Julian Burnside
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Justinian in Julian Burnside, On the Couch

Fast sleeper Julian Burnside is On The Couch ... His latest book is a must for all good shelves ... Watching Out: reflections on justice and injustice ... A book about a chimera ... Fresh confessions are unburdened 

Burnside: frightened of failure

Julian Burnside QC specialises in commercial litigation, which has not disguised the fact that he is one of Australia's leading human rights advocates, particularly with his work for refugees. 

He is a former president of Liberty Victoria, is a passionate lover of the arts and chair of Melbourne arts venue fortyfivedownstairs. For good measure, he regularly commissions musical compositions. 

He has published a children's book, Matilda and the Dragon, as well as Wordwatching, a collection of essays on the uses and abuses of the English language, and Watching Brief: reflections on human rights, law, and justice

Now comes Watching Out: reflections on justice and injustice. In his introduction to the book Burnside says at first he was uncertain about the project. He didn't want it to be an autobiography, or a collection of war stories. 

Instead, he thought it should be a book about the justice system. When he told a friend about this idea, she pointed out that we do not have a justice system - we have a legal system. The author says: 

"But a book about the legal system sounds to me a bit too much like a textbook. And, anyway, I am not sure how much the legal system interests me ... 

Justice interests me much more than law does. So this is a book about a chimera: a creature that does not exist, but that is real enough in the mind." 

We tried to get inside Burnside's mind by inviting him onto Justinian's couch. Here goes ... 

Describe yourself in three words.

Driven, anxious, inadequate.

What are you currently reading? 

"Sapiens," by Yuval Harari. 

What's your favourite play?

"Artist Descending a Staircase," by Tom Stoppard.

Who has been the most influential person in your life? 

Professor Louis Waller.

When were you happiest? 

When I married Kate. 

What is your favourite piece of music? 

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15, 3rd movement. 

The law ... writing ... the arts ... refugees. What are your secrets of time management? 

Sleep faster. 

What is in your refrigerator? 

Chicken, vegetables, garlic, ice creams.

Have you a favourite recipe that you would like to share? 


What makes you frightened? 


Why did you write "Watching Out – reflections on justice and injustice" and what are you seeking to say

The legal system exists in order to deliver Justice. We should never forget that.

Who would you like to play you in a film about your life?

I would not want to inflict on anyone a film about my life. 

Who would you most like to be with in a lift that has broken down? 

A lift mechanic. 

Why law, and not another worthwhile pursuit in life? 

It was a lucky accident.  

What was your most interesting case as a barrister? 

The Waterfront dispute in 1998. 

What was the most important opportunity you didn't take? 

In a different universe I might have been an artist. 

Do you sometimes feel it's all too much and you should just chuck it in? 

No.  If you keep trying, you might just win.  If you chuck it in, you will lose.

If you were on death row, what would you request for your last meal?  


If you were a foodstuff, what would you be?

Probably something disappointing, like broccoli. 

Who do you most admire professionally?

Bret Walker SC. 

What is your favourite word?


What would you change about Australia?

The politicians. 

What comes into your mind when you shut your eyes and think of the word "law"? 

"Could do better."

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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