Wings over the Woodford Folk Festival

Kylie Sturgess

Protesting by Plane with the Stop The Anti-Vaccination Network

In early December 2011, “Operation Nutcracker” was born.

Meryl Dorey, the president of the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), was booked for a talk on December 29, 2011, at the Woodford Folk Festival—an annual festival located between the Brisbane Valley and Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in the North-East of the country.

Don’t be fooled by the name of the group: The Australian Vaccination Network is an anti-vaccination lobby group, registered in New South Wales, dedicated to promoting the view that community health can be promoted without the use of vaccines. Upon hearing of Dorey’s appearance, the Stop the Anti-Vaccination Network (Stop the AVN)—a loose affiliation of concerned citizens and skeptical activists—moved rapidly to protest this appearance; through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and email-writing campaigns, they rallied for her presentation to be cancelled for the good of public health.

By the December 13, an article appeared in MamaMia, a pop-culture opinion site, questioning Dorey’s appearance at the festival. The article called for some accountability and responsibility, but the overall response by the organizer Bill Hauritz was unapologetic. The media picked up the story, with Australian Medical Association of Queensland’s President Kidd and Queensland’s Health Minister Geoff Wilson both expressing their disapproval—the latter even calling the AVN a “fringe group.”

Then, at nearly the twelfth hour, an interesting compromise emerged. The talk had been changed to a “forum,” with Dorey joined by Andreas Suhrbier, head of the immunovirology laboratory at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and moderated by John Parker, a veteran of Doctors without Borders.

Despite the concessions, the Stop the AVN was determined to make a public statement at the festival about Dorey’s appearance. Thirty-four donors contributed to a tow-banner on a plane, which would appear for half an hour on either side of the vaccination forum’s scheduled run time. The banner simply read: VACCINATION SAVES LIVES.

The media release, written by Queenslander Chrys Stevenson, was forwarded to concerned parties and flyers were handed out at the event itself. The release captured the media’s attention and was considered a win by the Stop the AVN for its innovative activism.

I spoke to four members of the Stop the AVN for the Token Skeptic podcast on the evening of the event itself.



Kylie Sturgess:  So what inspired a plane?

Robin Hilliard:  It really was just an idea that struck me when I was sitting there watching what was happening on Twitter. My actual action, although I’ve been much heralded for it, was really just to say, “I wonder what it would cost to hire a plane?” and to look up skywriting in Google. I fired off an email saying, “Hey, what would it cost to put this kind of message over Woodford on this date?”

They got back to me the next day and I direct-messaged Jason [Brown], and just said, “People are interested in this.” That apparently was my ticket of entry into the Illuminati.

Kylie Sturgess:  That’s all it takes?

Daniel Raffaele:  Oh God, don’t mention the Illuminati!

Kylie Sturgess:  Nobody suspects the Illuminati!

Robin Hilliard:  Can I go on to my lizard sun bath now?

Jason Brown:  But it was just the kind of money that if we clubbed together, and we cared enough, we could do. It was also exactly one percent of the AVN’s revenue for 2010, which was quite amazing.

Robin Hilliard:  That’s what I love. Instantly, the moment we thought of a plane, we knew what the reactions would be: “Oh, Meryl will say something about chemtrails. Or that Big Pharma sponsored it”—but that’s so the opposite of what actually happened.

We got the quote for the plane and it was $2,800. You can look up “skywriting” in the phone book or do the same with a Google search. I was really stunned by how fantastic the response was when I suggested it; we had students who were putting in $15 because they just wanted to be a part of the plan.

We had, I think in the end, thirty-four people, with individuals chipping in amounts from $15 up to a few hundred bucks to pay for it. The amazing thing was at the end of collecting all that money from people, and putting it all together, we were less than one percent of the AVN’s declared audited annual income for last year.

The funny thing was, Meryl was actually the first person to report online about the plane over the festival. She said, “How can I possibly afford that kind of advertising? I couldn’t even afford this advertising.” I said, “Of course you could, Meryl. This is less than one percent of what you get every year from all your income.”

Dave the Happy Singer:  If you think that we’re indulgent by buying a plane to fly “Vaccination Saves Lives” above Woodford, just remember Meryl Dorey could do it a hundred times over.

Robin Hilliard:  This is something we can all do. There’s no hurt in throwing out a big idea. I particularly thank [founding Australian Skeptic] Dick Smith for his stunts back in the ’70s and ’80s when I was a kid, he used to do all of these sorts of things. And I just thought, “Let’s just find out. Throw out a big idea and see if we can do it. If we can do it, let’s go and do it.”

Kylie Sturgess:  It’s such a classic thing to have a banner up in the sky. I was so surprised when I saw the promo email that went around saying, “OK, everyone be prepared,” and there was a little airplane logo at the bottom of the email—I had no idea there was going to be a real plane! There were also people in the audience on the day handing out fliers. How did the audience respond from what you’ve heard?

Daniel Raffaele:  I actually found out that the plane had arrived from Meryl Dorey because we were all timed to release the news at 1:45 PM Queensland time—we were all going to start blogging and tweeting en masse. Then we were all sitting around for those first couple of minutes, saying “Has the plane got there? Has the plane got there? Has the plane got there?!

Jason Brown:  We were freaking out big time!

Daniel Raffaele:  Yes! Then I see this post from Meryl Dorey saying, “You won’t believe this … but there’s a plane flying overhead with ‘Vaccines Saves Lives’ on it…” That was when I knew. But the response from the public has been pretty positive. I was on Twitter the whole afternoon, and seeing people going, “There’s a plane overhead with a banner!” We were getting extra followers on Twitter for Stop the AVN.

Dave the Happy Singer:  I suppose the other thing we should mention is that Meryl Dorey had her nose put out of joint, because as a result of our campaigning, Meryl was no longer giving her solo talk, which was titled, “Autism Emergency: One in Thirty-Eight.” That was scrapped; she was no longer giving her unchallenged solo speech. It was replaced with a forum where there were a couple of experts, chaired by a real doctor and just Meryl on the fringes. It was still too much for us to be happy. She had no business being there in the first place.

Daniel Raffaele:  That’s precisely the point of the campaign: she’s harping on about freedom of speech. But freedom of speech is fine, but it doesn’t mean that you get to sit up on stage with a microphone.

Dave the Happy Singer:  Yeah. You don’t have a right to speak at Woodford with your freedom of speech. If not, I would be up there speaking about my future marriage to Keira Knightley, but that invitation has not come through again…

Kylie Sturgess:  I would fly a plane in protest about that quite frankly, Dave, I’m sorry.

Dave The Happy Singer:  So would the world, Kylie, I think!

Kylie Sturgess:  There’s only so much we can stomach! How did the crowd respond to the protest overall?

Dave the Happy Singer:  From what I’ve heard it was about a 50/50 split. But that’s not really that surprising given that the Sunshine Coast isn’t really that much of a drive from Meryl Dorey’s heartland. She would have had people following her up there. The Sunshine Coast in Queensland does have a bit of a “rainbow region”/New Age leaning. Not as bad as the Northern Rivers in New South Wales, but still pretty intense. So it’s not surprising that there was a split. But the split I guess was more in our favor than we would have thought.

Robin Hilliard:  I think the split that was reported during the talk … was 50/50. But then [Stop AVN member] Phil Kent was handing out flyers there, with a little spitfire cap and a “Vaccination Saves Lives” T-shirt! He was saying that he got a very positive response as he was handing flyers out. So I don’t know if that just meant he was talking to fifty percent of the room, or if it meant that people who had been undecided were talking to him as well.

Dave the Happy Singer:  It’s entirely possible that people had gone into that undecided, genuinely seeking information, and got to see Meryl Dorey completely shot down.

Jason Brown:  Suddenly from the social media monitoring we were doing at the time, we knew it was all ours. There’s hardly an anti‑vaccination voice on the Woodford Twitter hashtag or on the “Stop the AVN” hashtag. Everybody seemed to be excited; people we didn’t know, people unrelated to “Stop the AVN,” were interested to see that there was a plane out there challenging Dorey, and that Phil was there handing out fliers. There were people posting on Facebook that heckled Dorey, and the audience had cheered them.

These weren’t people we’d know. These weren’t people that we put up there. But general members of the public are getting the message that these anti‑vaccination views are full of crap, and I think that’s positive. With all the sad news that’s been happening with the vaccine preventable diseases, there is good news there. I think the message is getting through.

Daniel Raffaele:  I think we do it better than anyone in the world really. We’ve really taken the AVN to task. But we’d love to be proved wrong.

Jason Brown:  Absolutely!

Dave the Happy Singer:  Yeah, come on America! I think the other interesting thing is that we’ve come under fire with “Stop the AVN.” We are by definition quite a negative campaign because we’re focused on the AVN. But this has been an entirely positive action. The message is, “Vaccination Saves Lives.”

As Meryl would have it, we’re trying to put the other side. We’re trying to help people get a free and informed choice. But a free and informed choice depends on that word informed. If you’re badly informed then you’re going to make bad choices. But I’m quite happy that we’re doing a positive campaign with a positive message. We could have put up a banner saying, “Meryl Dorey is full of …” But that wouldn’t have won us any friends.

Kylie Sturgess:  What could people do to help or what do you suggest they emulate? For example, I know that over in the U.S. it’s just been announced that apparently there’s going to be more advertising in Time Square in New York, by the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). Is there any advice that you have for other activists out there?

Dave the Happy Singer:  I think that the best thing that Australians can do is to go to the Stop the AVN Facebook group and join up with us. Basically take it from there. We do things like this from time to time. But this is, I think, with the possible exception of the Western Australian advertising blitz for her talks earlier in 2011, the biggest thing that we’ve done. It’s certainly the biggest thing that we’ve done on any single day.

I think the best thing that you can do is join us on Facebook and basically take it from there. As for what’s happening in America—perhaps they’ll be inspired by just how easy it is to rally the troops, or maybe we make it look easy?

The official Stop the AVN site is at

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.