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Democracy And The Law Threatened By Howard Government: Burnside

In an interview published in The Bulletin magazine today, Julian Burnside QC argues that democracy and the separation of powers is under threat in Australia because of the Howard Government’s attitude to refugees.

Burnside is quoted as saying: “The government has attacked the High Court and the Federal Court. It has politicised the public service, the office of governor-general and the armed forces. What’s left? These are meant to be apolitical arms of government where each functions independently of the others. The current regime does not seem to recognise this”.

Lawyers and Courts have been dealt out of the of the legal process through recent legislative changes. As the article points out, “the Federal Court is now precluded from reviewing the merits of Refugee Review Tribunal decisions or those made by the minister”. This has prompted an unprecedented conflict between the judiciary and the government that Burnside says is a basic attack on the doctrine of separation of powers.

Burnside criticises the media for being unable to interrogate the Howard Government over its asylum seekers policy. He accuses it of twisting language, as the Nazis did, to achieve their ends. The government engages in “doublespeak”, a term coined by George Orwell in his novel 1984.

An article by Burnside on the dangers and dishonesty of Doublespeak – a means of smuggling uncomfortable ideas into comfortable minds – cites a number of terms as evidence of the manipulation of language in relation to refugees:

  • illegals – a term that makes it easier to lock up people without trial. Refugees are entitled under international law to seek asylum. They have broken no law.
  • queue-jumpers – a term that assumes there is a queue and that it is appropriate to queue when your life is at risk.
  • detained – locked up without trial for an indefinite period.
  • detainee – prisoner.
  • Immigration Reception and Processing Centres – remote desert camps ringed by razor wire.
  • energised fences – electric fences.
  • extraction – the removal of a prisoner from a detention centre for deportation.
  • security checks – twice-nightly dormitory checks, accompanied by shining torches in faces and demanding identification. Fits the standard definition of torture.
  • inappropriate behaviour – suicide, self-harm or other desperate measures by detainees.
  • to manipulate the government or public policy – the aim of “inappropriate behaviour”, thus the victim becomes the offender.
  • Migration Legislation Amendment (Procedural Fairness) Bill 2002 – the title of federal legislation which removes the right of the courts to review decisions of the Refugee Review Tribunal or the Minister for Immigration. Procedural fairness is normally achieved through recourse to legal action.

This is a selection of quotations from The Bulletin interview with Julian Burnside, conducted by Maxine McKew, published July 10, 2002.

  • “The government’s position is based on some significant lies.”
  • The detainees at Woomera and Curtin .. are wrongly characterised as “illegals”. They have a right under international law to claim asylum from persecution. That’s what they’re doing. They have committed no crime. They are innocent. Yet they are locked up indefinitely. People are at breaking point because they feel the hopelessness of it all.
  • “It’s just impossible to learn the facts and not feel for these people. And I believe with complete conviction that what we’re doing is profoundly wrong and it should stop.”
  • “I have a plan. How about we put all Australian politicians in detention until they have read Shakespeare’s tragedies, all of Dostoevsky, and have listened to all of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Exposure of this kind might just induce a civilised response where at present we have barbarism.”
  • “Lawyers are almost completely powerless. Why? Because at the moment the legislation is stacked against the refugees. They’re a deeply unpopular group in our society. But that’s the point. If the law can’t protect the voiceless, the unpopular, then it is failing. And it could just as easily be another powerless group that becomes the target next time.”
  • Quoting Justice Graham Hill of the Federal Court: “This time it is refugee decisions that, while wrong, cannot be challenged. Next time it might be some other decision that could personally affect you and your rights”.
  • “There are some fundamentals about the way a democratic system works that are now being seriously challenged. My impression is that our present government is more interested in power than anything else. The government has attacked the High Court and the Federal Court. It has politicised the public service, the office of governor-general and the armed forces. What’s left? These are meant to be apolitical arms of government where each functions independently of the others. The current regime does not seem to recognise this.”
  • .. There’s a reason people should care and it’s this. If you look back 100 years, a country such as Argentina was similar in many respects to Australia. But history has not dealt kindly with Argentina. There’s absolutely no guarantee Australia will continue to be the open, cheerful, prosperous democratic country it has been for 100 years. Nothing guarantees that. If we’re prepared to damage our democratic institutions, and sacrifice our fundamental freedoms, then there’s a real chance we’ll stop being such a place.”
  • “The Nazis were masters at [doublespeak]. The Howard government is an enthusiastic apprentice.” Burnside says it’s nothing less than a “deceit” to constantly disparage people as “queue-jumpers and illegals”. This sort of trickery, he says, “can deceive a nation and hand electoral victory to the morally bankrupt”.
  • “The truth of our treatment of refugees is deeply shocking. Yet the government uses doublespeak to conceal the truth. We’re emulating pre-war Germany in both action and language.”

See also: www.julianburnside.com

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