Hello everyone. First I would like to thank whoever it was who suggested that I speak here today for giving me this opportunity. Those here that know me know well that I love the sound of my own voice and if there is one thing that I like more than volunteering to hear it, it is being volunteered to do so by somebody else.
I’ve been told to keep this speech to under ten minutes. To that end, I have written it out so that I may better control its duration, so I apologise in advance for reading this off a page – it is not something that I normally do. Do also keep in mind that I, as with most of my university exams, did the greater part of preparing for this speech in the early hours of this morning. I also apologise for the abysmally boring, and uninformative content of this speech and if I don’t make eye contact with you, please don’t take it personally. If you, like me, haven’t benefited from a good night’s sleep, I will not hold it against you should you decide to catch up over the next ten minutes or so.
(wait for silence)
Well, this is a rather awkward silence. Not unlike the awkward silence that I encountered once a while back in my later years in primary school, when I silenced a playground by yelling out a poorly thought-out abbreviation of the name of my friend Nicole. I shall leave that one to your imaginations.
But on the subject of silences and imagination, I would now like to lead into what I was actually asked to come and talk about. A product of my imagination which was borne out of such a moment of silence almost three years ago.
The famous French poet Victor Hugo once said that there is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come. He also believed that the poet’s purpose should be two-fold – firstly to echo universal sentiment by revealing his own feelings, uniting the voices of mankind, nature and history, and secondly to guide the reader, in other words, to lead the way.
And that is precisely what I chose to do.
To lead will always be more difficult than to follow, just ask any sheep. To find out just how absurd my idea was one need only go back in time two and a half years, ask anyone who often dwelt in the victorian amnesty office and they would tell you. They told me. But I would not be perturbed. For me, amnesty represents many things but above all else, I feel that the “spirit” (if you could call it that) of amnesty international is championing the indomitability of the human spirit.
So it began, a comedy night featuring Australia ‘s leading comedians for the benefit of amnesty international. Similar things had been done before, but in Australia nothing of this scale had ever been attempted, even the Oxfam Gala relied heavily on being the first event of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I would be lying if I said that organising “Stand Up For Your Rights” was easy, so I wont. It was very difficult.
I had had some experience organising small events as president of the Melbourne University amnesty group, but in all seriousness, I had no idea what I was doing. I received some invaluable help from some of the most unusual places – comedians, managers and even some venue people. The sense of goodwill and peoples willingness to help was heartening and at times, that alone kept me going, all the time remembering that famous line from Victor Hugo, firm in the belief that the idea was all that was important, and that I had a good one.
I learned alot from this experience. I learned that there isn’t much trust between people these days, that everything must be “in writing” to be taken seriously. But despite all the cynicism, despite all the people who told me that it couldn’t be done, despite all the people who told me I was crazy, I persisted – stubborn almost to the point of pugnacity. I was out to organise a comedy night, but I was also out to change the world. I had a vision and I was going to stop at nothing to see it through.
Being young also had its advantages. Youth… that’s what we’re meant to be right? Well, while today’s youth is commonly associated with inexperience, naivety and arrogance. While some would count these as weaknesses, I prefer to see them as strengths. You see, I was just naive enough to have a clear idea of where I wanted to go while simultaneously having no idea of how difficult it would be to get there.
Well, c’mon, how hard could it possibly be? Get some comedians, set a date, get a venue, organise sound and lighting, sell some tickets… it couldn’t be easier, right? Well, as with all fairly complex tasks, there are “complications” and a fair degree of lateral thinking and sheer persistence was required to get things done. It was at this point that I drew inspiration from another hero of mine, this time Winston Churchill, who once said “never never never give up”. (and my academic record also reflects this)
At one particularly low point, the event was pretty much officially cancelled. It is here that I took a page out of the history books for advice. History teaches us that the greatest victories and achievements in civilisation almost always occur at times immediately following periods in which defeat seems inevitable. At this point, the writing seemed to be on the wall, so to speak. But as Omar Shariff said so well in the movie Lawrence of Arabia “truly for some men, nothing is written unless they write it”. If you think you are defeated, then you are.
I was not going to take no for an answer. I was not going to let others pluck my arrow from mid-air before it had a chance at the bull’s eye.
So, six weeks out from the proposed date, I pretty much re-organised the entire event around a different venue (the size of the venue was the problem, it was too big apparently). I went to the next branch committee meeting and made it clear, on no uncertain terms that I was not willing to take no for an answer, and luckily for them, they took the plunge and took a chance on an unproven 21-year-old to run the single biggest stand-alone event in amnesty international australia’s history (in terms of once-off expenditure anyway).
Needless to say, the nights were successful, which is probably why I’m standing here talking to you and not sitting there making cheap wisecrack comments. In 2003, we raised about $8,000 and had about 750 people in the audience, in 2004, we raised about $20,000 and there were almost 1600 people in the audience. In terms of activism, it invigorated many young activists, hand-picked by myself from various uni groups. The goodwill that it built up with comedians was also considerable, to the point that some of the comedians who have been involved occasionally mention the night in their gigs.
Amnesty international is about human rights, sure. But at the heart of it, it is about so much more. Its about the indomitability of the human spirit, its about people standing up for their rights, in the face of almost impossible odds and it is also about empowering people to do that, to give them hope that not all their effort is in vain. I have sacrificed greatly for this event, some of you may be surprised to learn that I recently came within a hair’s breadth of being expelled from uni for failing too many subjects. But when I put things in perspective, when I think about the people whom we write letters about, I can’t help but think that my sacrifices pale in comparison to theirs. They inspire me.
Amnesty is about an idea whose time has come. Never forget who the candle burns for, as the late amnesty founder Peter Benenson said “ The candle burns not for us, but for all those whom we failed to rescue from prison, who were shot on the way to prison, who were tortured, who were kidnapped, who “disappeared”. That is what the candle is for”. Remember them, let their struggle inspire you. Whenever you think “oh this is too hard”, “I have no idea what I’m doing” (something that I often think) or “what could one person possibly amount to”, think of them. You would also do well to go to your dictionaries, look up the word “impossible” and cross it out. Impossible is nothing. Finally, I’d like to leave you with a quote from one of my favourite poets, Robert Frost – “Do not follow where the path may lead… go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”. Thank you.