The vibe, the guests, the topics
The following post is syndicated from Rebekah Barnett after her attendance at the ARC Conference originally published on the 6th of Nov 2023
What follows is my experience of the three-day conference, which was attended by 1,500 ‘thought leaders’ from just over 70 countries, as well as some answers to questions that keep popping up on my socials. Feel free to add questions in the comments! And for those asking, no we were not sponsored by ARC – our attendance was funded by The Aussie Wire.
When I first heard of the think-tank and associated event, I thought that responsible citizenship sounded like the appropriate way to pushback against the increasingly pervasive centralisation of power occurring throughout the West – a phenomenon which I regard as deeply problematic. With its three-letter acronym, heavy hitting advisory board, and international, ‘big picture’ focus, the ARC seemed to be positioning itself as the ideological alternative to the World Economic Forum (WEF).
At the same time, I was aware of criticisms. A fair number of my followers really don’t like Jordan Peterson, who co-founded the ARC along with think-tanker Baroness Philippa Stroud and former Australian Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson. There are also concerns that the ARC is ‘controlled opposition’, and disgruntlement over the inclusion of people who fell on the authoritarian, anti-human side of the policy divide during the pandemic.
So with all this in mind, I was most curious to find out who would be there, what they would say, and to maybe get to meet some people whose work I had been reading for some years.
What did they talk about for the three days?
The ARC’s core concerns are organised into three main categories:
- Family, social fabric and population
- Affordable energy and environmental care
- Free enterprise and good governance
The audience heard keynotes and panels discuss all these topics, all consatinaed into the overarching theme of ‘better stories.’ The discussions were focused on values and principles, with a peppering of policy talk, but not a lot. The lack of brass tacks talk has drawn criticism, which is fair enough.
However there are a couple of counterpoints to this criticism:
- Vision first, policies and building follows.
Did anyone watch Brene Brown’s Netflix special Call to Courage? I did.1 I remember she did a bit on the stories we tell ourselves, and how these stories powerfully determine our experience of any given situation, and how we respond to it going forward. The Bible tells a similar story in Proverbs (29:18): “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” The ARC seemed very focused on getting the vision and values in place at the high level.
This makes a lot of sense to me, having a background in brand identity work as a copywriter. One of the biggest mistakes brands can make is starting with the product before getting the brand values and story in place. This sets brands up for failure later. Small business clients are often surprised at the investment of time and money required to get this bit right at the beginning, but it’s absolutely essential to any brand seeking impact and longevity, as the brand values, story and mission guide all future action.
- Policy and implementation to come from local level
My impression is that ARC is encouraging a model where policy specifics are hashed out at the local level – be that a community group, a local government area, or in a small business community. Rather than dictating policies, it seems to me that the ARC wants to get leaders on the same page with values and vision, but leave it to them and their communities to figure out what’s best on the ground. That said, the ARC has produced research from contributing speakers with insights and recommendations for consideration.
Were there debates at the ARC Conference?
No. This was a key criticism of Peter Boghossian’s. The message was definitely pre-determined, and speakers by and large agreed on everything. The pro to this is that, in terms of crafting a better story, it allows for a consistent, clear message. The obvious con is that there were some outstanding thinkers in the audience who did not have the opportunity to contest the ideas coming from the stage.
Were Covid crimes addressed?
On day one I looked around and thought – I bet at least half the room stayed silent or supported draconian pandemic policies. I wonder if it will be addressed? I had to wait until day three for the reckoning, when artist Jonathan Pageau took to the stage in the first session.
Using the pandemic response, and the West’s particular preoccupation with ‘safety’, as an example of how a myopic approach can cause widespread damage, Pageau said, “We sacrificed and subjugated all other goods… that provide meaning and purpose for nearly two years in some places.” He added, “Safety is a good… it is simply not a supreme good.” He gave the topic a good guernesy.
From memory, the Covid stuff might have been mentioned once or twice elsewhere in passing. So it was addressed, but I think that given the people in the room, they could have gone harder.
Where does the ARC sit on a scale of one to WEF?
I’d say about a 3. As I’ve already written, the ARC represents the ideological opposite of the WEF, but there are some similarities, mainly in the structure of the event and some of the guests.
The ARC: New Vision, or WEF 2.0?
Who was invited vs. who wasn’t invited to the ARC Conference?
The guest list skewed conservative and/or academic. You can see the ARC advisory board here, most of whom were in attendance and/or spoke. Other people I met or saw wandering around were Bret Weinstein, Jay Bhattacharya, Aaron Kheriaty, Nick Hudson, Peta Credlin, a lot of Australian politicians (Jacinta Price, Moira Deeming, Alex Antic, Nick Goiran, Matt Canavan), Konstantin Kisin, James Lindsay, Douglas Murray, and heaps more.
There a lot of shirty Australians in my comments asking why Scomo (former Prime Minister Scott Morrison) was there. Scomo presided over the federal pandemic response and is infamous for having secretly appointed himself to five separate ministries without the knowledge even of his own government. I assume that Scomo was there simply by virtue of having been Prime Minister, as were Tony Abbott and John Howard. Readers may be satisfied to know, however, that guests by and large gave Scomo a wide berth. He was often seen standing alone.
There were some notable omissions from the guest and speaker list, particularly those thought leaders who had been most vocal about the shortcomings of our political and media leadership during the pandemic. Names like Mattias Desmet, Peter McCullough, Robert Malone and Tess Lawrie seemed conspicuously absent given their calibre and influence over the past several years.
Jessica Rose has also pointed out that the ‘builders’ were not invited – the scientists and the doers. I suspect this comes back to the point about getting the story in place first, and I wonder if the next ARC conference will allow more time spent on the implementation, at which stage we’d see more builders invited along. Then again, why should builders not be included in the story phase of the project? I agree with Jessica that it felt lopsided in that respect.
The vibe at the ARC Conference
The overall vibe was elegant, respectful, hopeful and thought-provoking. Perhaps because everyone who had been invited was of a similar mind (speaking broadly here – of course there would have been some areas of disagreement between attendees), there was a collegiate atmosphere.
The venue itself was lovely – Magazine London. It was airy and light, with a big dining ‘greenhouse’ off to the side. There was only one auditorium (no break out rooms), and anyone who didn’t want to sit in on the talks milled around in the large foyer, the greenhouse, or, between the rain, popped outside for some fresh air. Very few smokers.
There was a separate VIP area as well which obviously I did not venture into, but I was impressed at the number of VIPs who chose to mingle in the foyer with everyone else, chatting and agreeing to interviews. I was able to talk with some people I really respect and admire, and I appreciated their willingness to engage with anyone who approached them.
Geopolitics wasn’t discussed much from the stage, but it’s worth mentioning that on the few occasions that it came up, the take was pro-Israel. Anyone who had a differing view expressed it quietly off to the side.
Highlights of The ARC Conference
I’m pulling together a post of my top favourite talks and takeaways for you, coming this week, stay tuned!
The Aussie Wire Team, finally done at the end of Day Three! L-R Rukshan Fernando, Carlz Söda, Rebekah Barnett, team mascot Flossie, Topher Field
- True story – I watched it on the plane on the way home from an ill-fated trip to see a man to see if it would work out. It didn’t work out. Sniffling through my tears, I totally took Brene’s advice on board and changed my story. I had been so brave! It didn’t make it not hurt, but it made the hurt feel like it was worth it. ↩︎
You can read more of Rebekah’s blogs on The Aussie Wire here