Compassion and Conscience: Julian Burnside speaks in Shepparton

A packed room awaited Julian Burnside’s address on “Yes to Multiculturalism” at The Carrington in Shepparton on Harmony Day, 22 March 2017. Former Police Prosecutor Gordon Porter addressed the group, as did Mayor Dinny Adem and Monsignor Peter Jeffrey, who spoke on the history of multiculturalism in Shepparton.


Julian Burnside commenced with a response to the “Welcome to Country which was given earlier. He advised that whenever we give a welcome to country, some element is missing; we have to be aware what it is we have done to the indigenous peoples.

He gave the example of a fellow by name Bruce Trevorrow who was separated from his mother in December 1957 when he was admitted to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital suffering gastroenteritis.

More than six months later, his mother wrote to the state’s Aboriginal Protection Board, which by then had fostered him out, asking when she could have her son back. “I am writing to ask if you would let me know how baby Bruce is and how long before I can have him home?” she wrote in July, 1958. “I have not forgot I got a baby in there.”

The court was told the board lied to her, writing that her son was “making good progress” and that doctors needed to keep him for treatment.

The Aboriginal Protection Board lied to the mother during the next six months about Bruce’s health and earlier transfer to white adopters. The lying and obfuscating to Bruce’s mother continued over two years, to prevent her regaining custody of Bruce. It was not until Bruce was ten that he was finally re-united with his mother in the department’s offices in Adelaide.

Bruce, despite the care of his adoptive parents, developed progressive health and psychiatric problems, on top of mild cerebral palsy and other conditions. By eight he was stealing from the family and showing other disorders. His foster mother herself needed hospitalization for psychological problems. The adoption arrangement began breaking down. The department began making efforts to reunite Bruce with his mother Thora (whose de facto marriage to Joseph had since broken down). Officers took Bruce, now 10, to her at Victor Harbor twice for holidays, and then transferred him back to his mother Thora.

He didn’t adapt very well to his natural home either. Within a year he was arrested at Victor Harbor for housebreaking, and severely beaten by Thora. She then threw him out of her house. For the next ten years of his youth he was in reformatories, mental homes, and centres for disturbed youths, punctuated by brief spells back with his mother Thora and foster care with his grown-up Aboriginal siblings. At 13, he was also briefly fostered to another white mother. All these episodes ended the same way, with medical and behavioural disasters.

Julian Burnside spoke about Bruce’s experience in the courts, he was defending Bruce in the Supreme Court of South Australia. Bruce had never been in the courts for his own rights. Bruce said, “This judge is quite nice to me”. He was the first indigenous Australian to be awarded damages as one of the Stolen Generation. A court had finally admitted the law had been broken. Bruce was nearly left out of the Apology in Canberra; his siblings were activists, and they were there. Arrangements were made to get Bruce to Canberra to be present for the Apology to the Stolen Generations.

Julian Burnside went on to express the hope that the Shepparton model of integration of the indigenous peoples and respect for the indigenous community would inspire others and be copied by the rest of the country.



Refugee and Human Rights Advocate:

A little history: thirteen years ago in Maribyrnong Detention Centre, an eleven-year-old girl hanged herself with her bedsheet. Her family found her and cut down her strangling body, and she was taken to Austin Hospital in Melbourne, where she remained as a psychiatric inpatient for twelve months. When she was well enough to be discharged, she was taken back into detention.

This is the incident that taught human rights advocate Julian Burnside that his country had “betrayed the principles it once stood for”. It was a chance awakening for the Melbourne-raised barrister, who began his career in high-profile commercial law. Since that night, Burnside has represented refugees pro bono in dozens of cases, set up the twin organisations Spare Rooms for Refugees and Spare Lawyers for Refugees, won both the Sydney and Australian Peace Prizes, and been elected a Living Treasure — and in the last year has campaigned to take Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott to the International Criminal Court for their treatment of refugees.

Tampa, refugees and the collapse of values

On August 26, 2001, MV Tampa rescued 438 people whose boat, the Palapa, had sunk. It rescued them at Australia’s request. It acted according to the tradition of sailors the world over.



The arrival of the Tampa in Australian waters was misrepresented to the public as a threat to our national sovereignty. The people on Tampa were rescued at the request of the Australian government. They comprised for the most part terrified Hazaras from Afghanistan, fleeing the Taliban. The Taliban’s regime was universally recognised as one of the most brutal and repressive in recent times.

Julian Burnside shared that he was shocked to see Australia’s response to Tampa. The government denied the Tampa’s request to land it bedraggled cargo in Australia; it sent the SAS onto the ship. 438 men, women and children were held on the deck in the tropical sun, day after day. I knew nothing about our refugee policy, but I knew it was wrong to treat human beings that way.

By the time the case was over, I knew a lot more about refugee policy, and a lot more about the Australian character. I knew that it was not possible to stay in this country unless I tried to do something to combat these obvious injustices.

The people rescued by Tampa were, mostly, terrified Hazaras from Afghanistan: men, women and children. They were fleeing the Taliban. We knew all this. We also knew that the Taliban were a brutal and repressive regime. We knew that Hazaras, one of the three ethnic groups in Afghanistan, had been persecuted for centuries, but that the persecution had become increasingly harsh under the Taliban who come from the Pashtun ethnic group.

The captain of Tampa asked for medical help. Many of the women and children were ill or injured. When Tampa entered Australian territorial waters off Christmas Island, Australia sent the SAS and took control of the ship at gunpoint to prevent the refugees from coming ashore.

The idea that Prime Minister John Howard could revive his flagging prospects for re-election by using the SAS to keep those people from safety reflected a profound malaise in the Australian character.

The judgement in the Tampa case was handed down at 2.15PM Eastern Standard Time on September 11, 2001, nine hours before the terrorist attack on America. From that moment, the government ran two different ideas together: border control and security. The catch-cry “border protection” confuses national security with refugee policy. In that confusion we lost our moral bearings.

Julian Burnside went on to share the story of a former medical doctor – not a bleeding heart – but a man of immense experience who attended and worked at Manus Island for a period. The fellow later reported to Julian Burnside that he had never witnessed such a concerted effort to break the spirit of a detainee or inmate in all his days in medical or prison service in Australia. This doctor was shocked at the efforts to break the spirits of the detainees; it is punishment, the man told.

The Coalition’s rhetoric says they are worried about asylum seekers drowning in an attempt to reach Australia, so they punish the ones who don’t drown. It is an intentionally hard line. It is a hard line which depends on a cruelty.



Over the past 15 years, 94% of boat people have been assessed, by us, as refugees genuinely fleeing the fear of persecution. In Australia, most members of the community never have to fear persecution; never have to fear for the late night knock on the door; never have to fear for their human rights.

But it is all because of the play of chance. Imagine for a moment that you are a Hazara from Afghanistan. You have fled your country and you have come down the northwest corridor through Malaysia and Indonesia. You can travel through both of those countries because they give you a one-month visa on arrival.

While you are in Indonesia you can go to the UNHCR office in Jakarta and apply for refugee status. If you are a Hazara from Afghanistan, you will almost certainly be assessed as a refugee. But when your one-month visa expires, you have to hide because if you are found by the police, they will jail you.

You cannot work because if you work you will be found and then you will be jailed. You cannot send your children to school because if you do you will be found and then you will be jailed. If the UNHCR has assessed you as a refugee, you can wait patiently in the shadows until some country offers to resettle you. That may take 20 or 30 years.

Now, for just one minute, imagine that chance has put you in that position: you are that person. Will you wait in the shadows for 20 or 30 years or will you take your courage in both hands and get on a boat? I have never met an Australian who would not get on the boat. It’s a very strange thing that we criticise, revile and punish those who do precisely what we would do if by chance we had not the luck to belong to this country.

Julian Burnside went on to reinforce the Coalition rhetoric that all people who arrive by boat are “illegals”. The cost per year of resettling all persons in detention would be about $500 million per year. There is little if any cost to resettlement in Australia: every refugee resettled in regional Australia is a net economic benefit to the community through Centrelink payments which get spent locally on rent, food, clothing, school books, etc. The cost to the nation in having these detainees in Manus Island and Nauru is $2 billion. For example, they are “protected” by Wilson Security, an Australian firm which is headquartered in Panama and hence exempt Australian Taxation laws.

It was pointed out that there is a greater cost to politicians of all hues who go along with offshore detention and processing with no possibility of settlement in Australia. Australia, over time, has abandoned its conscience and gone along with the misleading statements of governments that these people – boat people – are illegal, and hence, must be denied resettlement in Australia at any cost.




Julian Burnside: When it comes to refugees, Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison and Dutton are hypocrites



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