Newsletter for the Rotary Club of Western Endeavour - Issue No.: 985 Issue Date: 17 Oct, 2021

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2021 Rotary District Conference: A Review

2021 Rotary District Conference: A Review

By Curt McDonald


These are my personal observations, reactions and evaluations of the recent Rotary Bi-District conference, rather than any attempt to comprehensively summarize or represent a balanced view.  Given my (still) relative newness to Rotary I felt these reflections might be a valuable thing to share with my fellow Club members.  No doubt others who attended the conference will have a different take on many things I discuss here.  I did not attend every session at the conference, but I did get to the majority of them.


This was my second Rotary District Conference.  Two years earlier I had attended the District Conference at Scotch College only a week or so after joining Rotary.  Due to Covid the District conference last year was of course cancelled. 

I was enthusiastic about the conference in the months leading up to it.  District Governor Jon Bilson’s engaging presentation at our club in late 2020 was the best thing I had seen come out of Rotary from beyond my own club in my two years in Rotary, and it increased my confidence that this conference was going to be a good one.  Based on my experience with other (non-Rotary) conferences -  including as an organiser -  I assumed that at some point conference organizers would approach clubs for expressions of interest to organise sessions at the conference.  If that did happen, I missed it, and eventually it became clear that it was not that kind of conference.  

After January I started checking the conference website from time to time for details of the program.  I am not sure what I expected, but when the program finally appeared online I did not see much on it that jumped out at me as “must-see” sessions.  

What was evident was a strong push on addressing homelessness, with at least three of the ten “content” sessions and half a dozen different speakers focusing on this topic.  It would seem that, at its own level, District Rotary has decided that addressing homelessness is a major priority, and that the conference was an opportunity to reinforce this view to clubs in the district.  While our club has discussed addressing homelessness as one of many competing worthy programs, I was a bit concerned that the major focus on addressing homelessness at the conference was taking place at the exclusion of other topics.  Nevertheless, there seemed to be a strong push from inside Western Endeavour to support the conference, and after having it cancelled last year due to Covid, and the prospect of two district conferences rolled into one at an exciting venue – it seemed like the right thing to do to attend.  In addition, I was looking forward to it! 

The Conference:  Saturday

I arrived with bells on Saturday morning[1], delighted to be ushered into the well-organized free parking.  I slowly made my way around to D gate on foot, having just missed the little conference shuttle bus doing the rounds. 

I had only been to one event at Optus Stadium since it opened, and there was a sense of anticipation.  The imposing structure loomed large under a solid blanket of grey clouds looking every inch an MCG rival.  Warm air heaving with humidity, lush greenery and placid river views with the attractive Perth skyline in the background all combined to create a decidedly Singaporean atmosphere. 

As the lift opened onto Level 3, I emerged into a flurry of activity, with legions of volunteers handing out name tags, pointing to sign in sheets, and asking yet again if we had scanned the QR Code sign with our SafeWA apps.  There were quite a number of young people volunteering who seemed to be mostly standing around looking good, but it was indeed good to see them there at a Rotary event!  Glimpses of the footy ground looking resplendent for the weekend Derbies as I rounded the corner and followed the throngs into the River View Room.  Along the way we all passed a life-sized 120-year timeline of West Australian Rotary History, stretching over half a dozen whiteboards, with attendees invited to annotate the timeline with stickies denoting special events, or perhaps even their own intersection with Rotary history.  

Into the exhibition room for a much-needed coffee from a large urn at one of the well-serviced beverage tables scattered around the venue.  The espresso-sized china mugs were soon discarded in favor of paper “keep-cups” to keep us energized as we circulated among the many individual club stands in the room.  Most of the usual suspects in the WA Rotary universe were there with their stands, including the cheerful crew running the Rotary Down Under booth!  With a few of us pitching in to help Jane and Judy out across the two days, the RDU stand became an informal home base for Endeavourites as we circled back between sessions.   I made many new Rotary acquaintances across the two days, and could see that many old friends were being rediscovered by my colleagues.

Clang! clang! clang!...came the spoon loudly on the water glass all around the room as were herded out of the exhibition hall and into the main Conference room where the presentations were to take place.   Along the way, after a long and desperate search, I finally learned that “Ambulant Toilet” is modern-day Australia-stadium-speak for “toilet,” and after many cups of coffee I can assure you that this was a welcome discovery indeed.     

The long, curvaceous main Conference room was well kitted out with a raised stage, state-of-the-art cameras, sound boards and technicians, and five large presentations screens split between the front and the back of the large room, evidently to relieve neck-cramps for those seated 10-at-a-time at large round tables packing the floor.  Those unable to see the stage due to the occasional large round concrete pillar holding up the roof were encouraged to apply for restricted-viewing refunds on their conference tickets.   Suprisingly-comfortable chairs with generous, sloping backs catered well to those who needed to slump back into their seats and lower their eyelids for just a few quiet moments… when the sessions became too intense.  Staring thoughtfully into the distance behind the stage was amply facilitated by a vast expanse of opulent floor to ceiling windows looking out over the Swan to the Perth skyline beyond. 

The day was officially opened with a short, pre-recorded video to district conferences all over the world by Rotary International President Holgar Knaack.  Over the next day and a half there were a few such videos peppered into the proceedings from different Rotary luminaries from Australia and beyond.  

Keynote speaker Michael Chaney kicked things off on Saturday morning with a sobering two-part presentation, first addressing Rotary’s well-known long-term membership decline.  As he related his own experiences with an earlier organization known as Apex (now defunct), he was quick to clarify that while he could offer no solutions, he recognized that it was a problem that we needed to address.  It was a bracing but valuable contribution that not many speakers besides Mr Chaney - as a prominent business leader and long-term friend of Rotary - could have credibly made without simply sounding critical. 

The second part of Mr Chaney’s remarks were essentially a reminder that the main function of businesses - no matter what other objectives management and boards of companies tell us they are trying to accomplish – is to maximize shareholder returns.[2]  However, Mr Chaney was quick to clarify that this shareholder focus does not preclude businesses – assuming they are satisfying shareholders - from supporting a wide range of additional stakeholders in society.  He then spent some significant time highlighting Wesfarmers’ tremendous success at doing just this, far more successfully than any other Australian company and indeed far better than most other companies at a global level.   Perhaps this is indeed the gold standard to which other corporates should aspire.

Questions for Mr Chaney soon began to roll in from the audience on Zeetings, the nifty new interactive presentation software demonstrated at our club by District Governor Jon Bilson late last year.  This tool is very exciting for long-time presenters like myself, as among other features it enabled audience members from all across a very large room to submit their questions on their smart phones, without having to shout over tables or wait for a microphone to come to them.    I suspect Club members will be seeing this software again very soon.

The next notable session was a view on “The Future of Rotary” given by Samanatha Fewster, a charming and impressive young woman who is the current Chair of Rotaract Australia.    Samantha started her presentation with some very interesting detail on the origins of Rotary in Chicago, including actual newspaper clippings from the early 1900s documenting the beginnings of Rotary in Australia.  She then communicated her general high-level humanitarian visions/aspirations about what Rotary can achieve.  With Michael Chaney’s earlier prognostications still fresh in my mind, I was hoping for some constructive suggestions from Samantha about what Rotary International needs to do to survive and thrive going forward, and in the closing minute of her presentation she delivered:  a) slim down bureaucratically and b) get some diversity in the ranks.  Specific and concrete recommendations about how to achieve these aims will hopefully be in her presentation at the conference next year. 

Caught up in engaging conversations in the Exhibit Hall, I managed to miss most of the next session, a video presentation by Kiwi inspirational speaker Cam Calkoen. However I am reliably informed it was indeed inspirational.  What little I did catch suggested that it was also entertaining!

After an almost-satisfying lunch out on the Champions Terrace on Saturday we reconvened in the main room for the session on Social Enterprise.   While I may have missed the precise definition, social enterprise appears to be organisations that are driven by a public or community cause, be it social, environmental, cultural or economic, and derive most of their income from their own trade rather than donations or grants[3].  

Speakers for this panel included a representative from the 100 Women Organization (didn’t catch her name) who talked about their grants program to fund projects that provide refuge, health, education and economic freedom for women and girls.  Interestingly, donors to 100 Women also have the opportunity to vote for which projects they want to be funded.  The panel also included Regan Ashley (runs RYLA) to talk about Blue Sky Social Impact Travel, which recently chartered a flight to Broome whose passengers took part in the Broome Pride event.  These panelists discussed how they had got their social enterprises up and running.  

Every table in the room was then given a half hour and some written prompts to come up with their own social enterprise idea.  At the end of the session a few tables got the chance to talk about what they had come up with.  It was later rumoured the cannabinoid-focused social enterprise projects surfaced at more than one table, a gentle reminder that underneath their conservative exteriors Rotarians are really a very progressive lot.

Following afternoon tea we heard an engaging talk by Michelle Cowan on her personal journey to become the Forwards Coach for the West Coast Eagles.  She detailed how her passion for footy, assisted by critical moments of support from key mentors in the footy world helped her overcome fear and uncertainty to rise to the highest levels of the national game.  Her presentation was only slightly marred by the fact that the uniform of the organisation in question was blue and gold, rather than a more regal and attractive color such as purple.

The presentation entitled “Nah….Homelessness could never happen to me” by Allan “Big Al” Connolly, MD of Kommuniti HG, was very good, or so I was told, as I again found myself caught up in one-on-one conversations in the Exhibition Room next door.  

As the day’s conference sessions came to an end, a few of us felt our conference experience would not be complete without a hands-on, self-guided tour of the all-important Camfield Building next door.  However, in no time at all we were back at the conference venue, having retired once again to the Champions Terrace overlooking the footy ground to enjoy a beverage.  A few of us were impressed by the money conference organizers must have saved in their selection of drink choices for this part of the program[4].  However, we were confident things would improve knowing that, earlier in the day, one clever Endeavourite had reserved a dinner table within staggering distance of the main bar, where frosty beer taps had beckoned all day long.

By the time the dinner bell rang we were feeling refreshed, our spirits lifted by the arrival of several club members’ partners, resplendent in elegant evening dress and just as charming in conversation.   As we made our way to the tables the Perth skyline, now silhouetted against a glorious Indian Ocean sunset, added a warm glow to the proceedings.  Unfortunately, conference organisers had foiled our plot to overrun the bar by rearranging the table numbers to ensure that our seats were now approximately 1.3 kilometres away from any beer taps[5].

Dinner was everything lunch had not been.  Delicious pork belly to start off, followed by steak and barra surprisingly well-prepared for our Rotary cast of 450, with scrumptious cakes at the finish.  The silent auction, scrolling silently on the big screens overhead while we dined, featured two dozen items including the usual assortment of blue and gold items along with military memorabilia and larger than life posters featuring the likes of Conor McGreggor (David did you get that one in the end?). 

Dinner conversation found heavy fuel in contemplation of the day’s conference sessions, the ultimate consensus being that we must in fact have all attended different conferences that day.  A general fisti-cuffs soon seemed all but inevitable, averted only by the timely arrival on stage of one of Australia’s foremost sporting legends, Tim Colliss, looking statuesque and triumphant in his dark green Olympian’s blazer, the coat-of-arms perched solemnly under the left pocket.  The room sat spellbound for what seemed like a hours, regaled with heroic tales of the blood-sport we know as sudoku.  It was an epic saga grounded in an eternity of patient, disciplined training, raw survival during the brutal trials of competitive selection, and above all the epic story of a bloke who left no stone unturned in his glorious quest to represent Australia – in something - on foreign soil.  Not a dry eye was seen throughout the room….

Tim Gossage brought up the rear shortly thereafter, employing his snappy television-presenter-cum-auctioneer’s style to stir up the room as he attempted to flog a somewhat unusual collection of memorabilia items on the vulnerable punters.  Amongst the items not passed in was the obligatory bat with a Don Bradman signature on it, and some very fine diamond earrings, which, when held in the just the right light, appeared to display the Rotary International logo.  Amazing how they get gemstones to do that….

No doubt some stayed to dance the night away, but as the emotional roller coaster we had been on that day glided in to the station I had only one thought left…..bed.

The Conference:  Sunday

I awoke with a start remembering that I had signed up for a slot working the Rotary Down Under stand on Sunday morning.  I hurried back to the conference venue, knowing full well that Jane and Judy were unlikely to survive the Sunday morning retail crush at the RDU stand without me.  Rushing into the Exhibition Hall somewhat late and expecting the worst, I was amazed to find that somehow Jane and Judy had gotten on perfectly fine without me, and I slunk quietly away to the coffee table to nurse my disappointment and contemplate the meaning of life…

The Sunday morning sessions started off with the inspiring tale of a wayward son made good, Corey Dalton, a young indigenous boy who tried many occupations on the winding road to becoming a world class doctor.  Along the way he had found critical support from parents and mentors, who believed in him to the end.  It was a potent reminder about the power of enlightened individuals to transform the lives of others who are in need, and whose true potential is yet to be realized.

The surprise session of the conference – and possibly the most forward looking one - was brought to us by Nadia Mitsopoulis, a leader at Lifeline WA, which works to prevent suicides – which they believe are preventable – in our fine state.  I knew of Lifeline, but was hardly  prepared for what we were to hear.  Nadia reminded us that even while things appear to be looking up in WA as the world emerges from Covid, we need to take stock of the mental health catastrophe which has unfolded.  No doubt each of us feels some mental strain in these times of Covid, but most of us would not know that over the last 12 months 440 people in WA have committed suicide.  Suicide is the leading cause of death for Western Australians between the ages of 15 and 44.   

Nadia shared the emotional story of completely unexpected suicide in her own family, and how that has changed her life.  It was a powerful, gripping and intensely personal message which, as I recall the moment, finds me fighting back tears (again) even now as I write these words.  The only one in the room not affected was an affable disabled-assistance dog which quietly slipped away from its owner during the talk and wandered amongst the tables connecting with different people.  Maybe it sensed we were all in distress and needed some help at that moment…

Before she left the stage Nadia provided a somewhat ominous but prescient look into the future, quietly warning us that the 2020 mental health crisis was not over, and was expected to further intensify in the coming year as Job Keeper payments end, and household employment and financial stress ramp up again.  Little surprise then that Lifeline finds itself understaffed and in need of resources to train a new contingent of workers to field the many difficult calls they will receive in the months ahead.    

At that point in the morning there was a surprise modification to the proceedings.  The coffee break was moved forward so that Exhibitors could exit the hall next door to make way for a Derby Day function to take place at Optus Stadium later that afternoon.   Final sales were rushed through as we packed boxes and rolled trollies through halls, down lifts and out to cars.  By the time we were done packing up, deep into the final substantive conference session of the day, some (myself included) decided to get ahead of the already gathering footy crowds and make a break for it.

This meant missing out on the Homelessness Panel session and the ABS Homelessness Census session, but in truth there was not much more room in my brain for Rotary Programs at that point.   Perhaps others can fill in the necessary detail on these sessions at some point.

Final Thoughts….

Hands down, the highlight of the entire conference (for me) was my interaction with other members of my own club.   

I continue to believe that the most valuable asset our club has is the great camaraderie of our club members[6], and my experience at the conference provided a resounding confirmation of that belief.  Those of us attending had great fun all along the way checking in with each other around the venue, chatting about the sessions in real time, making new acquaintances and gently poking fun at aspects of the conference we found amusing.  It was also rewarding having the luxury of time to discuss compelling and important topics in seriousness with my fellow club members, something I often feel is missing in the regular strictly-timed, early-morning format of our weekly meetings[7].  In fact the whole conference was a bit like a 1 and ½ day version of our morning meetings, with each presentation bracketed by coffee breaks, cocktail hours, meals and lulls in the programming, during which we gravitated to each other for easy conversation and reflection.  Our great club spirit is a precious asset, something we need to consider carefully and preserve as we attempt to grow our club via new members or mergers in the days ahead.

Would I go to another Rotary District Conference?  At this point I doubt it

Perhaps I am suffering a bit of post-conference fatigue, and it may be that I will feel differently in a year’s time.  Perhaps my Rotary colleagues will conclude that my induction is not yet complete, that I have yet come around to the Rotary way of seeing the world, and hence my beatings need to resume. Or maybe I need to simply adjust my expectations to accept what Rotary is and what it is not.  

Those disclaimers aside, for me to go again it would have to be a different kind of conference. 

This year’s conference was too expensive (in both time and money) and too unrelated to my (club-level) view of what Rotary is to have much impact on my Rotary involvement in the days ahead.  The many single-initiative projects being promoted by different clubs in the Exhibition Hall seemed, with a few select exceptions, to have little more than a general, high-level correspondence with the presentations going on in the Conference Room next door.   The significant District focus on homelessness at this conference, while admirable and worthy as a major theme, left, I felt, little room for other local or international Rotary priorities being worked on down at the club level.

The conference I would be interested in attending would need to be more of a bottom-up and less of a top-down conference than I perceived this year’s conference to be.  Since a large part (most?) of the financial support for this conference – and virtually all of the attendees – are coming from individual clubs and their members, in my view a conference like this should be more about them, their successes, and their challenges.   It would be about extending the dialogue and joint initiatives that I have already seen underway between individual clubs at ground level.  I would also want to see at least one full session focusing squarely and constructively on the existential issue challenging most individual clubs and Rotary as a whole, namely the long-term decline in membership.  More workshops and joint working groups actively bringing members of different clubs together and introducing them, more public recognition of individual clubs at the conference, more presentations from the clubs themselves. 

There may be good contemporary and historical reasons not to do this kind of a conference, and perhaps I am still too new to Rotary to know them.    But as a new Rotarian I need to understand why Rotary – and this conference – is the way it is, in order to understand my place within it.    Putting on my membership hat, and thinking not least of all of the young volunteers wandering around the conference venue over the weekend, what Rotary is and what it does need to be pretty much obvious and instantly accessible to outsiders if we want to attract new members.

Well, there it is, you have finally reached the end.  I apologize again for the length of this rendering but hope you have found at least a few worthy morsels.  I also hope no one will take too much offense at things I have said here, but I personally feel that it is important to be honest and truthful (rather than posturing and political) when providing feedback.  Please feel free to approach me privately if you would like discussion or clarification of anything I have written here.



[1] I missed the Friday evening reception due to a conflict, but was informed that our man Tony Parker smashed the competition in the baton race, with a good time had by all at the reception afterwards. 

[2] His intention in raising this point was not exactly clear, as we discovered later that night during an interesting discussion over dinner, where there were various interpretations of what Mr Chaney had said, what point he was in fact making, and whether he was in fact speaking to those in the room, or to the world at large. (!)

[3] As defined by the Victorian Government

[4] Or maybe they were given no choice by Optus Stadium…

[5] And which, as we belatedly discovered, were not open to dinners in any case!

[6] Something that has been reflected back to me about our club by non-members on a number of occassions

[7] Unless some of us slip away for a coffee after the formal meeting.

Author: Curt McDonald

Published: 11 March, 2021


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3 minute bio
19 Oct, 21
Marcus Harris
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Curt McDonald
26 Oct, 21
Tony Parker
Jenny Mott
02 Nov, 21
Peter Batskos
Barrie Heald
09 Nov, 21
Peter Batskos
Curt McDonald
Marina Berzins
Barrie Heald
16 Nov, 21
Judy Dinnison
Judy Dinnison
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