Prestigious youth conference held in Southern Hemisphere for the first time

Students at plenary session
McWhirter conference student participants discuss the limits of free speech at the plenary session. Photo: Lauren Vilitati/University of Melbourne

Almost 100 of the state’s most inquisitive young minds gathered this week at the University of Melbourne to discuss free speech and their role in society.

Held 11-12 July, this is the first time the 40-year-old McWhirter Conference has been hosted outside the United Kingdom.

The conference invites the Year 11 and 12 students to explore challenging issues such as the balance between the responsibilities of the individual and the state and topics relating to science and technology.

The original Ross McWhirter Foundation, named after one of the twins’ who started the Guinness Book of Records, was set up in the UK in December 1975 a few weeks after IRA gunmen assassinated Ross McWhirter at his home in north London. The Foundation was set up by Ross’s twin brother, Norris and several close friends, in order to continue Ross’s passion for building a more cohesive society.

Ross and Norris believed passionately in the rule of law and argued that a civilised society must develop and solve its disputes, however emotive, without resorting to violence. Ross paid for that belief with his life after putting up a financial reward for information leading to the capture of those responsible for acts of terrorism in Britain.

In 2004, following Norris McWhirter’s death, the name of the Foundation was changed to The McWhirter Foundation in honour of the work of both twins.

The theme for the inaugural Australian conference is “Who should set the limits on free speech?”

The philosophy behind the event is to bring the best and brightest young students together from a wide social background to hear provocative speakers on topics in ethics. It aim to inspire them to think about their role in society, how they can contribute and potentially lead in the future.

Chaired by former ABC journalist and Melbourne Graduate School of Education Fellow Maxine McKew, this year’s conference guest speakers include: Melbourne Law School McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow Shireen Morris, ABC journalist and comedian Sami Shah, constitutional lawyer and Melbourne Law School Professor Adrienne Stone and social campaigner, activist and journalist Roj Amedi.

The conference has been held at Oxford University for the last 40 years and also more recently at Cambridge University.

Faculty of Arts Dean Professor Russell Goulbourne said: “We are delighted to be able to host this conference at the University of Melbourne. The conference opens students’ minds to the importance of learning from one another and highlights the importance of humanities and social sciences and the part they can play in understanding and addressing local and global challenges.”

The students will stay at University College and participate in a number of workshops concluding with a panel (plenary) where they collectively share and discuss their ideas.