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Ideas at the House presents Carnegie Conversations

Louisa Studman reviews Carnegie Conversations at the Opera House.

Carnegie Conversations, a new talks series hosted by the Sydney Opera House, asked speakers from a range of backgrounds to answer the question, “what could make a better Australia?”

Carnegie Conversations is the result of a partnership between multi-millionaire entrepreneur Mark Carnegie of M.H. Carnegie & Co, a venture capital and private equity firm, and Ideas at the House, Sydney Opera House’s talks and ideas program. Carnegie’s reason for hosting the series was an interest in fostering calm debate around solutions to Australia’s myriad problems. “Conversations, rather than slanging matches, are what we need to allow the majority of Australians—who really care about our country, but don’t want to yell and shout—to get involved in public debate. Many people want to engage in coming up with real alternatives to the status quo. This series is an important step in allowing them to do so.”

The structure of the day reflected the business backing—the talks were organised to conclude with efficient and practical solutions for the issues at hand. Each panelist was asked to identify one issue with Australian society, then pitch a policy or paradigm shift to solve it. The tone of the day was pragmatic, and attention was largely turned toward economic issues, with Chair Ann Mossop distinguishing the event from other Ideas at the House talks by stressing the importance of dialogue that is “neither dangerous nor all about women.” Peter Singer’s speech on effective altruism discussed how to make the most efficient investment in charity with return in terms of lives saved or improved.

Despite the tame purpose and sober policy focus, the event generated lively debate when it turned to issues of inclusivity, representation, and discrimination.

Chris Berg, the Policy Director at the Institute of Public Affairs who penned a book comparing Andrew Bolt to Socrates as a martyr for free speech, made an argument against Australia’s ‘outrage culture’. Julian Burnside countered with the vocal audience onside.

Marcia Langton, speaking on the greatest failure of contemporary Australia, railed on the relentlessly patronising policies imposed upon Indigenous communities by politicians with no connection to their lived experiences, particularly the most recent move to forcibly close remote communities. Langton championed the successful empowered communities model which takes the somehow revolutionary approach of putting people in charge of their own community.

The ebullient Everald Compton had excellent contributions to make with regards to the ageing population, even if they involved channeling more mature aged students into universities.

Benjamin Law addressed a Lowy Institute poll result that found that fewer than half of Australians under 30 think that democracy is preferable to any other form of government. He attributed the massive decline in young Australia’s faith in government in part to issues of representation. Law’s case in point were two shameful facts of Australian politics, that no Indigenous Australian has ever been the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and that white people with no experience resembling those of asylum seekers make the decisions regarding the treatment of refugees. On the Australian government’s poor record of representation in terms of gender identification, sexuality, and ethnic background, Law spoke of the need for “a political class that looks more like us”.

While drier and less exciting than fellow Ideas at the House events, Carnegie Conversations felt productive. The dialogue it fostered around inclusivity was particularly refreshing to see take centre stage.