Watching Out by Julian Burnside

Julian Burnside, intellectual hero of the left and early advocate for the rights of asylum seekers, voted Liberal in every election from 1972 to 1996. And while he infamously defended the MUA in the waterfront dispute with Patrick Stevedores, it was more due to his adherence to the ‘taxi-cab’ rule of being a barrister – taking any case offered if available and reasonably compensated for it – than any political or even moral allegiance. (Though he’s now glad he was on the side of the union.) These contradictions make him especially interesting as a thinker and accidental activist: he’s driven not by ideology, but by the law, learned experience and his personal morals.

Watching Out, the successor to his bestseller Watching Brief, explains the basics of our legal system, how it works and how and why it fails, using this framework (and real-life cases) to explore the difference between the law and justice, and how we might bridge the existing gap between the two. Along the way, he traces the political and legal evolution (devolution?) of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers since the Tampa affair. He also deftly analyses the case for an Australian bill of rights, comparing possible models with those of other western societies – and emphasising that the much-touted US Bill of Rights was originally not about human rights, but ‘all about constraining the power of the new federal government’ in a nation built on repelling a colonial monarchy. (A fascinating detail, in the context of America’s pathological fear of government intervention.)

‘A denial of basic rights is not compatible with a just society,’ Burnside writes. ‘Equally, a society that denies these rights is unlikely to be a decent society since, with few exceptions, the elements of human rights coincide with the dictates of morality.’ Australia, he logically concludes, is not a just society, contrary to our image of ourselves as champions of the ‘fair go’.


Jo Case is the editor of Readings Monthly and a bookseller at Readings Doncaster.

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Watching Out: Reflections on Justice and Injustice

Watching Out: Reflections on Justice and Injustice

Julian Burnside

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