The 2015 Hamer Oration: What sort of country are we?

Australia is meant to be the country of a “fair go”. How can that be reconciled with a lack of concern for human rights violations?

Cruelty to boat people is only the most visible example of injustice in Australian society. Most marginalised groups in Australian society will experience injustice in ways most of us are spared: the homeless, the elderly, those with a mental disability, the original inhabitants of this vast country. Examples of injustice are not hard to find, but it remains a paradox.

In this year’s Annual Hamer Oration, Julian Burnside AO QC explores the true meaning of human rights and how Australia’s history and behaviour stands in strong contrast to its democratic beliefs. Once we get past political finger pointing, will we find we’ve only ourselves to blame?

Julian Burnside is a barrister based in Melbourne. He specialises in commercial litigation. He joined the Bar in 1976 and took silk in 1989.

He acted for the Ok Tedi natives against BHP, for Alan Bond in fraud trials, for Rose Porteous in numerous actions against Gina Rinehart, and for the Maritime Union of Australia in the 1998 waterfront dispute against Patrick Stevedores. He was Senior Counsel assisting the Australian Broadcasting Authority in the “Cash for Comment” inquiry and was senior counsel for Liberty Victoria in the Tampa litigation.

He is a former President of Liberty Victoria, and has acted pro bono in many human rights cases, in particular concerning the treatment of refugees. In 2004 he was elected as a Living National Treasure. In 2009 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia. In 2014 he was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize.