Bill McMahon

NTAC Jan 1992 – late 2001

    One day the Drug Squad started stalking us out, and they were picking up people when they'd come to get needles and searching them. Anyway, Royce straightaway on to the Police Commissioner and he had them pulled off and a meeting sorted out, and so we had good relationships with the police.


    My name is Bill McMahon. I commenced employment with the Northern Territory AIDS Council in January 1992 and I finished, I think, late 2001. I did just about 10 years.

    Royce Dunbar was running NTAC then. Royce was an excellent administrator and also a very good peoples person. He was a good team leader and the people I worked with worked very well together. Royce developed good community relations with the police and hospital etc. so I felt very comfortable working here. At first I thought it might've been a little bit hard but I found I was accepted well, and I accepted everyone else well, so we had a good basis. I found it very rewarding because I'd been working with St Vincent de Paul in a men's hostel out at Bhakita House, up near Nightcliff, and there seemed to be a continuum there. There were a lot of men working here and a lot of them were in, I guess, fairly poor circumstances due to their poor health. So I ended up with a client base at one stage of about 33 HIV-positive people.

    We started off in Cavenagh Street, and then we moved to Manton Street, and then we moved down over in Knuckey Street. We were there for a couple of years, and then we were further down over in – I'll tell you the streets. There's a pile of streets we were in. Cavenagh Street, Knuckey Street, McMinn Street, Manton Street and Woods Street. I haven't got the dates but I think I've got roughly the order.

    While I was working here I became state president of St Vincent de Paul and I was also president of the Mental Health Association. At that stage I was also the chairman of the Housing Commission Appeals Tribunal, and my assistant was the Ombudsman at the time, Tony Fitzgerald who's since deceased. He was a great bloke too. But I found it exciting because I'd already had the community involvement and I felt I had something to offer these clients, who at that time were suffering terribly because the treatment was only AZT and people were dying, and there was a big stigma in the community. I felt that it was something worthwhile. I had a family with four children and they were quite supportive. Sometimes people’s accommodation was tough and I'd put them up for a while until the family started to object.

    In those days it was a very, very secret business. Confidentiality was so important because we had married couples – the man had been bisexual – and we had women who had been drug users, and so it was very much emphasis on confidentiality.

    One of the services we provided at the AIDS Council was transport. I had a vehicle available for use all the time and I used to run people to the hospital. We had a very good treatment doctor here, Frank Bowden, at the time. Frank was there most of my time here, and also there was Jan Savage and she was very good. Frank went on to become inaugural professor of medicine at Canberra University. He's very good in the treatment area or the infections and the balancing drugs, and the clients seemed to have a lot of faith in Frank.

    There was also Peter Knibbs. Well, Peter was a saint! Peter and I worked very closely. Peter would ring me up and say to pick up so and so. We worked as a team, and I don't think in my time we never had many disputes in the organisation. We were able to work together – which I gather later they did have a lot of disputes.

    I remember after I'd resigned I was called in to be the acting chairman for a while because there was some bloody stupid thing, mainly personality stuff, but in those ten years that I was here we seem to be lucky enough to have the leadership. The president when I came in was Faewyn Goyen.

    In those days too we had a health minister called Stephen Dunham, and his brother John was one of the founders of the AIDS Council. And of course John was one of my clients. He was one of my first clients. It was interesting because I was very close to John's mother Maureen, in St Vincent de Paul, and Maureen had pushed me forward as the state president after her to take over. So here I am working for NTAC and I'm also state president of Vinnies and I can remember it would've been probably the '91 May Day March, the procession. I'm walking out the front for NTAC with a placard 'Safe Sex', and behind me is a mother superior of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence led by Dino Hodge. He had Terry McClafferty and a few of them dressed up.

    What happened was Royce got a settlement and he took off to Cairns and set up a restaurant. Barry Horwood was next. He was a “let's do it” type of guy, but unfortunately that didn't translate over to making sure the finances were right – and so it was more like, “let's do it, and worry about the money later”. I think that seemed to compound into kind of a crisis. That was sorted out which was great. I'd been away on holidays and I came back and it was all sort of sorted out.

    Chris Day. They had the multiple therapies, you know, more drugs and people were getting better. Well, he just came to me one day and said, "Bill, I think you'll only be needed part-time now. Go part-time." So I went home and had a chat with my wife and I said, "Well, it seems to me if I'm working part-time I'm not needed now." So I just resigned straight-away and I was out of there. I thought Chris was a prick but I wasn't going to fight it. I could see he had some rationality there. What he was saying made sense and I thought “Well, I have to accept it and move on”, so I moved on. I accepted it. We didn't have any sort of meetings about it. I just resigned and I told the others I was going and it was all over.

    I suppose most of the clients were probably lower socioeconomic people. I don't remember ever turning anyone away. Some of the addicts were a bit tough to deal with, but in those days – there seemed to be a lot of MS Contin around, the tablets. Heroin has never really got into here. It's always been MS Contin or the other one.

    I remember Royce had good communications with the police. I remember when we were down over at the back over here in Woods Street near the NT News building, one day the Drug Squad started stalking us out, and they were picking up people when they'd come to get needles and searching them. Anyway, Royce straightaway on to the Police Commissioner and he had them pulled off and a meeting sorted out, and so we had good relationships with the police.

    Also Royce had a good relationship regarding the beats, because I remember one very prominent citizen who got done. They were lodging charges and I remember him coming in to Royce and he was crying – and a few phone calls and that and it was all over. Everything was dropped. But what they've done since then I notice now just driving around all the toilets have been dragged down. Just past Pee Wee's at East Point there used to be a public toilet block and – it was a funny story because Royce was a good personal friend - and anyway Sue, my wife, was driving with a lady called Wendy Hoy who's a very prominent kidney physician. She was doing research on Bathurst Island and she's world-renowned. So Sue was driving there with Wendy one day and she spotted Barry outside the toilets, she stops and gives a toot and Barry comes over and he introduces her to Wendy. It's a big social thing and anyway next day Barry was quite embarrassed when he said to me, "Would the girls have known what I was up to?" I said, "No, of course they wouldn't."

    In those days there was the real spectre of death with many clients. You could just see that rapid decline in their health. They were having all sorts of infections and rashes and ulcers, internal problems. And then often they'd become bedridden, and then there'd be home nursing and all that to deal with. Once they've built up resistance to the one drug there was nothing left. It was a slow, painful, terrible decline and it was often fairly rapid. I'd been a Catholic priest and I started doing funerals because the family or the partners wanted me to do them. I was doing funerals and quite regularly.

    One thing I remember vividly was a couple who rented a house in Stuart Park. The guy was quite wealthy and very prominent. He'd come from Queensland and he was dying. He was fucked and he was just waiting. He had a partner with him. He'd been to Downlands College as a boy, the boarding school, and he said he wanted to go to confession. He wanted to square things off as far as being Catholic went. I said, "Well, I'll line a priest up," so I lined up a priest. I thought it would be okay. Anyway, the next day I got a call from the priest saying he felt uncomfortable. He said they were actually holding hands and kissing and I said, "Well, what would you expect? They're lovers. They're in love." He said, "I just found it a bit hard to handle," so he went to the person and he said he didn't feel comfortable with them. And so I went to Bishop Ted Collins – nice bloke, ex-policeman – and I said, "Ted, we need a gay priest or a gay-friendly priest here because we've got a lot of Catholic boys and Catholics who are dying and they want to sort things out with the church, and we haven't got any bridge there. I can help to a certain extent but they want a Catholic mass and I'm not getting into that. I've left that show behind."

    Anyway, he rang me up about three days later. He said, "I think I've found the right guy for you. His name is Peter Woods." Anyway, Peter turned up about a week later. He's an MSC (Missionaries of Sacred Heart), and he was an openly-gay man and he'd written a couple of books in conjunction mainly with a lady whose son was gay. Anyway, Peter turned up and sort of mixed with the mob and he was again, as far as financial support, a help too, but also he could assist with funerals, just at the funeral parlour.

    There were a lot of funerals. When I say a lot, I suppose the first year there probably would've been ten. I remember one guy – he wasn't actually involved, an Aboriginal guy and I never had any dealings with him – but he won Lotto, something like twelve million. I gather he had many friends and he was flying them all over the bloody world – these young Aboriginal boys from around Darwin, they're going everywhere. And he looked after everybody's family and that. When he died, he had this huge funeral. He had so many people attend his funeral. A lot of happy memories, a lot of sad ones too.

    I remember visiting a guy at Royal Darwin Hospital, and I noticed a tray outside his room and there was a big sign on the door something like 'Infectious Diseases, Keep Out'. So I went in and said, "Have you eaten yet?", because the tray looked like it was untouched. "No, I haven't eaten," he said. I went and brought the meal in and sat with him. After that I saw Frank Bowden and Peter Knibbs and said, "This is abominable." I had a talk with one of the cleaners and she said, "No, we can't go in there. It's very contagious," all this sort of shit, and they said, "Well, we're going to have to run an education program," – I mean, for the nursing staff. So they did that and of course one of our key helpers was Maureen Dunham. She went to visit John in hospital and he got the same treatment; and the brother Steve became the health minister. So it was good, they did an education program, and all that was about '92/'93.

    In the early days we had these emaciated people getting around dying, and that created this public awareness and we got a lot of support. We had Sally Thomas as patron and she was good.

    In those days you were regarded like leprosy. Somehow or other, you were at fault. There was that fault business, I think. So you needed an atmosphere of mutual trust and confidentiality, and so that provided the need for the Friends group. I still can't remember whether it was fortnightly but sometimes it would be weekly, depending on what was going on, and we used to get turn-outs. It seemed to go really right up till nearly the time I left, and people like Knibbsy could come along.

    I remember there was a lady who was a psychologist and fairly well-up in the Health Department. She was sort of fairly well-advanced and she was going on a trip to Europe, and she had a Catholic background. There were an Italian order of nuns at Nightcliff. I took her along, introduced her to them and and they organised for her to have a couple of weeks in Assisi. That was a transforming thing in her life, just being able to wander around Assisi. She came back and she died not long after, but she was happy.

    I felt that it was important that people who knew they were dying were able to do any unfinished business and that. One of our keen members of friends – it was quite sad – he finished himself off with just a plastic bag. That knocked everyone around, but yet no-one got too upset in the sense that we all accepted that it was his decision and that's the way he wanted to go and he'd had enough.

    No-one would criticise if someone decided to go. We'd all offer support to keep people, to try and support people, but when they decided, well, that was their decision. It was just sad, but that was the way it was.

    People died, some would come and some would go. I remember I found it very hard. We had a few married men and women, that was very hard – they didn't want to mix; it was strange, but we supported them. But it's a bit like the Camus story, isn't it, The Plague: all of a sudden you wake up one day and it's all gone. It was a bit like that, wasn't it, and the medication came in, and so while it was there we were all caught up in it trying to cope the best we could.

    John Spellman set up just over here – near where that bloody terrible looking building [Evolution Tower] is now – and he had this bar called, Mississippi Queen. I remember quite a number of times people would wander into the AIDS Council and they'd be broke and homeless and they'd be HIV. Anyway, I had an arrangement with John and I'd just take them over to Mississippi Queen and I'd say to John, "This gentleman is in need of – " you know. He'd say, "What in the bloody hell do you want me to do about it?" This is John. I said, "John, this man is very in need." I never said he's HIV, but I think John could get the message. He said, "Right, I've got a spare bed there," and he had these bloody caravans, he had about three classes of accommodation. I told him the bloke was broke and he said, "He might have to do some work," and the bloke said, "Yeah" – and they never had to do any work. And then I'd find them some proper accommodation elsewhere.

    Spellman had a big dispenser with condoms on the bar. We always kept that topped up for him. We'd keep him in condoms and if anyone wanted the needles or anything, they knew they could just slip over there and we'd fix them up. So I regarded John as one of our good supporters. A lot of our guys thought he was an arsehole but he was like that with everyone, that gruffness. I found he had a good heart on him. That's what mattered.