A thousand community delegates from across the country have laughed, cried, been confronted, and been inspired by the only conference in the land with more powerful communities as its goal.
Australia’s progressive leaders, thinkers and doers converged for the two-day event aimed at “activating community leadership to combat inequality”.
Hosted at Melbourne’s Moonee Valley Racing Club, over Monday and Tuesday, May 28-29, 2018, observers marveled at the upbeat mood of delegates displaying the open-mindedness, determination and thirst for change that marks out our conference as unlike any other..
Those delegates weren’t left dismayed in their hope for useful "homework", as a baker’s dozen of great thinkers, achievers, activists and artists took to the stage to surprise, delight, and provoke.
Among the speakers included:
- GillianTriggs, former Australian Human Rights Commission President
- Stan Grant, ABC Indigenous Affairs Editor and PM’s advisor on aboriginal inequality
- Mary Gentile, US education pioneer, on overcoming barriers to acting ethically
- Jamila Rizvi, political commentator on why women do the work but don't take the credit
- Annabel Crabb, political journalist on how communities in control could look
- Philip Wollen, animal rights advocate, and ex-VP of Citibank, on animal suffering
- Hugh Mackay, social researcher on why the state of the nation starts in your street
- Nicholas Gruen, economist whose political ideals reference ancient Athens
- Kathy Kelly, who lost two sons to tragedy, then strove to change a broken system
- Jax Jacki Brown, Disability and LGBTIQ rights activist on what’s holding us all back
- Paul Higgins, professional futurist explains the keys to change
- Kutcha Edwards, Indigenous musician and storyteller, who’ll open our conference
- Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa, a Sikh slam poet with an eye to Aussie identity
Inspiration you can act on
For community groups trying to do a lot with so little, the affordable event by Our Community remains a chance to take stock of the never-ending battle for resources and social change, to explore ways to do better with what we’ve got.
Our Community managing director Denis Moriarty was unapologetic about the progressive lineup, reflecting the social enterprise and B Corporation’s agenda of a business with a conscience.
He accepted this year’s theme of “activating community leadership to combat inequality” wasn’t something that’s going to come easily, but “it’s a fight worth having”.
And that “fight for good” is a big reason Communities in Control is the Our Community crew’s favourite time of year.
“It’s an incredible line-up of some of the most inquisitive, creative, courageous and forward-thinking Australians, a chance for all the community groups we’re so closely involved with to tap into new ways of doing things, and a once-a-year opportunity to catch up with old friends,” Mr Moriarty said.
Underneath it all though, each speaker added to a compelling case for what must be done for Australia to retain its mantle as the most liveable, welcoming and fair-minded place we’d like it to be.
“We know many of our delegates have walked out of this event changed people, more ready to take a stand, to take action and to do it more effectively,” Mr Moriarty said.
“I’m not a betting man, but since we were at the Moonee Valley Racecourse I’ll take any wager that this conference will change lives for the better.”
For some, the highlight of the event came early, as Wamba Wamba elder Ron Murray, sporting a cockatoo wreath, literally sent a buzz through the room with his didgeridoo then told yarns about his people, to mark the start of an unforgettable welcome to country.
Then, indigenous performer Kutcha Edwards reminded the crowd they were in the middle of Reconciliation Week, before performing slow ballads that stirred the heart strings and reminded everyone of whose land the conference was on.
Gillian Triggs: Human rights at the heart of social justice oration
Campaigning former Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs’ keynote address at this year’s Communities in Control conference stoked the fire in the bellies of nearly 1000 delegates who converged in Melbourne for the annual event, as she urged each of them to take action to battle inequality wherever they found it.
Delivering the Joan Kirner Social Justice Oration in memory of the pioneering late Victorian Premier, Professor Triggs’ forceful address highlighted Australia’s need to regain its reputation as a land of fairness.
Once Australia was feted around the globe for its leadership in helping forge the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the model for any number of ant-discrimination and rights statements, but Professorr Triggs lamented that since 2001, “we have been in retreat in fundamental freedoms in Australia".
That was the year in which politicians turned the Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, into a name synonymous with Australian turning its back on refugees.
Months later, we were fed “the lie, the alternative fact, the false news” of allegedly Muslim refugees throwing their children overboard”.
“From that time on, we’ve seen a diminution of human rights,” she said.
But increasingly it was not-for-profits, charities and community groups that were having an impact on the politics of the time. And they need to take up the reins and advocate for good.
“If this conference is about Communities in Control, I say take that control, take that leadership that’s so lacking at the Federal level, to insist that fundamental human rights are recognised … ultimately through a charter of human rights.
Accepted any push for change “is not going to be easy”, there were signs that many in the community are prepared to act.
“We need the vision and the courage to argue for these principles," she said.
Afterward, reflecting on her speech Prof Triggs said the main message she aimed to deliver was this: “The communities have the power, they’ve just got to learn to use it.”
It was a fitting end to the two-day event that sparked tears and laughter, horror and delight, anger and sympathy, and above all: inspiration to act in the best interests of our communities.
Stan Grant: Sorry Day is not enough
A day earlier, outspoken indigenous leader Stan Grant delivered a stirring address, two days after National Sorry Day, and more than a decade after Kevin Rudd issued his apology to indigenous groups in Federal Parliament.
The accomplished TV journalist, who had seen the best and worst of humanity in his time covering history-shaking events across Europe, Asia and in Australia, told the audience that “the question of indigenous rights fits into a global struggle for justice, recognition, and liberalism”.
He said that recognition of indigenous groups remained as an essential ingredient for a world “awash with conflict”.
As the world is rocked by political turmoil, democracies collapse, or are challenged, Australia won’t escape the effects, he said.
And part of the antidote to that “collapse of trust” was to address the “fundamental spiritual sovereignty” of indigenous Australians, and the “profound and powerful Uluru statement”, which again seeks constitutional recognition for Australia’s first inhabitants.
“If those people who have carried the heaviest weight, and borne the greatest burden can present what Galarrwuy Yunupingu called a “gift to the nation”, The Uluru Statement … if indigenous people can present that to Australia at this time, it’s an extraordinary gift, and one that we should not be overlooked”.
Dr Mary Gentile: Ethics as a karate chop in the face of wrong
Brought to Australia with the support of the US Government, Dr Gentile came with a powerful solution to the ethical failures wracking many organisations across the world.
Striding the stage in a spirited performance, Dr Gentile described her “crisis of faith” having taught the captains of industry at Harvard Business School, yet repeatedly witnessing graduates from leading US universities later facing up to some of the biggest scandals, financial collapses and ethically-questionable behaviours in history.
She trawled through thousands of experiences from business leaders to ask: Why do some do the right thing, but not others?
“We couldn’t say one group of people were “more morally troubled”, or organisationally sophisticated or politically savvy.”
But she found there was a pattern, that often those prepared to act had rehearsed their actions, either through a teacher, a mentor, or a senior.
It was something that made sense to someone who had learnt the reflexes of a martial artist defending themselves by instinct or “muscle memory”.
As she put it: “Rather than asking them to think their way to a different way of action, ask them to act their way to a different way of thinking.”
Mary Gentile at the CIC conference. Picture: Ellen Smith/esphotos.com.au
“When we get these tests of character, we almost dumb down and freeze. Which is why we need to practice all these skills.”
Dr Gentile has developed that skill into a system dubbed “Giving Voice to Value”.
“Giving voice to value is all about once you know what’s right, how do you get it done effectively? And what will the pushback be?”
Jamila Rizvi: Why women do the work, but don’t take the credit
Author, journalist, commentator and feminist Jamila Rizvi spelt out why Australian women are suffering a crisis of confidence about work, and why even when women do get to the top they explain their success away as “luck”.
She had the audience in stitches as she recounted a fundraising golf tournament, in which she’d been unlucky enough to be paired with “Mr Swagger” and “Mr the best clubs money can buy”, and their unswerving confidence in the face of underachievement. The only other woman on the team, a lawyer, was “paralysed with nerves”, despite being the best player.
It served as an anecdote for the way many other women tackle their careers, and a lesson in wrongheaded thinking.
“Do not mistake your hard-fought achievements as the product of luck. The success that comes from working hard, honing your talent and perfecting your skills is not luck,” Ms Rizvi said.
“Luck is a substitute for women's lack of confidence and our desire to be liked. It is one of the many ways we twist and turn ourselves inside out to please other people. To seem less powerful, less threatening, less likely to take up space that would otherwise be occupied by a man.”
Instead, she said, successful women should be “sharing that experience with others, to give a boost to the next generation by being open and generous with what we've learned”.
Philip Wollen: Why what you eat can change the world
In a no-holds-barred address that wrenched delegates from their comfort zones, Philip Wollen urged people “try not to look away” as he showed gut-wrenching images of the reality of animal suffering in industries spun around their exploitation.
In what Our Community executive director Kathy Richardson rightly described as a “cold shower” for delegates, Mr Wollen steered his shocked audience on a tour-de-force of philosophy, stark statistics and emotion to argue that humans must turn away from meat.
“Animal rights is now the most important rights issue since the abolition of slavery. Because it protects the most important of things: Life.”
The cold, hard truth, he said, was that our current diets would eventual kill us, as well as the animals we are slaughtering.
“If everyone ate a western diet we would need two planet Earths, and that planet is dying,” he said.
“If any state was wreaking such havoc we would eliminate it, but we can’t - because it’s not a nation, … it’s a rogue industry.”
But “the good news is we don’t have to bomb it - we can just stop buying it”.
And the solution was looking us in the face.
“Veganism is the Swiss army knife of the future. It will solve the political, environmental, social and economic challenges we face.”
He urged “men and women of integrity” to speak out, quoting Ghandi to illustrate his point that change would come.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Unsurprisingly, many of the ham sandwiches offered at the lunch break soon after were left untouched.
Annabel Crabb: Wit and wisdom of a woman in politics
Popular ABC personality and political journalist Annabel Crabb was among the audience favourites — posing for pictures before riffing widely on her dealings with high-profile politicians such as the beleagured Barnaby Joyce, and her recent appearance in Britain commentating about the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meaghan Markle.
But at the heart of her speech was the massive divide between women and men in the home and workplace, a theme she’s spelt out in her book The Wife Drought and its premise, “why women need wives and men need lives”.
As she put it “things won’t change at work, unless they change at home first”.
There were murmurs in the audience as she pointed out that both men and women will benefit from a readjustment of expectations that will raise women’s incomes and improve men’s lives.
“This is the way change happens. One guy takes parental leaves, and he comes back and he’s still alive, and then the next year there’s more.”
And, as with all the conference speakers, she stressed it was the very people in the audience with the power in their hands.
“Everyone in this room is a vital part of this kind of change.
“I’ve changed my views quite a lot — I’ve made a hundred resolutions, most of which include checking my assumptions. I’ve stopped being angry when women executives are asked how they juggle their responsibilities — I get angry when men aren’t asked.”
Hugh Mackay: Why strong community starts in your street
Social researcher Hugh Mackay’s message about the primacy of community in the strength of our nation is a consistent message he’s presented in one form or another over his lengthy career as an insightful observer.
He told Communities in Control it was his fifth appearance, but his intellect, wit and observation remain as sharp as ever.
This year he spoke passionately about the dangers of social fragmentation, and its antidotes — compassion and community.
The signs of trouble: rising rates of suicide, shrinking families and households, increased workloads with less time for the neighbours, increased mobility, and the disconnection that can come from social media.
“If you look at all those kinds of changes, it’s pretty clear that … local neighbourhoods and communities are going to be less cohesive, people less comfortable, more likely to say “we don’t know our neighbours”.
“When people feel more disconnected from each other, they’re also more likely to feel less trustful. This also fuels “rampant individualism”, a consequence of fragmentation.
Yet, Mr Mackay points out “we are born to belong”, and that strengthening our communities will help each one of us, and our society.
“We ourselves can transform street by street, community by community … because when it comes to character and values of our society, who else is it up to, apart from us? Everyone knows how to act like a neighbour when there’s a crisis, (but) wouldn’t it be a tragedy if we overlooked our neighbours except when there’s a tragedy.”
Nicholas Gruen: Powerful new politics in random selection
Lateral Economics CEO Nicholas Gruen is used to thinking differently when it comes to solving economic problems, and his insightful presentation to this year’s conference proposes a novel solution to our political ills.
A form of citizen juries, or citizen’s house in Parliament, he believed, held the key to real representation in government.
That random selection of citizens that alreaady sits in judgement in the courts, he told the audience, was a tried and true method that could also help us steer us all from bad decisions in government.
He demonstrated both figures, anecdotes and analysis pointed to a shocking rise of both social inequality and political polarisation across the western world, as those political systems failed to adequately represent the interests of their countries.
And while many considered the election of DonaldTrump and Brexit as “the great earthquake”, Australia’s political turning point may have come much earlier.
Australia’s decision to reject a price on carbon, for example, flew in the face of logic and political and public support, in a time in which the nation's politics had been “captured by the entertainment sector”.
“We think of politics as activism, as hostility, but ultimately it has to be about cooperation. We evolved to cooperate in groups, we’re good at that, better than any other species.”
His concept of a “Citizens House” or “Peoples’ Chamber”, sitting alongside a House of Representatives and a Senate would generate a new layer of government with citizen members selected by lot to bring “activism” and “good politics” back into the system.
These could provide a good counter to the problems that are wracking our current system, with powers to delay legislation or impose a secret ballot on other chambers — such as for decisions on carbon trading, for example.
“Imagine if you could not go to a war, except with a strong vote from a citizens’ assembly. We would feel a lot calmer, less “spun” to,” he said.
“That’s what democracy is about, not some kind of entertainment show by a couple of guys who claim they are our leaders.”
Kathy Kelly: Rising above tragedy to fix a broken system
Mother, turned activist, Kathy Kelly suffered the unthinkable, twice.
Son Thomas died after being struck in an unprovoked and fatal one-punch attack in Kings Cross.
Then, while still recovering from that loss, her other son Stuart committed suicide in the wake of a hateful social media campaign targeting their family, who had backed the NSW Government’s controversial late night “lock out” laws aimed at cracking down on alcohol-fuelled violence.
At first, many in the audience were numbed by what they heard as Ms Kelly recounted her awful tale.
Yet her ability to turn that grief and anger into a desire to change Australian laws for the better showed everyone the power of truth, determination, resilience … and kindness.
Her efforts had changed judicial laws, liquor licensing, alcohol promotion regulations, violence prevention initiatives and victim advocacy programs, to name just a few.
“We can change the world with kindness. Smiling more, paying it forward. Just try it, there are so many ways,” she said.
Jax Jacki Brown: LGBTIQ and disability activist rolls out raunchy lines
If anyone was in doubt about Jax Jacki Brown’s stance, her T-shirt “Piss on Pity” said it all.
In a performance both confronting and hilarious, Jax’s saucy poems poked fun at public ignorance in a playful and naughty fashion.
From the sexually-charged safety strips at railway stations she dubbed a "federally funded DIY vibrator", to her love poem to a shopping trolley, Jax had the audience hooked on her ribald take on sexuality and disability.
But behind it all, was a loud and proud message.
“I know love, I know how to give it and receive it, and I deserve it. Queer, political, radical, proud. Love is revolution.”
Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa: Sikh slam poet skewers Aussie identity
And Sukhjit’s snappy performance (that's her face on our video at the top) took delegates on a lightning tour of what it means to be a Sikh women in Australia in a witty rap that many felt was a highlight of the event. Here's a taste:
"My people, the Sikhs, came here in 1860 with camels and carts and courageous hearts and look at the maxi Taxi, we’re still driving and steering this country in offices and hospitals and even on stage.
So when people tell me and my family to go home to where we came from, I reply with a smile, tongue-in-cheek, ‘mate, we’ve been right at home for the past 150 years!’
I’m not the one that’s a freak, I’m fully Sikh.” Video: Revisit our Facebook stream of Sukhjit here
Paul Higgins: The future is in your hands
The only promise about the future that Paul Higgins could guarantee was this, “If anyone tells you they can say what will happen, I will only guarantee one thing — it will be wrong”.
His point? You can grasp the shape of the future, but the details are being worked out along the way.
“It’s about understanding the evolution of change,” he said.
For instance, “While we haven’t really changed much in the last thousand years in an evolutionary sense, the problems we faced a thousand years ago are very different from those we face today.”
Among those big swings include a once-in-a-century upheaval of our transport system courtesy of ride-sharing, a once-in-200-year change of the energy system as solar power takes hold and the swift rise of artificial intelligence that is changing the capacity of many.
While visitors from 80 years ago might now be stunned by the modern world, someone from the ‘70s might just shrug at what appears to be relatively “subtle changes”, as he illustrated that change can to transform the world in ways that aren't necessarily obvious.
That’s why he said it was better to "understand the strategic landscape of what might happen and how you can use that”.
And that, he said, is the key to knowing where to properly allocate your resources, particularly for the not-for-profit sector, which may be very good about the “why” or purpose of their existence, but has less of a grasp on the “why of action”.
“I want you to think about one thing: How do I think about the strategic landscape that I’m working in, to better understand it and build better organisations?”
He recommends a map that explains innovation as developing along the lines of “genesis”, “customisation”, “product” and “utility”.
Hard to follow the thread of this or any other of these presentations?
Read a full transcript of Paul Higgins' speech and most of the others by searching for that speaker on the Communities in Control website.
Finally: The power to change things
Summing up a huge two days, Our Community’s Denis Moriarty said he hoped delegates would use what they’d learnt.
“It would be terrible if we all took these two days to get fired up about combatting inequality and then just went back to situation-normal once we got home.”
Referring to the late Victorian Premier who inspired the keynote speech, he said, “as Joan Kirner always said – get angry, then get organised.”
“See you next year. Go change the World.”