“I’m not ready yet. I’m just beginning to understand things.”

If these are not the last words that Julian Burnside ever utters, they will, he says, define one of his very last thoughts. And, no. It’s not my fault that this chap — who may, at 67, not even be described as physically “spry”, but more precisely as boyish — is talking about death. Who am I? Australian Story? It’s his fault. Or, rather, it is the fault of conversation, to which Burnside appears to commit very fully.

He said he had little time to talk. I know he had little time to talk, as his smartphone, then purportedly on vacation with its owner, won’t quit its noise. He addresses it every now and then with some muffled legal wisdom and then returns to resume the thread of conversation that had already unravelled for me. We have talked Hobbes, Locke, God, the fiction of race and the obfuscating mysticism of the Enlightenment before getting down to the business of Burnside. The man can almost out-talk me. He can certainly out-quote most.

I ask him to perform a level-check into the microphone, and he recounts a fable, about lemmings, with the moral: “All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.” These words, James Thurber’s, are instructive, says Burnside, which is why we will find him on his deathbed, still tracing the shape of the world and his movement within it.

Burnside, as you likely know, is a barrister, a refugee advocate and a man with an honourable alphabet of letters appended by others to his name. Not the Burnside résumé and, certainly, not the Burnside schedule — into which me and the Crikey digital recorder were thankful to be squeezed — evince a life largely spent in conversation. Still. He’ll talk and, moreover, he will listen. In the hope, I’m guessing, that this might accelerate the lessons that one must learn before death.

I had met Burnside a few times — most recently at a Town Hall speech, where he’d selected Larkin’s This Be The Verse as a mic check — and considered him stubborn and forthright enough to be a candidate for Up Yours. I tell him this.

“So, you’re saying I’m stubborn.”

“Um. Yes.”

“I’m not particularly stubborn. Why would you say that I’m stubborn?”

“OK. Maybe you have relentless optimism of the will.”

“That’s different.”

“Yes?”

“Let’s say, I don’t quit easily.”

Let’s say that. Certainly, the commercial clients of this top silk would. As would his pro bono clients, to whom he offers at least a quarter of his labour. As would I when he has clearly won this front-room dispute about the Enlightenment. The man commits, and he doesn’t quit.

His commitment to change the minds of Australians on asylum seekers — he has given up changing the policy of truly stubborn politicians — was one many found novel. Melbourne Grammar old boys from reputable homes aren’t in the habit of advocating for the powerless. One might buy a silent auction item for charity every so often. Even add to the old CV by sitting on some no-impact diversity board. One doesn’t go about decrying the policy of a party for which one has always voted, however. But Burnside did quit voting for Howard back in 1996. And now, he won’t quit publicly criticising the cruelty of both major parties.

Something changed.

“I do think my political position, such as it is, had been more or less consistent for perhaps 50 years, but I did have a moment which shifted my attitude from being politically indifferent and disengaged to being interested, and that was the Waterfront dispute.”

Before that case, in which Burnside represented the Maritime Union of Australia, he had “presumed government to be benign, to be doing boring, necessary work”. In the case of the landmark dispute, however, he began to hold the view that government could be perilously dishonest.  

And Burnside became, I’d say, stubborn when this realisation hit.

A year or two ago, I had offered one of my many unstuck tirades to social media. In offering one of his many compelling arguments to a hall full of people about refugee policy, Burnside decided to reproduce my outburst in speech. He wrote, as a barrister would, to seek permission for its use. For reasons still unclear to me, he thought my obscenity could help make his case against our nation’s brutal and bipartisan asylum seeker policies. What followed was a long and quite ardent exchange of thoughts. For weeks, we discussed what could and could not be effectively done in the public realm to close the camps and prise open the eyes of onlookers.   

“You’re a keen correspondent,” I tell him.

“Dogged. I’m a dogged correspondent.”

“Back when email was the most acceptable mode of abusing people, I decided I would answer every instance of abuse. I decided to attempt to persuade, and so I did. All who had sent messages would respond to my reply and some of them would say ‘I didn’t realise these things, I agree with you’, while others would dismiss me. Still, about 50% would, in substance, agree with me and then another 25% would shift from calling me an arsehole and would allow that they respected my views. A significant movement, I think.”

Burnside said he gained the impression that people were contacting him less because they were interested in debating immigration. “This was not their primary interest. A lot of these correspondences came from people accustomed to being ignored.”

Those with whom he doggedly corresponded would melt from icy abuse “to room-temperature politeness”.

There are people out there, he says, who feel outside of the fabric of conversation. And then, he resumes the thread of another conversation, and weaves me in. It’s a project he won’t quit.

Read the rest of the other interviews in this series here.

Peter Fray

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