IIR Conferences has long been in the business of providing conferences, seminars and portentous sounding “summits”. Late next month, the third annual Preventive Health Summit is on in Sydney, highlighted on the brochure cover as “Australia’s Longest-Running Preventive Health Event” (no matter than the Public Health Association has been holding annual conferences for more than 30 years).

By my count, there are 12 public sector experts — one misspelt —  on the two-day IIR program, where the cost of attending is $1969, or $1639 if you get in quick for early-bird.  And if you really want to spray your money around, you can purchase the Powerpoints — a snip at $764.50. With 10 hours of presentations, that’s just shy of $200 an hour to absorb the pearls.

This year, the topics are focused mostly on the reports of the government’s Preventative Health Task Force. There have been dozens of absolutely free consultations and meetings around the country designed to explain the task force reports. Anyone seriously interested in these issue could have  taken up the opportunity or downloaded the three seminal reports free from the web.

A two-day IIR  conference on mental health in June has 16 public sector speakers, with none from the private sector.  Cost is $1644.

I’ve received IIR brochures over the years and routinely binned them, wondering about how connected and important an audience would be who would shell out such sums to hear from people you can readily hear at many public sector conferences at a fraction of the price. (I’m on the committee of a three-day Darling Harbour international health conference this year,  where standard registration is $790).

Last year I was asked by IIR to stand in at the last minute for a speaker who withdrew. I was given virtual carte blanche to talk about anything on-topic to a room I’d estimate at maybe 60 people. Knowing that it was being run by a for-profit company, I negotiated a $500 fee as I only donate my time to charities, NGOs and government.

But calls to three of this year’s participants asking the terms on which they are participating proved interesting. One, when asking for travel was told “As a speaker, you will receive full complimentary access to both days of the conference including all speaker papers, luncheons and networking functions. Speakers are normally asked to cover their own travel expenses” but that they would make an exception with him. Nice of them: they don’t even charge you to hear yourself speak and make them money.

However, none I spoke with were getting fees. Some but not all public sector workers are unable to accept fees, making this a nice little honey pot to exploit.

But $765 for their powerpoints? I know well several of the people on the program and can’t imagine them being unhappy to give their work away free to anyone who wanted it. Putting material free to all on the web is almost standard today.

If people want to shell out this sort of money, that’s their choice. If there were 60 full fee registrations at $1969, that’s $118,140 through the door. With free speakers, a nice earner.

So why are public sector experts giving up their valuable time to effectively donate their public salaried time and expertise to IIR? And why are they giving away their powerpoints to IIR to sell at such an extravagant cost, seeing that IIR plays no role in their content?

By comparison with the $1969 + $765 for notes ($2734) IIR charges for two days of listening to speakers,  full-fee enrolment in a Masters of Public Health unit (one eighth of a masters degree taking 12-18 months) in a typical Group of Eight Australian university would cost  $2550, for notes, examination and transcripts.

Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney.

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