Conference wrap: What Makes Healthy Communities?

Communities in Control 2017

Conference wrap: What Makes Healthy Communities?

Conference opened 29 May 2017, Melbourne
By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

People have the Power: Delegates told they don't have to accept the status quo

If there was one underlying message to the thousand-strong throng at this year's two-day Communities in Control conference, it's that community leaders should raise their expectations about what's possible, because there's no rule that says you have to accept the way things are.

Speakers took aim at euthanasia laws, gender bias, marriage inequality, workers' rights, expectations about disability and Aboriginal kids, politics and government at every level, climate change, health issues, the economy, refugee policy and budget cuts.

In every case, activists and thinkers of all persuasions challenged received wisdom, and offered a way to break the mould.

Challenging delegates to consider the question "What makes a healthy community?", the two-day event was crammed with lessons from the clever and insightful, plenty of laughs, and more than a few tears.

MISS OUT? Scroll down for more pictures, videos, to listen or watch sessions, and for full transcripts of each session.

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There were numerous highlights, but perhaps the most powerful was the emotion-charged plea for action on assisted dying by prominent media creator turned activist Andrew Denton, whose Joan Kirner Social Oration has already spurred many listeners into action.

Activists were thick on the ground and were keen to learn the lessons of the "Power to the People" session. This explored the need for personal stories to anchor your cause, and what it takes to encourage supporters to take the leap from sympathy to action.

Indigenous leader Professor Chris Sarra took the crowd on a wisecracking tour of his extraordinary life. The softly spoken rugby tragic showed how expecting more from the Aboriginal and broader communities had generated powerful results, especially in education.

A fair number of professors delivered unorthodox lessons to the crowd, including yoga teacher and leadership guru Amanda Sinclair, who tested our ability to listen and keep calm - and topped things off with a quick meditation session.

Rebecca Huntley

Social researcher Rebecca Huntley addresses the conference. Picture: Ellen Smith/

Dr Rebecca Huntley took the stand to urge a turn towards politics, rather than cynically turning away in response to political shocks such as Trump and Brexit, because as she put it: "We may need better leadership, but we also need greater patience from the electorate."

Defying stereotypes, it was an economist who generated the most laughs: Richard Denniss skewered the "econobabble" politicians use to avoid answering questions about high house prices, and about why one of the richest countries in the world is doing so little to help the poorest.

And when Ben Pettingill strode onto the stage unassisted, it was a little while before some of us realised he was 98% blind. Then the barefoot skiing dynamo spent an hour explaining why all our snap judgments about other people are usually the wrong ones.

Power to the People

Climate for Change director Katerina Gaita and Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Luke Hilakari. Picture: Ellen Smith/

And most of that happened before drinks on the first day.

Day two delivered more new ways to see the world, with a focus on understanding the way things really are, not just what we might be led to believe.

For instance, Professor Cordelia Fine has literally written the book on testosterone and gender bias, and demonstrated that many so-called truths about boys and girls are way off the mark.

After a musical interlude with acoustic guitar and fiddle by Christina Green and Hayley Anderson, we were treated to a tour de force of economics, politics and history by Professor Martin Krygier.

Professor Krygier overflowed with observations about why history has repeated itself, and how we've somehow found ourselves with divisive figures such as Pauline Hanson back in office.

We caught our breath, swapped business cards and recharged at the free coffee cart.

We then became privy to the results of an incredible 45-year-long New Zealand study that has followed 1000 people from the cradle to the present.

Dr Sandhya Ramrakha had many delegates open-mouthed at the compelling research from Dunedin that's recast views about how the behaviour of young children can predict lives of trouble, ill health and financial ruin - and of good health and financial success.

And then, of course, Andrew Denton took to the stage for his all-in presentation on life and death.

Young delegate

A young delegate at the conference. Picture: Ellen Smith/

Time after time at Communities in Control, delegates were offered opportunities to transform their thinking and their actions.

Some were back for more after being inspired at the 2016 event.

Take Jo Dodds, for example.

"I'd never heard of Communities in Control before… but I latched on through Facebook.

"I was interested in making a difference in my community and decided to make the seven-hour drive [from Bega, NSW] to Melbourne."

"After two days of the [2016] conference I was absolutely buzzing with ideas, inspiration and people I'd networked with."

A few months later, "charged up", Jo successfully ran for election to the Bega Valley Shire Council, where she is now serving her first term as an independent councillor.

So what should delegates expect at future Communities in Control conferences?

"Your preconceived ideas will be challenged. You will have your mind opened up to stuff you didn't know ... and then have the opportunity to tease that out with a diverse group of people."

Nicely put, Jo.

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