World AIDS day

(8.30pm 30 November 2011, Northern Forecourt Sydney Opera House)

It's 30 years since we first heard about AIDS, the mysterious disease that was afflicting gay men and Haitians. Although it didn't get that name until later. When I was elected in to the NSW Parliament in 1988, I knew from the start that AIDS issues would be a major focus of my work - given my electorate was at the epicentre of the epidemic. Fortunately, over the previous seven years, Australia had developed a compassionate, rational and ground-breaking response to HIV and AIDS. It was a response shaped by sensitive and responsible leadership and a robust partnership forged between government, the scientific, medical and healthcare professions and the affected communities. Health Ministers like Neal Blewett and in NSW, Laurie Brereton and Liberals like Dr Peter Baume and Chris Puplick, ensured that the actions Australia took were not stampeded by fear and panic and had bipartisan support. Doctors like Ron Penny and David Cooper cared for their patients and were at the cutting edge of AIDS medical research. The gay community quickly established organisations like the AIDS Action Committee - later the AIDS Council of NSW - to advocate and educate, and the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation to provide care and support to people living with AIDS. As an MP I supported their work, made submissions to the first National AIDS Strategy, worked to ensure people living with HIV and AIDS had access to treatment and housing and did not experience discrimination. There was also the personal impact of HIV and AIDS. Viewing the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and recognising lovingly made panels celebrating the lives of people I'd known. Reading out names at AIDS Candlelight Vigils and recognising many of them. Learning that friends, colleagues and supporters were courageously living with the virus, and then watching them become ill, and attending and often speaking at their funerals. In those years, my experience was repeated too many times in Sydney's gay community.

Over time however, the number of AIDS related funerals have significantly and thankfully declined, with many more people with HIV and AIDS living and staying well longer, thanks to better treatments, care and support. Australia is now faring much better than many other countries, with the new infection rate remaining relatively stable, and the total deaths from AIDS related illnesses remaining under 7,000. While Australians can be proud of our response, HIV and AIDS remains an unprecedented human catastrophe inflicting immense suffering on countries, communities and families throughout the world. The impact of this catastrophe is disproportionate, with sub-Saharan Africa bearing the greatest burden. Over 67 percent of people living with HIV and AIDS are in Africa, even though it has only 11 percent of the world's population. The catastrophe is worsened by the high incidence of mother to baby HIV transmissions during pregnancy and the prevalence of other diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. The focus of tonight's event and why the City of Sydney strongly supports it, must be to draw attention to the devastation being caused by HIV and AIDS in Africa. We must support the efforts of those working on the ground, providing health care and support in the villages and town centres, and we must encourage and give strength to the people who are trying to educate governments to adopt more enlightened policies. The AIDS virus has many helpers as it cuts its swathe through Africa - poverty, poor health care and education, but perhaps its biggest helper is denial - government leaders denying the AIDS virus exists, denying the education that would help prevent its transmission, and denying the law reforms that would enable much needed safe sex education and would remove people living with AIDS to seek medical care and support. Almost thirty years ago, Australia recognised that a response motivated by fear, ignorance and panic would not prevent people contracting AIDS and that it would worsen the pain and suffering of people who had already done so. I hope tonight's event will bring similar enlightenment to the many other countries so the devastation being wreaked by HIV and AIDS can be stemmed.