Dino Hodge

NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS & Hepatitis COUNCIL Life Member 1989–1994, 2013-ONGOING

    The Northern Territory AIDS Council was born into a world of ignorance and bigotry, and baptised in a cauldron of fear and hatred. Little wonder, then, that the NT government failed to take seriously the widespread harm suffered by HIV-affected individuals and communities through blatant prejudice and discrimination. Worse still, the NT government persisted in denying the Council full funding.

    Under its National HIV/AIDS Strategy, the federal government had committed monies to the AIDS Council to deliver services across a broad field of areas. The funding was routed via the NT government, which had agreed to contribute extra funding under matched grants, and then to disburse all of these monies to the NT AIDS Council. It was a lot of money, but the NT government gave NTAC just enough for two positions (one administrative and one service delivery) and an extremely limited operational grant.

    During the three years since its incorporation in 1986, I observed that the Council’s board struggled to establish sound management systems, while the staff were overwhelmed with the services needed for People Living with AIDS (PLWA, as they were then termed), and for the diverse groups affected by the virus. The lack of proper funding, together with the extremely sensitive and pressing demands for service delivery, meant that NTAC’s people burned out fast. One of the few who was a mainstay during those first years was Lori Ford, initially as a volunteer and board member, and then as a staff member.

    It was in this context that my friend Jenny Norris, who was working as a manager with the federal health department, suggested I join the Council’s board. Other board members included Dr Anthony Smith, NTAC’s vice president and then working at Menzies School of Health Research; Deborah Gough, EO of Family Planning NT; and David Patterson, a lawyer with the NT Department of Law. I was working with the federal Human Rights Commission as assistant director of the NT office. It seemed to me that if anyone could get the Council up and running, it would be this group of people.

    The most pressing priority in 1989 was to secure the funding being withheld by the NT government. Following some negotiation, a meeting was scheduled with Bruce March, the federal health department’s Territory manager, Graeme Symonds, CEO of NT Health, and key NTAC board members. The sole agenda item was funding of NTAC. It was my role to “workshop” the meeting.

    The National HIV/AIDS Strategy designated funding for specific areas of service delivery by AIDS Councils. Using the Strategy as a guide, these commonwealth monies were itemised on a white board, and then the NT government’s matched funding commitments were listed. Once all the funding allocations had been tallied, we analysed the monies that were actually disbursed by NT Health to NTAC. The substantial shortfall was the subject of pointed discussion. Graham Symonds came to the party and the meeting concluded with a renewed commitment. NTAC’s staffing levels increased overnight from two to nine positions (six full-time and three part-time).[1]

    The full flow of funding finally allowed NTAC to begin to deliver a range of services that a diversity of client groups were needing and expecting. And, vitally, the Council’s board for the first time since its inception could now fully devolve administration and service delivery to paid staff, and instead devote itself to policy and governance. It was a pivotal moment in the Council’s history.

    HIV in those times was still largely regarded as the “gay plague”. HIV-positive people were divided into two categories: infected gay men, and “innocent victims” whose lives had been destroyed as a consequence of gay men’s depravity. Today it is hard to evoke the pervasive fear, disgust and hatred, but it was real.[2] It was, I suspect, this atmosphere that allowed the NT government to consider it acceptable to siphon-off money meant for HIV services. Such was the contempt for HIV-affected communities. Don’t believe anyone who suggests otherwise.

    A primary objective of NTAC when it was incorporated was “to fight discrimination against homosexual people resulting from the AIDS scare, and present their rights and liberties”.[3] Anthony Smith was a man of considerable ability, and his election as president of NTAC at the AGM in September 1989 came as no surprise. One of his first actions was to write to the NT government about legislative issues raised in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, and specifically about the need for anti-discrimination legislation. Steve Hatton, then Minister for Health and Community Services, replied that “the community has not indicated that such an initative is considered a priority at this time”.[4]

    NTAC’s board members were encouraged to make contributions relating to their individual fields of expertise, and so David Patterson had convened the law and policy working group with Anthony and myself as members. We reviewed the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and discussed it with work colleagues. To clarify our thinking and to contribute to the national debate, we prepared an article “HIV status, sexuality and discrimination in Australia: whose turn to (en)act?”, for the National AIDS Bulletin.[5]

    The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Australia was a signatory established the scope and impetus, we argued, for legislative protection against discrimination. Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory were the only jurisdictions yet to introduce any form of anti-discrimination legislation. For some years the NT government had resisted calls by women’s, ethnic and other interest groups for anti-discrimination legislation, explaining that attitudinal change was best achieved through education. We held that the Commonwealth could act should the NT government fail to introduce legislation.

    NTAC’s legal working group organised a Territory-wide “phone-in” during Human Rights Week in December 1989 to gather data on discrimination. The survey was to illustrate the lived experiences for a comprehensive report we were preparing. HIV/AIDS, Discrimination and Law Reform in the Northern Territory was tabled in February 1990 with both the NT and federal governments. We recommended anti-discrimination legislation and legislative reforms for intravenous drug use and the sex industry, and sought policy reviews in employment, education and correctional services. Importantly, we called for equal recognition of same-sex relationships and equal age of consent as for heterosexual relationships.[6]

    In July 1990, Chief Minister Marshall Perron announced the government would introduce anti-discrimination legislation.[7] Perhaps the bitter and public stoush in mid-1989, when a commercial realtor attempted to deny NTAC rental premises, had helped generate a more receptive mindset.

    Perron subsequently formally replied to NTAC’s report that, “The complexity of the issues, and the number of agencies involved in the consideration of your submission, has resulted in considerable time and effort being expended in preparing a response.”[8] Word came back informally a couple of years later that the government continued to rely upon the report when formulating its responses to issues arising from HIV/AIDS.

    The inclusion of HIV status and sexuality in the proposed anti-discrimination legislation was endorsed at all community consultations held by the government across the Territory. NTAC was further encouraged when it was invited to join a working party established by the government to summarise the issues identified at these consultations.[9] The Anti-Discrimination Act received assent in December 1992, exactly three years after NTAC’s 1989 discrimination “phone-in”.

    Working closely with NTAC’s board, staff, clients and volunteers has been memorable. It was hard yakka and it was intense. I am proud of our achievements – and impressed with all that NTAC/ACOCA/NTAHC has continued to achieve, particularly the contributions nationally with Indigenous peoples. Most of all, it has been inspiring to be associated with so many caring, dedicated and community-minded people.

     

    [1] “President Profile: moving into a new year”, NTAC newsletter, circa February 1990, 2.

    [2] Dino Hodge, Did you meet any malagas?, Little Gem, NT, 1993: see index: HIV – discrimination; also, “clippings of Northern Territory newspapers 1984-88”, copies held by NTAHC and by Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA).

    [3] “Legal Notices: Notice of Intention to Apply for the Incorporation of an Association”, Northern Territory News, 5 November 1985, 31.

    [4] Steve Hatton to Anthony Smith, 17 December 1989, located at Northern Territory Archives Service (NTAS): Hodge, Dino, NTRS 3701, Personal Records 1977–1993, P0001/2, ‘Discrimination’.

    [5] Dino Hodge, David Patterson and Anthony Smith, “HIV Status, Sexuality and Discrimination in Australia: whose turn to (en)act?”, National AIDS Bulletin, vol 4, no 6, July 1990, 48–51.

    [6] Copy available at NTAS, Hodge records, ‘Discrimination’ and at ALGA.

    [7] Dino Hodge, ‘One Little Jurisdiction’, National AIDS Bulletin, vol 5, no 2, March 1991, 27–29.

    [8] Marshall Perron to David Patterson, 2 August 1990, NTAS, Hodge records, ‘Discrimination’.

    [9] Hodge, ‘One Little Jurisdiction’.