The intervention – item # 476

Boots on the ground cannot replace faces in the communityIn reading for Best Blog Posts 07 there are several first rate posts on the aboriginal intervention.  And one of them linked to this fascinating piece by one of our great journalists – Jack Waterford – of a more clearly well motivated exercise in the mid to late 70s.  Then the intervention was about the scandalously high incidence of the blinding disease trachoma, and it was led by a wild irrascible type who went on to distinguish himself further as a genuine Aussie saint, Fred Hollows. This is how the piece ends.

We worked hard, in short, to make the people partners in our program, and to give individuals, families and groups a strong sense of ownership. Most of the time, of course, we were heavily self-critical, thinking that we could have, or should have, done it better, but that we were doing it better than it had been done before we were always pretty confident.

I wish I could be as confident about the task forces starting out first with cops, then with army officers, then some doctors not yet consulted or organised, with alienated state infrastructure and no sense of engagement with the service providers on the ground, let alone the objects of the attention. Complete with abuse by the minister of the people whose cooperation he needs, and the general implication that anyone who stands in his way, or doubts his good intentions, is an apologist for child molesters.

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Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
13 years ago

Ironically, Fred Hollows -for all the unquestioned good he wrought in indigenous health – advocated an approach to AIDS in Australia, back in the early 90’s, that would have made Mal Brough’s NT intervention look like the sort of model of collaborative engagement that a year long series of community consultations co-convened by Lowitja O’Donoghue and Carmen Lawrence, might deliver. Far from “consulting” with them, Fred demanded the forcible quarantining of AIDS patients and the outlawing of gay sex to “protect” heterosexual Australia from the evil depredations of homosexual disease carriers. He accused Hawke government Health Minister, Neal Blewett of being “captured” by “gay activists” and was joined by the then President of the AMA in shrill demands for a much more authoritarian approach to disease prevention. Fred was – famously -100% wrong about this and it’s now generally airbrushed out of biographical recall apart from vague references to his “colourful irascibility” and “penchant for plain speaking.” Nonetheless, the facts are that the Australian approach to HIV, largely constructed under Blewett’s leadership, remains one of the most successful national HIV responses ever developed and Australia continues to have one of the lowest HIV sero-prevalence rates in the developed world.

I wouldn’t be graceless enough to quibble with Fred’s retrospective Aussie sanctification (apart from noting that he was a New Zealander), but it’s worth remembering that even the saintliest among us can also be deeply flawed and that the best of intentions – Mal Brough’s and Fred Hollows’ – can be subject to a wide variety of interpretations, dependent on perspective.

13 years ago

“but its worth remembering that even the saintliest among us can also be deeply flawed”

Like no one wants be reminded of Nobel laureate Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet’s, speculations and consultations about waging biological warfare on those teeming Asiatic hordes just over the horizon.

In retrospect, Australian pollies have displayed surprisingly good sense when it comes to dealing with our great scientists and researchers getting a little wacky beyond their core competencies.

Burnet: Now this is how we can cause massive crop failures and rampant new infectious diseases in Indonesia, China, Japan and Malaya.
Menzies: Yes, but who’s gonna buy our iron ore, bauxite and wool then?

And yes, Neal Blewett deserves much more recognition for how he oversaw an v. effective holistic public heath campaign dealing with a new infection that was very highly-charged, politically, pyschosexually and demographically. In fact, the Hawke Cabinet of the mid-eighties (and how he ran it) is looking better and better in retrospect.

Amplifying my earlier point, our big cat pollies, across the political spectrum, have tended more than others of other nations to be quite pragmatic and effective in a real crunch.