In the lead-up to the World Congress of Families’ Melbourne “regional” event, it was unclear whether convener Babette Francis was a Machiavellian manipulator or simply a woman who’d found herself in way over her head. From the outside, it certainly looked as though the conference were falling apart: after the original venue pulled out, the conference was relocated to a church in Glen Iris, then to Brunswick East, and then it appeared as though no church would be willing to host the thing at all. In the week before the event was due to take place, it was rumored that no insurance or security had been organised. Then, the day before the conference, both Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews and Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark decided to drop off the speakers’ roster.

The conference was initially advertised as “free admission, all welcome”, and those who contacted Francis immediately following the announcement of the event were registered without vetting. In early July, though, the event was picked up by satirist and LGBTQI rights advocate Pauline Pantsdown, who encouraged protesters to send through bogus RSVPs to book out the conference with non-attendees. The conference began demanding proof of attendees’ anti-abortion bona fides. “Why are you interested in our event if you are not associated with any pro-life group or church?” Francis asked me a week before the event. When I told her I wanted to attend because I was “open-minded”, Francis was unconvinced. “We are very suspicious of anyone from Carlton who is not connected to a pro-life or pro-family organisation,” she told me, offering to post me a copy of her newsletter.

Strangely, after I did actually manage to make it in, one of the repeated refrains from audience members I spoke to was how disappointed they were that members of the Left seemed unwilling to truly engage the religious Right in respectful, intelligent conversation. “If they really wanted to challenge our ideas, why wouldn’t they come here, wait until question time, and then pose a question in a logical fashion?” asked Teresa Martin, state president of Cherish Life Queensland. I noted that this kind of polite dialogue wasn’t exactly possible, considering that anybody who couldn’t prove a connection to a pro-life group was being forced to stand outside and prevented from entering Catch the Fire Ministries’ Hallam compound by 50 police officers.

Teresa nodded, then pointed at the front of the stage. “Were you here this morning?”

I shook my head. “Sort of. I was outside. It was hard for me to get in.”

“There was a protester on stage, wearing all white, and then she spilled red paint all over her crotch,” Teresa said, shaking her head.

The protester was an artist named Phaedra Press, and I had seen her from the street as security had ejected her from the compound. “I poured blood on myself in front of Fred Nile!” Phaedra exclaimed, once back out on the street. “We tried to cause an evacuation, but those guys in there don’t even have bloody smoke detectors!”

“We wanted to show that ‘this is what a backyard abortion looks like’,” CJ, another of the protesters, told me (she had also been ejected from the venue, despite donning a frumpy op-shop frock in order to “pass for a Christian”). But it seems that message was somewhat lost in translation.

“She just re-enacted exactly what an abortion is,” Teresa Martin said, shrugging sadly.

“With news outlets treating the World Congress of Families as farcical … attendees were simply being led to further distrust any information that did not come filtered through pro-life media channels.”

In the morning a young Christian couple with two small children in tow ran the gauntlet of protesters to get into the event. “Why are you bringing your children here, you bigots?!” several of the protesters shouted, as the police swept in and created a human wall to protect them. These children would remember this moment forever, but would they side with the angry people in funny clothes who hurled abuse at their parents?

Predictably, within the conference, almost everyone seemed apprehensive around journalists. “A pretty young lady came and asked me about the protesters,” I heard one older man say to another. I could immediately tell he was talking about one of the journos. “I’m not going to play into their hands! What do they want me to say: ‘they’re all idiots’?”

Many of the journalists who covered the conference did nothing to assuage such fears. When I checked my RSS feed to find stories from the conference, I sighed. One journalist had misrepresented anti-abortion activist Dr Angela Lanfranchi by suggesting that Lanfranchi had only cited studies involving rats to support her breast cancer-abortion link thesis in her speech. But Lanfranchi had presented a swath of research, including at least one recent study involving several hundred Chinese women.

I was one of the only writers that had managed to stick it out until the final session, and now I realised that at least some of the conference-goers were using their phones to read how the press was reporting events. At the end of the last session, in which Larry D. Jacobs, managing director of the WCF, flippantly agreed that denying pain relief to Russian women was potentially a good idea, an audience member had taken the roving microphone and told all conference-goers that Lanfranchi’s session had been misreported.

“This is the media … destructive people … everything they twist and turn!” two women sitting directly behind me lamented.

The woman sitting behind me, believing I worked for the same online publication, peered at my notebook. She could see that the last note I had taken was “brushed off idea of pain relief being withheld to Russian women seeking abortion”.

“Are you going to report it like that?” she said. “Do you write for them?”

With news outlets treating the World Congress of Families as farcical, as a setup for a series of jokes, attendees were simply being led to further distrust any information that did not come filtered through pro-life media channels. During one speech, a speaker mentioned The Sydney Morning Herald, to snickers from the audience. Another speaker sardonically urged journalists in the room to ask audience members whether they were afraid of being in a hall full of violent people. There was no major news publication conference attendees felt they could trust; The Australian predictably offered the most sympathetic coverage by running an AAP story that limited its coverage to the protest, with only fleeting mention of the content covered at the conference itself.

When I made my way out of the World Congress of Families, all the police and protesters had left. Earlier, I’d spoken to Sam Castro from the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance, who had explained that the protesters’ intention was always to leave early.

“We rid the event of every elected representative,” she said. “Our goals have already been achieved.”

An elderly woman stepped out of the church compound, its gates now wide open, and looked at the graffiti that had been scribbled across the road. “Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it”, somebody had written in red chalk. “Bigots are really shit,” somebody had written in green. She looked baffled.

Noting that the protesters had left, the old woman smiled, perhaps assuming this meant they had been forcibly removed by the police. “We have won the victory in Jesus’ name,” she muttered, before shuffling off down the road, back to her car.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.