Thursday 14 March 2013

Reflections about Anthony Smith

Many people have been saddened by the recent death of our colleague and friend, Professor Anthony Smith. Anthony was widely known both in Australia and internationally for his work as an outstanding researcher, and also for his passion as an HIV activist
spanning some 25 years.

Dino Hodge and Terry McClafferty were colleagues of Anthony Smith during his time on the Northern Territory AIDS Council (NTAC) Board during the late 1980 and early 1990s.  Here they reflect on Anthony's life, and the lasting contributions he has made to Australia's response to HIV.

Dino Hodge was on the board of NTAC between 1989-1992. As a fellow Board Member, including in his capacity as a member of The NTAC Council Law and Policy Working Group, he worked closely alongside Anthony Smith.  Dino recalls:

'I think Anthony - Ant - stepped up to the role of President with the Northern Territory AIDS Council (now NTAHC) in the late 1980s at a time when no-one else in the community was prepared to take on that role. It was still a period of widespread public fear and panic and a time of incredibly poor relations between the NT Government and the communities most directly affected at that time by HIV. We worked together in the organisation until his resignation when he left Darwin for Melbourne. Anthony took a leadership role and met the demands admirably

'I was Treasurer of NTAC for a time, and  remember going to meet the Chief Minister, Marshall Perron, with Anthony and other NTAC executive members to discuss the need for government leadership in dealing with the issues.

'This was at a time when the NT Government's Health Department was withholding Federal Government funding dedicated for NGOs - and specifically AIDS Councils  - and I recall being impressed with the way that Anthony was able to represent the community and to convey the issues to  the Government, which at that time was being non-receptive. It was a challenging thing for him to have done, to stand up and take on that role. At the time, it was courageous.

'As a consequence of that initiative, we then convened a meeting with the Commonwealth Department of Health's Northern Territory Regional Manager and the head of the relevant sections from the NT Department of Health. This resulted in  the funding for NTAC being reinstated. We had received funding for only .5 of a position  and after this we were able to secure additional funding and then employ another two people.

'And that was funding that was earmarked in the HIV National Strategy to go to NGOs - and specifically AIDS Councils - for community delivery of health services that the NT Government Department of Health had redirected into its own government programs.  So securing that funding was a major achievement. That was a major turning point in the functioning of NTAC because it meant that we had the ability in terms of staff to do the job that we were being asked to do.'

Dr Terry McClafferty was a member of the inaugural group of gay men who formed the Northern Territory AIDS council, and was the public officer who floated the Council in 1986. Dr McClafferty recalls how Anthony's scientific background proved invaluable to enhancing NTAC's political sway and media influence during its very early years:

'Ant's scientific research background proved very useful to lend an authoritative voice to the issues, taking on the politicians of the time. This was during the early 80s and the Health Department were paranoid that they had to get in contact with gay men to alert them to this disease at that time. And here in the NT, sexual diseases are horrific among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander  communities and they were paranoid we were going to see the something [similar occur] with HIV. [Although thankfully this didn't occur]

'Anthony's PhD work, and his experience with quantitative data analysis was useful when raising these issues with politicians, helped left the Council an authoritative voice,' Terry explains.

Terry also reflected on the environment they were working in during the early years of NTAC: 'There was a lot of negative media during this period. It was the days when hospitals fed people with HIV with a plastic plate, and all this sort of stuff. And Anthony could actually come out as 'Dr Anthony Smith of the Northern Territory AIDS Council', and although he didn't have a medical background, he certainly has a scientific research background. And so he could also take on the politicians from that point of view, because of this 'authoritative voice'.

Dino Hodge says that Anthony's outlook was not solely confined to the Northern Territory, explaining that: 'Ant not only represented the AIDS Council to the Territory Government, he also fulfilled a leadership role at a national level, participating in national conferences and fora, and representing the needs of Territorians at a national level.'

Dino also talks about collaborating with Anthony and David Patterson, (a lawyer who was on the NTAC Board), in NTAC's Law and Policy Working Group.

As a team, overseen by the rest of the NTAC Board, they produced several key pieces of work of lasting importance to the NT and national HIV response including:  a policy briefing paper; a phone survey about experiences of discrimination; and an article published in the National AIDS Bulletin (Volume 4, 1990), HIV status and discrimination: whose turn to (en)act?

As Dino explains: 'We co-authored an article for the National AIDS Bulletin in 1990 which explored the issues of HIV, sexuality and discrimination with respect to the international convenants to which Australia was a signatory, and which analysed the powers under which the Federal Government could enact legislation to provide anti-discrimination protection for all Australians (not just Territorians) in regard to HIV status and sexuality.
So Anthony had a national outlook, even from those early days.

The NTAC Law and Policy Working Group also worked on a policy paper which we delivered to the NT Government about all the laws in the Northern Territory that needed revision in view of the public health impact of HIV. Laws concerning homosexuality,intravenous drug use the sex industry, and the need for laws to deal with discrimination.

It was some time later that word came back from the parliamentary draftspeople that the NT Government relied on our document for a number of years to guide them in developing their policy and legislative reforms. That it actually was the document that they used to guide them, as it  was a time when the NT Government didn't know what to do or how to go about doing it - and we were able to point them in the right direction.

We were reading the discussion papers, debating the issues, talking with the community, and looking at what needed to be done. But the NT Government wasn't talking to the HIV-affected communities:  the sex workers, the gays, the drug users, and we had to work very hard to talk with them.

Dino also recalls how, to address a lack in HIV-related data, Anthony Smith, David Patterson and himself undertook a 'phone in' to document issues for people with HIV to provide evidence for legislative change:

'We found that the NT Government was unresponsive to discussing the issues around HIV and discrimination because there was no substantive data. So we held a phone-in, which we promoted across the Territory, to document instances of issues and discrimination arising from HIV. We then used the data from that phone survey as the substantive evidence to illustrate to the Government the range of issues that were being experienced by the communities involved, and how they related to public policy and legislative reform.'

Dino has remained in contact with Anthony's long-term partner, Dennis Altman, and reflects on recent public comments Dennis has made about Anthony's life, and their time together.

Dino recalls: 'Late in 2012, Dennis gave a human rights oration for the Don Dunstan Foundation in Adelaide, and then also spoke again at Anthony's funeral service in Melbourne. He revealed what he and Anthony were experiencing at that time.

'Dennis said that what impressed him was that at no point in the management of Anthony's health - from the time of his diagnosis until his death - was there ever any question that Dennis was Anthony's  family and next of kin. For Dennis and people of our generation, who are old enough to remember what it was like, this had been almost inconceivable. In the early days of HIV there were many instances when partners were cut out by the health system or by the biological family, and - there was no legal recourse.'

Dino concludes: 'This was not the situation confronting Anthony and Dennis. And what I would like to say, in addition to Dennis' observations on their experiences, is that Anthony played a role in bringing that circumstance about. He fostered the national debate about discrimination, and made a lasting contribution to social justice and human rights.'

Dino Hodge was on the board of Northern Territory AIDS Council from late 1989-1992. He worked closely alongside Anthony Smith, including in his capacity as NTAC Board Member and as a member of The AIDS Council Law and Policy Working Group.

Dr Terry McClafferty was a member of the group of gay men who founded the Northern Territory AIDS Council, and was the public officer who floated Council in 1986.

Thanks to Dino And Terry for providing their reflections here.

See Also: Bill Whittaker's tribute to Anthony Smith in HIV Australia

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