“Just as a person’s character is judged by their conduct, so a country’s character is judged by its conduct. Australia is now judged overseas by its behaviour as cruel and selfish”… said Julian Burnside AO QC.
The Sydney barrister, human rights advocate, writer and winner of the City of Sydney Peace Prize 2014 received his award from Professor The Hon. Dame Marie Bashir in front of thousands of people at the Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday 5th November 2014.
After accepting his award Julian Burnside delivered the Sydney Peace Prize Lecture presenting us with a very sobering set of thought-provoking facts for consideration.
“We treat frightened, innocent people as criminals. It is a profound injustice,” Burnside said, urging us to react to facts not fear.
He made the point “where there is injustice there will not be peace,”
By the turn of 21st century Australia had developed a robust multi cultural life, its citizen’s applying creative ideas to help generate innovative solutions in the fields of medical research, science, design, the arts, resource management and sustainable urban living.
And, we became envied as a ‘lucky country’. However these perceptions have changed dramatically and it’s only taken us a decade for us collectively to unravel ideas about who we are and what we stand for as a nation
The facts delivered in the Sydney Peace Prize Lecture by Julian-Burnside, should challenge all Australians to re-think our attitude and approach to dealing with people seeking asylum.
Burnside declared in a committed, clear, concise and succinct manner “the point of my talk tonight – my plea to you all – is simple: do not tolerate injustice …”
He reminded us all that “… the low-point of our attitude to asylum seekers (so far, at least) was reached during the 2013 Federal election.
Both major parties courted political favour by promising cruelty to boat people.
He noted, “It is a measure of our times that promising cruelty to a group of human beings could attract political support at all…And, “ it is a fair bet promising cruelty to animals would not have worked in quite the same way” at all.
He pleaded we should “… see past the lies of politicians and see the truth…we need to recognise that our politicians have persuaded us to tolerate – even to reward – cruelty which is utterly alien to our character: they have persuaded us to betray the true character of the country”
Not surprisingly after hearing what he had to say the audience rose as one and gave him a standing ovation.
… power is a trust and we are all accountable for its exercise; from the people and for the people all springs and all must exist …**
During the last fifty years of the 20th century Australia enjoyed the longest extended period of peace since the English settled this land with convicts.
After 1788 and in our first 100 years of foreign settlement it was individual character that became the inducement to great actions and many Australian immigrant pioneers went on to great achievements.
Combining practical experience with common sense meant our ancestors became renowned as a progressive society, one who saw a challenge as a reason to be creative and innovative, as well as one that gave everyone a ‘fair go’.
Those who worked the land and those who imagined the cities understood the enormity of the tasks they faced, establishing a reputation internationally for hard work, fairness and freedom for all.
Many strove for the ‘greater good’.
The majority did not want old habits and gradually shed old traditions and convictions, making new ones and only keeping those they regarded affectionately, like plum pudding at Xmas and hot cross buns at Easter.
They wanted their politicians to increase public service, to feed the poor and guard the land in case of war. Above all they expected them to respect the law and execute good and fair justice.
The Governor, the Crown’s representative, stood for the power of the State and Queen Victoria granted us justice in spite of much opposition. However it was the people who really exercised the power.
Our population boosted by the descendants of that first influx of free settlers, rapidly increased by immigration from Europe, especially during the two decades that followed World War II.
This gradually became the multicultural land of opportunity, one we enjoy today because our forefathers believed in hard work and for fighting for justice for all.
Today its one layers of diversity enrich ennoble and embolden us all.
We are all called upon to know about how knowledge of our past can help us to reinvent the future and, we can all make our voices heard.
If we don’t how can we continue to pursue our livelihood unless we become an integral part of an enlightened majority who are all animated by the ‘spirit of the age’.
So what has happened to that formerly renowned relaxed Australian ‘G’day mate’ style and character, the one forged at great expense by our ancestors.
Their perseverance in this great tough sunburnt red and brown land of paradoxes and opportunities had an aim of retaining Australia as a crucible for change?
Julian Burnside reminded us of that our collective responsibility as a nation is great and that we need to be vigilant to ensure hard won freedoms would be passed on to all who live within Australia’s borders in the future. And, we will be unable to achieve that if we remain complacent.
Jane Singleton AM, Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation at the announcement of this year’s winner had said,
“Julian Burnside is a splendid choice” for the Peace prize. All the nominations received were remarkable people doing extraordinary things and in a myriad of ways. However the jury making the decision chose Burnside for his “… unflinching advocacy and commitment,”
So we need to decide if our commitment is to a fair and honest society providing everyone with an equal opportunity for a better life with both the freedoms and feistiness we became renowned for to the forefront.
Australia became renowned for being a creative country one of great optimism… are we still worthy? Does the prospect of being involved in the development of our towns, cities and country as an exciting place to be still appeal.
Will we serve our country well too and leave a mark on the history of this place?
The question has to be asked are we as our ancestors were “… no rude, uncultivated horde of quarrelsome border men as systematically represented by the metropolitan press in the past. The faults others affected to find with us are all upon the surface. Beneath lies the strong sense of those who value the privilege too highly not to use it well”*.
The Sydney Peace Foundation message is Peace with Justice‘… a way of thinking and acting which promotes nonviolent solutions to everyday problems and thereby contributes to a civil society’
To achieve justice for all we need to come together with perseverance, unanimity and determination.
We need to deliver Australia to world perceptions as a crucible for change…
…change, change is inevitable and in a progressive country, change is constant.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
*Speeches of 19th Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli