The Petition of concerned members and supporters of the NSW GLBQTI community, brings to the attention of the House that the ACON organisation has become self-serving, incompetent, corrupt, ineffective and unaccountable to those they are funded to serve. We submit that ACON fails to serve the NSW HIV-positive community and fails in its charter to educate on the consequences of unsafe sex and the realities of living with HIV.
This petition comes against the background of sustained high rates of new HIV infections in NSW for many years. Traditionally, these rates have been described by ACON as “stable” (though “gradually increasing” would have been more accurate), however even ACON concedes that HIV diagnoses are now rapidly increasing, with a 24 per cent jump in new HIV cases in 2012.
The undersigned petitioners therefore ask the Legislative Assembly to consider:
1. We recommend that an independent panel be formed to investigate and oversee ACON. This panel should be comprised of health and communications professionals, and members of the HIV-positive community.
2. This independent review should be funded from ACON's budget and have the power to audit their finances (particularly monies spent on entertainment, alcohol, catering and travel) and investigate the qualifications and performance of their 200 staff. We do not agree with CEO Nicolas Parkhill that spending $7,554,402 on staff and only $769,629 on programmes and services for the community is reasonable, especially considering most of ACON's services are conducted by volunteers.
3. We'd like to see any sponsorship by pharmaceutical companies in campaigns to get HIV-positive people onto medications publicly declared. For example, we want the NSW Department of Health to declare which, if any, drug companies are providing sponsorship to the ENDING HIV campaign.
4. We petition the Minister to commission a professional communications and marketing company, using part of ACON funding, to communicate the simple message that life is better lived without HIV. We want them to explain the realities of living with HIV, because ACON had constantly refused to do so. The HIV-positive community should be engaged in this project, and empowered to speak for themselves. The Sydney gay community has a right to honest explicit, accurate information in order to be able to make informed choices. A good example is NYC's 'It's Never Just HIV' campaign:
5. The HIV-positive community is largely an underclass, disengaged from the conversation. Those taking risks sexually need to know the realities of living with HIV. The HIV Futures and other studies show about a third of all Australian HIV-positive people live beneath the poverty line because they are too ill to work. Around half experience issues with depression, chronic fatigue and other health issues. In education on the dangers of drink driving, speeding, binge drinking, smoking tobacco, heart disease and lung cancer, the campaigns are very graphic and explicit in the information they provide about consequences. The HIV campaigns are not.
6. We believe that one reason for the recent 24 per cent jump in HIV notifications is that there's a great deal of complacency in the Sydney gay male community because the HIV virus has become normalised and even glamourised by ACON initiatives such as the 'GLAM Reaper' campaign.
7. We believe some ACON initiatives are actively enabling HIV seroconversion – for example, the ‘Glory Hole’ parties at gay sex-on-premises venue, Headquarters on Crown. These parties are financially sponsored by ACON’s ‘How Hard’ project, with a special alcohol license for the event, for “sexually adventurous men”. The venue features a large group sex space with no lights, condoms or lube. When questioned about this, ACON CEO Parkhill responded that the men were only “socialising”. There is evidence of sexually transmitted disease being passed at these parties. Individual or class action lawsuits are also possible if gay men contract HIV at an ACON-sponsored event such as this.
8. About 20 per cent of gay men in Sydney report unprotected sex with casual partners in the past six months, due to the complacency mentioned in point 6, according to comments by Professor Andrew Grulich, Head of the HIV and Epidemiology and Prevention Program at the University of NSW's Kirby Institute. See here:
9. In a few years, a few unlucky gay men, young or old, who were failed and enabled by ACON's lack of education or through the sex parties (“Come Join Your Tribe”, the ads say) may be facing lethal co-morbidities, like HIV-related cancer, leukemia and syphilis. They, and hundreds of others whose lives have been ruined, will feel they had been very poorly served by those who are well paid to educate and advocate for them.
10. The actual services for HIV positive persons have been downgraded almost to the point of non-existence. ACON absorbed the Positive Living Centre – which provided an holistic and positive approach to HIV – and turned it into a welfare model. At this time, the service has been all but disbanded, and all that remains are two lunches per week. The therapies, food bank, courses and gym are no longer provided, the relaxing atmosphere is gone and computer access is booked to ACON staff during breaks and lunchtimes. 31 per cent of HIV-positive people live below the poverty line according to the HIV Futures study and therefore have trouble affording nutritious food, so these changes to the Positive Living Centre have serious repercussions.
11. There have been complaints to New ACTUP from former staff, of endemic bullying of staff who question ACON policy.
12. In the early days of the HIV epidemic ACON’s forerunner, the AIDS Council of NSW, was arguably at the leading edge of the fight against HIV/AIDS. We believe that over the past decade, ACON has squandered its legacy and is now actually part of the problem. This petition was motivated by a desire to build a healthier, safer community, not a continuation of the misguided and self indulgent attitudes and outcomes that ACON delivers.
We call upon the NSW Department of Health to investigate and review ACON.