Monday, September 12, 2005


In his most excellent recent book, “From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000” which shall soon be the subject of a diatribe in its own right, LaTrobe University Philosophy Lecturer George Vassilacopoulos postulates that despite the veneer of formal equality characterizing race relations in this country, there lurks within the substratum, a fundamental concept of the ‘perpetual foreigner.’ Whereas Australian law is founded upon respect for proprietary rights and the individual, when it comes to foreigners’ these tend to be lumped together as a ‘group’ by those who obtain legitimisation of their rule and presence in this country by conferring upon such foreigners, citizenship and residency rights. Nonetheless, these foreigners are not automatically subsumed into the liberal democratic individualist paradigm. They remain a distinct ‘group,’ which is expected to provide appropriate declarations and exhibitions of loyalty to the ruling culture, or face the fear of being labelled suspect.
Vassilacopoulos points to various examples of such an attitude being applied to the early pre-Second World War Greek community. He points to Greek newspapers being closely monitored by ASIO, Greek-Australian citizens being compensated as foreign nationals in various race riots and Greeks being interned as politically suspect in camps prior to Greece’s entry into the First World War on the side of the Allies, regardless of their citizenship status. Vassilacopoulos especially points to the speech of the Lord Mayor of Melbourne at the opening of the first Greek Orthodox Church in Melbourne as exemplifying the official attitude towards ‘foreigners.’. The Lord Mayor in that instance praised the Greek community not for establishing itself under difficult circumstances or retaining their culture but for being among the most hard-working and law-abiding, proving that they are a trustworthy, loyal and obedient ‘group.’
Despite the advent of multiculturalism which attempted to alter the paradigm of Australian society as Anglo-Celtic ruled but tolerant of other foreign groups, to a mosaic or melting pot depending upon various interpretations, the archetypal model seems to have remained the same. Try as they might, ethnic communities and especially the left-leaning among them have not ever been able to be accepted either in the popular consciousness or the ruling classes as ‘Australians.’ Instead, they have been constantly called upon to prove their loyalist credentials at every turn. The rumoured purge of Greek members of the Labor Party, the insistence that the A-League, with all of its positive connotations be cleansed of ‘ethnic content’ and that ‘ethnic soccer’ be confined to the community ghetto are instances of this. Of all ‘foreign’ communities, our community has been relatively lucky in its acclimatization. We are white, European (though in pre-War literature we were classified as semi-white, pure whiteness being attributable only to the Nordic races), Christian and our culture forms to some extent, the basis of Anglo-Saxon ruling practices. As such, it has been easier for us to gain some type of acceptance than other communities. Nonetheless, after one hundred or so years of a sizeable presence in this country, we feel still feel compelled to carry the Australian flag to the Shrine of Remembrance every 25th March, to commemorate an event that has absolutely nothing to do with Australia but everything to do with our emergence as a people, in order to satisfy the Shrine Trustees and Australian society in general that despite our insistence on wearing funny clothes, speaking a funny lingo and carrying un-Australian flags, we still really are loyal Australians.
Nonetheless, while Commissioner Ferry of Queensland recommended that all Greeks be banned from migrating to Queensland in 1925, incidences of blatant disapprobation of Greek culture have been few, especially considering that Greeks have by and large assimilated to Anglo-Saxon culture and their threatening to Australian mores expressions of their own culture, are heavily regulated by the Corporations Law, the Incorporated Associations Act and various Local Council regulatons. The same cannot be said of the Asian community however. Recent comments by former NSW liberal leader John Brogden to the effect that former NSW Premier Bob Carr's wife, of Asian extraction is a ‘mail order bride’ indicate that certain perceptions remain unchanged from the fundament to the firmament. Older readers of course would remember that certain of John Howard’s arguments in the immigration debate of the eighties mirrored some of those made by Pauline Hanson decades later. While political expediency may serve to discourage attention from public perceptions, they remain to fester and at the correct moment, emerge triumphant.
Muslim Australians more than any other ‘group’ could be inserted into Vassilacopoulos’ equation to great effect. Despite the fact that the Muslim presence in Australia is also a century in duration, they too have remained, just like us, a group of foreigners.’ Proof of this is a recent visit by Prime Minister John Howard to the King Khalid Islamic school. Sitting down next to a hijab-clad teacher, he asked for her name and after attempting to roll his tongue around the strange-sounding Arabic syllables, followed this up by asking her: “How long have you been here?” The teacher, startled, responded: “I was born here.” The inferences to be drawn are simple. By her dress alone, this young woman is earmarked by the leader of Australia as a foreigner. Media footage then turned to young students dressed in various Middle Eastern costumes singing the Australian national anthem and then ridiculously enough, “We're happy little Vegemites.” Again the message is clear. These students are displayed as ‘good’ because despite their funny clothes and funny backgrounds, they have provided the public with the requisite affirmations of loyalty. Those who do not are automatically branded as suspect. As Federal Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson recently put it, we need to teach our kids ‘Australian’ values and anyone who does not agree with these should clear out. And for those of you who may scoff and consider such words as mere bluster, you would do well to remember the internment camps in which our predecessors were compelled to sojourn owing to their ‘suspect’ status and that methods of internment for various other undesirable groups, whether these be in the form of refugee detention centres or legislation permitting the incarceration of those suspected of terrorist activities are in place, though this arguably may have justification.
In some ways, it is to be expected that a British-derived society based as it was on class and exclusion would retain some vestige of prejudice towards ‘outsiders,’ whatever their origin or gender. On the whole, despite these petty prejudices, Australian behaviour and policies towards migrants, especially after the advent of multiculturalism have been of the most benign and helpful to be found in the entire world. It is thus reprehensible that as a society we should find ourselves unable to mature to the pace of the policies our leaders set and that in moments of insecurity, retrogression follows.
It is also reprehensible that a member of Parliament of Greek background, Ms Sophie Panopoulos should publicly call for the banning of the wearing of the hijab in public schools by Muslim girls, deeming it an act of defiance. Sophie would do well to remember that she too is a member of a minority group and that her current position on the echelons of power does not wipe away her adherence to it. There were also Greek representatives in the Ottoman Parliament for instance and in those heinous days of racial and nationalistic upheaval, when push came to shove, they were dealt with not as Ottoman MPs but as Greeks. As Greek-Australians, Greeks or however else we see ourselves and are seen by others it is important for the future development of a cohesive Australia, untrammelled by fears and insecurities brought about by cultural differentiation and the survival of our own community, that we actively advocate freedom of cultural expression for all minorities. It is but a short step from banning the wearing of the hijab as an expression of rebellion to banning the 25th March parade or the wearing of the foustanella as an equally un-Australian, rebellious act. We should definitely shy away from attempting to bolster our position and crave legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture by pandering to their insecurities and advocating the diminution of freedoms from other ‘less desirable ‘groups.’
If anything positive derives from the present manifestations of a threatened society drawing in the shroud of liberalism within it, it is that it reveals bare, despite the rhetoric of the past few decades and our own struthocamilic illusions, exactly who we are and what our place is in Australian society. It proves that our continuous pandering to politicians and political parties alike and our complacent pride in our ‘boys’ occupying positions of power is perhaps, a little misplaced. Ultimately, given that we alone are solely responsible for the survival of our cultural identity, it is incumbent upon us to seek broader and more cohesive relations with our other migrant communities. Together, we do not have to ‘prove’ our loyalty to any dominant culture but by example, demand the respect and loyalty from the society we have contributed to for so long and which as Australians of various extraction, we richly deserve.

First published in NKEE on 12 September 2005