For, as one questioner put it to Burnside, going into it leaves a gap. The paradox of dealing with the political is that you can often influence it more from the outside than in. The corruption of one renders the innocence of the other questionable. But Burnside is determined. He sees the Greens as more than a party of “environmentalists”. They have matured. Whatever the outcome in the upcoming federal poll, few can doubt the credentials of a man who has, along with his wife, made a habit of sheltering and hosting refugees. Time to upturn the orthodoxy of extremism in dealing with Australia’s border matters.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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