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 was falling apart: after the original venue pulled out, the conference was relocated to a church in Glen Iris, then to East Brunswick, 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 very day before the conference, both Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews and Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark decided to drop off the speaker’s roster.
All of this screams incompetence on the part of Francis and her small team or organisers, or at very least naïveté. The conference was initially advertised as ‘Free Admission, All Welcome’, and those that 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. Francis, half-recognising what had happened, then grew suspicious of anybody attempting to register who could not provide a reference from a church group or pro-life organisation. Of course, several of those who registered early on were protesters, and Francis unwittingly included them in a clandestine mailing list in which they were notified of venue changes and of the need to protect the conference from the amorphous group of WCF detractors Francis repeatedly termed “the ferals”.
Still, I began to suspect that Francis was savvier than she was letting on – or, at least, her ineptitude when it came to conference organisation was working in her favour. After all, the larger multi-day World Congress of Families international event took place in Sydney last year, and received virtually no media attention, even though it, too, included Kevin Andrews as a speaker, as well as several sessions in support of Russia’s anti-LGBTQI policies. While Pantsdown deserves a modicum of credit for getting WCF Melbourne in the news, the event received sustained media attention largely because Francis’ behavior was inconsistent and unpredictable. Francis would make claims on national radio linking pro-choice activism to the impending collapse of struggling small businesses, and in her individual dealings with journalists in the lead up to the event, would ask them to perform strange tasks in order to prove they could be trusted. Babette Francis’ messages tended to be so off-the-handle that they almost demanded to be screen-capped and republished on Facebook and snarky, left-leaning pop culture outlets like Junkee.
It was impossible to tell whether or not Francis was relishing all the attention, though, because it was impossible to tell what the point of WCF Melbourne was in the first place. Was the event designed to raise the profile of pro-life advocates? If so, in many ways it succeeded. In the leadup to the event, several major news outlets interviewed conference supporters, trying to give them just enough rope to, in the most pro-life way possible, hang themselves. On Channel Ten’s The Project Senator Erik Abetz was grilled by Mia Freedman on the Thursday before WCF about whether or not he believed the “scientific non-information” being promoted by presenter Angela Lanfranchi, linking induced abortion to an increased risk of breast cancer. This may be the first time, at least in recent history, that the abortion-breast cancer hypothesis has received any airtime on Australian television. Even though Freedman attempted to make the point that the hypothesis was “conclusively and scientifically incorrect in the same way that linking immunisations and autism are incorrect”, she may now need to bear some responsibility for promoting the hypothesis to a mainstream Australian audience. The fact that ‘Angela Lanfranchi’ now has a reasonable level of name recognition in Australia in the wake of WCF speaks to the fact that any publicity is good publicity – which Francis and her cohort probably deserve at least some credit for having recognised.
All that said, one of the strange things about these kinds of conferences is how generally ineffectual they are. The Abetz-Freedman segment on The Project was probably more effective at spreading the pro-life message to a new audience than the conference itself, which seemed explicitly designed only to appeal to the converted. Indeed, after Babette Francis began getting anxious about the “ferals” in the lead-up to the event, the only way to guarantee yourself a seat was to prove you already shared the beliefs of the WCF speakers in their entirety. “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 was interested because I wanted to attend because I was “open-minded” and interested in exploring new perspectives, 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, before 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 at Cherish Life Queensland. I noted that this was fair enough, because I honestly suspected at least some of the members of WCF would have truly enjoyed a civil conversation with detractors. A well-put question may have even caused some members of the WCF to soften their views! However, I also noted that this kind of polite dialogue wasn’t exactly possible, not at all, considering that anybody who couldn’t prove a connection to a pro-life group was being forced to stand outside, prevented from entering Catch the Fire Ministries’ Hallam compound by fifty 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.” Still, I knew what she was going to tell me about.
“There was a protester on stage, wearing all white, and then she spilled red paint all over her crotch,” Teresa said, shaking her head. This was why we couldn’t let just anybody in, Teresa was insinuating.
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!” I remember Phaedra exclaiming, once back out on the street, back in with her throng, in possession of the communal megaphone. “We tried to cause an evacuation, but those guys in there don’t even have bloody smoke detectors!”
I remember laughing; it was impossible not to. One of the others who’d been ejected from the venue was a young woman named CJ, who had dressed in a frumpy op-shop frock in order to ‘pass for a Christian’. At times that morning, it had actually seemed as though police were automatically ushering through men and women in conservative dress, as though it was only our uniforms that really divided us, but CJ told me that her entry into the conference was legitimate: she had made her way onto Babette Francis’ secret email list.
At lunch time, I’d walked back up to the gate and spoken to CJ through the chain link fence. She had long since changed back into her civvies.
“Oh, we wanted to show that ‘this is what a backyard abortion looks like’,” she’d told me when I’d asked what had motivated the morning stunt. At the time, though I didn’t mention this to CJ, I wondered whether conference attendees would understand. It seemed, to me, to be sending a confusing message.
“She just reenacted exactly what an abortion is,” Teresa Martin said, shrugging sadly, when I had asked her to provide me with her interpretation of Phaedra’s protest. As I suspected, because Phaedra’s stunt had been so shocking, horrifying, and devoid of context, Teresa and other conference-goers had not recognising that what Phaedra had been attempting to demonstrate was that legalised abortion can prevent major injury and abortion-related deaths. To Teresa, and, it seemed, most members of the audience, all Phaedra had demonstrated was that abortion, whether legal or not, is a process in which you “allow that area to be battered and bruised.”
I imagined an alternate world in which Phaedra, or somebody else, had managed to make their way into the conference, and instead of pouring paint on her crotch in front of Fred Nile, had decided to ask Nile, or Teresa Martin, or any of the conference presenters or audience members, to comment on statistics linking the legalisation of abortion to fewer maternal deaths.
I also thought of the young Christian couple with two small children in tow that I had been keeping my eyes trained on all morning. I was still on the outside when they had attempted to enter the church compound, and had been standing near them as they walked up to the gate. “Why are you bringing your children here, you bigots?!” several of the protesters had shouted, as the police swept in and created a human wall to protect them. I closed my eyes right there and let myself imagine I was, like one of the children, just seven years old and hearing strangers dressed in funny clothing hurling inexplicable abuse at both of my parents. These children, I realised, would remember this moment forever, but it would almost certainly just turn them inward and make it more likely they would end up sharing their parents’ moral opinions. I wondered how much more effective it would have been if the young couple had been politely approached by a protester and calmly engaged in conversation. After all, there was a good question to be asked: why did this couple decide it was a good idea to bring small children to an event in which early sessions dealt with both abortion and euthanasia? Perhaps the couple would have benefitted from somebody who could have explained, gently, why this perhaps wasn’t entirely appropriate.
The media, I hoped, might be able to bridge the gap between protesters and conference attendees, perhaps by trying to find some point of common ground. Wouldn’t it be an interesting project for a reporter to figure out how the people on the outside and the people on the inside were really kind of the same? Internally, of course, many conference attendees were simply baffled by the protesters, and couldn’t conceptualise what exactly they were even complaining about.
Predictably, within the conference, almost everyone seemed apprehensive around journalists, suspicious, or outright dismissive. I initially considered trying to interview a pleasant-looking young man sitting in my row, until I noticed that the words written across his black shirt read “Don’t trust anyone who reads mainstream news”.
“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’?”
Several journalists were filing pieces throughout the day, and I hoped that they would, at very least, make sure not to slip up with matters of fact. After all, if the ideas put forth by WCF presenters are truly ridiculous, there should be no need to distort them to make them seem even more ludicrous. Near the very end of the day, several journos from a major online publication left, and I checked my RSS feed to seek out the last piece one of them had filed. I exhaled, deeply. One journalist had misrepresented Angela Lanfranchi by suggesting that Lanfranchi had, during her speech, only cited studies involving rats to support her breast cancer-abortion link thesis. This was simply false: Lanfranchi had presented a swath of research, including at least one recent study involving several hundred Chinese women. I had little doubt that the majority of the studies Lanfranchi presented had flaws or had been misinterpreted, but it seemed strange to attempt to so blatantly misrepresent Lanfranchi in order to turn her into an object of easier ridicule.
After the journalist had left, I realised the eyes of many of the audience members were trained upon me. 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, had 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 about how 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?”
I considered what was happening: 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. At another point, a speaker sardonically urged journalists in the room to interview audience members to ask them 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, but limited their coverage to the protest, with only fleeting mention of the content covered at the conference itself.
A bubble was forming, or maybe it had formed long ago. Unable to engage in dialogue with anybody but themselves, these people were being led further and further from the political centre.
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’d told me, “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.
The woman looked at the messages, baffled. I could tell she had so little engagement with the outside world that these messages made no sense to her.
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.