Island Life by David Slack


Keynote speaker: Paula Bennett. MC: Jim Hopkins. BYO sandwiches.

Imagine you're Paula Bennett sitting at home at 11.00 pm at night with your face turning blue as you sup your tea. $200,000 to hold one freakin' conference? Are you kidding me? Did her face really turn blue, as she told the newspapers, or did her pulse quicken as she spied a splendid opportunity to show her boss how worthy she was of the promotion?

I also wonder how things might have turned out, politically, if it had been a $200,000 conference to discuss Herceptin treatment. You get no thanks for being the cold-hearted bastard who puts the argument against funding this particular drug, and yet it's one with reason on its side. Ruth Dyson found a good way to put it yesterday: there are many people with significant illnesses who are not able to get access to government-funded medication.

"They will ask, 'Why them and not me?", she said.

Might we have money for those people too if we manage to weed out all the $200,000 conferences? This is just the tip of the iceberg proclaims David Farrar, which is brave and and selfless of him. You can't go to one of these talkfests without tripping over the little fella. I once sat behind him for three hours at a telecoms conference and watched in fascination as he read his way through fifty other websites and tapped away at his own one. The expression is 'live-blogging' but what constitutes a life, exactly?

Positively tout le monde goes to these affairs, and by tout I mean chief executives, senior public servants, highly-visible lobbyists, and enthusiastic entrepreneurs who live by the creed that if you are not networking, you are dying.

They take place in sumptuous surroundings: hotel ballrooms, convention centres.

Last holidays, as is my wont, I took Mary-Margaret out into the world to see what grown-ups do. We were walking past Sky City. I said: "let's see what happens at a conference." We admired the art in the lobby, we sat in the leather armchairs and watched Mike Lee greet some visitors from Asia. We glided up the escalators and strolled down the vast hallways. We opened a door at will and sure enough the ballroom was full.

In a whisper I pointed out the speaker, the lectern, the subdued lighting, the serried tables, the mints, the glasses, the water decanters, the deferential staff in black trousers and crisp white shirts, and the inevitable Powerpoint presentation on the large screen. After a few minutes we withdrew.

"Is that what you do when you go away to give a speech?" she asked. Yes, I told her, and no. I do not believe in Powerpoint.

I explained that there are many good reasons for people to meet with one another and share their knowledge. I also explained that it can be a bit of a racket. Those venues are not cheap. The mints and the crisp shirts and the deferential service come at a cost.

You can easily be spending 200 grand, if you're not careful.

Not to mention the airfares and the dinners at the Viaduct.

Iceberg ahoy. These conferences would not be harmed by a shake-up. They are the modern village square and they can perform a useful function. But need they be so lavish?

Two less costly alternatives come immediately to mind:

1. Video conferencing. I recommend this interview
with a good friend of Public Address, Chris McKay. He's so good at this stuff he gets to spend time at Google. Once Mr Joyce has built us that series of interconnected tubes, we'll be laughing.

2. School buildings. Kiwi Foo Camp is the best conference I've ever taken part in, and it all takes place in a high school. Just last weekend I was at the auditorium of Westlake Boys High School. Your taxes have been spent well. It gives the Bruce Mason Theatre a run for its money; their facilities would surely cost you less than a hotel ballroom.

If you take a cut lunch, it could be all but free.

By all means, get together and talk about doing good things for our families, and our brighter future, and aspirations going forward. Communication is the beginning of understanding as they used to say on Radio Windy. But how about we cut out the middle man?

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