I rarely go to conferences these days. I just can’t bring myself to fill in the registration forms anymore - it’s a reaction to a misspent youth.
Those of us who experienced the annual meetings of the old Australian Union of Students (which died in ’83) have no fear of what a conference can present: crowded rooms for set-piece theatrics between every shade of political opinion, except mainstream; smoke-filled kitchen cabinet arguments about whether ditching the policy on Palestine would stop the funding of the attacks on the organisation; days of midnight to dawn marathons of passionate debate about a resolution that would have the same impact on the wider world if it were lost as if it were carried. (What did those Carlton pharmacists think we skinny kids were doing with so many diet pills?)
I used to see fellow conference virtuosos appearing at a host of other events: overseas aid council meetings, national homosexual conferences, disarmament conferences, youth summits. The biggest I recall was the Australian nuclear disarmament conference in Melbourne in 1985 - the most productive a small gathering of Philippines support groups in Austinmer to map out an Australian agenda against military aid to Marcos.
But for me, conference fatigue began to set in later in the 80s, when I started work with the newly formed Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, responsible for liaising with non-government human rights groups. I went to an enormous variety of national gatherings of every sort of human rights and social policy group to discuss how their issues could be pursued within a human rights framework.
Sometimes with colleagues, but mostly on my own, I got a full immersion in the culture of complaint. And at the same time, a better understanding of being a fish out of water. The able-bodied person at the disability conference; the Anglo at the ethnic conference, the whitefella at the Aboriginal conference; the childless at the children’s conference.
Lots came out of this work - ideas were developed for disability discrimination legislation, inquiries into racist violence and removal of Aboriginal children, and for the ratification of the convention on the rights of the child. But eventually I was taken off the case - I got to the stage that I couldn’t face another conference. I’d fly to the event, but couldn’t leave my hotel room to collect another plastic name tag and drink another International Roast coffee.
In the 1990s I basically only attended conferences as a guest speaker, or to a accompany a minister or a Board member or an Australian of the Year. In and out. That was achievable.
Or I organised smaller dispersed conferences, in so many locations that only locals could attend. In 1996 and 1997 around Australia Day, dozens of communities hosted “Australia Consults” meetings - discussing the future of the country, reconciliation, a republic and the approaching Centenary of Federation.
But when the Howard government settled in, there was a complete change of mood. I had planned to stay for the whole length of the 1997 national reconciliation convention, but in the first main plenary, the Prime Minister turned his back on the reconciliation process. I gave my speech half heartedly in the following session, then went drinking with everyone else.
Government started to dampen down independent thinking about the future of the country, to slowly roll-out a backward looking agenda, and latterly to play to our fears rather than our hopes.
One of Howard’s first acts was to sack a bold, independent, thinking woman who had just been appointed to lead the Centenary of Federation celebrations and help shape our national identity into the future. There was nothing accidental in these early moves.
The community sector conferences started to take two broad directions - either conservative and oppositional, like how to maintain basic decency, and organise against government initiatives like detention of refugee children and “work choices”. Or some which tried to redefine the community sector into a government agenda - call this social entrepreneurship, not social welfare, just keep giving us the money!
So why am I enthusiastic about a relatively small two-day conference in April? Because it is a big gesture which says clearly that we have permission to start thinking about the future again. The flow-on effects are already starting. Schools want to have their own future summits, difficult long term issues are emerging for community debate. And that’s before it’s all really started.
It’s only two days and 1,000 people. Who gets to go is not as important as the fact that it is occurring at all, and that there’s such media attention to the attendance. Some will see it as a revival of the mythical Keating elites; the start of European-style social planning; a talk fest. I see it as the start of a restoration of confidence in Australian culture, identity and ingenuity, and a faith that we can think about future challenges, and find what we need to face them.