Sixty seconds to pitch your idea. That’s what happens the first night of an “un-conference”, where the participants collaboratively decide on the sessions. And so a stream of people got up, some polished and others less so, to outline what they wanted to talk about. The traditional owners of the land that Canberra sits on, the Ngunnawal peoples, were acknowledged at the start of the session. But some people do it again at the start of their pitch. After a while, an indigenous woman gets up. She makes the observation that there’s a pattern emerging: people of colour are offering their respects, and many white people are not.
Thereafter, most make time in their 60 seconds to awkwardly offer their respects, though some do not. I can’t help keeping a mental list. Some who had spoken before the rebuke get up again to do another pitch, this time paying their respects.
It’s Sunday, September 25, and I am sitting in the auditorium of a Canberra hotel, at the second annual Junket conference, held by Junkee Media. It’s a most-expenses-paid, three-day event at one of the capital’s nicest hotels. I haven’t seen hotel toiletries this good since my last journalistic junket, more than three years ago.
At Junket, I’ve sat (and sometimes stood) through the introductory session, where we are made to stand up if we fit various demographics. Rural v city, those with kids and those without, those who went to university and those who did not, before we finally are asked to stand up if we’re part of an oppressed minority. At the end the observation is made that we’re far more representative than federal Parliament. Which isn’t saying much.
To be honest, I’m not sure why I was invited. Last year, my colleague Josh Taylor came, and he wrote a rather critical piece about the experience for Crikey. Helen Razer also took a shot. Yet here I am, surrounded by a few schools of people: social justice types (who are frequently artists of some variety), those who work in charities or social start-ups, marketers, and a smattering of journalists.
The prototype Junket attendee is extroverted, high-achieving and talented, and is actively using those qualities to make the world a better place. Given the sheer brilliance of those around us, we are warned to protect our self-esteem. After hearing some 80 pitches from my co-attendees — which focus on environmentalism, diversity, personal growth and how we can be the change we want to see in the world — I can barely stand the sight of them.
One pitcher criticises the Essential polling that found one in two Australians want a ban on Muslim migration. The polling, she implies, was irresponsible or fraudulent, and the reporting on it no better. She asks anyone in the room who wants to ban Muslim migration to put up their hands (promising not to judge). No one immediately does, but we wait. A man with an Arabic name who is pitching next jokingly puts up his hand, breaking the tension. The part of me that knows a smattering about both polling techniques and peer pressure is screaming.
My Junket experience was full of vignettes like this, punctuated rather jarringly by the branding of the corporations that made this luxury shindig possible. Edginess has become a marketable quality, which makes the marriage possible, but I’ve always figured genuine social justice rarely works out well for the establishment.
At one point I joke with a fellow attendee about the vodka brand that’s asked us to pitch ideas to innovate our way to “a purer planet” for a cash prize. I say I’m going to pitch a revival of the White Australia Policy. Later we get drunk on the company’s free liquor while listening to a speech from the company’s “vodka professor”. His title on LinkedIn is global advocacy director of the multinational liquor company that owns the funky vodka brand, and he has a qualification in law. And the winning idea? An app that gives you a daily idea on how to be a better person.
Another sponsor gives everyone $100 vouchers that they can either spend on themselves or give to another attendee to bring their marvelous idea to life. We’re quickly informed of the catch. While the vouchers can be exchanged for real money, that money can only be deposited into a bank account held by the sponsor bank.
We are given swanky bath robes with the logo of the sponsoring airline on them and told to wear them to breakfast the next morning “to be comfortable”. The morality of attending a most-expenses-paid junket at all is, for me, murky, but I figure I should draw a line at being seen literally clothed in a sponsoring brand. I ignore the instruction and go to breakfast in a hoodie. A woman asks me why I’m not wearing my bathrobe — I tell her I didn’t want to. I later learn that I’m not alone in this choice, but on the morning, I find myself confronted by a sea of royal blue bathrobes.
The sessions themselves suffer from what you would expect to happen when you upend the hierarchy. I choose sessions based on the speakers who most grabbed me during the pitches, but most of the time, they don’t spend much time talking during their own sessions. It’s an un-conference, after all, where everyone’s musings on a topic are theoretically given equal weight. The effect of this is that anyone confident expressing their opinion tends to monopolise the sessions, sometimes drawing them in directions quite different to what had initially been envisioned. This wasn’t a problem when the person doing it had something to bring to the table. But in the larger sessions, things take on a sense of anarchy. I found myself gravitating towards the smaller groups, where this was kept to a minimum.
On opening night, and in the emails I’d been sent before the event, expectations were set high. Junket was populated by the leaders of tomorrow, those who will drive the social change we’ll see in the world. The ideas we develop could be the start of something great. And don’t forget, we were hand-picked, and all very impressive to be here. It came with a caveat — we’d only get out what we put in.
My editor thought the whole thing ridiculous. She wanted me to blow it wide open.
I initially pushed back. I didn’t disagree, but I think expecting any conference, marketing aside, to change the world is fundamentally unfair. Lasting change doesn’t happen in bubbles. And conferences, which by definition exist inside bubbles, cannot change the day to day. But that doesn’t mean they’re useless. Conferences can force you out of your shuttered thinking and expose you to new thoughts, ideas and people. A successful conference, I always figured, was one where you left inspired or rejuvenated, even if only for a time.
So, on my metric, was Junket inspiring? At the closing session, some Junketeers were invited up on stage to testify about the experience. A couple said they were naturally sceptical people, wary of gatherings such as this, but the magic of Junket had changed their minds. Meanwhile, I felt worse about the whole thing the longer it went on. I left Junket feeling dispirited — alone in a shiny world where everyone was gushing about their inspiration. I met some interesting people, but I was glad to be going home.
In the last book of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, the world ends. The heroes end up in paradise, but the sorting isn’t perfect. Some of the villains are accidentally swept into it with them, but the bad men writhe about in pain. For them, the beautiful valley they find themselves in is living torment. The moral is that even heaven is hell to those who don’t belong there.
Junket was a despotic landscape of social justice fuelled by corporate branding, empowerment peppered with awkward silences, good intentions devoid of technical expertise. But many of those around me declared it a life-changing, positive event. Whether the fault is with me, or them, three days in leftie corporate heaven was my own personal hell.
Disclosure: In case it wasn’t obvious, the writer was put up in a swanky Canberra hotel, wined and dined courtesy of Junkee and a bunch of corporate sponsors.