Watching Out by Julian Burnside

Erich Mayer

Burnside explains, with clarity and passion, how the Australian legal system works.
Watching Out by Julian Burnside

Book cover image: Watching Out by Julian Burnside  – Scribe Publications 2017.

The objective of a legal system should be to administer justice. In Watching Out, Julian Burnside explains, with clarity and passion, how the Australian legal system works. He cites many examples including some where the legal system has not delivered justice, and he suggests ways that the legal system could be improved.

Burnside confesses that what really interests him is fairness and he tells us something of his background to explain why he feels so strongly about this. ‘Justice interests me much more than the law does. So this is a book about a chimera: a creature that does not exist, but that is real enough in my mind.’

Watching Out is aimed at the lay reader. It is not a textbook, nor a series of lectures for law students. Perhaps it most resembles a number of friendly but serious fire-side monologues designed to give the listener a good understanding of why things are as they are and how sometimes bad results ensue.

Burnside goes as far back in time as the Magna Carta and as far afield as the American Declaration of Independence. He strongly favours the introduction of a Bill of Rights in Australia – one superior to the outdated models in some jurisdictions.

The different ways in which the criminal and the civil law work are illustrated with reference to the inherent injustice that occurs when the resources of one party greatly outweigh the resources of the other party. There are chapters on negligence, class actions, petrol price fluctuations, euthanasia, and the Stolen Generations, covering numerous examples of how the law deals with such situations.

There is a stark reminder that a valid law is not necessarily a good law. And that in turn leads to the point that parliaments should not be able to make laws that infringe upon fundamental human rights. The exact substance of these rights can, and should be, debated but in this context Burnside draws attention to intelligent self-interest, or ‘the golden rule’: that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He points out that this doctrine ‘is found in most religious and secular philosophies’, from Christianity to Brahmanism, Buddhism to Confucianism, Islam to Taoism. ‘The same principle has been advanced…by Epictetus, Plato, Socrates, Seneca and Kant’, he confirms.

Burnside is well known for his advocacy for people seeking asylum. He leaves the reader in no doubt that Australia’s treatment of ‘boat people’ is in total contravention of their rights as human beings. What we Australians are doing to those people is illegal by international law and, at least by some interpretations of the law, illegal by Australian law too. Unquestionably it does not fit ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

As a result of his advocacy for asylum seekers, Burnside received a lot of hate mail over a period of five years. Because much of it was by email, it allowed him to reply with the facts, which he did in every case. He concluded that ‘more than half of the people who wrote these screaming emails ended up by saying in substance, Thank you for discussing this with me. I agree with you now.’ Such responses are testament to the persuasive power and passion Burnside brings to the whole of Watching Out.

4 1/2 stars out of 5

Watching Out by Julian Burnside
Scribe Publications
Format: Paperback
Size: 234mm × 153mm
Extent: 272pp
ISBN (13):9781925322323
RRP: $29.99

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog