One of the most enduring self-myths we have created of our community is that of the value of the political influence we yield. It is often the case that in conversation, Greek-Australians will count the number of state and federal politicians of Greek origin on their fingers and talk about how we 'dominate' parliament while at the same time lament that 'our boys' do not 'do more for the Greek community.'
Like all myths, this one has some basis in fact. One of the most important aspects of Greek-Australian history is our community's aptitude for political organization. The mass migration of the sixties and seventies saw Greeks land on our shores who had experienced terrible political conditions in their homeland. They were ideologically energized and determined for the most part, to fight against social and economic injustice and ensure that conditions of the type they left behind would never arise in their new homes. The history of the Greek people in Australia is thus intertwined with the history of the Australian union movement. Most of the first generation Greek migrants found themselves transformed from peasants to members of the proletariat and assumed their new class-role with gusto. As union representatives Greeks played and to the extent that they are still able, play an active role in campaigning for the improvement of working conditions.
If one is permitted a stereotype, it would be safe to say that the Greek people's obsession with public life and improving society also caused them to enter and concern themselves with mainstream politics in a volume of participation unprecedented by any other ethnic minority in this country. From the outset, this participation embraced the entire political spectrum, with Alfred Kouris campaigning for a seat as a Liberal representative and others flocking to the long since defunct Australian Communist Party. By far the greatest level of Greek participation in the political life of this country however, will have to have been effected via the Labor Party. From the outset, this party was seen variably as 'our' party, the 'worker's' party, the 'migrant's' party, or as one recent arrival told me not so long ago, the 'wogs'' party. This is because it was in the policies of that party that the majority of Greeks saw the potential for their ideologies of equality, democracy and social welfare to come into fruition. They, along with their other 'ethnic' counterparts also made a lasting contribution to the formation of a new policy and ultimately, a new way of life: multiculturalism and campaigned hard both for the election of the Whitlam government as well as the Hawke government two decades ago.
It could be said that it was in the womb of political participation that the Greek community was re-born as a Greek-Australian community, though not without some enduring labour pains. Twenty years ago, our community was much more divided along ideological lines that it is today and there were not a few Greeks who involved themselves in "τα κοινά" that were taken to task for supposedly putting political considerations above the interests of the Greek community or the 'Greek National Interest.' Historians' archives are full of examples of these and so are the still bitter conversations of the more ancient among the first generation.
Despite any differences of ideology, the Greek community as a whole was and is justifiably proud of its members of Parliament, though it often harbours unrealistic expectations of them. It sees them as a supreme symbol of their own acculturation - that finally, after an agonizingly slow process of societal change, the presence of members of Parliament of Greek origin lends us all some type of legitimacy as natural and valued members of Australian society. I mean if you're letting us run the show, it's gotta mean that we are on the same side right?
Against this background the recent developments within the state Labor Party are bewildering, especially to those in our community who are intimately acquainted with its affairs. It appears that Labor MP's of Greek origin along with branch members and other assorted functionaries have been enmeshed in the throes of a veritable 'civil war' between the Labor left and right factions. The recent smear campaign against Theo Theophanous MP and others, as well as the disparaging comments made by Labor personalities about the function of branches that have a significant Greek membership have gravely disquieted Greek Labor supporters.
Further, though some party old-hands may attempt to dismiss this phenomenon as shrapnel of age-old recurring strife, others are not so sure. Just when they were made to believe that they had truly been accepted as both legitimate members of Australian society and the Labor Party, the recent bout of strife has left them scratching their heads. All of a sudden, many feel that they are no longer seen as comrades, fellow party members and espousers of Labor ideals. Instead, they feel that they have been lumped together and seen as something 'foreign,' as Greeks. Understandably, many feel betrayed.
It is common knowledge that some within the Party have over the years expressed resentment over the 'domination' by Greeks of prized Labor Party positions. The shift from comradeship to mere utilization for votes is also exemplified by the cynical bipartisan pre-selection of Greek-origin candidates to oppose other Greek-origin candidates. Now our whole existence within the Party is openly questioned. How the mighty, or rather complacent have fallen. We have gone from being comrades, to vote-fodder, to suppositories in line to be purged when the bottom falls out of the Party, in the minds of a twisted but vocal few.
I must confess that my mind is taxed to find a logical reason for the recent outpouring of vitriol against the 'Greeks' of the Labor Party. I shudder to think that this could be a mere manifestation of racism towards a community that has served it so well and so selflessly. What the Labor Party needs to realize is that the Greek members of the Labor Party do not pose a threat of any type to it or Australia. There is no secret plot of world domination being hatched between them, nor do they serve the interests of a Greek community so fragmented that it would be impossible to discern one mutually agreed interest within it. By and large they are elected to seats not on the basis of the support of the Greek community who is by now too dispersed to possess any effective electoral power. Nor do they instinctively attempt to bring 'ethnic' issues or exercise favouritism towards their compatriots, as Minister John Pandazopoulos found out when sectors of the Greek community had the temerity to label him a 'traitor' and 'liar' over the way they believed he handled aspects of the 'Macedonian' issue and as Theo Theophanous also found out when he was booed by his compatriots at one of the Greek community's 'Macedonian' protests. In short, 'our' pollies are Australian or Victorian politicians who though they may bring a 'migrant' perspective to certain issues, do so as a representative cross-section of the wider community and serve only the interests of the integrated whole.
What is said to be going on in the latest bout of Labor factional strife sends a clear message to the Greek community of Australia that it cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to its position within the wider Australian society. After all, there were Greek representatives in the Ottoman Parliament as well and memories, especially in politics are extremely short. We need to continue to provide moral support to all of the politicians that sprang from the loins of our community regardless of their political persuasion for as long as they, by their conscientious service to Australia, serve as an example of our integration within its society and that we see our interests to lie therein. For how long and how many times will we have to be called up to prove this however? Ultimately, our community's survival is linked to our successful interaction with all facets of Australian life. The recent antics of certain members of the Labor Party teach us that it is suicidal to place all of one's eggs in one basket. This is more to Labor's detriment than that of an astute Greek community.
Finally, it is hoped that the Labor Party will not abandon its Greek members or see them not as comrades but ethnics because to do so would not only constitute a smear upon its own history but the values it purports to espouse as well. Hopefully, these are but the growing pains of a Party in labouriously re-assessing itself. Despite the increasing diversity of the Greek community and its relative affluence, despite the gradual sacrifice of the ideology the first generation fought for to political expediency, there will always exist a large proportion of the Greek community, myself amidst it who will always view the Labor Party with sympathy and gratitude for its role in facilitating our integration and acceptance without demanding assimilation. How that view will change over time though, is directly dependent on that Party's view and its treatment of one of its more faithful cohort of foot-soldiers.
First published in NKEE on 6 June 2005