Monday, June 27, 2005


Copyright Peter Nicholson
If there is any proof that Greek-Australian politicians are selfless, totally committed to the welfare of their country and their constituents and definitely not trammeled by the demands, opinions and needs of the Greek community, then that proof would most assuredly be personified in the form of the Federal Member for Kooyong, Mr. Petro Georgiou.
In keeping with the traditional Greek custom of sticking to one's opinions and defending them to the hilt, though in the case of Aristeides, another principled Greek politician this brought about his ostracism, Petro Georgiou is defying self interest and the injunctions of many of his party members in order to take a principled stand for what he believes in. In a world in which government is increasingly losing its transparency and accountability, where legislation can run roughshod over its citizen's rights or expectations and it is increasingly difficult to take it to task or criticize it without fear of reprisal, there is something particularly Greek in having a member of the ruling party stand up, admonish his own government over its policy of mandatory detainment of illegal entrants into Australia and demand reform. Such is the strength of his conviction, so pure and selfless is his concern for inmates of the various detention centres that he has also been able to sway the opinion of many of his colleagues, causing an unprecedented crisis within the Liberal Party. Here then is an MP whose career is not about power, either obtaining or keeping it but about serving people and we are all grateful in this cynical age that such people still exist.
Democracy is not just about allowing people to speak their minds. It is a system whereby any person can speak their mind but also demand and be given the opportunity to hold a government or group of people that effectively exercise considerable sway over their life, accountable. In Democracy, no one is immune from criticism or accountability and its key feature is respect, not lip-service for the opinions of citizens. In his monumental book 'Europe,' Norman Davies points out that western parliamentary democracy may not have its roots in ancient Greece but rather in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon witangemots, the councils of nobles formed to assist the King to rule. It is a form of government that while it relies on the goodwill of ordinary people to retain its position, effectively is granted carte blanche to determine policy. In the case of the government's mandatory detention policy, this means that such policies can be retained even in the face of immense public opposition, until election time. Petro Georgiou's stance could be attributed to a different perspective on how democracy should operate and if so it is timely given the way that the government has sought to steer attention away from what appear to be the flagrant extremes that their policy can lead them to, including the incarceration of Australian citizens, possibly even after it is suspected that they are unjustly imprisoned.
Or maybe again not. It is well-established liberal tradition that any member can take a vote of conscience on issues. This is exactly what Petro Georgiou was attempting to do with his private member’s bills. Viewed from the perspective, Petro Georgiou appears to be a staunch upholder of traditional liberal principles and is certainly not a “political terrorist”, as he was called by colleague Sophie Panopoulos. Indeed, it appears that from this viewpoint, any liberal who disputes the right of another to take a stand on an issue of confidence, is in fact undermining not only that tradition but also democracy itself. One feels sad that a Greek-Australian politician feels the need to launch such a vitriolic and misguided attack on a colleague, also a Greek-Australian and a member of her own party. One hopes that she did not do so out of a need to 'prove her place and loyalty' within her party by attacking a 'fellow-Greek' though it is increasingly becoming apparent that there exists within parliament and both parties, some type of anti-Greek bias and the policy of setting one 'Greek' up against another is not without precedent in Australian politics. While Sophie Panopoulos' political convictions may cause her to be satisfied at the government's policy of locking up women and children indefinitely, she should respect her more senior colleague's right to take a public stand on humanitarian issues, something which one would have thought, overrides and complements any petty party loyalties.
Petro Georgiou’s example should inspire respect in all of us, even though there are many who do not share his position on the issue of mandatory detention. Indeed, not a few first generation Greeks vehemently support the policy of mandatory detention even though many of these were illegal immigrants themselves and others, escapees from the 'detention centre prototype' of Bonegilla. Unfortunately, their support for the policy seems to hinge on the racial background of the detainees and one does wonder whether the same policy would have been applied if the majority of illegal entrants into Australia were White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I have on occasion, when pointing out to quite a few old Greek-Australians that they too were detained and hated it, been told: "That's different, we are άνθρωποι. What are they? We don't want them here." This type of attitude is contemptible as it is ridiculous.
Whatever our viewpoint on the issue, Petro Georgiou has done us proud. For through his principled stand he has in effect, re-asserted the traditional values of democracy that for some time now, have been eroded by globalism and the rightist reaction that accompanied the fall of communism and September 11. By standing up for the basic humanitarian principles that underlie our existence and compelling the Howard government to make some reforms to its mandatory detention policy, he effectively protects the borders of our democratic and free way of life from further reactionary incursions, reminding us who we are, and causing us to reassess who we want to be. We thank him, because he restores at least a small portion of the faith we have left in the Westminster system.
Aristeides was ostracized for his deep commitment to the welfare of Athens and Themistocles, the saviour of Athens was exiled for his pains. No matter what and the subsequent effect of this principled stand on Petro Georgiou's political career, we can all feel great pride in the fact that he has become a Cavafyesque hero, guarding the Thermopylae of humanity, all the while knowing that the Medes will most definitely come, for they will.

First published in NKEE on 27 June 2005