Julian van der Zee talks to Ann Mossop, curator of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, about thinking on the edge.
“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people”

Eleanor Roosevelt.


It’s a good quote, and one that springs to mind during a recent phone chat with Ann Mossop, Head of Talks and Ideas at the Sydney Opera House. We’re discussing the controversy surrounding one of the guest speakers at this year’s instalment of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and the media rounds Mossop made to addresspeople’s concerns.

The speaker in question is Erwin James Monahan (aka Erwin James), a convicted double murderer who served twenty years of a life sentence for crimes he and another man, Paul Dunwell, committed in London in 1982. During his time spent incarcerated Mr. James wrote about prison life for the Guardian until, upon his release in 2004, he became a regular columnist for the paper.

Naturally, the 56-year-old writer’s application for a visa to speak at this year’s festival raised the ire of some critics.

“When we announced he was coming as a speaker there was some reaction to the idea that we had invited him . . . I did talk about it on 2GB and the people who rang in, let’s put it this way, they were not convinced by the case that I was pushing,” says Mossop.

Luckily for Mossop and her fellow festival organisers, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship were more open to the request, allowing James to deliver his talk A Killer Can Be a Good Neighbour in person. Had the application failed he would have appeared via weblink.

A strong advocate for the rehabilitation of prisoners, James believes that in countries that do not implement the death penalty, there exists a pertinent question – what should be done with violent offenders, like himself, who are released back into the community?

“We’re really hoping to present a perspective that people necessarily haven’t heard much about before,” says Mossop. “In Australia a lot of the discussion about those issues is framed in terms of the criminals being scum, or only from the victim’s perspective, not about the consequences . . . we’re saying there are some different ways to look at it.”

While no doubt good publicity for a festival marketing itself as ‘dangerous’, James’ inclusion makes good on the promise of an event designed to confront and challenge the views of the average Sydneysider. Now in its fifth year, Mossop is confident the festival is moving from strength to strength, growing both in “audience numbers and in terms of reach”.

As Head of Talks and Ideas – previously known as Head of Public Programs but changed because “nobody knows what that means, so we may as well have a title that says what we do!” – Mossop is responsible for curating all of the Opera House’s live talk events (or ‘TalkFests’). With a concept as broad as ‘dangerous’, it can be a daunting task.

One of the big names joining FoDI this year is Israeli-born feminist author Hanna Rosin who will discuss the rise of women in the workplace and the decline of patriarchy, as explored in her 2010 novel The End of Men.

“She’s really doing what we love to see happen which is taking an idea, and carrying it through to the most extreme possibility . . . its ultimate conclusion. And that’s what, for me, makes it interesting and dangerous,” says Mossop.

Another exciting addition to the line-up, especially for aficionados of The Wire, will be the show’s creator, show-runner, executive producer and head writer, David Simon, who is headlining the festival.

“My colleague, Danielle Harvey has been talking to him and his people for years, so it’s really a tribute to her being incredibly persistent,” says Mossop. “We’re really delighted that it’s come off, because he’s somebody who obviously has found a way to tell stories that are really rich in ideas, you know, very appealing to a broad audience, but is often talking about things in a way that is done so rarely in mainstream media, and because of the storytelling genius of it he manages to do that.”

In a talk titled Some People are More Equal than Others, Simon will examine the systematic inequality in America – once the self-proclaimed land of the free, now a nation where the rich are more likely to be rewarded and the poor punished.

For Mossop, the bigger the issue, the more wide-reaching its appeal and relevance to an Australian audience. She hopes that the festival “broadens out the conversation by being part of that constant trickle of debate and discussion that gradually over time might lead to something shifting and changing” in the way we perceive particular issues.

This however begs the question; is the Australian nation, at this point in its relatively short history, ready to embrace big ideas, let alone dangerous ones? After all, let’s not forget that we did just elect a conservative government who claim a mandate to disband (among other things) the emissions trading scheme and fibre-optic NBN – arguably two of the better examples of long-term vision in Australia’s recent political history.

Mossop sighs. “I don’t think there were many ideas discussed in this election at all . . . if we can have a whole election without so much as a single idea being discussed, I think it’s really important to make public spaces where people can talk about ideas.”

However that’s not to say there are not intelligent politicians out there. “What’s sad for me about our political culture is that most politicians have to be quite careful to not look like they’re too clever . . . any kind of sign that they might be showing an idea has to be kept under the carpet, so they can go on Big Brother and keep a straight face,” jokes Mossop.

Despite the short-sightedness of our political sphere, it is heartening to know so many people in major cities around Australia are embracing the public discussion format – at the very least as a means of entertainment. But shouldn’t the harbour city do more to advance its international image beyond its obvious aesthetic qualities?

“I think Sydney has the potential to be a lot smarter, to be seen as a lot more interesting and intelligent place than it currently is,” Mossop muses. “If you travel to other cities and you talk to people involved in this kind of thing around the world they’re really interested in what happens here . . . but what we project of ourselves to the rest of the world is, I would say the less interesting end of that spectrum. Fireworks, motor racing, you know, lots of major sporting events.”

Ultimately it’s a question of values, and what we deem to be important. And while we might want to “solve some things with a magic wand”, as Mossop puts it, the reality is a lot more complex.

As the old adage goes, “All good things take time.” The same is true for ideas.

Of course, in the meantime there’s nothing stopping us from picking the brains of some of the world’s most fascinating and provocative thinkers – all gathered under the roof of one of the most iconic locations on the globe.

“I think I’m just going to be running around the building trying to see a bit of everything,” chuckles Mossop.

No harm in that, right?