Row over HIV health cash – Eamonn Duff

January 16, 2011

Gary Burns.Gary Burns. 

A BITTER row has erupted in Sydney’s gay community after a group of prominent activists accused the state’s leading homosexual health service of squandering millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money.

Gay rights campaigner Gary Burns, HIV lobbyist Shayne Chester and journalist Peter Hackney have demanded the state government “demolish” ACON, formerly known as the AIDS Council of NSW.

The trio alleged the service, which specialises in HIV prevention, care and support, received $12.6 million in government funding last year but spent only $800,000 on programs and services. In a scathing attack, the group dubbed the organisation a “gravy train” and called on Premier Kristina Keneally to hand back ACON’s work to NSW Health.

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Nicolas Parkhill. 

“ACON holds nebulous conferences, seminars, workshops, initiatives, meetings, information sessions and awards nights with disturbing regularity,” Mr Hackney said.

“They are all catered for, with smoked salmon, ham and avocado, freshly squeezed orange juice and even champagne – and we all know who’s paying for it.”

Mr Chester said NSW had had high rates of HIV infection for more than a decade, and this was compounded by an increase in unprotected casual sex among gay men.

“Why is this happening?” he asked. “Because ACON, which is chartered with HIV education and prevention, is failing us.”

Nicolas Parkhill.ACON’s annual report for last year shows it spent about 60 per cent of its budget on salaries and a further $882,000 on administrative costs. An additional $500,000 was spent on “travel and representation”.

ACON chief executive Nicolas Parkhill defended his organisation and called the activist group members “three serial complainants who sit on the fringes of the gay community blowing their own trumpet”.

“ACON employs 115 staff to deliver programs and services across NSW and benchmarks its salaries against similar organisations,” he said.

“We’re also a pioneer of programs addressing broader health issues, such as mental health and drug and alcohol issues, which can impact on vulnerability to HIV.”

In NSW cases involving HIV infection peaked in the mid-1980s, with 1636 diagnoses reported in 1987. Since then rates have dropped dramatically, with 327 new cases recorded in 2009, although that is a slight increase from 323 in 2008.

A NSW Health spokeswoman said the government had been involved with ACON since 1985. “Their work has contributed to these improved outcomes,” she said.

She said ACON had consistently met its annual financial and performance requirements and would receive a further $9.7 million in the coming year to provide services priority groups including gay men, sex workers, Aboriginal communities and people living with HIV.

Author: Garry Burns

Gary Burns is an Australian anti-discrimination campaigner. He successfully tested the homosexual vilification provisions of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 with a complaint of personal homosexual vilification against broadcaster John Laws and Sydney radio station 2UE that concluded in his favour in 2002.[1] Burns went on to front public interest cases against high profile figures and media establishments for unlawful homosexual vilification.

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