Australia hails courage of politician's declaration

LOCAL HEROES: No 23 Paul O'Grady
When he resigned suddenly as an MP in January, rumours about Paul O'Grady began flying. The 35-year-old Labor Party member of the New South Wales state parliament had achieved something of a celebrity status six years earlier when he publicly declared that he was a homosexual. Plenty of other prominent Australians have "come out": actors, writers, lawyers, academics and one of Sydney's most prominent rugby league stars, who did so recently on a popular television sports programme, The Footy Show.

But Mr O'Grady is the first Australian politician to declare that he is gay. Last week, he resurfaced after disappearing from public view for six months to confirm what the rumourmongers had been suggesting: he has Aids. He chose television to make his latest announcement, on a current affairs programme, Witness, hosted by Australia's biggest television personality, Jana Wendt.

There was no reporter, just Mr O'Grady and occasionally his mother, Val, speaking directly to camera.

The response was overwhelming. Mr O'Grady has been hailed for his courage in speaking out over his fight against HIV, which has infected 20,000 Australians since 1983, resulting in 4,700 deaths. As Bob Carr, the premier of New South Wales, and leader of the state's ruling Labor Party, told viewers: "Having a politician say, 'This is my life, HIV and Aids', is a reminder to everyone that a lot more of this is going to happen in our society."

Paul O'Grady grew up in the sprawling western suburbs of Sydney with politics in his blood. He was still under 30 when he won a seat as a left- wing candidate in the Legislative Council, the state's upper house, where political deals are fought over. It was in that chamber, and on the streets outside it, that Mr O'Grady fought another prominent MP, the Rev Fred Nile, leader of the anti-gay, pro-Christian, pro-family values Call to Australia Party.

Mr Nile has tried unsuccessfully to outlaw the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, an annual street carnival in which Mr O'Grady marches. "We want to restore Sydney as a clean city, morally and spiritually," he says.

It is not surprising, then, that Mr O'Grady sees his decisions to go public about both his sexuality and Aids as overtly political. He decided to leave parliamentary life, he says, because he was no longer well enough to stand up to its rigours. He felt that he should use his energies fighting not just his disease but also the ignorance and prejudice surrounding it.

His campaign goes beyond the gay community. Having seen many people die painfully from Aids and other fatal illnesses, Mr O'Grady believes strongly in voluntary euthanasia. Last year, he introduced a private member's bill to parliament to legalise such processes. It is unlikely to succeed. The Labor Party, in which Irish Catholic influences are strong, is against it.

Yet Mr O'Grady is far from a lone voice. In the Northern Territory, Australia's least populous region, the world's first law allowing voluntary euthanasia is due to come into force today. Politicians in the rest of Australia are up in arms about it, and Canberra is threatening to pass overriding legislation to nullify the territory's law.

Mr O'Grady's advocacy, from a deeply personal perspective, has got Australians discussing the law's pros and cons in a way that might not have happened otherwise. "I have never understood how lying in a hospital bed rotting away is dying with dignity," he says. "Life is about quality of life, and death should be a quality death."

The former MP looks more physically robust that he did when he quit parliament in January, the product of a lengthy holiday and, as he puts it, "fighting with mind over matter". Whenever his time comes, and whatever the law, he says that he has doctor friends "ready to help and guide me". How? "I hope, if I need to, that I can hold out my arm and have a little needle which takes me off quietly and peacefully after I've said my farewells. That's how I'd like to do it."

Robert Milliken