Cotter: the 'Call For a New Society'

Some day all our lives will be a Confest. (Cairns at Cotter - in Horin 1979:33)

The Cotter event, held on National Park lands in the ACT in December 1976, was a watershed in Australian alternative culture. In a document 'Getting together for Canberra in December 1976' - largely distributed to the 'Tuntable tribe' (the Tuntable Falls community near Nimbin) - David Spain saw the event as a 'City-State predicated upon co-operative brotherhood' and environmental responsibility, and, further, 'one of the most advanced expressions or prototypes of "New Age" society'. He heralded it as a sign of the newly evolved Aquarian age wherein 'Man's proper function [is] as a shepherd of Beings, rather than as some pretentious Lord of Being'. This said, it was Cairns who had attracted large numbers of the 10,000 or so attending. In early December

the pilgrims began arriving - veterans from 1973; 1950s bohemians; old ladies from the vegan society; the current inhabitants of Nimbin; Carlton and Kings Cross street waifs; and professional film, theatre and advertising people, the elegant habitues of Paddington (both Sydney and Brisbane) - in short, a cross section of Australian subcultures as never got together before. (Rawlins 1982:29)

Cotter's rationale? To unite the disconnected and to explore the parameters, the corporeal possibilities, of Cairns' 'new culture'. In his document, Spain envisioned the event to be a coherent expression of the alternative movement: 'those exploring alternative lifestyles should coherently understand and express just who we are, why our movement arose and deserves respect, and what we can positively do, prove and offer towards the fulfilment of that entire Australian Commonwealth, and even beyond, to all planet Earth, whereof we are unavoidably a part'.

Numerous features appeared at Cotter, many becoming part of the conventional ConFest assemblage. There was an initial 'sharing ritual' - an opening event wherein hundreds danced, embraced and massaged one another effectively releasing inhibitions. In several geodesic domes workshops were held on a host of themes. Ananda Marga, Hari Krsna, Quakers, Sufis and representatives from Scotland's Findhorn community were present, and the CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) 'Gay Center' was set up. Speakers and instructors included Eva Reich (daughter of Wilhelm), Bill Mollison (on 'Perennial agriculture and alternative technology for the Third World'), Peter Cock (on the Moora Moora community), Benny Zable (dance), and co-founder of The Farm in Tennessee, James Prescot (on 'body pleasures and the origin of violence') (DTE Canberra 3, Dec. 1979:14-15).7 On the first day Cairns delivered a speech forecasting the gathering as a prelude to 'a new emerging society, a society of new values, a society in which the law of love will be the law of humanity' (in Hefner 1976:3).

On the morning of the final day 3,000 people gathered again to give heed to Cairns 'on the mount', and this time he delivered a 'manifesto'. A brief medley of ideas designed for popular absorption, the 'manifesto' had been produced by a committee led by Robert Hughes of Melbourne's Footscray Community Centre. It was formed out of its authors' experience at Cotter, and is infused with unmistakable 'Cairns-speak'. A significant comment on the moment, it was shortly afterwards edited and carried on the front page of the first DTE newsletter - The Down to Earth Community News (1977) - under the headline 'A Call For A New Society' (see Appendix E).

It is clear from this writing that the authors had been inspired by what can be described as a most fervent instance of spontaneous communitas such as which had been approximated at Aquarius in 1973 and perhaps never repeated. The narrative drives home the feeling of collective rebirth, a kind of puissance achieved by thousands who experienced a return to 'real needs, to themselves, to one another and to the earth which supports them'. 'We are determined [they stated] to assist in the birth of a different society and a new awareness, realising that we ourselves will need to be reborn in order to bring it to life'. The manifesto evoked a host of crises - psychological, social, political, cultural - conditioned by 'prevailing hegemonic values' (the key words are 'alienation', 'anxiety', 'repression', 'unlimited consumption', 'excessive waste', 'unequal distribution' of wealth and power, and media 'brainwashing'). It was felt that the key to overcoming such a profusion of maladies had been discovered at Cotter, where 'a new consciousness', a 'freedom' so long awaited, was conceived. The 'new society' could only follow in its wake.

Later, at Berri in South Australia (1979), ConFesters were provided with a handbook8 which documented the emergence of the alternative movement in Australia and which, most significantly, implicated the readers (the participants) in the realisation of its goals:

DTE is a community of persons seeking new values and directions having questioned or in the process of questioning the goals, impact and directions of the existing alienating and dehumanising capitalistic society ... [A] main aim of DTE is to assist in the development of a viable alternative society: a new society ... As people working together, we make the future ... DTE - nationally and locally - consists of people dedicated to helping the cultural preparation and consciousness raising for a truly alternative society, free from alienation, oppression, exploitation and inequality.

Alas, the 'new society' never arrived. Yet this should not be regarded as a failure, for, though the revolutionary transformation imagined by legions of contemporaries in a host of guises was not realised, many minor 'revolutions' were, and have been since. Together with untold behavioural modifications, a multitude of communities, therapies, gatherings, 'tribes' and BŁnde have come into existence, or have been regenerated, as a result of ConFest. The 'new society' never arrived but many new 'societies' did, as ConFest became a networking and 'recruitment' centre for the ACM (Metcalf 1986:208).9 And they have continued to emerge as a result of the DTE ConFest becoming periodic - a recurrent calender event. ConFest has indeed become a successful distraction to, diversion from, and subversion of society ('Babylon'), and in this DTE has taken on a role scarcely foreseen by its progenitors.



Glossary of Acronyms and Abbreviations
References: A-L
References: M-Z
Chapter Three Contents
Thesis Contents