A lawyer driven by conscience


Watching Brief, reflections on human rights, law, & justice

By Julian Burnside

Scribe Publications


In September 2004 five asylum seekers were forced to endure a seven-hour trip in a prison van from Maribyrnong in Melbourne to Baxter in South Australia without food, water, or toilet breaks. The guards witnessed their distress on closed-circuit cameras, but did nothing. Extreme thirst forced one man to drink his own urine.

This March, they were awarded compensation for their ordeal. The new immigration minister has ordered a review of all cases of immigration detention longer than two years. Without doubt, if that review chooses to look properly, many thousands of abuses like this one will come to light.

What a time the former Howard government took us through. Its assault on human rights was so savage and unrelenting that it is easy to lose track of what was done, when it was done and what the long-term consequences may be. Watching Brief, by prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, will put a lot of that into perspective.

In these essays he reflects on the issues he has faced over the last ten years in his volunteer legal work, first for asylum seekers, and then for victims of the so called anti-terror laws.

Burnside writes with a light touch, drawing on a deep knowledge of law, literature, and history. He also reveals a wry sense of humour.

For someone who makes his living in the very extroverted profession of barrister, Burnside is quite self effacing. But we do learn that he came from a middle class family, had what he considers a privileged education and, up to and including the election of 1996, voted Liberal.

A master of understatement, he says it was "my involvement in the 1998 waterfront dispute which convinced me the Howard government could not be readily trusted. Subsequently their treatment of asylum seekers was so recklessly cruel that I knew I no longer had any faith in them."

Despite the sometimes harrowing nature of his human rights work, and the abuse he faced from opponents, Burnside describes these years since 1998 as the "most satisfying time in my life so far".

Through all theses essays one conviction of Burnside's keeps emerging: the rule of law is the only hope of the common person against the power of the state. He quotes from the play A Man for All Seasons, "The country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast — and if you cut them down do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"

For Burnside, these winds began to blow and gather force in the years of the Howard government. First asylum seekers felt the blast, as thousands of men, women, and children were imprisoned without ever seeing the inside of a court room.

He shows how we are now all at risk, as the so called anti-terror laws strip away hard won rights that guaranteed a fair trial and protection against arbitrary arrest. These laws gives security agencies the right to secretly detain you without laying charges, and for the state to withhold prosecution evidence from the defence on national security grounds.

Mandatory detention remains the policy of the Rudd government. Supporters of that policy should read Watching Brief, which has more than enough examples of the suffering it causes.

In one case, Burnside was defending a man charged with escaping lawful detention at Woomera during a demonstration there. He hoped to use the technicality that the detention centre extended 800 metres from the wall, and just needed his client to remember where he was when arrested.

The detainee's answers were so vague that Burnside then just asked him his name, which he knew, then asked him his mother's name. His client replied, "I don't know, I can't remember".

When asked his brothers' and sisters' names he said, "It's too long ago; I can't remember". Burnside tells us, "His entire past had disappeared. After five years in immigration detention his mind was so distracted it has torn up all recollections of his past. He did not even know what detention centre he was being held in."

Where human rights are concerned, Julian Burnside is always on the side of the angels. The goal of a just society animates his writing and his involvement in human rights law.

This book will retain its value for a long time to come because, without being heavy handed or strident, it evokes the temper of the times when Australia let a man like John Howard call the shots. Now we have a Labor government and many people live in hope, but we can't forget this fact: all the laws Burnside argues against are still intact.

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