Friday, January 06, 2006

Step Back in Time

Check out this article on the government's power to quarantine, in the context of the current bird flu but also, more importantly, with a historical consideration of the rise of HIV in the 1980s.

Now, having not been born in the 1980s* I wasn't around the observe Australia's response to the disease. However, the general concensus that I can suss out would appear to be: Unlike the US, which under the Reagan government viewed HIV/AIDS as a "gay" disease and condemned it too often as primarily a social rather than medical issue (granted, in retrospect we can see it's probably a bit of both), the Australian Labor government, under the charge of Health Minister Neal Blewett, adopted a more pragmatic and less condemnatory approach - "the resounding message was that we were all at risk (of HIV), irrespective of age, sexuality, gender or ethnicity. But at the same time, each of us could contain that risk, by making responsible choices in relation to our sexual and other risk-related activities" - and received international praise for this.

Whether or not Blewett's own homosexuality - which presumably informed his sympathetic approach to HIV/AIDS - was known to then PM Bob Hawke at the time I guess we won't know, but appointing him Health Minister was one of Hawke's better decisions during his reign.

What this article got me thinking about was how different the rise of HIV/AIDS in Australia might have been under a conservative government - let's say, hypothetically, the current one.

Tony Abbott, minister responsible for the monitoring and minimisation of a dangerous new strain of a mysterious "flu", the only thing we seem to know about it is that it's unique to gay men? Terrifying thought, isn't it. We've already seen how Abbott is incapable of keeping his personal religious prejudices separate from his ministerial responsibilities, and I have no doubt this would be no exception.

Take a guess who were the greatest opponents to the Labor government's approach to HIV in the 1980s? Yep - the National Party and Queensland government.

We all know how much John Howard loves to emulate the Dubya administration. Imagine that happening if HIV were only now just beginning to spread to epidemic levels? Our government,

"frightened by the unsanitary sexual discussions thought to be implied in HIV/AIDS education, shie(s) away from harm-reduction strategies. Instead, celebrity deaths...(are) used to reinforce the view that HIV/AIDS (i)s a "gay" disease. For decades, these and other pernicious myths continued to prevail, with substantial consequences for contraction rates. In its December 2005 report, UNAIDS found that the number of infections in Australia had declined by 25 per cent between 1995 and 2005. During the same period, infection rates rose steadily in the US."

Now, right away I can hear the Howard apologists leaping with glee. "Ahhhhhhh-ha! Gotcha! A 25% decline between 1995 and 2005. And who's been PM for most of that time, huh? Huh?!"

But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and of course a government now is not about to go against a strategy that has otherwise proved to be effective, or at least more effective than the homophobic hytseria that characterised the Reagan administration. My point still remains that would Australia have adopted such a relatively successful, dispassionate approach to the "gay disease" under a political party whose history of homophobia speaks for itself at both state and federal levels? Remember, Reagan was rumoured to believe that "they that live in sin shall die in sin". This is an attitude that still no doubt exists amongst many of his neo-conservative brethren, but these days they just know better than to publicly articulate such thoughts.

My guess is that these days, Howard does not hold such extreme views, but who knows what was going on in his head behind those caterpillars in 1983 when, hypothetically, he shafted Malcolm Fraser and became PM for the duration of the 1980s when HIV became such a world-wide catastrophe.

I realise hypotheticals like this can be dismissed as largely useless, but take this point home, if nothing else: the issues are country face may change, but conservative attitudes do not. Indeed, that's the point of conservatism - don't threaten the status quo, stick with what we've currently got. In retrospect, however, we see how the more compassionate, left-leaning approach to HIV worked far more effectively than the far-right fearmongering.

What issues will we be looking back on in 20 years time, and will we be able to say the neo-con approach has worked? If, for example, abortion (or at least public funding for) is outlawed now, as many Howard MPs including the Health Minister would like to see happen, will we look back in 20 years and rejoice in all the "unborns" we saved? Or will we lament the new crisis to female health that was created as women sought more dangerous, illegal means of terminating their pregnancies?

Of course, a good conservative/Liberal comeback to both HIV and abortion is that both should be viewed as issues of personal responsibility. Most, but not all of the time - as HIV-positive friends of mine who practised safe sex compulsorily like everybody else are testament to - contracting HIV or becoming pregnant can be avoided with safe and responsible sexual practices.

But again, consider the extreme to which conservative governments (eg the Dubya administration) take this otherwise sensible approach: abstinence. Yes, pretend you're not a biological entity with urges and Just Say No all together. The true definition of "safe sex". Now, while you're at it, did you know you can avoid contracting any airborne diseases or bugs by not breathing either? Isn't that great?

If nothing else, I am personally very grateful it was a Liberal Opposition and not Government during the 1980s.



At 6/1/06 3:58 pm, Anonymous bazza said...

Sobering thought Sam, and one hopes that some of the gay men of your era, take an objective approach to the negative issues we still face in 2006.

At 6/1/06 4:40 pm, Blogger Ron said...

Just an aside:

Did you ever read Blewett's story in Good Weekend magazine when they used to interview couples (do they still do that? I don't buy papers anymore.)

This may not be exactly right but it's close, I'm sure. Blewett got involved with a bloke romantically when they were both at uni. After graduating they both went their own ways with at least one of them marrying. They met up again in their 60s (I think the married one was a widower then or divorced), and have been living the happy life of a married couple in the Blue Mountains ever since.

I have always been intrigued by this story as my first and greatest love ended acrimoniously 40 years ago and I still fantasise about meeting him again and taking up where we left off. We all have to have our dreams ....

At 7/1/06 2:00 pm, Blogger JahTeh said...

Somewhere in my copious notes on the history of AIDS is a piece saying how Reagan's advisors did want to round up Gays and put them in camps, think 'Outbreak' the movie.

It was Reagan who didn't want it to come to that, probably didn't want to know how many Americans were gay.

At 7/1/06 5:51 pm, Anonymous Rob said...

I suspect that as we look back at the "naughties" from the vantage point of the 2020's, it will be the marriage issue that stands out as one of the key defining human rights issues of our (now) current period.

Countries all over the world are starting to recognise at least civil unions, meanwhile the administrations of Dubya and Deputy Howard are busy over racting to something that, at its heart, is none of their business.

I am still puzzled by the apple pie arguement (ie if you have an apple pie, my apple pie wont taste as good) and by Americas ability selective to ignore parts of its constitution.

What puzzles me more is how Australia has fallen in behind the US. I had honestly thought we were too laid, to live and let live to get sucked into the culture of the scold.

Guess I was wrong.

At 8/1/06 12:38 am, Anonymous maddy said...

"the issues are(sic) country face may change, but conservative attitudes do not. Indeed, that's the point of conservatism - don't threaten the status quo, stick with what we've currently got."

Well then Sam I think you've largely missed the point of conservatism if that's the definition you think most apt. Like having a right wing "Liberal" government, don't confuse the political "conservative" definition.

As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out many times Bush's administration resembles less a true conservative administration and more a political party tied to the religious right. And no, they're not the same.

Yes I think our approach to AIDS was a good one but as you correctly point out, your hypothetical question is pretty meaningless. Who's to say a health minister in a Liberal government couldn't have taken a similar position? Yes it is possible. Who's to say we should judge which party would have been "better" based on one issue - their response to a preventable disease which killed relatively few? One could easily read your entry and surmise that that is largely the reason you supported a Labor government in the decade you were born (smart aren't I ;).

I am largely glad we *currently* have the Liberals in power because the way they are now I wouldn't trust Labor to organise a chook raffle.

At 8/1/06 7:02 pm, Anonymous Bazza said...

The Uk is showing how far Australia is behind in equal rights for gays and lesbian. We can now migrate to the UK if our partner is on a UK work contract, or our partner has UK citizenship.

At 9/1/06 9:35 am, Blogger Sam said...

Maddy: I didn't say that that definition was the "most apt"; I was saying conservatism by definition is about resisting change that conservatives deem to be "unnecessary". I think most conservatives would be happy to agree with that.

You seem to think that a conservative administration and one tied to the religious right don't really have anything in common, but I would argue - and indeed, this is the point of this posting - that one is often the inevitable offspring of the other.

The basis of my argument was in the comparison of the Australian/US approaches to HIV.
It's not just a coincidence that Republican/right-wing governments are often beholden to religious conservatism - their political perspective often allows for the cultivation of Church to infiltrate policy and administrative decisions, no matter how extreme or resistant to justice and common sense.

If you feel the Reagan administration's response to the disease was appropriate, fine, but we'll definitely have to agree to disagree there.

PS - I certainly didn't support Labor in the 80s, since a/ I wasn't of voting age until the late 90s and b/ I was an active member of the Democrats until the turn of the millenium.

At 10/1/06 2:59 pm, Anonymous maddy said...

Resisting unnecessary and/or sudden change - yes I think that's a much better description of the conservative position, and I can't really see anything wrong with that in any situation.

No I don't think the Reagan administration's response was adequate - only barely acceptable. Particularly in the US, a conservative administration does, unfortunately, seem to go hand in hand with the religious wingnuts, however that's not to say that the conservative 'position' is at fault - only that the wingnuts manipulate their agenda to fit with it. Reagan's antics only served to widen the differences between Republicans and the gay community in general which wasn't good for either party.

I deduced how old you are - I was suggesting you were supporting the then Labor government now (supported should read as support I guess).

Why are you personally very grateful it was a Labor government if you weren't old enough to vote much less have sex??

PS Do you know anything about the planting of pink hearts during Mardi Gras to show support for civil unions?

At 10/1/06 3:38 pm, Blogger Sam said...

I guess personally grateful maddy in the sense that I came of age where a government was not required to repair the damage caused by its extremist predecessor over this issue, as had to be done in the US. Grateful that a relatively healthier legacy was left behind.

Re the pink hearts: 10,000 are being planted at Victoria Park before Fair Day (not exactly sure of the date though or whether it's a continuous thing).


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