Last week I was privileged to attend the World Aids Day reception at Government House in Victoria in the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi. It was huge from two points of view. One,that World Aids Day and its theme of Getting to Zero – zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero HIV deaths was being promoted by the Governor with the big red ribbon draped prominently at one end of the beautiful reception room, a far cry from the discrimination, blame and shame which once characterised reference to HIV. The second was being there with Aung San Suu Kyi who has been one of my heroines throughout my adult life.
As she entered the room all eyes were upon her. I felt mixed emotions of happiness for her that at last she is free from house arrest and can travel and feel the appreciation the world feels for her, sadness at the personal price she and her family have paid for her country and the world, and of admiration and respect for her human resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.
As she spoke as UNAIDS advocate for Zero Discrimination you could not help but be moved by her stillness, courage and strength. She spoke of the need to address the ostracism and discrimination faced by many who have the HIV virus. She spoke of the need for more love, more compassion and more warmth. She explained why her party had been one of the first organisations in Burma to stand up against discrimination for HIV sufferers and to call for awareness raising, support and provision of the medication to treat it.
Having been discriminated against, she and her followers knew what it felt like to be disowned, lose friends, and be treated as outcasts did not want others to have to experience it as well.
“When we think of discrimination, we don’t often think about what it involves for the person being discriminated against. How it feels to be regarded and treated as somebody below the normal standards acceptable. That you are not treated as an equal in the world in which you live.
I wondered how Foreign Minister Julie Bishop felt as she sat listening knowing that the Abbott Government at the very same time was in the High Court trying to overturn ACT legislation which ended discrimination against same sex couples.
The Greens understand the destructive power of discrimination and prejudice to fuel cycles of isolation and limit access to opportunities and, in this case, treatment. That’s why the Greens advocate both for increasing the funding focus on prevention and consequences of HIV-AIDS, as well as destigmatising and demystifying the virus to promote greater understanding, awareness and acceptance in the community.
I was incredibly disappointed to learn that the Abbott Government intends to commit only $200 million over three years to the Global Fund to fight HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, despite Australia being called on to contribute much more. The Global Fund is one of the largest contributors to global health projects in the world. The Fund supports doctors, nurses and medical staff all over the world who detect and treat tuberculosis, distribute mosquito nets to at risk communities and administer antiviral medication to HIV-AIDS sufferers.
Under the Abbott-Government, one thing is becoming increasingly clear – Australia is no longer a team player on the world stage. At the Climate Talks in Warsaw, Australia was branded as obstructionist, as selfish and as irresponsible in the face of the global warming emergency and humanitarian crisis. Now, we are responding to the global issue of communicable diseases with the same “bury-your-head-in-the-sand” attitude.
The Abbott-Government’s cavalier attitude to global suffering will cost lives – not just abroad, but also here at home where the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute recently found that we have seen a ten percent increase in HIV cases over the past year. We must do more, – not only to increase awareness, early detection and early treatment so we ensure those who have contracted the virus have the best possible outcomes; but also to break down some of the barriers and prejudices that prevent people accessing the best help and support that is available.
When Michel Sidebe, Executive Director UNAIDS, spoke of “stigma, denial and complacency” as barriers between us and a world free from HIV-AIDS, I was pleased but became really impressed by his passion and courage when he raised the stakes by saying that this fight against HIV Aids was not just a fight against a disease, it is a fight for social justice and it is.
As he was speaking I was reminded of a young refugee Afi who I had met the night before at a Tasmanian LGBTI event. He had fled Iran having been tortured because of his sexuality. I thought of Afi, because when society discriminates against a group of people, we give licence to inequality, to suffering and injustice. As Aung San Suu Kyi said, it is not acceptable in a civilised society. Yet in Australia, by refusing to accept refugees fleeing from persecution because of their sexuality and by denying same-sex couples the right to marry and to refuse to validate their relationships the same way that we validate those of heterosexual couples; we send a message that their relationships are worth less and thus so are they. This is wrong and cruel and perpetuates injustice that extends far beyond marriage itself. We have made so much progress, but there is still much more to do.
Despite these challenges, there is much to be hopeful for as well. Listening to John Mainwaring speak last week about his struggle first coming out at age 19, and subsequent contraction of HIV, I was inspired and awed by his leadership, courage and strength. His refusal to let the virus stand in the way of his aspirations, his relationships and his capacity to share his story with so many people is admirable and a powerful tool for change. What gives me the most hope, is the knowledge that here are so many other courageous advocates for change whose names perhaps we don’t know, but who are driving this transition towards a more open, kinder and compassionate, accepting world.
I am very proud of the work the Greens have done with regards to LGBTQI issues, but also more broadly, to stand up to the bigotry and prejudice that sadly characterises some parts of our society. Melbourne hosting thousands of global citizens for World Aids Day 2014 is a great opportunity for our nation to reframe the HIV Aids Getting to Zero Discrimination campaign as one of Justice and make central to it the compassion, warmth and love advocated by Aung San Suu Kyi. The Australian Greens are looking forward to the opportunity that this conference will provide for a big leap forward in Australia.
Senator Milne can be found on Twitter @senatormilne.