Who’s in charge?

As well as dealing with questions of identity and authority within the wider community, the VAC and GMHC also faced increasing tensions internally. Difficulties arose in trying to run two independently incorporated and funded organisations – the VAC and the GMHC – at the same time. With increased funding came an increase in paid staff in organisations that were primarily run by volunteers. This gave rise to questions of ownership and responsibility. Who was in charge – the staff or the volunteers? How would these funds be managed? Who was the VAC and GMHC accountable to? Adam Carr wrote during this tumultuous time: ‘the two organisations are drifting apart … The overlapping and unclear lines of demarcation and responsibility … that have resulted in the bifurcation are a continuing source of tension, inefficiency and confusion’.68

It was a very emotional time. When you deal with an organisation, when your friends are dying in front of you, people have a huge emotional investment in the organisation and they care passionately about it … they literally love the organisation. For many people it was their family, they had no biological family, the VAC was where they came for their support and their life.69

Emotions were high, and the number of people suffering and dying from AIDS or AIDS-related conditions was growing. But despite these tensions, in 1986 there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Talk of a new drug that was about to begin trials in the US and which it was hoped could delay the progression of HIV, was reaching Australia. While the drug itself was not yet available in Australia, news of its potential gave people with HIV a future to hope for.

Adam Carr became President of VAC in December 1986, following Phil Carswell, who moved into the Victorian Health Department’s AIDS & Sexual Health Unit. Less than a year into Carr’s presidency, however, tensions within the two organisations reached breaking point. Not only were there questions and disputes concerning authority, but there were also frustrations over the search for a suitable new location for the organisations. After leaving ‘the bunker’ in King William Street in mid-1985 the office moved to rented terraces in Rupert Street, Collingwood. Knowing their stay was only temporary, the search continued for a more permanent location. A former pub was found on Johnston Street, and after renovations and redesign, it was opened as the Peter Knight Centre in 1986. However, the hassles and pressures of successive moves in a short time-frame added to the strain on the staff and volunteers.

In 1987 Carr wrote a controversial memo addressing many of the issues within the organisations and suggesting that the two bodies combine – ‘two nominally-separate organisations with one elected leading body and an integrated staff structure’.70 There was much debate around this idea of integration, with strong arguments both for and against. By October 1987, the VAC and GMHC had commissioned external consultants to carry out a review of the two organisations in order to decide on the best way forward. The next phase of the epidemic was fast approaching and the Victorian AIDS Council needed to be prepared.


Adam Carr Washington conference

VAC President Adam Carr speaking at the Third International AIDS Conference in Washington, 1987.

Adam Carr