Bill Paterson

NTAHC 2011–2015

    You know, it’s like how are policy decisions influenced by the body positive? What are you doing about that? What are your consultative processes? What are your processes for engaging people who traditionally don’t have a voice?


    My name is Bill Paterson. I was President of NTAHC from 2011 to 2015. I started on the board as the HIV-positive representative,  that was  a couple of months before I became president at the AGM that followed. So I came onto the board in June, and then there was some upheaval in both the governance and operations of the organisation. I was asked to nominate for the position of president and I did.

    The organisation was in a very troubled state at that time. There had been a special general meeting called of the members to declare a vote of no confidence in the board, which was interesting because there was no constitutional basis to declare a motion of confidence in the boardDuring my presidency, we did a constitution review and inserted the ability for the members to declare a motion of no confidence in the board.

    My understanding of the problems were that there was a significant section of the membership – which was very small at the time, so you didn’t need very many people for it to be significant – who were unhappy with the way the organisation had been managed from an operational perspective, and how that situation had been managed from a governance perspective. And also the view that the board had reached a stalemate position, unable to function and move the organisation on. Elements of the membership had made significant representation to the Minister of Health seeking the defunding of the organisation. Also to the department responsible for managing the funding, which was Centre for Disease Control with the Department of Health, to have the organisation defunded or at least called to account for the way that it was operating.

    And there had been significant representation to the patron, Sally Thomas, who had recently moved into the position as Administrator of the Northern Territory, (the equivalent of a Governor). She had been patron of the organisation since its inception. She’s an amazing woman with social justice credentials as long as your arm, and she’s stuck behind the organisation through thick and thin and really had a clear understanding of the role of patron. A very wise woman.

    What was very interesting about that special general meeting was that they took it upon themselves to declare a motion of no confidence in the board and therefore it would be a given that the board was cleared. Then they promptly appointed who they thought should be on the board from the people present in the room and some who were not. I don’t deny that there was certainly problems with the governance and the operations with the organisation but this was a personal attack on individuals rather than on the Board as a whole.

    As a president, from a governance perspective, that this had been allowed to transpire and driven from an operational issue, was shocking because a community-based organisation is not owned by its board or by its employees. It is owned by its community and if you have allowed the membership to get to such a  point that a small group of people can have such an influence, it is a judgement on the way that the organisation conducts itself and had been allowed to develop. So from a presidential point of view, it was a shocking state of affairs for an organisation to be that way.

    You know, it was a functional organisation, it had good funding, it acquitted, it had good systems and all of those sorts of things. But the personalities involved, each and every single one of them, displayed appalling disregard for each other and for the HIV-positive community that they were funded to serve.

    Anyway, the meeting was told that they had no constitutional grounds for declaring a motion of no confidence in the board. Therefore we retained the board that had been elected at the previous AGM, with the note that this was very soon before an AGM so people could nominate to join the board at that AGM and the membership could vote accordingly.

    I had nominated as president because I had been asked by Marcus Schmidt, who was then vice president I think, and Sue from the education department who was secretary, and Trish Crossin who was an ordinary member of the board, if I would stand as president. Why they asked me that, I don’t know. The assumption that I made was that I was a new face on the block, that I was an out and proud HIV-positive person which gives me enormous cache in an AIDS Council, and that I had previous presidential experience and community-based organisation experience in Sydney with multiple organisations, some of whom had been in terrible strife and I had steered them out of that. So I had demonstrated my understanding of governance principles and how community-based organisations worked, particularly in the HIV sector, and they had recognised that. That’s the assumption that I made.

    What I really got was, “Well, none of us can stand. How about you Bill?” I thought it’s a bit of a poison chalice, however it was the right time in my life and I stepped up to the mark. There was another man who had been put forward for president by some members who called the SGM. He used to run a bus line or something, or a transport company, and he turned up to this meeting and he was awful.

    The Board were responding to the upheaval by attempting to bring  peace,  saying, “Well, we accept that there’s problems with our membership.” We’d in fact funded Matrix on Board – who are an NGO support organisation – to undertake a governance review of the organisation, and to advise us on what has happened and how we might prevent that in the future. We were going into elections which would allow the  membership  an opportunity to elect who they wish onto the board. There was no constitutional basis for the decision that they came to at the special general meeting, so, “No we weren’t going to clear the board but we will do these other things –”. The actions were  all very conciliatory.

    This guy started shouting and yelling and spat on me. It was absolutely horrendous. Jamie Broadford from the department was there, and I was the only positive person in the room and I’m the one that got spat on – you know? So, he’s going on about how they need to get the AIDS taken out of the title because it’s disgusting and the front door needs to be closed and moved around to the back alley. And of course for people like me who are empowered and resilient, the whole idea that people need to sneak down an alley to get into a Council that wouldn’t name itself an AIDS Council was an anathema. It’s like, “Where are you living? Are you living in the ’70s or the ’80s?” So of course that was where he was living – he thought it was a disgusting thing and people got it from disgusting behaviours and the organisation should conduct itself accordingly.

    But what it showed to the people who were judging how we were managing this, was that we’re up against this kind of rabid misunderstanding of the issues and a disinclination to really care about the positive people in this. It’s all about personality politics. And he was asked to leave the meeting. So then we went to election and that guy – I can’t even remember his name – withdrew his nomination for president.

    AS I was now president elect I could act in a kind of presidential way, which was good because the organisation was in crisis. The executive director was not coming into work, there was great concern amongst the staff about the viability of their jobs, and all of that needed to be managed. In fact, I was coming in with a kind of managerial brief to steer the organisation to a more stable footing. What I was trying to do with the organisation was moving it from a personality-driven to a process-driven model.

    Many times in the history of the organisation these sorts of issues have arisen. The reason that they arise is because community-based organisations, by their very nature, emerge from the personalities that are around at the time to drive what they think should happen. But what is necessary to move forward is that the personality-driven nature of it needs to be dampened down, and a structural and process-driven framework established to meet the various needs and address the risks to the ongoing function of the organisation.

    The primary responsibility of the president is to the membership or the body positive through the influence of the membership. In this instance, my primary responsibility was to the staff who were in a state of despair and confusion about what the future might be. And then we had a new board and of course a new president always has a honeymoon period. So during that period I allowed the executive director to resign, and went through our recruitment process where I actively recruited somebody who I knew had structure and process at the core of their paractice.

    Craig Cooper came up to the Northern Territory to follow his husband, so he didn’t come up for the NTAHC job. He was working at Life without Barriers. I actively recruited him. And at the same time, I started imposing structure and process on the board with the development of working groups and formal board induction with external training about governance issues. It became clear with those very personality-driven people on the board that it was not going to work. As president, I was going to preside over a board where if there was going to be any personality politics played, it was going to be mine to drive this structure and process-driven agenda through. I was surprised at how successful that was.

    A president and a CEO in step with each other are a formidable force in an organisation. Craig and I had had discussions about how we were going to manage the steering of this organisation to a secure foothold in funding, operations and governance. It was going to be “the Bill and Craig show” at least for the first six months, and then we would start to dampen down our personalities to let process and structure rule. So that was a very interesting induction to NTAHC.

    Sally Thomas is an icon of social justice and stability. She had been sidelined as the patron for quite some years, so we reactivated that role. Part of it was a bit Machiavellian, because she was now the Administrator of the Northern Territory and she made Government House available to us as one of her three favourite organisations – which gave us cache of course. I instituted that all new presidents will go and meet the patron, and all the new executive directors will always be taken and introduced to the patron. The patron will be invited to all functions with a brief about whether the patron has a key role or a secondary role. Re-energising the relationship with the patron really was about her role. After these meetings she’d send little hand-written notes –– and they’d be in this spidery handwriting, “I think the organisation is in good hands, Bill” you know? The Administrator of the Northern Territory is a busy person, and I just felt very honoured with that.

    One big highlight for me, in terms of speaking to people who we don’t normally speak to, was an event for Hepatitis Day that we did at the Waterfront. That was just inspired, you know? We were all very nervous because we were going to troop down to a public place and set up our BBQ with a singing drag queen and a folk singer, and there was a whole bunch of people who are part of our crowd who came along. We were doing this on weekend afternoon down on the Waterfront to a public crowd of maybe over 1000 people. It was a cracker of an event, just a cracker. Of course, the predominant people who came through that event were backpackers who were coming through Darwin on their way to or from south-east Asia. Who do you need to speak to about Hepatitis and HIV risk in the Top End? One of the major groups are the travelling populations that are moving to and from high prevalence countries. It was inspired. Also, it established a really good relationship with, I think, the Lions Club because they’re the ones who are the boss of the Waterfront and the BBQ and all of that sort of thing. And it was just a cracker of an event, and very different in terms of who we speak to and the way that we manage our profile. For me, that was a highlight just because it was so different from anything that had come before.

    In terms of governance, constitutional reform, rewriting the constitution – that was pretty much single-handedly done by Trish Crosson. She was a senator at that time. She wrote it in plain language and – because all jurisdictions have a model constitution – based it on the model but in plain language so it’s easy to understand. I thought that was a really good piece of work. And the other highlight governance wise was the development of the sub-committee or working group structure for the work of the board.

    The blood-borne virus epidemics keep changing, so what’s it’s necessary to do in response keeps changing as well. New treatments and new therapies, new models of reponse, all of that sort of stuff. One of my regrets about my time in the organisation – and I left NTAHC because I left the Northern Territory for personal and professional reasons, I didn’t leave because I was fed up with NTAHC – was that I really wanted to see more primacy given to the voice of the people living with blood-borne viruses. For various reasons that never really eventuated, mostly because people with blood borne viruses don’t want to step forward in an environment like the Northern Territory perhaps they’re afraid of people knowing and concerned about what people may think about them. I assume that’s why.

    I work in a national representation and advocacy organisation now, and I know that the meaningful involvement of people with HIV/AIDS and the greater involvement of people with HIV/AIDS as a policy platform has a multilayered implication for any organisation. It’s not just about delivering services and asking people if they like the services that they’re having delivered to them. You know, it’s like how are policy decisions influenced by the body positive? What are you doing about that? What are your consultative processes? What are your processes for engaging people who traditionally don’t have a voice? You know, people with mental illness? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with HIV, those who identify as gay as well as those  who are notgay? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are living in the Todd River and can’t negotiate their sexual safety –  I think that’s the future of creating  legitimacy and currency with your constituent population.