Dawn Lawrie

I am Dawn Lawrie. I'll give a bit of background because it is relevant to why I started with NTAHC or NTAC as it was then.

I was the regional director for the Human Rights Commission for six years and then I was administrator of Cocos Keeling Islands overseas for a couple of years. When I came back I got the position of the Territory's first Northern Territory Anti-discrimination Commissioner. So I had a very high profile. I'd had twelve years in politics before that as an independent member and sponsored a lot of social reform bills. Nobody else was going to do them so I did them, including establishing the parole board for Northern Territory. They didn’t have one before I put my legislation through. And making sure that women were eligible to go on juries which they weren’t before.

So I was working at Danila Dilba as the executive director of the clinical services and a gentleman I knew asked if people from NTAC could take me for lunch, so I sort of smiled and said there's no such thing as a free lunch but yes of course. The story they told me was that there was open warfare within NTAC and that the treasurer had called the police on the executive director to lock him out of the premises. It was turbulent and very destructive, and they asked at the peak of that if I would take on the position of president, to be a unifying force. I thought about it and said yes. Firstly, because I believed in everything that NTAC did.

I knew these people they were delightful people. Anything I could do to help I would, and one of the things that I brought to it besides my huge experience in management was also a very real knowledge of problems people faced and the discriminatory attitudes of people, as you could imagine given my previous roles.

The other thing is, which is interesting, I was not a member of any of the groups affiliated with NTAC, wasn’t gay or lesbian, didn’t have haemophilia, I wasn’t a drug addict; I was just me. So that was good because there was war within the organisation as well with the competing interests each vying for a piece of the pie. It was really quite destructive and unhelpful.

It was more gay and lesbian, not against, but fighting with the injecting drug users, and there was a third group, the sex workers. So everyone had the right idea for their particular interest but there was no harmony.

I was well known right across the broad church of NTAC, so there was no opposition to my coming in as president. The other one of the very good things that happened was one of my first duties with other members of the board was to interview for the executive director. The ED had resigned and the previous board had more or less pulled back. Most of them had.

 So, I was very fortunate we chose Frank Farmer, and he was an absolute joy and delight to work with. He was so straight, trustworthy, across all of the issues, didn’t play games. He was just a fine and really lovely person to have as ED. The board and Frank got on really, really well. He was seen as a fair-minded, competent manager and it was well known he had the trust of the board, so things settled right down which allowed us to get on with our jobs. As part of my role Frank would take me to the national conferences which I've got to say I found confronting at times, facing issues head on that really did confront me. One of the things which I will never forget is there was a doctor addressing us on sexually transmitted diseases and they had a graph for Australia, of the kinds of STDs and the number. He pulled out a separate graph for the Northern Territory because it was so bad it wouldn’t fit on the other and I found that horrifying.

They, used to show these, I can only say lurid photographs of various parts of people's anatomy. I mean I had great management skills and great sympathy for all the various people needing assistance but I had never really confronted anything like this, right in my face. Frank was quite protective of me and made sure that that I felt as comfortable as could possibly be. So, I didn’t feel alone and it was a really interesting but rather confronting time.

Now during Frank's tenure we became NTAHC. We took on Hepatitis. There was some concern that maybe we were going too fast or too far but I felt that with Frank's background and his capacity we could do it and we should do it, and we did.

Now the other thing, something else about Frank I was going to tell you. When I came in, in those tumultuous times, the Northern Territory Government was threatening to withdraw funding. Because Darwin is a small place, they all knew about the tumult and of course it was a good excuse for them to say, “Get your house in order, we're defunding you”. Fortunately it didn't happen before Frank arrived, and Frank and I would go and see the people in the Department of Health, Stephen Skov and others, talk about the plan we had for the future which we were able give to them, and all of a sudden instead of being mad outcasts we were seen as reasonable people with a vision and with a plan to back it up, and things got better and we got the funding.

So it was actually a very productive time and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But it was because I had such a good executive officer working for the board. The board was unified. He was great. We could take on extra projects. Because we felt happy and secure, that was filtering through. There was still partisan demands from the components. They all wanted all of the money, which is a bit of an exaggeration, but we had to provide that balance between what programs we could feasibly fund and we had not only the money to do it but the people to deliver it, and what we couldn't.

I still look back on that four years with great joy. I learnt a lot. I remain a firm and committed member of NTAHC. And I appreciate everything they do, it's great. I just hope it's as good as it was when Frank was there.

Now there's always been a divide in the Territory between Darwin and Alice. So we would go down and we had a lot of work to do to convince them that we had their interests at heart and it wasn't a Darwin takeover. It wasn't easy either. We encountered some hostility. Alice Springs is popularly known as the lesbian capital of Australia, and we had to overcome a little bit of mistrust from that community, that we would continue to support the aims and objectives of NTAHC, which was really what they were being funded to do. And I think by the time I left it was in far better shape, that’s not difficult because it was in very poor shape when we started.

The board members were great. Always very supportive, I just didn't have to worry, it was one of the best boards I've worked with. There were a couple of people employed in the organisation who were mischievous. They still had all the interests of NTAHC at heart, but give them an inch and they'd grab a mile. But that's understandable. They had a particular focus and frankly they couldn't see anything other than their pet project or their focus. But you get that. The way is to manage it and make sure that they're not destructive to other people who are also committed and driven. So it has always been a balancing act. And then we got a grant from the NT Government for the sister girl projects over on the Tiwi Islands, which bought in another dimension.

 One continuing battle was making sure that the funding bodies remained onside, and we could produce the plans and the statistics to show that we were working according to the funding guidelines and that we were having outcomes. This was at a time, of course, when more people were dying. Things have improved dramatically since. And also, I mentioned there was a bit of controversy when Frank put forward the idea of taking on the Hepatitis program. There was some resentment from other cliques, if you like, within NTAHC who thought it would harm them. We had to convince them that it was all part of the same human entity and the need for support, advice, preventative programs, the whole thing. Going into prisons was started, from memory. I was talking to somebody very recently (who will have to remain nameless), who said that the rate of STDs among prisoners is still off the chart, which is very depressing, particularly for me, syphilis. I mean this is 2016 and we're still talking about syphilis and babies being born syphilitic.

You only need a couple of disaffected workers who think that their particular program is being not given its full share of daylight or you get people in the community who think that all people connected with the AIDS Council are coming to invade their homes and steal their daughters and rape their male children and, oh my god, they're very sad individuals but they are still out there. So I'm always very happy as a person well-known in the community. I've just finished my tenure as the chair of the Northern Territory Placenames Committee. I'm always very happy to talk about a time with the AIDS Council to give it the imprimatur of standing, and I still find that it amuses me, but I also find it a bit confronting that people have this peculiar idea that, as I say, NTAHC.

I guess the only thing I will say as a wrap-up is I still firmly support the aims and objectives of NTAHC. I think that maybe they could raise consciousness with politicians and those who hold the purse strings but the desperate need as a health and community issue which, as you say, it's getting worse, and that’s horrific because it was bloody awful when I was there.

I would like to see Aboriginal Health Workers who are accredited – they get an accreditation as part of their training – be trained on these issues. But so that the people are based in the communities, and you could bring them in once every six months for a quick seminar, a refresher, remind them they're still loved and appreciated and out they go again and so they're trained Aboriginal Health Workers doing a whole variety of health work stuff, including preventative medicine of course which is very good but also have this additional training. When I was with Danila Dilba, what I found was that some Aboriginal Health Workers are no different to any other part of the community. One for example loved working with feet and the problems that go with diabetes, so I got him extra training and he became the foot man. Another one was very keen on eyes, so keen that I actually got him in when they were doing eye surgery at the hospital as part of the team.

So you can do those things if you are a good manager and you recognise potential in somebody, train them up because that’s a benefit for the community. That’s not a cost, that’s a benefit. And I don’t think that is utilised enough right across NT government and the Department of Health. Not everyone's the same and if you see, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a health worker or an enrolled nurse or a certified nurse or a doctor – they will all, well there will be people who say I have a particular interest in whatever, give them the extra training. It’s a benefit. Cost analysis would show that. That’s it.

Photo: Panos Couros