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Julian Burnside QC and Fr Frank Brennan, scheming together for a better and different Australia?

Democracy demands honesty

Julian Burnside delivers an Uniya Seminar

Photo: Julian Burnside QC with one very loyal Uniya supporter, Fr Frank Brennan, quietly scheming together, in a quiet corner of the Manning Clark House gardens during an April 2007 Conference.

On 23 February 2005 human rights barrister Julian Burnside QC delivered the Uniya 2005 National Lenten Seminar at Xavier College in Melbourne. This page carries the transcript of the lecture (below). Following the event, the Uniya website reported about the event:

Democracy demands a degree of honesty and compassion in politicians and the courage of the media to report the truth, refugee barrister Julian Burnside argued last night at Uniya's Lenten Seminar 2005 in Melbourne.

"The essence of democracy is that the elected representatives are chosen because their constituents think this candidate or that will best represent their views in parliament. If a candidate lies about his or her beliefs and values, the democratic process is compromised. The greater the lie, the greater the damage to the true course of democracy", he said.

Mr Burnside said that the Government's treatment of the Bakhtiyari family, who were deported at Christmas time in controversial circumstances, is an example of the inconsistencies between truth and the spin that come from some elected representatives.

"Showing compassion to the Bakhtiyari family would have been consistent with family values, Christian charity, fairness and decency - the values Mr Howard claims to hold", he said.

"Mr Howard, Mr Ruddock and Mrs Vanstone are personally responsible for the shocking damage suffered by the [Bakhtiyari] children. They hold themselves out as Christians; they embrace 'family values'. But at Christmas time in 2004 they denied kindness or compassion to 6 children whose lives they have blighted.

"Unfortunately, the government seems concerned that mercy and compassion set a bad precedent. Given that the government had a discretion to allow the family to stay, it is difficult to understand why it insisted on removing a family it had damaged so badly, unless its purpose was to send a message: not to people smugglers, but to us. Its message to us is this: 'We hold absolute power; we do not have to acknowledge public sentiment; we can crush anyone who messes with us.'

"This is why honesty matters", he said.

Related pages:

2 April 2008: Julian Burnside: Citizens' rights and the rule of law in a civil society: not just yet - Julian Burnside delivers The 2008 Manning Clark Lecture: "Personally, I would have preferred to see the [Howard] Government removed because of its lamentable approach to human rights and the rule of law. But perhaps Australia is not ready to embrace such notions: not just yet. In any event, the electorate saw industrial relations as a more pressing matter."

28 August 2006: Five years on, the Tampa drama continues - As SMH investigative reporter David Marr shows, the drama continues, now in the private lives of those refugees who eventually made it into Australia, and barrister Julian Burnside QC gets challenged by Australians on a public Blog.

22 January 2005 - A case of tsunamitis? Five eloquent thinkers and writers, Julian Burnside QC, Waleed Aly, Misha Schubert, Greg Barns and Anne Summers share their thoughts about the disaster and Australia's subsequent response to the international appeal. And in a late addition, AFL's CEO Andrew Demetriou joins the fray.

Burnside Speech booklet
25 April 2004: Burnside versus Vanstone, Ruddock, Howard - Recently Julian Burnside QC spoke at a Rotary Breakfast in Melbourne. In the presence of Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, he accused her, Philip Ruddock, and PM John Howard, of committing 'crimes against humanity' for its "Pacific Solution". We edited his Melbourne Rotary speech into a handy, printable booklet of about 25 pages. Download it, print it, copy it and include it at your stall!

19 February 2004: Julian Burnside vs Amanda Vanstone - It was a full house when Julian Burnside QC, one of the most vigorous opponents of mandatory detention, went face to face against Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone at a Rotary breakfast held at the RACV Club in Melbourne, and directlyaccused her of crimes against humanity.

22 October 2003: Australia's crimes against humanity not interesting to the media - Julian Burnside QC mounts a blistering attack on Australia's media, accusing it of refusing to report the government's escalating atrocities: "If the tragedy of our present regime is told dispassionately decades from now, the silence of the press will be seen as part of our national disgrace."

9 July 2003: Julian Burnside QC: Refugees: Australia's moral failure - A speech at a dinner launching 'Just and Fair Asylum' in Sydney on June 11 2002. "We diminish ourselves by the way we treat [refugees and asylum seekers]. Once we recognise that these people are human beings, we will see that the problem is in truth a moral problem and that we have made a profound mistake in the way we have handled it."

9 July 2003: Australia's Treatment Of Asylum Seekers: The View From Outside - A careful analysis of the criminal code therefore suggests that Mr Ruddock and Mr Howard are guilty of crimes against humanity by virtue of their imprisonment of asylum seekers, says Julian Burnside QC.

Honesty Matters: the ethics of daily life

by Julian Burnside QC
Delivered on 23 February 2005
At Xavier College, Melbourne
The Uniya 2005 National Lenten Seminar

  1. It is the logic of our times,
    No subject for immortal verse
    That we who lived by honest dreams
    Defend the bad against the worse.
    (Cecil Day-Lewis Where are the War Poets, 1943)
Julian Burnside QC

Most people understand intuitively the importance of language. We all use it every day in order to function in society. Society without language is inconceivable. But as the torrent of words increases, we come to know that words can be used to trap us or to free us; to help us or hurt us.

In most circumstances, language is intended to convey meaning. Ideally, it should do so accurately. Some writers and speakers betray this ideal, and use language as a stalking horse for quite different ideas they wish to disguise or dare not acknowledge.

Depending on circumstances, this technique may be called tact, diplomacy, euphemism, doublespeak or lying. The proper description depends on the speaker's purpose.

Tact sets out to avoid giving offence. It suppresses or disguises an unhappy truth to spare the feelings of another. It is falsehood in the service of kindness; a down-payment on future favour. When tact is lifted from the personal to the national scale, it is called diplomacy.

Euphemism does not directly suppress the truth, but disguises it by substituting gentle words for harsher ones. Its intention is benign, if somewhat fey. Its excesses of delicacy inspired Dr Bowdler to strip Shakespeare of any disturbing content: removing, as he said, its 'blemishes'. Euphemism is especially needed where body parts and body functions are the subject: a cheap frock for recognised facts.

Tact is kind; diplomacy is useful; euphemism is harmless and sometimes entertaining. By contrast, doublespeak is dishonest and dangerous.

When Cecil Day-Lewis wrote the words above, the world was wracked by Hitler's war. Hitler had done much to restore the fortunes and spirit of the German nation, a nation which had been nearly destroyed by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

But Hitler had also been engaged in enterprises which the world would eventually deplore; much of what he did was masked in falsehood; and what was seen and known of is worst excesses was covered over, or denied or ignored by allied powers who did not find truth convenient in that desperate time. The allies knew of Hitler's death camps but did nothing.

In his closing address at Nuremberg, US prosecutor Robert Jackson said:

"Lying has always been a highly approved Nazi technique. Hitler, in Mein Kampf, advocated mendacity as a policy. Von Ribbentrop admits the use of the "diplomatic lie." Keitel advised that the facts of rearmament be kept secret so that they could be denied at Geneva. Raeder deceived about rebuilding the German Navy in violation of Versailles. Goering urged Ribbentrop to tell a "legal lie" to the British Foreign Office about the Anschluss, and in so doing only marshaled him the way he was going. Goering gave his word of honor to the Czechs and proceeded to break it. Even Speer proposed to deceive the French into revealing the specially trained among their prisoners.

Nor is the lie direct the only means of falsehood. They all speak with a Nazi double talk with which to deceive the unwary. In the Nazi dictionary of sardonic euphemisms "final solution" of the Jewish problem was a phrase which meant extermination "special treatment" of prisoners of war meant killing; "protective custody" meant concentration camp; "duty labor" meant slave labor; and an order to "take a firm attitude" or "take positive measures" meant to act with unrestrained savagery. Before we accept their word at what seems to be its face, we must always look for hidden meanings. Goering assured us, on his oath, that the Reich Defense Council never met "as such." When we produced the stenographic minutes of a meeting at which he presided and did most of the talking, he reminded us of the "as such" and explained this was not a meeting of the Council "as such" because other persons were present...."

Twisting the truth was a commonplace in Hitler's Germany, but politicians in many regimes use the same technique: a fact emphasised by George Orwell in Politics and the English Language (1946) and in Nineteen Eightyfour (1948). Orwell wrote of the misuse of language by politicians:

"A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

It is an astonishing thing that, although Orwell showed the stage tricks used by the main offenders, those tricks continue to work. We sit, most of us, like captivated schoolchildren in sideshow alley, spellbound as the hucksters of language deceive and dissemble. The contagion of dishonest language has not abated.

When senior politicians speak today, it is essential to listen acutely to appreciate that they are simply staying on message whilst avoiding truth, accuracy or anything remotely approaching an answer to the question they have been asked. Even when they appear to be answering the question, you have to listen very closely. Remember the skilful evasions of Mr Howard when he was asked a question in Parliament by the Member for Chisholm:

ANNA BURKE, MEMBER FOR CHISHOLM: Prime Minister, was the Government contacted by the major Australian producer of ethanol or by any representative of him or his company or the industry association before its decision to impose fuel excise on ethanol?

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: Speaking for myself, I didn't personally have any discussions, from recollection, with any of them.

A document obtained by the Opposition under freedom of information laws records a meeting between John Howard and Dick Honan about ethanol, just six weeks before the decision. But Mr Howard says he spoke the truth; that his answer related to a different part of the question and that he has been taken out of context.

This same inclination to use language in order to deceive has infected the public service. At a public meeting in April 2002, I had the opportunity to debate aspects of refugee policy with one Philippa Godwin, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. Philippa Godwin is clearly a woman of great intelligence. I asked her a question about a fence which surrounds the Baxter Detention Centre. The fence is described on a plan of Baxter as a "courtesy fence". I suggested that it was in fact an electric fence. "No" she insisted, "It is not an electric fence. It is an energized fence". A 9,000 volt energized fence.

The war in Vietnam produced such doublespeak expressions as:

  1. Collateral damage (killing innocent civilians)
  2. Removal with extreme prejudice (assassination)
  3. Energetic disassembly (nuclear explosion)
  4. Limited duration protective reaction air strikes (bombing villages in Vietnam)
  5. Incontinent ordnance (bombs which hit schools and hospitals by mistake)
  6. Active defence (invasion).

When Jimmy Carter's attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran - a catastrophic strategic blunder - he described it as "an incomplete success". When Soviet tanks invaded Prague in 1968, the manoeuvre was described as "fraternal internationalist assistance to the Czechoslovak people". The same expression may well explain America's presence in Iraq.

Doublespeak uses language to smuggle uncomfortable ideas into comfortable minds. The Nazi regime were masters at it. The Howard Government is an enthusiastic apprentice.

The victims of 'protective reaction air strikes', or 'incontinent ordnance', or 'fraternal internationalist assistance' often flee for safety. A small number of them arrive in Australia asking for help. They commit no offence under Australian or international law by arriving here, without invitation and without papers, in order to seek protection. Nonetheless the Australian Government refers to them as "illegals".

Like all doublespeak, "illegals" is used for a purpose: these people are immediately locked up without trial. No doubt it seems less offensive to lock up "illegals" than to lock up innocent, traumatised human beings.

They are also disparaged as "queue jumpers": a neat device which falsely suggests two things. First that there is a queue, and second that it is in some way appropriate to stand in line when your life is at risk.

When the "illegals/queue jumpers" arrive, they are "detained" in "Immigration Reception and Processing Centres". This description is false in every detail. They are locked up without trial, for an indefinite period - typically months or years - in desert camps which are as remote from civilisation as it is possible to be. They are held behind razor wire and slowly sink into hopelessness and despair.

Mr Howard's pathological dishonesty has deceived a nation into accepting these obscenities, while he massages our conscience with soft words for hard things. This has become the hallmark of his government. Their prevarication about their knowledge of prisoner abuse in Iraq is becoming increasingly apparent. In the wake of Rod Barton's revelations (4-Corners 14 February 2005), Senator Hill took cover behind the distinction between interrogation and interviewing: a distinction no doubt lost on the shackled and hooded prisoners, already softened up by order of our US allies. It is a distinction which shames those who understand, and makes collaborators of those who hear it without protest.

At its foundations, democracy depends on a base level of honesty in politicians. The essence of democracy is that the elected representatives are chosen because their constituents think this candidate or that will best represent their views in parliament. If a candidate lies about his or her beliefs and values, the democratic process is compromised. The greater the lie, the greater the damage to the true course of democracy.

Equally important, the conduct of politicians sets an example for all of us. A generation of children is learning by watching our leaders: Mr Howard won the 2001 election by lying: he said, falsely, that some refugees had thrown their children overboard. Refugees were the hot issue in November 2001. Mr Howard showed that it is OK to lie as long as you win. The effects of this, and his many other excursions in dishonesty, will take a long time to eradicate.

"Family values" is one of the great catch cries of the Howard Government. They came to office in 1996 under the banner of "Family Values". On the 8th July 2004, in a major speech in Adelaide, Mr. Howard declared that he stands for a "fair and decent society". These are noble sentiments, but are they to be taken at full value or are they to be understood as a special code?

Just a month after the Adelaide speech, the Howard government won an important refugee case in the High Court. Mr al Kateb arrived in Australia in mid-December 2000. He was born in Kuwait. His request for asylum was refused. He found conditions in Woomera so intolerable that he asked to be removed from Australia. Eighteen months later he was still here because, being a stateless Palestinian, there was no country where he was entitled to be and no country was willing to receive him.

The Migration Act provides that a person who comes to Australia without papers must be detained, and they must remain in detention until either they get a visa or they are removed from the country. When the Keating government introduced those measures in 1992, one supposes that Parliament suspected that either of those two outcomes would be available in every instance.

They had not allowed for the anomalous case of stateless people. You might think that a government which has paraded itself virtuously as committed to a fair and decent society, committed to family values, might quickly amend the law to account for these few anomalous cases. But what the government did, in fact, was to argue at every level of the court system that al Kateb, although he has committed no offence in Australia, can be held in detention for the rest of his life. The government won in the High Court, on 6 August 2004.

The thought of an innocent person being jailed for the rest of his life is so shocking that it is impossible to resist the impulse to try and do something about it. Anyone, even the most hardened, must find it a dreadful thing to imagine the circumstances of a person being held in detention forever when they have not committed any offence. It should be a matter of real concern that a government ostensibly committed to a 'fair and decent society' is willing to argue for the right to jail the innocent for life.

Unhappily, most members of the press seem to be unaware of this decision, or unwilling to discuss it. Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtson, Gerard Henderson and their like are voices widely heard, but they cannot bring themselves to acknowldge the depravity of gaoling innocent people for life. They are accomplices to the dishonesty of the government.

Likewise, the treatment of the Bakhtiyari family is impossible to reconcile with Mr Howard's asserted adherence to Christian values and family values.

The family's claim for asylum foundered, apparently because the government thought they came from Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Like all asylum seekers, they were jailed in Woomera.

Locking up innocent people for years has certain fairly obvious and predictable consequences, especially if the prisoners are children. Depending on their age, resilience and personality, children will retreat into depression and incontinence, or they will take charge by harming themselves or attempting suicide. Either way, the effect on children of prolonged detention is devastating.

The Bakhtiyari case gained a certain notoriety, because the two boys escaped from Woomera, having tried to kill themselves at the tender ages of 12 and 14. Regardless of doubt about which country they had fled, one thing is clear: we damaged these children. They are not to blame. The harm they have suffered was the obvious and predictable consequence of the treatment we inflicted.

It continued just before Christmas, when their house in Adelaide was raided and they were taken to Port Augusta in preparation for removal from Australia. The baby had a dirty nappy: the mother was not allowed to change it; the younger girl wet her pants in fright; but she was not allowed to change before the 5 hour drive. Alamdar - his face made familiar to us on TV as he screamed in terror through the steel bars at Woomera - Alamdar is afraid to sleep at night in case of another sudden, wrenching raid. And all the children are haunted by terrors childhood should never know.

Showing compassion to the Bakhtiyari family would have been consistent with family values, Christian charity, fairness and decency - the values Mr Howard claims to hold. His government chose to remove the family, despite increasing public concern.

The government's policy of punitive deterrence has succeeded in shutting off almost completely the trickle of unauthorised arrivals to Australia. The drowning of 353 people on SIEV X effectively ended the people smugglers' trade. It is difficult to imagine that sparing the Bakhtiyari family would have triggered a spate of new arrivals, eager to spend years behind razor wire. From there on the cruelty was truly pointless.

The decision whether to remove the family or let them stay was an interesting test of Howard's pretended Christian values. He failed.

The removal of the Bakhtiyari family reflects on the character of this country's leadership. Mr Howard, Mr Ruddock and Mrs Vanstone are personally responsible for the shocking damage suffered by those children. They hold themselves out as Christians; but at Christmas time in 2004 they denied kindness or compassion to 6 children whose lives they have blighted.

Unfortunately, the government seems concerned that mercy and compassion set a bad precedent. By removing the Bakhtiyaris, the government sent a message: not to people smugglers, but to us. Its message to us is this: We hold absolute power; we do not have to acknowledge public sentiment; we can crush anyone who messes with us.

This is why honesty matters. Imagine the reaction at the polls if John Howard had told the truth. Imagine if, in 2001, he had said:

"I know the asylum seekers did not throw their children overboard - they were just doing what any decent parent would do - they were trying to save them from the Taliban, or Saddam Hussein."

Imagine if, in 2004, he had said:

"My government locks up innocent people. We treat them cruelly, because we want to discourage others from seeking help. We have power to gaol innocent people for life. I will not help the Bakhtiyari children at Christmas time because I don't have to. I will show compassion for popular victims."

Imagine how different things might be if we had an honest Opposition. Too timid to take a stand, the Labor party has spent the last 8 years nodding passively at every failure of human rights, every bit of dishonesty, every erosion of basic rights. By tolerating the government's dishonesty, the Opposition has failed itself and us.

Imagine also how different things might be if the press in this country had shown some spine over the past few years. Many - perhaps most - journalists in Australia today shy away from unpopular truths, and have oddly displaced values. The recent case of Cornelia Rau provides an interesting example. Cornelia Rau was held in immigration detention for nearly a year - initially in a Queensland prison, then in Baxter. Her mental derangement was plainly apparent to other detainees. The officials at Baxter deemed her to be mentally sound, but showing 'behavioural difficulties' - eating dirt, tearing her clothes off. She was held in isolation for most of the time. As long as she was Anna, 'an illegal' no one outside the refugee network was interested, despite Pamela Curr's valiant attempts to bring her story to light. Once it was revealed that she is an Australian citizen, the press was in uproar. The story ran for weeks.

In the wake of the Cornelia Rau story, other stories of systemic cruelty in Baxter emerged. For example, Francis Milne, one of the centre's volunteers from the Uniting Church told the story of Hassan, a 37-year-old Algerian man. He spent 9 weeks in solitary confinement in Baxter because he had threatened to commit suicide. He was subjected to a cavity search in front of two females.

And there is the case of Amin, who was in Baxter with his 7 year old daughter.

On the 14th of July 2003, 3 ACM guards entered Amin's room and ordered him to strip. He refused, because his 7-year old daughter was in the room. When he refused to strip, the guards beat him up, handcuffed him, and took him to the "Management Unit" - the same place Cornelia Rau spent much of her time.

The Management Unit is a series of solitary confinement cells.

I have viewed a video tape of one of the Management Unit cells. It shows a cell about 3 metres square, with a matress on the floor. There is no other furniture; the walls are bare. A doorway, with no door, leads into a tiny bathroom. The cell has no view outside; the light is on 24 hours a day. The occupant has nothing to read, no writing materials, no TV or radio; no company yet no privacy because a video camera observes and records everything, 24 hours a day. The detainee is kept in the cell 23 hours a day. For half an hour a day he is allowed into a small exercise area where he can see the sky.

There he stayed from 14 July until 23 July: each 24 hours relieved only by a half-hour visit from his daughter. But on 23 July she did not come. It was explained to him that she had been taken shopping in Port Augusta.

The next day, 24 July, she did not arrive for her visit: the manager came and explained that the daughter was back in Tehran. She had been removed from Australia under cover of a lie, without giving Amin the chance to say goodbye to her.

Anyone who has visited Baxter knows stories like these. But these stories disappear without a trace because the press, with some honourable exceptions, are only interested in the suffereings of an Australian resident.

In presenting an unbalanced view of Australia's conduct, by not exposing the dishonesty of the Howard government, the press engages in its own form of dishonesty. They help maintain the comfortable illusion of our own worthiness, and we are blind to a society turning sour. When the process is complete, when we have been stripped of our liberties for our own protection, when the values which once held this nation high have been terminally debased, then we will realise that honesty matters.