The Gabfest


In Melbourne on 4 February, The Age published a 16-page supplement entitled ‘Great Minds: Imagining Australia in 25 Years.’ It was subtitled, ‘a selection of the best young minds in the country put together their wish-lists for the future.’ The supplement is connected to a conference which took place last weekend, and was organised by an organisation called the Australian Future Directions Forum (AFDF).

The Patron of AFDF is none other than Prime Minister John Howard. His beaming face graces the website next to the following slab of managerial-speak:

I am pleased to be Patron of the Australian Future Directions Forum. It is an important platform for constructive dialogue about our future as a nation. It provides emerging leaders with a vehicle to meet and discuss ways in which Australians can work together to confront our future challenges. It will also enable them to develop networks that can break down stereotypes and build deep relationships that will last for the rest of their lives."

Graham Kraehe is the Chairman of the AFDF and the website informs us of his immaculate corporate form:

Graham Kraehe

Graham Kraehe is one of Australia’s most experienced company directors. He is Chairman of Bluescope Steel Ltd, a position he has held since its public listing in July 2002. He is also a non executive Director of Brambles and Djerriwarh Investments. He recently retired as Chairman and Director of National Australia Bank and was previously a Director of News Corporation. He has an extensive background in manufacturing and the wine industry and was Chief Executive of Southcorp from 1994 till his retirement in February 2001. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2002 for services to industry and the environment.

It was not immediately obvious to me, from the newspaper supplement, exactly where the conference was to be held but a search of the website disclosed it was at the ‘Sebel Heritage in the Yarra Valley’ (where there are lots of fine vineyards).

The website blurb also said of the conference that:

It will be a residential program away from distractions (a social island).

Cosy. A hundred or so specially chosen participants, no members of the public, no journalists, and the Chatham House Rule (link here). A closed-door operation. Choice wines with the meals?
Below Mr Kraehe’s spiel in the newspaper supplement was an ad for BHP Billiton, which is somewhat unfortunate, given their alleged involvement in the AWB scandal. The Australian Future Directions Forum is sponsored by Australia Post, BHP Billiton, the National Australia Bank, Qantas and Telstra. This could be seen as window-dressing for large and often rapacious corporations.
Each conference participant was asked ‘to write 500 words about their vision for Australia’ and The Age published ‘an edited version of their responses.’ To be fair to the published participants, their contributions were edited, and crucial words or phrases could have been excised.

Nevertheless, clichés and banalities abounded I am proud to be an Australian hope and opportunity … valuing diversity … cultural protection and identity … Australia is a rich country … a fair Australia … a generous Australia … a country of great wealth and opportunity … a rich and vibrant cultural and family life … a tolerant and compassionate society … Australia has a proud tradition of political leadership in global politics … a strong and confident Australia … informed discussion … religious, racial and cultural diversity … every person yearns for freedom … our multicultural heritage.’

And so it went on, ad nauseam. The motherhood statements were endless.
I looked for the words ‘abortion … assisted euthanasia … detention camps … immigration policy … privatisation … sedition … Indonesia … Asia … foreign policy … America … free trade … anti-terror laws … aged care … racism .. global warming … water conservation,’ but could not find them. I found ‘education’ once, ‘China’ once, and ‘environment’ twice.
The only note of reality came from ex-New Matilda editor Natasha Cica who referred to ‘bloated technocrats … spinners power junkies … yes-girls’ and ‘sons-of-someone.’ She also referred to ‘gabfesting.’
The ads in the supplement were interesting. They reinforced the bread-and-circuses, McMansion notion of contemporary Australia. The National Australia Bank is an ‘excited partner of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games’ said the ad featuring 12 happy fans all dressed in green and gold cheering the athletes on. They were careful to include three brown faces in the picture. Presumably, the fans were shouting, ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!’
The Qantas ad was about frequent flyer points and your chance to win a new BMW 120i. Like the BHP ad, it added to the unreality of the supplement. And did you now that Telstra encourages and fosters talent? It does not, alas, foster jobs.
There is every reason to hold a conference concerning the future of the nation. If one were ever needed, it is needed now. But let there be reality. There are problems and issues at hand like immigration policy, anti-terror laws, global warming, a Human Rights Bill to name but a few. If we don’t address the problems that beset us now, how can we hope to discuss the future for our children and grandchildren?
On the basis of this supplement, the Australian Future Directions Forum 2006 has the same sense of reality as a Twenty20 cricket match, a report from the Australian Wheat Board, or a prospectus from One.Tel or Enron.
If this is an example of the thoughts of ‘some of the sharpest minds in the country,’ then God help us all.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.