Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Ireland’s former President Mary Robinson lead the programme for the Aspiring Conversations festival of ideas to be held in April.



The opening event session ‘Working for Change’ features the two leaders discussing bringing about change at local, national and international levels.  The session is one of 11 events in the festival programme taking place in Wanaka from Friday 6 April to Sunday 8 April, with high-calibre speakers, writers and thinkers discussing and debating the issues of today.


Festival director Philip Tremewan says this year’s programme reflects on the “post-truth world we live in where social media and fake news often hold sway.


“Aspiring Conversations turns that around in a weekend where we gather as real people in real time to hear speakers who have real expertise in their fields – from history to human rights, from science to song. It’s a time for reflection, discussion and debate.”


Nine sessions during the festival feature speakers subjects as diverse as politics, justice, the universe, diet and disease, depression and anxiety, natural resources, and mining.


Philip said he had been trying to win Mary Robinson to the festival for several years “and I’m delighted that she is coming this year”.


She will also speak at a solo session focussed on justice and especially climate justice, where climate change so often affects the poor and marginalised.



In ‘Stars and Planets – life, the universe and everything’, Astrophysicist Dr Jennifer Wiseman talks about what’s special about Earth and whether there are other Earth-like planets. Dr Wiseman is the senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.


Christos Tsiolkas’ writing deals with anger and shame, sex and violence in Australian society, but in person he’s softly spoken. In ‘Rupturing the social faultlines’ Tsiolkas (THE SLAP, BARRACUDA) discusses how he and other writers are responding to ‘our angry era’ of Trump and Brexit and explores the role of the writer in society.


In ‘Are we humans programmed to devour resources regardless of the consequences’, two historians – Dr Michael Stevens (nō Kāi Tahu ki Awarua) and Professor James Belich – provide different perspectives on a global issue.


‘Our Dark Materials – navigating our way through the oil and mining debate’ provides a discussion topic for Sefton Darby, who has worked for governments, mining companies, NGOs, iwi, and international aid and development organisations, and former Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.


A special session ‘Memories in Song’ features three New Zealand singer-songwriters talking with music journalist Nick Bollinger about their lives, experiences and memories, and they each will sing songs that dip into their memories. Warren Maxwell, Reb Fountain and Anthonie Tonnon will sing from the heart.



Dutch performance artist Nick Steur performs his mind-boggling act FREEZE! A hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (and winner of an Edinburgh Fringe First) FREEZE! sees Nick balancing awkwardly shaped rocks atop one another creating unique sculptures which appear to defy the laws of physics. Audiences are transfixed, hardly daring to breathe as one rock follows another.


Already announced for the festival, Professor John D. Potter, Chief Science Advisor to the Ministry of Health, focuses on how diet relates to disease in the modern environment in his session ‘Does what we eat really matter’; while former Green Party MP Holly Walker casts light on depression from a very personal viewpoint. Holly will be joined for the session ‘Living with depression and anxiety’ by community lawyer Brent Williams – together the pair will contribute to the growing conversation about mental health in New Zealand.


Additional speakers are yet to be announced for a session ‘The Future of Work’.


Aspiring Conversations takes place at the Lake Wanaka Centre from Friday 6 to Sunday 8 April. The Aspiring Pass provides access to all nine Wanaka speaker and panel sessions (excluding Memories in Song and FREEZE!) for $165.


General Sales for Aspiring Conversations tickets open on Friday 23 February at 8.30am through


Aspiring Conversations is presented by the Southern Lakes Arts Festival Trust and is sponsored by Milford Asset Management. The festival is presented in association with McKinsey & Company and is supported through grants from Creative New Zealand, Central Lakes Trust, Otago Community Trust, and Queenstown Lakes District Council.