John Hobson

CENTRAL AUSTRALIAN AIDS ACTION GROUP / AIDS COUNCIL OF CENTRAL AUSTRALIA 1987–1991

    The AIDS conference that we held ... was enormous, and it was nationally significant. People came from all over the country because there was such a thirst ... and then we had the good matrons of Alice Springs, I won't name any names – Aboriginal women – getting up and going, "It's a dirty, filthy homosexual, drug user practice", and, "It's those dirty white fellas and all the filthy things that they do, non-Christians that they are, who are spreading this disease." These Aboriginal gay guys with tears streaming down their faces, got up and spoke out ... "No, it's not true. We're here and we're not some kind of aberration."

    My name is John Hobson. I was the founding president of what became the AIDS Council of Central Australia from 1987 through to 1991. That organisation then became a part of NTAHC some years after I'd ceased to have involvement with it.

    Back in about 1987 there was a group of medical professionals who had recognised that HIV and AIDS was going to be an issue. I don't think HIV was a term that was in use at that time; we were calling it HTLV1. So they were probably charged by the Northern Territory Health Department to work out what they were supposed to do. They'd been reviewing papers and telling each other AIDS jokes, it turns out. But one of them – a sexual health nurse, Sister Shirley Anne Bailey – realised that the only sensible thing to do was to have some community participation.

    Jim Buckell and I and others had not long before formed Central Network as a central Australian gay and lesbian group in the region. Shirley Anne approached us and negotiated with that group, to suggest that we go along to one of their meetings and work out could we assist each other. So we went along to that. We were somewhat aghast by what was going on there, and they clearly had no community connection. They were clearly a bit intimidated by us. They thought we were gay activists who were going to sweep in and try to take over everything. But we were completely intimidated by this room full of doctors. It was a bit comical really. Anyway, we worked out that we weren’t each other's enemies and we could be each other's friends. So that little group then set about recognising that we needed to do something a bit more substantial.

    Warren Talbot, who was the initial executive officer of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, came through from seeing ACSA [AIDS Council of South Australia] on his way up to see NTAC. He got wind of the fact that there was something developing in Alice Springs, a kind of midway point between the two, so he dropped in. We met with him, and he encouraged us to try and do something a bit more concrete and formal. He recognised straight-away, like most people do in Alice Springs, that you need to do things locally and relatively autonomously. Darwin and Adelaide are largely too far away to provide you with day-to-day services; it just doesn't happen. So that became the Central Australian AIDS Action Group.

    We toyed with the idea of calling ourselves the Central Australian AIDS Council. At the same time Warren had suggested to the committee of NTAC that they should provide us with some funds so that we could operate. There was a bit of argy bargy about them wanting us to become a branch of NTAC, and us saying, "Well, no thanks. We're quite happy down here. And, you know, if somebody here needed medical assistance, for most services people would go to Adelaide from Alice Springs, they don't go to Darwin." To this day, if you get evacuated, you get evacuated to Adelaide, you don't get evacuated to Darwin. So Alice Springs has always been a place apart.

    NTAC parted with $5000 to allow us to get going. We rented a little space on a casual basis from the Family Planning Association and employed Jim Buckell for a few hours a week – ostensibly to do outreach work, but probably most of his time was occupied in trying to write more grant applications to anyone we could think of in order to get funds enough to do something meaningful.

    At the same time, around 1987/88, we were getting AIDS refugees from Sydney and Adelaide and Melbourne. People were popping up at the airport, ringing the gay group – they'd just been given a positive diagnosis and then walked to the airport and got on a plane, thinking, "I'll go to the middle of nowhere, where I'll be safe." People were driving into town. They were landing on our doorstep. The gay line rang in my lounge room, and we were getting people on the phone. And then Shirley Anne disclosed there were a few people in town who had had the virus for some time. There were people who were starting to develop Kaposi's Sarcomas and other more obvious symptoms.

    About a year later, we held an AGM and the AIDS Action Committee became the Central Australian AIDS Action Group (CAAAG). Shirley Anne Bailey's replacement Sarena Ruediger was absolutely fantastic. She became a committee member, as did David Batty from Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, (a good friend), and Jim and me. The four of us made up the committee. Jim also was public officer and chief staff member until we got about $12,000, and then we hired Megan Brooks and got space in what was then Grandad's Arcade. It was a little shopfront.

    So that was the very early days. Hidden away down in the little arcade. It worked fairly well. At this period, to walk into an AIDS Council, we didn't have signage on the door. We called the shopfront SafeSexWorks. There was nothing that said AIDS or anything like it on the window. Then when we moved upstairs in to the Heenan Building, it was a very subtle little sign on the door. If you didn't know, you didn't know – but all the people who needed to know, knew. That was quite successful. Margie Collins and Gavan Dale were working for us at that time as well.

    The Central Australian AIDS Action Group incorporated in 1988, so we had to hold an election. That's when those four office holders were appointed, and that's when I became founding president. The only documents from meetings that I have are from at the end of my involvement, the
    AGM in 1990, when relations really soured with NTAC. They reneged on a deal which saw us get representation on the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations. And so at that AGM we went, "Well, our agreement not to call ourselves an AIDS Council is now officially ended and we declare ourselves to be the AIDS Council of Central Australia. How do you like them apples?" I think that changing the name of the organisation was not problematic because we already were an incorporated body. Anyway, the politics were quite thorny.

    We had a lot of support nationally. People recognised that there was a great advantage in having an autonomous organisation in central Australia and that we were in contact with our communities. At that time, there was as much likelihood of an organisation in Darwin connecting with local communities in Alice, as there was being serviced from Adelaide by the AIDS Council of South Australia. And there were actually discussions on that front, unbeknownst to NTAC. We looked at maybe becoming a branch of the AIDS Council of South Australia because it made more sense. If we had people who needed treatment, we were liaising with South Australian Health in order to send people with Kaposi's Sarcoma down for radiation treatment and getting them back again. So most of our interaction was to the south, and they were pretty generous with assistance. Whereas, we tended to get a lot more argy bargy from Darwin about "How dare you exist independently."

    Federally, people were happy to have us at the table. It wasn't an issue for them; they didn't see the state jurisdiction issue. Commonwealth Health probably found it a bit frustrating, that they had to balance funds between the two. And NTAC certainly found it frustrating, because any money that went to us was ‘rightfully theirs’. Northern Territory politics! I'm sure they haven't changed one iota.

    I left Alice Springs about the middle of 1990. My partner and I decided we'd had enough. It was not long after the Central Australian AIDS conference, which was largely organised by Jo Harrison. One of the last things I did was resign at the 1990 meeting when CAAAG became ACOCA. I was the one who put the motion to change the name. Then we drove out of Alice Springs the next day to Perth.

    I'd been working in the STD clinic in Perth when the position as the executive officer in NTAC became vacant, and people from Darwin contacted me. Because I'd been out of the picture and they knew I was out of the picture in Alice Springs, they said, "Why don't you come up here." What I didn't realise was that at the time there was a great deal of conflict happening within NTAC, and there were people on the committee who were in a very bitter dispute with people who were on the executive. I was seen as a potential champion for one side. John Dunham was the president then. He actually came down and met me in Alice Springs. We were making the drive back up from Perth to Darwin. But yes, without going in to the politics, there was a lot of animosity between the executive and the committee, but it was long-standing friends on the committee who had encouraged me to apply for the position.

    When I arrived, I found I was in a position of immediate conflict with the executive – piggy in the middle. I lasted about three months and we just looked at each other and went "This is no kind of life", and went back to Alice Springs.

    In that period Elden Chamberlain and Ian Butterworth were around. Simon Nish had been on the committee and I think Terry McClafferty had moved to Perth. Simon was trying to keep well away. In fact, when there was some episodes of high conflict in committee meetings, he came in to try and give me a bit of moral support because he'd been a long-standing friend. I think then a woman called Faeywen Goyen took over from John, and that I think was a mechanism to mediate the conflict. I have to say it wasn't me that caused the conflict, it was in full flight when I arrived. But nobody had warned me that they were recruiting me to fight for one side over the other.

    The NTAC executive, when I was there, was acting pretty unilaterally. They had complete control over all aspects of day-to-day management, and the executive officer wasn't permitted to expend any funds. I couldn't write a cheque; I had to get it signed by the treasurer. When the battle reached fever pitch, the treasurer started refusing to sign the superannuation cheques for the staff. That caused the staff – including me – to lodge a complaint with the industrial arbitration body, whatever it was at the time. And then in came the union, and also in came a notice to me that I was to appear before the Industrial Relations Tribunal to explain why NTAC the employer was breaching its obligations to pay superannuation to its staff. That, I think, was a device to try and get me out of the chair, and it was pretty successful. I just went "If that's the level of toxicity, if that's the kind of thing that people are going to try to do to get rid of me, then I don't have to put up with it. I'm going to step away and they can just kill each other. I'll go back to Alice Springs where things are safe and pleasant."

    My involvement with ACOCA after that was largely on the sidelines. After I left, a new committee was elected. Relations between them and the then principal staff member, Megan Brooks, soured considerably. Within the next six months or so, Megan decided that her relationship with the management of ACOCA had broken down irretrievably and that she was to leave Alice Springs and return to Sydney. I think most of the gay men who'd been on the committee resigned. They really disengaged, although it's not universally the case because I think Jim and Tony Hand were doing some work there.

    Things had changed quite radically, and an interesting professionalisation and bureaucratisation of ACOCA took place. A lot of gay men were quite disaffected; they were meeting for cups of coffee in the café next to the AIDS Council but they wouldn't walk in the door of the AIDS Council. And by now NT Health had expanded considerably its sexual health team in the area, and most of the staff of that unit were either on the committee of ACOCA or were staff of ACOCA. It was quite a problematic situation. I knew those people and I'd worked with them for some time. They had been very frustrated by the restrictions that NT Health placed on what they could do. So ACOCA, in my impression, became a vehicle for them to pursue – away from their employer’s reach – strategies and interactions with the community that they thought they should be doing. So I think the lines between NT Health and the community agency became extremely blurred.

    The other thing for me was they seemed, in a very short space of time, to become substantially disengaged from local community. Stats had plummeted, and it came to a head when they decided they wanted to network the computer system in the office, and that's something I knew how to do. So I was in there crawling around under desks for a week or so assisting in a voluntary capacity. I wanted to not be involved, but people said, "Oh, John knows how to do that", so I went in to do it. I noticed that everyone was really busy planning furniture purchases, or looking at superannuation investment options, or planning brochures. But there were no clients walking in the door, and they were reporting at meetings that the client stats were way down, and they didn't know why.

    I said, "Well, there's a number of things. You seem to have pissed off some quite significant clients in town." At that stage, HIV was still largely restricted to the gay male population. Gay men had stopped walking in the door and were not interested in interacting with ACOCA. I thought that's hugely problematic. So the stats were down – and because of the location of the place as well, anyway. I pointed this out at a meeting and, next thing, one of the staff put a motion to the committee of ACOCA. I'd agreed to go on as a guest committee member on ACOCA committee when I came back. They kind of said, "Oh well, why don't you occupy a nondescript position. We'll just co-opt you as an ordinary member of the committee so we can have access to your historical knowledge and stuff." It had not been that long since I'd been gone. The next thing there was a motion from one of the staff, who had up until recently worked for Northern Territory Health, that committee members should not enter the premises at any time. So I just went, "Oh okay, you're joking." 

    But also, half the staff or the committee were employees or former employees of NT Health. This was supposed to be an independent community-driven organisation, not an organisation driven by the interests of staff from NT Health. The staff were frustrated, they couldn't do this, they couldn't do that, if they did anything that smacked of being a bit risky, if it's stated publically that people actually inject drugs, or people have anal sex or something – NT Health couldn’t be associated with anything like that. That was just too out there. But of course ACOCA could.

    People who had been a health education person, nurse,or clinical consultant working for the health department, now worked for the AIDS Council. The guys had been in to have their warts treated or have their HIV blood test done in the Health Department – now that that person was working in the AIDS Council. It wasn't a good thing, that was a bad thing, from their point of view. Because they’d be going to the STD clinic and telling whatever stories about their sexual behaviour and practices, and then they come and get services from the community organisation. All of a sudden the distinctions are gone. I don't think people saw that, the fact that gay men were having difficulty being on the committee, when the STD clinic sister was sitting there looking across the table at them and they'd just done something to them with some liquid nitrogen or a cotton bud. I was like, "Um guys, this is really not working."

    We ended up with a mass loss of staff from NT Health, straight in to ACOCA. Other people will disagree with me vehemently about that – tough – but that's why I stopped turning up at the premises, after there was a motion directed at me.

    So I devoted myself largely to the gay community, yeah. And then liaised. I just went back to, "Well, you give me the brochures and the materials, and I'll make sure they get circulated. We'll take care of ourselves, thanks." But then when Christopher Rowe came and started to work, he actually lived in my house. And he did the Summer of Safer Sex campaign, which was a raging success. And then we had the You're Not Alone campaign, which set the world on fire in Alice Springs; that was about '93. And that marked my last ever involvement with the place.

    The You're Not Alone... campaign that Christopher Rowe ran in 1992 marked the end of my involvement with ACOCA. That campaign featured a photograph of two guys together, and it just brought down the wrath of the Christian fundamentalists like you wouldn't believe. Northern Territory Health turned its back on ACOCA and Commonwealth Health turned its back on ACOCA, and they were reassuring the rabid right. It had been sent down to Commonwealth Health, and they said, "Oh, it's a bit too confronting. We think you need to change it." The ACOCA committee – not me, I didn't have a vote – made a decision that they were going to proceed with it, and then all hell broke loose. Just a disaster in terms of the reaction. Chris Rowe almost had a breakdown – not that it was his fault. Any kind of suggestion of normalisation – and this had been in the context of the two boys kissing ad on the trams in Melbourne. We were inspired by that.

    I took the photograph for the advert, "not alone, lots of guys have sex with other guys". We had two straight guys that we hired for something like $10 an hour each. They looked all right, they were from the youth hostel. We said, "Do you want to be in an ad but the implication will be that you're gay." They said, "We're leaving town tomorrow", and so, "Great. Why don't you take your shirt off", and they said, "No problem." So we went and photographed them sitting on a tree stump or something, not even looking in to each other's eyes or anything. Just a couple of guys together, attracted to other guys. You're Not Alone.

    It was on a visit later I got the gossip, and people told me that money was being redirected to paying rent. So that somebody had voted themselves rental subsidy and was doing two roles – something like doing executive officer and gay men's outreach – and so drew both salaries. Then there's something about a fire. After that I heard that Northern Territory Health swept in, emptied all the filing cabinets, and put everything into archive boxes and whisked it away.

    Everything that ACOCA had – went. Apparently it was taken by NT Health. I tried to get the records of ACOCA when I did the history project. I wrote repeatedly to Northern Territory Health because I got told they came when the fraud was discovered. I think they went in to lock down, "We need to bury this as deeply as we can and we don't want any publicity over this." So God knows where those archive boxes went in NT Health, but they won't let you have them. That would have been the financials and everything; they just buried it. So all those documents, unfortunately – and there would have been vast amounts and the original photographs and everything – would have been there.

    Oh, it was a fun ride! In the early days we did some fabulous stuff. We would have prevented a whole lot of people from getting sick. The whole thing could have been much worse than it was.

    We did some fabulous things like the AIDS conference that we held. It was enormous, and it was nationally significant. People came from all over the country because there was such a thirst. We had people who came in from Broome, Port Hedland, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney. They came from all over the shop to be with us. We had what was probably the only ever unfurling of the AIDS quilt in central Australia, and we added three panels to it at the time.

    Initially there was a bit of suspicion and we didn't get direct Aboriginal involvement. On the day though, people turned up in their droves. A lot of Aboriginal gay men and sister girls turned up to the event, and then we had the good matrons of Alice Springs, I won't name any names – Aboriginal women – getting up and going, "It's a dirty, filthy homosexual, drug user practice", and, "It's those dirty white fellas and all the filthy things that they do, non-Christians that they are, who are spreading this disease." These Aboriginal gay guys with tears streaming down their faces, got up and spoke out in a large public auditorium at these senior women. They said, "No, it's not true. We're here and we're not some kind of aberration."

    Malcolm Cole was there, Ronnie White was there. It was as much people from out of town. Heaps of people, yeah. I can't remember them all. So we said, "What do you want us to do? How can we facilitate?" They said, "Give us meeting space, and let us do our own thing", so we said, "Here's another room now designated as Aboriginal space. Do your own thing. Work it out." What they did out of that was recognise that they needed to organise an event for themselves. That was the beginning of the Anwernhekene conferences – which still run today. 

    A detailed history of ACOCA written by John Hobson can be accessed here