Jenny Norris

NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS COUNCIL 1988-1990

    Because there was so much vitriole on the subject of HIV and we had people now in the NT who were being targeted as individuals, if we didn’t work to support these people, why would anybody who was living with AIDS want to be involved with the organisation at all? I believe, for the AIDS Council to have just worked in a general advocacy and policy role would not have been sufficient given the amount of prejudice at the time. We think we would have missed game of the day.

    My name is Jenny Norris and I was a board member –I think we called it a committee at the time – of the Northern Territory AIDS Council, which is what it was called in the ’80s and early ’90s. I was on the committee from 1988 to early 1990 when I had to go to Alice Springs to work for a prolonged period. Ian Lauchlan was the executive officer. He was just about to leave the Territory for Melbourne along with a couple of my friends, Cheryl Hall and Melissa Linderman, who were on the Committee.They persuaded me to stand because I had an interest. I had a number of friends down south who were HIV-positive and I was interested in the area generally.

    I was elected Secretary and therefore was part of a small executive. The Chairperson at the time was Trevor Miller. The Vice-chairperson was his wife, Nan Miller, who was a stellar person. Nan worked in the Communicable Diseases area of Royal Darwin Hospital and she was an absolute champion for the rights of people with HIV. Unfortunately Nan passed away a couple of years ago. Anthony Smith was on the committee in 1988, and Terry McClafferty, and we were looking to encourage more gay men to become involved at the time.

    Whilst nationally and internationally HIV was not just a gay male problem, it had moved into the heterosexual population and, of course, therefore sex workers as well as drug users were target populations. In the Northern Territory, the main group that were at risk were actual gay males but we were particularly concerned about the potential for widespread infection if it was introduced into the Aboriginal community. We really wanted to get a lot more gay males involved in the committee and the workings of the organisation so that gay males generally could relate to the committee and the organisation generally. It was with that in mind that I encouraged Dino Hodge to stand for committee, and another friend of mine of the day, Steven McGreevy, who was a senior Commonwealth public servant at the time. I was lucky to serve with both of these people and when I left the committee, a whole bunch of people were joining the committee, in particular John Dunham and Deb Gough – people whose names were quite well known at the time. 

    We made a decision fairly early in my time on the Committee after the vacancy created by Ian’s departure, that we really needed a HIV counsellor to work with our target group. Due to our funding position we opted for a HIV counsellor rather than an executive officer. We thought that the board could probably share a lot of the executive office roles and that really we needed some workers to work with the people who were living with AIDS. So we took the decision at the time to recruit an HIV counsellor – Lori Ford – instead of an executive officer, and the committee shared the management functions. I was responsible for managing the staff in the organisation.

    Dino was treasurer and Anthony Smith soon stepped up to be vice-chairperson and then was elected Chairperson in 1989. They took a larger role in dealing with the high level government and with media, as did Terry McClafferty, so we all shared a lot of functions around amongst the Executive group.

    At the time we were a small organisation. We had three staff at one time but generally only two. The Northern Territory government didn’t want to increase our funding so they lent us one of their administrative staff to work in our office and that was Michael Bresnahan. He worked firstly with Ian Lauchlan and later supported Lori. We kept pressing the NT Government for funding but it came to a point where they said, "Well, you can’t have our person and more money," so they took Michael back and this was part of the funding battle we had with them. By that time we had recruited another person with a welfare background – Niki Patmios. So at one stage, we actually had three staff but generally there was just two. For most
    of the time that I was on the board, it was Lori Ford and either Niki Patmios or Michael Bresnahan.

    It was early days for the federal government’s Needle Exchange Program and I believe that the Federal government actually started its needle exchange program in States and Territories and the Northern Territory AIDS Council became the place that operated the exchanges in the NT. It was one of the things that, whilst the Northern Territory government were reluctant to hand over the funding, they didn’t philosophically or as the government of the day, want to get involved in. It was a very difficult thing for a government to run a needle exchange program as you can probably imagine. There was only one service that dealt with rehabilitation for people who were substance users, other than alcohol, and in fact the Northern Territory Government of the day said that we did not have any drug users in the Northern Territory. That’s partly because their policy was to give them a bus ticket out of the state to another state where they could receive rehabilitation services. That was somewhat of joke at the time.

    NTAC of course provided policy input, information services and worked with and supported people with HIV. We did peer education, there were newsletters, and we tried to work with the gay community generally but we also started to work with the sex workers. We provided peer education and we had volunteers working the beats handing out condoms, et cetera. And we were the voice of the non-government sector that was involved in that particular area in the Northern Territory.

    This is not to diminish the role of the Central Australian group, but the government wanted to deal with one organisation that had a Territory-wide role, not two separate organisations. At some point I recall they may have even had funding channelled through NTAC. We certainly led on policy and could lead on government liaison and challenging policy.

    Some years after my time on NTAC there was a period in which the Central Australian AIDS Council, for some reason that totally escapes me, decided that they would expand their mandate and incorporate disability. That was an interesting development and, of course disability then, I think, did take away a bit of a focus. I believe there was probably funding to be had from that source and somebody who was working with them thought that was an opportunity.

    So for a small organisation like NTAC what can you do? You pick your big issues and we seemed to have lots at the time. Funding challenges; working with people and their families, and trying to get more people who were isolated in the community to become engaged in the organisation; and of course peer education and the like; and tackling prejudice. We started to work with needle and syringe users and of course John [Dunham] came to work to be part of the committee, too. John was a haemophiliac and he’d contracted HIV from a blood transfusion before blood was tested. He brought a whole new dimension to the AIDS Council at the time.

    When I joined the Council our premises were in the Burns Philp Building – we were on the first level of Burns Philp House, which is on the corner of the Smith Street Mall and Knuckey Street. It was a very small space. We did need more space, so we sought and found premises in the Homecraft Arcade – quite a nice spacious premises on Cavanagh Street.

    At the time the Environment Centre and their Green Turtle shop was on one corner of the horseshoe aracde. Opposite was a café. There was a telecommunications shop at the front on the other entrance to the arcade. The arcade also had a little beautician’s shop, a laundrette and a dry cleaning place, a school uniform shop, and the Rasa Sayang restaurant at the back. There’s still a restaurant at the back of that arcade now – it’s called the Sari Rasa. NTAC rented the last premises at the back that faced the restaurant. We were in the centre of the premises. It was quite large. We then had room for meetings, for private discussions with people, and we had room for storing things like some needles and syringes.

    The arcade had a second level and upstairs unfortunately was a real estate agent and he was the property manager. He was not the owner of the building. The property manager particularly didn’t like the AIDS Council and didn’t like homosexuals, didn’t like people with HIV, didn’t like anything about us and so he became quite difficult. The owner was a Chinese businessman. He didn’t have any personal prejudices about it. No views. He was happy to lease to us but the real estate agent tried to force us out of the arcade. He used a range of tactics, including first telling us that he wasn’t going to give us the lease. This consumed a lot of energy for the Committee – we had to approach the owner and he came and intervened.

    The property manager also actively tried to set the other tenants against the Council by scaremongering. He told the café and the restaurant that we’d breathe on their customers and everyone would get HIV. I know this because these business people recounted this to me. He told the mother and daughter who ran the school uniform shop that drug addicts were going to come and leave syringes lying around and when kids came to pick up their uniforms, they’d pick up the syringes, and parents would no longer come to their shop. He tried to put the fear of God into the Filipino woman who ran the beautician shop. Part of my role was to work with the other tenants.

    So first he tried to have the other tenants kind of push us out. When he didn’t succeed there he turned off the air conditioning to the premises, which he could control from outside the office. Our staff were there working with no air conditioning and in difficult conditions generally, so it became a real campaign against the AIDS Council. As well making trouble equally in the media about the terrible things that were going to happen now that the AIDS Council was there.

    At the time that I was on the committee, we had a pretty unreceptive Northern Territory population generally. They were easily rattled by things. They weren’t supportive in any way – neither were the politicians – of people with HIV. We had passed the Grim Reaper days and all that sort of publicity was out there – the shock factor. There was a lot of prejudice and we were getting bad press. It was at this time that we discussed appointing a patron. We needed a well-regarded person who was not afraid of adverse public comment to support us. Terry McClafferty suggested Sally Thomas. She thankfully agreed and is still with the organisation today.

    Those were some of the first challenges – the big challenges we had. That took a little bit of time to resolve. But it even took a couple of days to get our air conditioning back on. One of the board members spoke with the owner and, because then the agent was supposed to be acting in his interests not against his interests, and he got all that reinstated. Begrudgingly, this man continued to cause us a bit of grief. So that was a big issue for us at the time.

    We then also had to deal with the fact that the Northern Territory government thought that they could use the Federal funding they were channeling to us better themselves, and that they didn’t want to fund us any more. We were then in battle with the Health Department, or particular people within the Health Department. A group of us had to meet with Marshall Perron, the Chief Minister, who happened to be Health Minister of the day as well. The CEO of Territory Health, Graeme Symonds, was there as well. That was a very difficult, challenging time. The previous Health Minister, Don Dale, who had retired due to illness had been very supportive. Marshall Perron on the other hand wasn’t sympathetic and we only saw a break in that when the health portfolio moved on to Steve Hatton. He was a much more liberal thinker – he was better about many things affecting the organisation. He actually came unannounced to a Council committee meeting. He just turned up and said, "Look, I don’t know what’s going on here but you’d better tell me the story". So he did meet with us and things changed.

    I don’t know where the organisation would have gone, or what would have happened to people like Kenny and Mark if we hadn’t have had an HIV counsellor. I have to say that after the stories hit the media, people were very, very angry, they didn’t trust anybody, they were really insecure. It took a long time to get their trust and be able to assist and support them in everything, from securing the accommodation to actually fight the battles with the Health Department.

    Lori Ford was a substantial support to people living with AIDS and to some of the families. I think to this day that she’s still in touch with Kenny’s mum.

    Because we had people now who were being targeted as individuals and if we didn’t work with these people and support these people, why would anybody who had HIV want to be involved with the organisation at all? I believe for the AIDS Council to have just worked in a general advocacy role would not have been sufficient given the amount of prejudice at the time. We would have missed game of the day.

    We’d gone from having a board that was really no people that were affected by AIDS to a tiny group that might be affected. So a lot of the people weren’t really in the target group that we were trying to service, and we really needed to change the kind of emphasis on the committee to better reflect the people that we were trying to serve at the time. After Nan left the Committee I was then the only woman there – it was a bit of a misogynous time, I can tell you. And it was quite tough. Lori found it quite tough, both from the client group side, she battled all through that. Because she was quite close to all the people that she was working with and she gained their trust and that they had somebody who they could rely on, that wasn’t just a friend but somebody else that could help fight their battles.