Julian Burnside, QC, a wealthy and successful barrister and powerful and respected human-rights advocate, this week won the Sydney Peace Prize, largely for his pro bono work with asylum seekers.
“I’d love to think it would help the cause of refugees,” says Burnside, “but I doubt that it will.”
Burnside is savagely candid. “I’m more honoured to receive the Sydney Peace Prize than any other award I’ve received,” he says, “but it will not make me complacent, and it will not make me like myself. I can’t bear myself, to be honest. I have very low self-regard, which winning the Sydney Peace Prize has only very slightly modified.”
We’re at chef Mark Best’s new Pei Modern restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel, eating a delicious and surprising $35, two-course quick lunch, as Burnside forensically picks himself apart.
“My mother tended to favour my younger brother,” he says, “because when he was quite young he got very sick, and my sister and I were told he had appendicitis. We never understood that: he was very sick for a long time. After that, he could do no wrong in my mother’s eyes.”
Burnside’s father was a doctor who grew up in “a very privileged household”, says Burnside. He graduated in medicine and went to fight in the Second World War, and the Japanese army chased him down the Malay Peninsula and into the Changi POW camp.
“I didn’t see a lot of dad, because by the time I was about six I could tell that things were not good for him and mum, and from the time I was about seven or eight, I guess he was absent more than he was present. From the time I was about 12, he just wasn’t there at all, and I remember after one notably disastrous summer holiday, we were told that dad wasn’t coming home. .”
Burnside’s mother, a trained nurse who had worked behind enemy lines in Bougainville in the war, was left as a single parent to bring up Burnside, his sister and brother.
His brother was killed in a car crash at 20 years old .
“It was only after he died,” says Burnside, “that I learnt first that my mother never wanted to have him, and second that he had not had appendicitis, he’d had a rare form of cancer, of which only eight instances had been known, and four of them had survived puberty and the other four had not. All this time, my mother had a child with a sword of Damocles over his head, yet she’d wished him not born at all. So I think she overcompensated. And with dad leaving home, the more I looked like my father, the more my mother resented it. So [my brother] could do no wrong, I could do no right, and it wasn’t long before I started to regard myself as worthless.”
Burnside speaks unemotionally, without self pity.
“It was probably better than being an arrogant turd,” he says.
Burnside was educated at Melbourne Grammar. He did not enjoy it, and did not feel he was popular.
“Goodness,” he says, suddenly, looking down at his plate.
His entree of Clyde River rock oysters with grilled sea foam has been served in its natural habitat, a bed of about two dozen small rocks. It seems an aggressively literal interpretation of the idea of rock oysters, and I might hesitate before ordering, say, mud crab.
My dish is burrata, kohlrabi with egg yolk jam, and has been sculpted into a shape like Sydney Opera House after a seaquake.
Unfortunately, the cheese is quite springy, and the cabbage also possesses a surprising elasticity , making it the perfect launch pad for the burrata milk, which I effortlessly (although accidentally) flick across the table at Burnside. Two teardrops of white cheese land to the right of his left lapel, about a centimetre above his Order of Australia pin.
I only admit this later, when I start to worry the Sydney Peace Prize winner will go out into the world wearing cheese.
Burnside studied law at Monash University and planned to become a management consultant, until he was chosen to represent Monash at the Australia and New Zealand intra-varsity mooting and won the prize as best individual speaker.At the drinks afterwards, the Chief Justice of New Zealand told Burnside, “You should go to the Bar.”
“He was the most important person I’d ever met,” said Burnside, “so I thought, ‘Oh well, I’ll do what he says’. It occurred to me recently, wouldn’t it be funny if what he really meant was ‘Go and get another glass of wine’. My whole career could be founded on a misunderstanding.”
Burnside had been called up for national service, but deferred his entry to the army until he’d finished his legal qualifications, at which time Gough Whitlam was elected prime minister and abolished conscription. Today, says Burnside, he realises Whitlam was a man of great vision “even though he was a hopeless administrator”. But in 1972, he’d voted for William McMahon, and in 1975 he backed Malcolm Fraser, as he was “so frightened the whole country was going to hell in a handbasket”.
Burnside says his entree is “fantastic, some of the best oysters I’ve had”, when a man in a black shirt creeps up behind him, motions me to keep quiet, and silently brings his ear closer and closer to Burnside’s head before declaring, “You’re talking shit”.
Luckily, he turns out to be a friend – rather than, for instance, an assassin. Burnside introduces him as the comedian Brian Doyle, and they arrange to meet for a drink before Christmas.
Burnside tells me he loves being a barrister, but his most fun job was as a part-time cook at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“My perfect meal is KFC and McDonald’s chips,” he says. “McDonald’s do a far superior french fry to KFC.”
Nevertheless, he orders salmon with barley, horseradish and asparagus for his main course, while I have the wood-grilled scotch fillet with garlic puree and dandelion. Both are very good indeed, although I leave my dandelion on the plate.
“Wouldn’t eat it, wouldn’t smoke it,” says Burnside, perhaps chastened by his experience with the rocks.
Burnside married in 1974, and had a daughter with his first wife. The couple divorced, and he met his second wife, the artist Kate Durham, at an election-night party in 1996. “I had just voted Liberal,” he says, “as was my habit. I was smitten by her when I met her, and didn’t notice she was upset. She was grieving the political demise of Paul Keating. She didn’t learn until a few years after we were married that I had ever voted Liberal. And she said if she’d known that I’d voted for John Howard that night, she wouldn’t have gone out with me at all.”
Since 2001, Durham and Burnside have shared their Hawthorn home with refugees. Most have been adults, but one boy arrived at the age of 10 or 11. The couple have put him through school and now they’re supporting him through university and “in every practical sense, he’s our child, I suppose”, says Burnside.
Burnside made his money as a barrister appearing for wealthy clients, and he still acts for the big-egoed end of town. But he became involved with refugee issues during the Tampa standoff, because he believed human beings shouldn’t be held hostage on the deck of a steel ship in the tropical sun.
“It just didn’t seem like a decent way to treat people,” he says. “But if you do a pro bono case in any area, soon enough you get asked to do lots of pro bono cases in the same area. So I ended up discovering, case after case, how dreadful things were, just how awful we were being to frightened people.”
But hasn’t the Liberal government stopped the boats, and saved refugees from drowning on their way to Australia? “I guess the question is whether stopping the boats saves lives,” says Burnside. “It may mean that fewer people drown – although we are not allowed to know how many people have drowned in those boats that’ve set out and been turned back. But even if you assume that the number of people drowning in their attempt to get to Australia has fallen significantly, that’s not the full story. If a person is deterred from seeking safety in Australia, and they prefer instead to stand their ground and face the Taliban, and if their persecutors kill them, they’re just as dead as if they’d drowned. The only difference is they die differently and our conscience isn’t troubled by it.
“And apart from that, why do we feel good about stopping the boats? In the last 15 years, more than 90 per cent of boat people have, in our assessment, been found to be refugees and entitled to get in. We know that people who risk their lives at sea to reach safety have a couple of qualities that could commend them to us: first, they are brave; second, they have the initiative to get up and go, rather than sitting around and waiting for their persecutors to get the better of them; third, they are very likely escaping the same extremists we are fighting in the Middle East. What’s not to like about people like that? Why is keeping them out regarded as a good thing?”
I finish my lunch with a small sense of shame because, in truth, Julian Burnside, QC, is one of the few prominent individuals in the refugee debate who doesn’t deserve to be spattered in cheese.
Life and times
1949 Born in Melbourne
1974 Marries his first wife, Anne
1976 Joins the Bar
1981 Daughter, Catherine, born
1989 Takes silk
1990s Acts 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
1998 Marries Kate Durham
2004 Designated a Living National Treasure
2009 Made an Officer of the Order of Australia
MARK DAPIN | THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, 8 NOVEMBER 2014