Title: Passion and perspective: Our full report on the NZAF AGM Credit: reporters HIV Wednesday 23rd November 2005 - 12:00pm1132700400 Article: 1017 Rights
It was at a fairly early stage of the AIDS Foundation's annual general meeting on Saturday evening that NZAF kaumatua Henare Te Ua expressed frustration that the gathering was turning into a "procedural gabfest" at the expense of discussing the issues. It was a sentiment that could be equally applied to how many of those present were feeling about the board's governance – non-substantive answers to questions, vague discussions of identity and exclusiveness, obsessing over the minutiae of a constitution that clearly has issues in its drafting; all of the above were cited by speakers at the meeting as part of what has become a "procedural gabfest", overshadowing talk of HIV prevention and care for positive people at a time when infection rates have hardly been worse. Former NZAF executive director Warren Lindberg, along with wellington activist Bill Logan, was a strong advocate for MSM community ownership of the Foundation at the meeting. He was described by more than one speaker, including Te Ua, as the voice of sanity. "If this is not an organisation that belongs to the community that established it, the community that remains those most affected by this epidemic, and will be for the foreseeable future, then it may as well become a part of the Regional Public Health Service, which doesn't belong to anybody," Lindberg said. Excuses that the MSM community are "hard to reach" had no truck with Lindberg. "We were funded back in the eighties because the Department of Health thought we were a hard to reach group. The answer was, no we're not," he said. "We would know how to reach one another. We will take that responsibiulity. I do not want to see that responsibility diluted. I want to see it affirmed and carried forward." Lindberg's remit, which called for an unequivocal commitment to the MSM epidemic and a focus of Foundation resources on providing services for that community, would eventually pass with the largest majority of any of the remits put up that evening. In his address to the meeting, Lindberg called on the individual board members to state whether or not they were committed to his resolution. All board members said they supported Lindberg's remit, but some gave qualifications to their support. While acknowledging that 89% of new HIV infections acquired in New Zealand are among MSM, there was much talk of focussing resources on the 11% of infections in other population groups... that the Foundation shouldn't just focus on all those affected by HIV and AIDS, but all who may be potentially affected by the virus as well. NZAF board chair Simon Robb said the structure of the NZAF must be organised to allow staff to work with affected or potentially most affected communities, but expressed a commitment to peer education programmes. Mark Bridgeman said that programmes must be culturally specific, that MSM are the group most affected by HIV, and it is MSM most effectively communicate with other MSM. Te Miha Cookson said that all communities affected by HIV and AIDS must be supported to develop solutions to the negative impacts of the virus. However, board member Gordon Chappell said that in focussing on the 89% we can't lose sight of the remaining 11% of infections. Sue Cringle, the only board member absent from the meeting, expressed similar sentiments to Chappell in a prepared statement that was read to the meeting. She added that excluding non-MSM shows we are unconcerned about the "likely increase over time" of the epidemic in those groups. Deputy chair Jeremy Lambert set about deconstructing the 89% figure, saying that the group calling themselves MSM are far greater than "gay". "My principal concern around this is one around identity. I don't identify as a gay man. I idenitfy as takatapui. For me, my ethnicity identifier comes first," he said. "My challenge really is, for someone like myself, or for other Maori within this organisation, is the NZAF one where sexual orientation is put first before ethnicity? If that is indeed the case, then I think you do run a real risk in terms of your communicating with people, like Maori, who do tend to put the ethnicity before their sexual identity." One of the remits before the AGM called for all references to the Treaty of Waitangi to be struck from the constitution. Henare Te Ua said the Treaty needs to be kept in the constitution in order for Maori to feel recognised and welcomed. References to "takataapui" are not enough, he said, as not all Maori – including himself – identify with that label. "The NZAF has got twenty years of history behind it. It needs to be bold and stand up and say, until there is something better, let's stick to what those early board members decided to do about [recognising] the Treaty." G close friends he has provided palliative care for. He insisted the board was focussed on MSM, but: "I'll tell you right now I am an enabler. I will not tolerate, as a board member, not having a relationship with other organisations who need our assistance. I want to build bridges with women who live with HIV, children who live with HIV, Maori who may live with HIV and AIDS. I want to continue to provide support for people lviing with HIV and AIDS. I believe this organisation can do all of that, and still provide services to MSM. By that community, for that community." In one of his speech's most revealing moments, Robb claimed that a straight man living with HIV had been turned away contacting the Foundation for help. "My partner said to me, Simon – I heard an interview on National Raido. He is a straight man living with HIV. He wanted to contact the Foundation. He felt he could not. Why? Because it was GAY. So what's he going to do? He's going to start up his own organisation. I think that's bullshit. If he wants to do it, that's fine. But he didn't even get a chance to come into the door...That discussion didn't occur." At this point, NZAF communications co-ordinator Steve Attwood, sitting in the front row, interjected and said "that's not true". Robb twice told him to be quiet before continuing to use his 'straight man' example to claim that it was proof the Foundation needed to change its ways. "I live a full life," he said in conclusion. "I have a wonderful partner. I've got a wonderful job. I put my own time into doing this. I haven't collected a cent. If you want me to stay on only because you can't be bothered with the political fallout, then vote me off. I don't want to stay. If you want me to stay because you have confidence in me... then I will stay. But I do not want to stay by default." Warren Lindberg's right of reply came directly after. Acknowledging in one of the evening's greatest understatements that Robb's terse address was "a hard act to follow", he went on to emphasise that his remit did not mean the Foundation would not care for non-MSM groups. "The point about owning something is it gives you the standing to welcome others," he said. By way of example, he cited Kate Leslie (present in the audience), the first chair of the AIDS Foundation and a heterosexual woman, which received a huge round of applause. "Kate was accustomed to sitting in meetings full of gay men – and that's the point. She was never under any illusion that that's what she was doing... I also want to point out that WE [the NZAF during Lindberg's extended period as Executive Director] got the needle exchange off the ground. Tony Hughes did the research. I took the argument to the AIDS advisory committee. Gary McGrath and I went and persuaded the parliamentary committee... We have walked alongside other communities. We have had a brilliant partnership with the Prostitute's Collective." Lindberg reminded the meeting that the NZAF was originally set up because gay men had nowhere else to go, something which is not true of other groups living with HIV, with the exception of Maori men. Acknowledging the work of Bill Logan in helping to set up the Safe Schools For Queers programme, he said he has come to realise that it is still hell to be a teenager who is glbt: "The one place they can come to is the NZ AIDS Foundation." "This board needs to communicate with staff in a way that assures them they are valued and supported in what they do," he concluded. Over the course of the evening, he said some of his confidence in the board had been restored, but after Robb's speech this confidence had been undermined, a statement which received murmurs of approval throughout the room. "I still do not want to vote no confidence in the board, for two reasons: One, I'm sick of chastising the board and I would now like us to give the board a chance to get on with its job. But secondly, for exactly the reason that you poured contempt on. This is 'the AIDS organisation' in this country. It has won its credibility over a long period of time in some difficult battles," he said, finishing with some sharp advice for Simon Robb: "But if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Voting on the remits was held immediately afterwards. It was agreed that a secret ballot would be taken rather than voice voting, because of the uncomfortable situation created by staff also being members of the Foundation, a situation which executive director Rachael LeMesurier said she found tricky. The results were as follows: Remit 1, which called for the board to disavow their stance on the 50% Maori board proposal and take no further action on it, received a resounding 59 votes in favour, 24 opposed and 4 abstentions. Remit 2, which called for all Treaty references to be struck from the constitution and replaced with a commitment to "negotiated relationships with Maori organisations" was more mixed: 38 in favour, 35 opposed, 14 abstentions. Remits 3 and 4 were voted on together, as they both called for the board to resign. 33 were in favour, 45 were opposed, 7 abstained. Remit 5, put up by the board, apologised for the deficiencies in its consultation over the 50% Maori proposal, questioned whether the Foundation's mission should be with all communities potentially affected by HIV in New Zealand, and outlined a process for consultation over how the above question should be answered. An attempt was made to remove the mission-questioning element of the remit, which the board declined to do. The remit received 54 votes in favour, 27 against, and 6 abstentions. Remit 6, put up by Warren Lindberg and calling for an unequivocal commitment by the Foundation to focus on the MSM epidemic and the needs of that community, received 72 votes in favour, only 14 against, and 3 abstentions. reporters - 23rd November 2005    
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