Frank Farmer

NTAC / NTAHC – 2001 – 2005

    My name is Frank Farmer, I was the Executive Director of the Northern Territory AIDS & Hepatitis Council from November 2001 to December 2005. I was working for the West Australian AIDS Council as the Community Education Manager. I got involved in the sector because I am living with HIV and I wanted to participate in the response and make a contribution. I decided to put my hand up for the job in the Northern Territory because a couple of years before combination therapies had become available. It took me a couple of years to gain confidence that I wasn’t going to die as predicted, and that I felt that I had the opportunity to spread my wings, so to speak, and move out of Western Australia and Perth.

    I was encouraged by Kitty Gee, who was working at NTAHC at the time in the NSP and as the Sex Worker Project Officer. I applied for the job and I was successful. Prior to going to NTAHC, I made an assessment that it was about the same size as the department which I’d been managing in Western Australia, however, it didn’t work out like that because within a short period of time of me being there, the Board decided to take up hepatitis.

    There was no hepatitis organisation in the Northern Territory at the time and in order to address that, the Northern Territory AIDS Council decided to become the Northern Territory AIDS & Hepatitis Council. So we made an application to Hepatitis Australia to seek their permission for this to happen and they granted permission. Therefore we changed the name, and we introduced hepatitis in to the organisation.

    From memory, when I went there, there was a Gay Men’s Project Officer, an NSP, and there was a part-time Sex Worker Project. There was a support services position and there was an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Project – which was focused largely on transgender people, most of whom lived on the Tiwi Islands but some were in other communities around the coast. So the organisation was quite small and the taking up of hepatitis in itself didn’t immediately expand the organisation. There were no new funds for hepatitis so the organisation took it on knowing that we weren’t going to receive additional funding to support that move. However, given that NTAHC was operating a Needle and Syringe Program, and the biggest and only needle and syringe program in Darwin, it was appropriate that we did take up hepatitis because we were actually engaging with most of the injecting drug users who were living in Darwin and therefore, people most at risk of hepatitis C.

    One thing that I haven’t mentioned is that within weeks of me getting to the Territory, the Palmerston Needle and Syringe Program opened. Now I shouldn’t, and didn’t take any credit for that because all of the groundwork was done prior to me getting there, all the research was done to secure the opportunity, but the organisation had problems finding a site. They couldn’t find an appropriate site in Palmerston, and within three weeks of me getting there, I was in the Health Minister’s office, and the Health Minister decided that the government would help us out in finding a location, which they did.

    Also after I got there was the World AIDS Day ball, which had also been organised before I got there. So that was my first public event, and an announcement was made by the government to support us which really was made by the Health Minister – and it made the Health Minister and the government look good, and as the new kid in charge, it made me look good as well.

    My understanding is that the organisation had gone through a difficult time, and Chris Day, who had been there for a couple of years before me, was responsible for refinancing the organisation. I never met Chris, but I did have a couple of conversations with him prior to me going up the Territory. I didn’t have a handover as such, and my understanding was that he was a good financier and he had restored the finances of the organisation and put it back on to really solid footing.

    When I first got there, I did go down to Alice Springs and I introduced myself to the AIDS Council of Central Australia. We mouthed all the right words about working in collaboration, working in partnership, et cetera, and those announcements were made in good faith, though in practical terms we had very little to do with each other. It was certainly operating in a very limited capacity when I went down and for the first year or so that I was there I guess. But it folded, it completely shut its doors. It was de-funded and the government, rather than to prop it up yet again, to put the services out to tender.

    So what happened was NTAHC tendered for it and we secured it. That was the first time in the history of the Territory that the two services were united as one, in a true sense of the word.

    Anyway, we got the contract and I went down to Alice Springs and I looked at a number of premises and consulted with a range of people, and eventually decided on the old railway house, which is still where the service is located.

    Then we put up an application to the council, and I was advised that some people had put in objections to the opening of a needle and syringe program in that location, which was hardly surprising. But I realised that there was going to be hearing by the local council, so I thought I’d better get down there and speak to it in person. I flew down for the hearing and fortunately, nobody, none of the people who had put in written complaints or concerns came to the meeting, so I had the floor to myself. I spoke for less than five minutes and council approved it.

    Potentially it could’ve been incredibly problematic, it went through without a hitch. We then recruited a small number of staff, including a Regional Manager, and that really marked the expansion of the organisation. We obviously picked up additional funding for that service. The organisation had the capacity for the first time to have an Executive Director and regional managers for the Top End and Central Australia, and those regional managers – even though Central Australia was a much smaller operation – the two regional managers were given equal status because the regional manager in Central Australia had additional representation responsibilities, but they did it as equals.

    Yes, so Jill Meade took over Central Australia. Jill was a very colourful character and I liked her and we got on extremely well. I think she really represented the organisation well during the time that she was there.

    There was a candlelight vigil that was held every year in Darwin. The people in the community that had a vested interest were very committed to the candlelight vigil. Whilst in other states and territories, the interest in the candlelight vigils diminished, it was definitely sustained in the Northern Territory. Usually it was a very small affair around Lake Alexander at East Point Reserve.

    Every year, World AIDS Day was marked by a World AIDS Day Ball, which was always put together by a committee drawn from the community. We worked together across the year to plan the World AIDS Day Balls, with varying success. Not every year was a screaming success and they never made any money. We never made a cent, though we didn’t lose money by the same token, but there was an awful lot of work that went in for the result and it was probably the one event that provided the biggest profile for the organisation. Other than that, in terms of community engagement, it was mainly through education at schools and through other service providers, by providing education and personal perspectives as requested.

    And, of course, we had a relationship with the user group, which was TUF [Territory Users Forum] Difficult? Yeah, tough. A challenging relationship to manage as they were sort of a bristly group – which is as they should be. One of the leading lights was Gary Meyerhoff, and Gary and I knew each other because he had come from Western Australia. He emerged in the Territory and he used to be one of the leaders of TUF, so Gary and I actually got on very well, he was actually a lovely guy. That relationship served a purpose and it was largely constructive, but of course, we had the NSP, and I think that’s something that they, as a user group, always wanted but there was no question that were going to get it.

    With the opening of Alice Springs, that meant that the Northern Territory AIDS & Hepatitis Council operated the three needle and syringe programs in the Territory, so that was quite a big responsibility. They were well run, were well patronised [and] the clients were very respectful of the service. They understood that the service was a legitimate health service that was there for them, and they were always respectful of that.

    The community had quite a deal of ownership over the council. As most people would be aware, AIDS Councils were very political organisations which meant that people could be quite vocal and critical at times, and sometimes that meant being critical of me. It wasn’t uncommon for people to bail me up at social events, and tell me what they thought was wrong with the AIDS Council and what I should be doing differently or better, which was a pretty big catalyst for me to stop going out.

    Overall it was a period of stability and growth for the organisation, and certainly in terms of growth, it was probably unparalleled in the organisation’s history.

    One of the important factors in that stability was the Board, and I during the time that I was there, I consistently had good boards who were very supportive. And I had, for the entire time that I was there, the same chairperson in Dawn Lawrie, who I had a very good relationship with. She provided leadership to the Board, and she kept the Board working within its proper parameters. That is, the Board did not interfere with the operational management of the organisation – which can so often happen with small community-based organisations – the Board stuck to its job of looking after governance and policy, and Dawn was very, very good at ensuring that the Board did its job.

    I can’t remember all the staff over the time I was there but here are some of my recollections. Deborah Wheatcroft was employed for most of the time as a support officer, and she did an amazing job. She and I got on very well, then I promoted her to do the Top End Regional Manager position and our relationship went completely belly-up. I did make the odd mistake. Daniel Alderman worked for a time there as the peer educator for gay men.

    There was Kitty Gee, who I mentioned earlier, she was jointly managing the NSP and the Sex Worker Outreach Project and she did a great job in understanding and communication with her client base. She wasn’t there for the entire time when I was there, she was only there for probably the first 12 months and her and her husband relocated back to Western Australia, but she was good value. She got on extremely well with the sex worker community and she was excellent with the injecting drug user community. She was just the right personality for the job and she understood the issues. Shayne Killford was a constant, reliable volunteer and eventually became a paid staff member.

    During the time I was there, there were at least three Aboriginal workers in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program. Crystal Johnson was a constant presence. She was never an employee, but she was an important part of the project and always there with the organisation. I had a good relationship with Crystal.

    There was another guy Braiden Abala. He was the project officer – not for the Aboriginal project, but for gay men when I first went there, prior to Daniel taking up the position. Braiden was really good at the job but he left to do a master’s in Cambodia.He was away for a year and then he came back and he was employed in the later part of my stay there, and he was terrific…

    I think that the expansion of the service by taking up two disease bases and services in Central Australia was successfully managed, because and there was a prolonged period of stability which enabled that to be managed, and I think that’s what I see as my legacy.