Julian Burnside’s chambers are on the 30th floor of a skyscraper in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD. It’s an office filled with books piled high, files, document boxes and clutter. Art lines the walls and is stacked against furniture. A folder on the desk is labelled, simply, “reform”. Burnside is a barrister, Queen’s Counsel and human-rights advocate – a busy man, with a busy office.

“You can photograph anything except the messy parts,” he says to our photographer.

“So,” I say, looking around at the detritus of his work, “… Where?”

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Burnside laughs and extends his middle finger at me.

Gillian Triggs – an international lawyer, professor and the former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission – is here too. During her five-year tenure as president, her clashes with the coalition government over its widely condemned asylum-seeker policies are legendary.

We’re all here to talk about Border Politics, a new documentary directed by Judy Rymer, fronted by Burnside and featuring Triggs. Burnside is styled as a sleeves-up globetrotting advocate investigating Australia’s treatment of innocent people seeking asylum and interrogating whether or not it stacks up with the way other governments treat refugees around the world.

In the film we watch as half a million refugees from Syria, Iraq and other war-torn countries pass through the Greek island of Lesbos en route to mainland Europe. Many end up in the Calais Jungle, a vast shanty town in France encircled by razor wire. Some attempt to reach the English Channel – four razor-wired fences and a highway away. But people try it anyway – a reflection of their desperation and desire to find a safer home for their families – and they’re treated like criminals for their actions.

Burnside is a charming host. The film begins with him standing on a Sydney clifftop, surveying the coastline where the first Europeans arrived. Border Politics is at its most optimistic during visits to tight-knit communities in Germany and Scotland, where asylum seekers have been embraced by the locals. Burnside kneels and does coin tricks for young refugees, who are in school, clothed and safe. Then, we head to Australia.

The UN High Commission for Human Rights has called Australia’s offshore detention centres “unsustainable, inhumane and contrary to its human rights obligations”. Asylum seekers who have tried to reach Australia are kept where we can’t see them, and not even Triggs, as the country’s top human rights administrator, was allowed to visit Manus Island or Nauru during her term.

For Burnside the 2001 Tampa affair, when the Howard government refused to allow a boatload of mainly Afghani refugees into Australian waters, marks the beginning of our current refugee crisis. Burnside was asked to act pro bono for the asylum seekers on board.

“I knew nothing about refugees,” he says. “But I felt the heat, and I could imagine what it must have been like on the deck of a steel ship in the tropical sun. When I learned what was going on I was horrified.” The Tampa affair coincided with September 11, and Burnside argues the Howard government shrewdly exploited the rising fear of outsiders to introduce a new legislative framework that would make it virtually impossible for asylum seekers to reach our shores, which remains today.

“There’s something in Australia’s DNA that fears what used to be called the ‘yellow peril’,” Triggs says. “It’s something that politicians, from the beginning of the White Australia policy, have always used.”

Her way in to human rights advocacy was similar to Burnside’s. As an international commercial lawyer Triggs had worked with oil and gas companies before becoming Sydney University’s law faculty dean from 2007 to 2012. Before she joined the Human Rights Commission she’d had no stake in the plight of refugees.

“But for me it was obvious,” she says. “You look at the facts, you know the law … The government is acting inconsistently with international law. It was obvious, and it was my job.”

The pair became high-profile and often-polarising soldiers in the war of words between those who want to uphold the current system – the government, the opposition, and some sections of the media – and those who oppose it. Despite regularly facing attacks by conservative politicians and press for their views, Triggs and Burnside both consider themselves conservatives.

“To promote human rights is actually a deeply conservative thing,” Triggs argues. “These principles were developed at the end of the Second World War. It’s deeply conservative to ask that we abide by these treaties.

“Once you’re talking to people in detention centres, who’ve been there for years, with no hope, in the heat and indignity of these spiteful and illegal processes, you may be conservative, but you have to speak up.”

Triggs admits she wasn’t prepared for the ferocity of the personal attacks she received during her tenure, but acknowledges that it helped build her public profile, which can benefit the cause.

“I’ve been a professional lawyer for 50 years this year, and I’d never been in the public arena. Suddenly, I am – I’ll use it.”

The film, they hope, will have similar reverberations, and Burnside hopes Border Politics is seen by those who disagree with him.

“I want to try and persuade ordinary Australians who have fallen for the government’s rhetoric to see things as they really are,” he says. “At least they’ll get some facts and they’ll be able to decide for themselves if what we’re doing is appropriate or reasonable … But getting the facts out is unbelievably difficult.”

“I’ve done everything within my legal training and experience,” Triggs says. “I’ve [worked] quietly in the corridors of power. I’ve stayed away from the media and tried to do it behind the scenes. You’re dealt, at worst, with hostility, and at best with cool courtesy. It’s almost impossible to get real engagement with this issue.”

“I’ve tried everything I can think of. Nothing’s worked,” Burnside adds. The pair also believes that media coverage is partly to blame.

“Calling asylum seekers ‘illegal’ for a start [is] probably the most powerful lie they use,” Triggs says. (It is not illegal under the 1951 Refugee Convention to seek asylum in a foreign country, and to enter without a valid visa to do so.)

Border Politics is an attempt to get the message across in a more direct way, and to rally those outside the halls of government, where both Triggs and Burnside believe there’s support for a different approach to refugees.

“There’s a huge disconnect between what’s happening out there in the real world, and what’s happening in Canberra,” Triggs says. “Leadership, or lack of it, is a crucial ingredient. I think it’s what Australians are looking for. We’re all demeaned by this. It’s a dark patch in Australian history.”

We wrap up our conversation because both have to return to work, and I’m reminded that this is extra-curricular for them. Neither has a financial stake in the film. They just want the things that they’ve seen – people with no hope, no plan, in limbo – to enter the national psyche. Only then, they believe, can things change.

“On the Isle of Bute, I was so impressed that the Scots had resettled over a thousand Syrian refugees,” says Burnside of a visit to Scotland, shown in the film. “Not only resettled them, but made them welcome. They were really embraced by the community. I asked a number of people why they were doing this and they said these people are human beings – they need help. I thought that was fantastic.

“I wish we could get a politician who would say those words.”

Border Politics premieres at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival on May 15 in Melbourne. A wider nationwide release follows from June 13.

Border Politics Q&A screenings with Julian Burnside and Judy Rymer:

June 13 – Cinema Nova, Carlton

July 1 – Randwick Ritz, Randwick

July 4 – Wallis Mitcham, Torrens Park


July 11 – Odeon Cinemas, Orange

July 19 – Luna, Leederville