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Babette's Feast behind a steel mesh fence

By Babette Francis - posted Monday, 15 September 2014

The heroine of the film "Babette's Feast" had a struggle to bring smiles to the faces of her dour employers and I was determined to do the same for all those who registered for the Melbourne Regional Event of the World Congress of Families. Endeavour Forum has organised public meetings for decades with federal or state MPs as speakers. We have on a few occasions faced small protests, once when Tony Abbott was Minister for Health and, on another occasion when a State MP was a speaker. However, the combination of Endeavour Forum and the World Congress of Families hosting an event at which federal and state Ministers gave the opening and welcome speeches and Dr. Angela Lanfranchi spoke about the link between abortion and breast cancer, touched a raw nerve with the pro-abortionists, as did our stance on marriage with homosexual activists, not to mention those who were unhappy with the Federal budget. I refer collectively to the protestors as the "ferals" from now on.

We usually have our meetings in church halls, and I began naively trying two parishes, but with the ferals threatening there would be l,000 protestors blocking entrances, infiltrating the halls and causing damage, both parishes bailed out, although the police in both areas undertook to provide adequate protection. The police have been splendid throughout this saga - they alerted squads in every region where I booked a venue and were always courteous and helpful. It has been a pleasure to deal with them and also with the "intelligence" division which kept me informed of estimated feral numbers, and assured me that there would be far less than l,000.

Next I tried a reception centre but the ferals threatened the reception centre that not only would they wreck the WCF Event, but they would ruin their business by targeting future wedding receptions at the venue. This seems like quasi-criminal behaviour, and an issue which the State government should examine, because it is threatens freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. I also tried the Malvern Town Hall, (I am a ratepayer in Malvern) and my local MP, State Treasurer, the Hon. Michael O'Brien, was helpful. He encouraged the police to assure the Town Hall they would provide adequate protection against protestors. However the Town Hall is heritage-listed, and the local Council decided it was too risky, even though it is situated next to the Malvern police station, they share a driveway.


So then I tried to be really clever and booked the Event at a hotel under the title of "Babette's Feast": it was to be a birthday celebration, which it was, for our patron, Dr. Joe Santamaria OAM (91) and Arthur Hartwig, one of our email news editors (87). I told the hotel management of the real format and who the illustrious speakers were. We worked out and I paid for the internal security, and the hotel faithfully kept my secret. So guess what happened – the staff of the federal and state Ministers involved did a "risk assessment", the police arrived at the hotel and gave assurances they would have adequate police to deal with l,000 protestors, and the hotel panicked because they realised the premises would be locked down, and would affect their other guests. What these ministerial staffers do not understand is that when the government books a hotel for a controversial conference, like the G20, it books the entire hotel, and the hotel is locked down to other than official delegates. Endeavour Forum cannot afford to book an entire hotel, so there I was 48 hours before the 30th August with no venue and 400 registrants.

I read with wry amusement in The Australian, 25/8/14 that Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne were vying with one another to see who would get the most protestors at their respective meetings (it was a draw with 500 apiece, compared to my paltry 50!). However, Abbott and Pyne can afford 500 police and hotel shut downs, Endeavour Forum cannot.

I was offered a Christian community centre in an outer suburb, but it had 24 acres of unfenced grounds and would have required a regiment of the Australian Defence Force to protect the perimeter Then Danny Nalliah of Catch the Fire Ministries offered me his auditorium, promised he would not back out, said he was friends with the local police and mentioned his venue had a steel mesh fence around it.

So I had a venue, but then another saga began with speakers backing out - the Liberal MPs said they could not speak at a venue that was registered as the office of another political party (Danny's auditorium is registered as the office of Rise Up Australia). I was unaware of this Liberal Party policy - it seems an absurd policy because it would be a great opportunity to win adherents to your own Party, or even some of its policies if you can do so on the premises of another Party. I didn't have time to argue with the Liberals, as I was too busy replacing them with alternative speakers. The Hon. Kevin Andrews and the Hon. Robert Clark were only going to stay for a few minutes anyway to open the Event and welcome delegates to Victoria, and Dr. Larry Jacobs, Managing Director of the World Congress of Families and Dr. Joe Santamaria performed those formalities adequately.

Bernie Finn, MLC, convenor of the March for the Babies withdrew before I had settled on Danny Nalliah's venue, because his wife and daughters were concerned for his safety. No doubt they were after the rough treatment so many of us experienced at last year's March for the Babies, but I believe it is the duty of State MPs to work to ensure the safety of themselves and everyone else at controversial meetings, not stay away.

I now realised this Event was an issue of freedom of speech and assembly, and not just about pro-life and pro-marriage politics. It was also an irony that the previous venues I tried to book had rejected the Event because of security issues relating to the speakers, and now the speakers were rejecting the Event because of the venue! Well I guess one can't win them all, but it made me even more determined to keep faith with the 400 supporters who had registered and to organise an Event they would never forget.


Next of the speakers to pull out were Bishop Elliott and Fr. Glen Tattersall, who was chairing the talk by Cardinal Burke. Their excuse was that Danny Nalliah had said that maybe the bush fires were God's judgment on Victoria because of our awful abortion legislation. Fr. Tattersall added for good measure that he would be advising the Cardinal not to speak at what was a "Protestant conventicle". I have no idea what a "Protestant conventicle" means, but I don't think it means a Protestant mini-convent! When I reminded Fr. Tattersall of the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah and said that, while I don't share Danny's theology, many pastors do speak in that style, he became angry and ordered me out of his office lest I speak to the Cardinal and offer him a different perspective on the venue. Overlooked in all this is that Danny was not the Convenor or organiser of the Event, he was merely renting his auditorium to Endeavour Forum for the cost of the security guards. How could we be blamed for what our landlord said a few years ago? Whatever happened to "interfaith dialogue" and "ecumenism"? And what about "anti-discrimination policies" so popular with the intelligentsia? In India we have the most weird and wonderful sects - like the Jains who wear masks over their mouths less they swallow innocent insects. Compared to this, Danny's theology seems quite Old Testament and mainstream... and Catholic priests are supposed to preach to non-Catholics, not just the faithful in the pews.

All these rejections made me even more determined that the Event would not be shut down, even if I had only one speaker, and I and Danny's dog, Esha, were the only audience. Yes, Danny Nalliah is a human being with a loving family and a dog, and in his backyard Danny is building an Ark for his family and dog, in case of another Flood..... (Joke).

But I was not the only audience, and I had excellent substitute speakers who gave superb talks with less than 12 hours notice.

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About the Author

Babette Francis, (BSc.Hons), mother of eight, is the National & Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc. an NGO with special consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the UN. Mrs. Francis is the Australian representative of the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer - She lived in India during the Partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan, a historical event that she believes was caused by the unwillingness of the Muslim leaders of that era to live in a secular democracy.

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