AUSTRALIA’S health minister at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic has told the Star Observer if the same crisis had happened today the country wouldn’t tackle it as effectively due to the “nasty” nature of modern politics.
Neal Blewett, who was health minister between 1983 and 1987, in the Hawke Labor government, is widely credited with scoring early goals when it came to Australia’s response to HIV leading to the country now having one of the world’s lowest infection rates.
Talking to the Star Observer, Blewett said he had been to the US in 1984 and was “appalled” at how the virus has become a partisan issue between the Republican and Democratic parties and he was determined that wouldn’t happen in Australia.
At a time when new infections were rising by as much as 540 per cent each year, Blewett and Baume ensured a range of global-first initiatives took place, including the testing of all blood donations for HIV, reaching out to intravenous drug users and the infamous Grim Reaper television advertising campaign.
However, Blewett said: “I think it would be much more difficult today because it seems politics has become nastier and less able to make these sorts of compromises.”
He admitted there were failings in the famous, but controversial, TV advert produced under his tenure that depicted black-cloaked figures of death knocking over mothers and children with bowling balls.
In order to raise awareness of the virus, Blewett said: “I think that most of the things we did were necessary.”
“However, one aspect of the Grim Reaper [campaign] we didn’t sufficiently recognise at the time was that it was pretty tough on those who were sick with AIDS,” he added.
“We were out to try and prevent the spread of AIDS but perhaps we didn’t give enough consideration to how severe this portrait of death with a sickle would be on those who were suffering from the disease.”
Blewett recalled the particular difficulty the Commonwealth Government had in supporting HIV efforts in Queensland.
Then-Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen refused Commonwealth funding as half had to be given to organisations working directly with affected groups such as gay men.
“Most of the states were willing to work with us and accept the conditions we put down but Queensland would have none of that,” Blewett said.
“We had to find some other way of getting the money to Queensland.”
So the Commonwealth formed a unique relationship with a local nunnery.
“The Sisters of Mercy near Ipswich were running a care mission for people with AIDS,” said Blewett, “so we used them to launder the money to the AIDS council in Queensland.”
He said he was concerned that today Queensland was, once again, out of step with the rest of the country.
In 2012, the Newman Coalition government defunded the successor to the Queensland AIDS Council (QuAC) to the tune of $2.6 million, forcing the organisation to cut 22 staff and to axe much of its work directed at the lesbian, gay and bisexual community.
“That present Queensland government has in fact been defunding lots of programs, not just in AIDS, but in drugs and other areas which I think is a throwback to the Bjelke-Petersen days,” Blewett said.
A spokesperson for the Queensland health minister told the Star Observer: “I don’t think Neal Blewett knows what he’s talking about.”
He said the government had now rolled out rapid testing and accused the previous AIDS council of focusing less on combating HIV and more on politics: “They weren’t the AIDS council; they were the anything but AIDS council.”
Executive Director of the present QuAC, John Mikelsons, said the organisation survived on fundraising and Commonwealth money.
“QuAC is committed to working in partnership with government, clinicians and researchers to reduce HIV transmission,” he said.
“We are proudly an LGBTI organisation working for 30 years with the community most affected by HIV – gay men, and we will continue to do so.”
Last week Blewett and Baume were awarded lifetime governorships of the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute, one of Australia’s largest HIV research centres.