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This charitable life

By Brian Haill - posted Friday, 5 August 2005

With so many arguments about what might happen to the dollar you're thinking about giving to charity, it's probably best, if you're in that doubtful frame of mind, to simply forget all about it - or to start a charity of your own - like I did.

Sitting in the Melbourne television newsroom of the ABC for so many years, I was in an ideal position to scan the deteriorating plight of humanity at large each day, and in particular, the efforts of those who sought to respond and those who just didn't bother. In a way, I began crossing the line ... alerting this agency or that to a crisis or a calamity before it became breaking news. Is it enough for we journalists to remain only as witnesses to history? I think not.

My first venture into the charity area saw me quitting my job as an ABC newsman at the time Ethiopia was being ravaged by that dreadful famine about 20 years ago when Geldof launched LiveAid. I had my eye on a line of C130 military transport planes, Hercules, at Laverton in Victoria, which the federal government had tried in vain for years to sell.


Winning the job as chief of Action Aid Australia, a small aid agency based atop a shoe store in Melbourne's suburban Dandenong, I gave birth to the so-called “Hercules for Africa” project, which was to result in the government donating two Hercules, refurbishing them and assigning them to food transport relief in Ethiopia. I'd had pilots from all over Australia volunteer to fly them for free, but the powers that be insisted on hiring commercial pilots who only had eyes for the money. I wasn't even invited to wave the planes goodbye when they left Nowra under the eye of Bob Hawke.

Later, back at the ABC, I resumed feeding to agencies critical information on the various nightmares burgeoning around the world.

As one grateful recipient once said, "Brian, until you drew our attention to the unfolding horror of Rwanda how many of us even knew where that country was, and now, who doesn't?"

There was a risk in this, however, given that the various charities tend to fight each other cat and dog, especially if one thinks another has got a bigger chunk of whatever bone is flung by the government of the day.

A spectacular example of this arose when the then federal government decided to spend millions of dollars to bring out some of Cambodia's art treasures to Australia. At that time, the Americans had gone into Somalia to battle its murderous warlords. I suggested to Care Australia that it should say publicly that if Canberra had money to spare it would be better spent on saving the living treasures of Somalia … its terrified children … rather than some “dead” art treasures from Asia.

Care Australia took up the suggestion and all hell broke loose as rival agencies spat the dummy, suggesting the government had been sufficiently generous. But it worked, and more vitally needed monies were channelled to Somalia.


It was in the mid-1980s, while I was still at the ABC as the Melbourne television chief of staff, that I found myself in a media ringside seat witnessing what's since been described as the darkest page in Australia's HIV history - the public hounding of the New South Wales pre-schooler, Eve van Grafhorst, the first Australian child to be HIV infected via a blood transfusion. Born prematurely, she needed 11 blood transfusions. The last one that saved her life then ultimately killed her as an 11-year-old. It was contaminated with HIV. She and her family were virtually hounded out of Australia by the dreadful mix of stigma and discrimination. New Zealand took them in.

Having been bombed in my Merseyside home as a boy in World War II, I'd admired the brave diarist Anne Frank as a special heroine, hidden away in a suspicious and frightened community. Fifty years on here was another young girl, hunted, despised and pursued.

As there was no outfit to join, I had to start my own. Watching Eve as a young kid battling the media and her antagonists with her constant smile, selling her hugs at 50 cents apiece for the cause, I set up my own charity, The Australian AIDS Fund Incorporated, and embarked on the ride of my life, leading a double life, journo by day, AIDS carer and accommodation provider by night and in-between.

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About the Author

Brian Haill is a former ABC TV news chief of staff. He's the founder and current President of the Melbourne-based Catholic AIDS care charity - The Australian AIDS Fund Incorporated - which is cold-shouldered by the church because it rejects the church's anti-condom stance.

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