Fore-warned is fore-armed

Around the country, various individuals and governments were beginning to take notice and take action. In New South Wales the Sydney AIDS Action Committee came together in May 1983 and in July of the same year, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) established a working party on AIDS. In September, La Trobe University hosted the 9th National Conference of Lesbians and Homosexual Men, and out of this the first national community-based organisation was formed: the Australian AIDS Action Committee (AAAC), which later became the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO).25 The VAAC was in regular contact with these other groups, and recognised from the very beginning the importance of communication and cooperation between government bodies, the medical profession and the general community. As well as being President of the VAAC, Phil Carswell was also on a number of different AIDS-related committees, including the AIDS Liaison Committee of Victoria. As early as November 1984, Carswell, on behalf of the VAAC, was demanding more extensive consultation between the Health Department and the gay community.26

Australia’s first death as a result of AIDS occurred on 8 July 1983 at Prince Henry’s Hospital, Melbourne. This was followed a few months later by a second death. After this, remembers Carswell, ‘it basically took off and didn’t stop’.27 Despite the NHMRC working party and the work of Federal Health Minister, Neal Blewett, there was a delay in responding to the actions requested by VAAC in other sections of the government and amongst other government officials, including Victorian Health Minister, Tom Roper. ‘We were having trouble with the government’, recalls Carswell. ‘They didn’t know who this strange mob of homosexuals were, and why they were bothering the Health Department.’28 In the meantime, the VAAC was working non-stop organising support teams, recruiting volunteers, responding to media enquiries, fundraising, lobbying governments and talking with other AIDS organisations, preparing for what it knew was coming.

As more information came out about the development of AIDS and understandings about Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), tensions increased between the general population and the gay community. In response to fear around the possibility of an infected blood supply at blood banks, Dr Gordon Archer, director of the Sydney Blood Transfusion Service, publically called for all ‘promiscuous’ gay men to voluntarily stop donating blood. Archer even went so far as to say that Australia’s blood supply was almost certainly already contaminated.29 With no evidence to back this claim and no way yet of screening the blood supply, Archer’s arguably reckless comment immediately set the country on edge. The gay community was especially angry at Archer’s comments, arguing the description ‘promiscuous’ was vague and unhelpful and the attitude altogether negative. It was especially unhelpful in Sydney, where homosexuality was still illegal.30 Around Australia, people were scared. One funeral home employee recalls that his workplace was one of few businesses willing to work with people who had died of AIDS:

I and our foreman volunteered to collect the first remains that a Doctor had signed off that cause of death was AIDS. We dressed in all the protective gear we could find including respirators. We placed the body in a vacuum sealed body bag, I think we used two. Then the body was placed into a lead coffin and sealed airtight closed. Then the remains were placed into a solid wooden coffin (not particle board as is used today) with the lid glued on and one way screws used. The remains were taken back to our morgue and placed into refrigeration which we set to its coldest setting. The vehicle was steam cleaned inside and out and [everything] we had used was incinerated.

I lived above the funeral home and went upstairs running a bath with the hottest water I could stand, used two bottles of disinfectant and sat in it til the water cooled and I came out like a prune. Being married we agreed to sleep separately for six weeks until I could be blood test clear twice. We were so paranoid that we had no physical contact for this time … Even fellow colleagues were very wary of us, keeping their distance. Nobody knew very much about the terrible new disease.31

Then in late 1984 came a turning point that pushed AIDS to the top of the public agenda. In November 1984, the Queensland government announced that four babies had died after receiving transfusions of HIV positive blood. The donor was identified as a gay man who had not considered himself to be in the ‘promiscuous’ category when donating. Phil Carswell remembers:

When that tidal wave hit on that Friday morning it was one of the worst days of my life … it was on the front page of every newspaper in Australia: four babies had received blood transfusions from one gay donor.32

Two days later, on a Sunday, there was a national meeting of health ministers in Melbourne. Threats of non-cooperation by the Queensland Health Minister meant that gay representatives from the various action groups were not allowed to attend. However, representatives from the VAAC and the AAAC were given an audience with the Federal Health Minister, Neal Blewett, the morning before the meeting. Phil Carswell, Chris Carter, Adam Carr and Ian Goller worked together on a submission to present to the minister. The submission argued strongly against legislation penalising gay blood donors and the closure of saunas and other sex-on-premises venues. It proposed funding for nationally-coordinated education campaigns, an AIDS hotline, the establishment of clinics to provide medical care, support and counselling for those with HIV and those at risk, and training for support groups and volunteers, as well as a strong and consistent political response focused on education rather than vilification.33

We are concerned that the events of November 15, 16 and 17 in particular … have created a political climate in which gay men are being blamed for AIDS and the public health and political response will be aimed primarily if not solely at stopping AIDS spreading to the heterosexual community.34

After this emergency meeting, it was decided that a National AIDS Task Force, headed by Professor David Penington, and a National Advisory Committee on AIDS (NACAIDS) would be established by the federal government. NACAIDS was made up of twelve people chosen to advise the government on appropriate strategies to combat the AIDS epidemic. It included Tony Adams (NSW Department of Health), Phil Carswell (VAAC), Anne Kern (Federal Deputy Director-General of Health), Jeannette Linn (Australian Medical Association), Noreen Minogue (Red Cross), Professor David Penington (NHMRC AIDS Task Force), Jennifer Ross (Haemophilia Foundation), Linda Stephens (Victorian Department of Health), Dr Anne Summers (Prime Minister’s Office) and Lex Watson (NSW AIDS Action Committee).35 The AIDS Action Committees in Victoria and News South Wales each insisted on being represented, which gave a voice to the gay communities of both Melbourne and Sydney.

In what many considered a stroke of genius, Blewett asked media personality Ita Buttrose to chair the committee. Buttrose accepted, saying, ‘It was like being told your country needs you. I didn’t hesitate’.36 The committee held its inaugural meeting later that month. The federal government allocated $5 million to respond to the AIDS epidemic. Of that, $3.7 million was allocated to individual states for the establishment of education, counselling and support structures. In addition, a National Reference Centre was established at Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne to conduct research into antibody testing technology. Finally things were happening.


Meeting the minister

Meeting the Federal Health Minister in the middle of the blood donor crisis, November 1984.
From left: Bill Rutkin (Qld), Peter Lodden (AFAO), Neal Blewett, Greg Tillett (NSW) and Phil Carswell (Vic).

Phil Carswell

Ian Goller
Chris Carter

Meeting the Federal Health Minister in the middle of the blood donor crisis, November 1984.Ian Goller and Chris Carter worked with Phil Carswell and Adam Carr on a submission for the Health Minister proposing a nationally-coordinated response to AIDS.

Top: Ian Goller
Bottom: Chris Carter

Living Positive Victoria

Ita Buttrose and Phil Carswell

Ita Buttrose was considered an inspired choice as chair of the National Advisory Committee on AIDS (NACAIDS) in 1984. She is shown here with Phil Carswell at a New Years Eve Summer Cyclone party.

Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives