Dean Smith

In Parliament


December 01, 2015

I congratulate Senator McAllister on her very, very considered speech on this World AIDS Day. It is a topic that I would also like to reflect on in the adjournment tonight. The first of December each year marks World AIDS Day, and in that spirit today's parliamentary sitting day began early for some of us in a different fashion from the norm. This morning, the Parliamentary Liaison Group for HIV-AIDS, Blood Borne Viruses and Sexually Transmitted Infections—which I chair with the assistance of our deputy chair, Labor Senator Singh from Tasmania—hosted a breakfast here at Parliament House. It was pleasing to see so many parliamentarians from all sides—some of them in the chamber this evening—in attendance, especially the Minister for Health, Sussan Ley, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Steven Ciobo, the deputy leader of the Labor Party, Tanya Plibersek, and the shadow minister for health, Catherine King.

In addition to parliamentarians, this morning's event was also attended by some of the leading advocates, medical researchers and community workers who have been active in the fight against HIV-AIDS, in some cases from the very beginning. In particular, I would like to briefly mention and thank four individuals whose organisations were key in supporting this morning's breakfast and who indeed have been at the forefront of shaping Australia's approach to HIV-AIDS over many years.

Mr. Bill Bowtell AO, Executive Director of Pacific Friends of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, is often regarded as the architect of Australia's enormously successful and bipartisan policy response to HIV-AIDS. Having served as a senior adviser to a Labor health minister in 1984, when AIDS was first coming to public prominence, and later as a senior adviser to other Prime Ministers, Bill is respected across the political divide as someone deeply committed to taking the politics out of these important health issues.

Mr. Rob Lake, Executive Director of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, has likewise been involved in the fight against HIV-AIDS since the mid-1980s, when the condition was poorly understood and widely stigmatised. He has taken a leading role in developing health and educational policy responses in both New South Wales and nationally and is tireless in his efforts as an advocate for people in the wider community living with HIV.

Professor Andrew Grulich, Program Head of HIV Epidemiology and Prevention at the Kirby Institute, is one of the key medical researchers working in the field of HIV-AIDS research in this country and has been an active participant in the field for more than two decades. His presentation was key in reminding attendees of just how far options for medical treatment have come, to the point where contracting HIV is no longer the 'death sentence' it once was.

Finally, we were fortunate this morning to hear from David Menadue OAM, a board member of the National Association of People Living with HIV in Australia. David was honoured at the 2014 Victorian Senior of the Year awards with the Senior Achiever of the Year award. As he movingly recounted this morning, when the AIDS epidemic struck, he and many others like him never thought they would live to be seniors and never thought that they might be invited to their national parliament to see World AIDS Day in the year 2015. Advances in medical science have been important, but equally important has been the passionate and tenacious advocacy of people like David, in fighting loudly over many decades to remove the stigma from HIV-AIDS. David remains an active and prominent voice, particularly in drawing attention to the needs of seniors living with HIV.

As a Western Australian senator, I would like to use this World AIDS Day to pay tribute to the WA AIDS Council, which this year marked the 30th anniversary of its establishment in 1985. The council was formed in a climate that was especially difficult for many gay and lesbian Australians, as public fears about AIDS were at their zenith and the lack of understanding about the illness was manifesting as a fear of the gay community itself among many in our society. In that atmosphere, a number of like-minded organisations came together in May of 1985 to form the WA AIDS Council as the peak, independent body that would shape WA's response to the AIDS challenge, including more effective responses to the misinformation and prejudice that was percolating in the wider community. This was an era where people diagnosed with AIDS were being segregated in ward 10A of the Royal Perth Hospital and five years before homosexuality was decriminalised in my home state of Western Australia.

So as well against the battle against the illness itself, it was important to cultivate a more accepting and tolerant attitude in the wider community. To that end, from the outset the council was committed to a broad agenda of community education and support. Penny Lipscombe and Charles Watson from the WA Department of Health; David Lamb, Des Perry, Victor Francis and Tony Whelan from the gay community; and Peter Jordan from the haemophilia community were among those who collaborated in the inclusiveness of the council's direction.

Of course, this was also the pre internet age and it was a significant challenge for West Australians to find, create and update the information that would answer the all too common questions. Many people were too afraid to ask doctors about HIV-AIDS and so many people in the early risk groups depended on rumour and supposition. When the AIDS helpline—later the AIDSline—was established with the support of the WA AIDS Council, Western Australians welcomed the opportunity to obtain more accurate information. Slowly attitudes began to change and slowly stigma evaporated in part.

At its inception, the council relied on money fundraised or donated largely from Western Australia's gay community for its activities. It was not until 1989 that the council received its first significant levels of public funding with the development of the first National HIV-AIDS Strategy. Three decades on, the landscape has altered significantly and, as a result, the focus on the council's activities has shifted. Under the leadership of the council's CEO, Andrew Burry, the organisation still provides much needed support to people in Western Australia living with HIV but the focus is on living well rather than on dying with dignity, which was the tragic reality when the council was first established. With greater resources, better access to technology and more professional staff the council is able to educate a larger proportion of the community about the importance of safe sexual practices and, importantly, healthy relationships. Through advances in medicine and more enlightened attitudes, this is cause for celebration.

World AIDS Day is also an appropriate time to remember those who have not been so lucky. In particular, I note the passing this June of Alan Brotherton, A long time HIV activist and champion of the rights of LGBTI people. Alan was instrumental in establishing a number of organisations to assist people living with HIV. At various stages of his career he served as director of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations. Alan had worked overseas for several years in senior positions for the International HIV-AIDS Alliance and the International AIDS Society. His contribution to the health and wellbeing of people affected by HIV, and LGBTI people, was immense. His fierce intelligence coupled with his wonderful sense of humour was an enormous asset in his tireless advocacy. I know that many will today also be thinking of Alan's partner, Luke, as well as his family and vast network of friends. His death serves as a reminder that there is still much more to be done. I am delighted that his friends and family are able to hear tonight of his commitment.

The year 2015 has witnessed promising developments in HIV science. The Kirby Institute's START study demonstrated the benefits of early treatment for those with HIV. And two large European studies have reported that pre exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, which involves taking one pill each day to prevent infection, can reduce the risk of infection by almost 90 per cent in gay and bisexual men.

We are also witnessing some success in HIV prevention. After years of increasing, the last three years have seen a stabilisation in the number of new HIV diagnoses nationwide. In NSW, there was a 15 per cent decline between 2012 and 2014. However, we cannot rest on our laurels. There is still much more to be done, especially with regard to promoting regular testing of groups at risk of HIV, earlier treatment, as well as continuing to educate the next generation about the importance of safe practices. These were some of the important observations that were shared with us this morning by Kirby's Institute Professor Allan Greulich.

The best tribute we can pay to those pioneers in the struggle against— (Time expired)