“Morn, golden rob’d had earth illum’d, when Jove convened in Council all the powers above, and on Olympus’ many mountain’d crest, th’ attentive synod of the Gods addrest” Homer, The Iliad.
When one reads Homer, the impression gained of Greek conciliar activities, is of benign and sagely deities sitting with Zeus upon a golden floor and deliberating while Hebe went round pouring out nectar for them to drink. That councils are important to ancient Greek society can be evidenced by the fact that its primary chronicles refer to them constantly. In Book IV of the Iliad, for example, the word “council” appears some fourteen times, thus: “And I say again to you of the council: you are many and the wooers are few: Why then do you not put them away from the house of Odysseus?”
The underlying ideology behind the institution of councils seems to have been the belief that people generally act in their own self-interest and require the intervention of third parties in order to compel them to consider the interests of others. Thus ancient Sparta not only had two kings, but also a council of elders, the γερουσία, specifically appointed to watch over them. It is possibly not without coincidence that this term is used in Greek-Australia, to refer to the first generation that presides over most of our community institutions. The Athenians too had their own councils: in pre-classical times, there was the Areopagus, which gradually morphed into a high court of appeal subsequent to the reforms of Ephialtes and the Ecclesia, responsible for declaring war, military strategy, and electing officials. The Pytaneis, who presided as foremen of the ancient Boule or assembly, were as Aristotle tells us in his Politics, influential enough to become tyrants.
The word tyrant, is not Greek. It survives down the ages as a word employed by the aboriginal inhabitants of Greece to denote a sole ruler and even appears as “Seren’ to describe the kings of the Philistines, who archaeologists consider to have migrated to Canaan from Greece. It appears then that the Greek perennial struggle with sole rulers or people abrogating for themselves the right to determine the future of others stems not just from any ‘innate’ dislike of domination particular to the Greek ‘people,’ but rather, a primeval reaction to the social and governmental structures of the original inhabitants of the region. Tyrannies and Kings co-existed and even survived conciliar democracies, but all throughout, conciliar government was considered ideal and tyrannies, the governmental institution of the barbarous proto-Greeks, somehow barbaric. In Epirus, on the frontier of ancient Greek civilisation, the traditional Homeric style kingship that existed for centuries was done away with and a federal republic set up in 231 BC. It would not be an exaggeration to postulate then, that the perceived Greek tall poppy syndrome actually derives from a foreign people’s need to legitmise their hold over a conquered region that originally did not belong to them.
The history of the Greek people’s organised presence in this country could be viewed through the prism of a conflict between conciliar organsiations (ie. brotherhoods, community associations and clubs) and the Church, which though comprised of parish and laity councils, is widely seen to preserve a hierarchical structure, regardless of the fact that the Orthodox Church is conciliar in relation to its formulation of doctrine and governance.
Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou point out in their study: “From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000,” that the manner in which Greek-Australian organisations are instituted and governed conforms to British–Australian legal concepts that in turn are designed to legitimise the ruling group’s dominance of a country and ethnic groups not their own. Given this, the recent stoush between the president of the Council of Greeks Abroad (SAE), Mr George Angelopoulos and the Australian Council Representative Nikos Lalopoulos assumes some significance.
The Australian Hellenic Council is comprised of community organisations around Australia. Its aim is to form a Greek lobby of sufficient strength in order to enable it to influence government policy on various issues pertaining to Greek-Australians. Thus, in the past, it has lobbied the government on domestic issues such as Greek pension rights, taken a stance on the naming of the Slavonic idiom that is the official language of Greece’s northern neighbour and has also taken a stand on the so-called “ethnika themata,” or national issues, seeking affirmation of a commitment by the Australian government to a just solution to the Cyprus problem. I have attended the annual meetings in Canberra, whereby the representatives of the AHC’s constituent organisations firstly meet to work out the positions they will present to parliamentarians (this traditionally involving heated arguments by various representatives of Cypriot organisations who historically could not agree on a stance for Cyprus), and then split off into groups that make presentations to politicians in Federal Parliament.
The Council of Greeks Abroad on the other hand is comprised of Federations of Greek community groups. Its aim is to be a consultative body to the Greek government on issues pertaining to Greeks living outside Greece, including pensions and ‘ethnika themata.’ I have attended conferences of the Council of Greeks Abroad on numerous occasions and recognise the potential of such a far-reaching in scope entity. However, I am yet to see how successive governments’ undertakings that any submissions made to it by SAE will be replied to within a few months lend that body any true consultative power.
Matters came to a head between these organisations when the AHC decided to exclude SAE representation from the second day of its annual Canberrian deliberations. This prompted a letter by SAE president George Angelopoulos to the Greek edition of this publication, in which he outlined what he saw to be negative characteristics of the AHC. In particular, he opined that the AHC seems to be comprised of individuals rather than of organisations and was thus not truly representative of the Greek-Australian community.
Both the AHC and SAE are based upon the premise that community organisations are the best institutions to represent the interests of the community. However, it is questionable whether in this day and age, organisations based on which region of Greece one comes from, with a declining membership based mostly on the first generation can validly claim they represent the community. Important factors such as gender, sexuality, career orientation, education, socio-economic position, political beliefs and cultural interests which are increasingly diverse among Greek-Australians are certainly not adequately addressed by such parochial organisations. Furthermore, the vast majority of the community is either un-affiliated to or do not take part in the activities of such organisations.
It is rare for representatives of community organisations who participate in the activities of SAE or the AHC to have received a mandate by their membership for the promotion of certain policies. These seem to be determined on an ad hoc basis by the representatives themselves, in deliberations with their counterparts. Further, such positions as are determined are narrow in scope and with some notable exceptions, we seem at a loss as to how to promote them within the mainstream effectively and as a united front. Instead, individuals who have “connections” seem to be the driving force of our communal efforts.
Considering that our community structure is archaic and conservative, it remains to be seen whether other, more representative conciliar bodies will evolve to represent our interests in the future. For the moment, we must do with what we have and urge all such bodies to work harmoniously and take efforts to go out to the people, isten to them, ascertain their needs and consult with them. What is noteworthy, however, given our innate conciliarity, stemming from the fact that in a community that was socially level ab initio, everyone feels that their opinion is important and should be taken into account in decision making processes, is the fact that Greek-Australians lament the absence of a charismatic ‘leader’ who will lead the Greeks out of the wilderness of impotence and assimilation, and into the promised land of continuity and dynamism. Our longing for a Hellenic messiah while our ageing consiglieri contemporaneously seek to cull the tall poppies that emerge within our conciliar organisations proves that the primeval reconciliation between tyrant and tyrannicide has not yet taken place.
Grantland Rice once opined that: “All wars are planned by old men in rooms apart.” At this stage of our community development, we cannot afford any further internecine strife. Diatribe leaves you this week with the following chilling observation on conciliarity by the arch-tyrant himself, Hitler: “There must be no majority decisions, but only responsible persons, and the word ‘council’ must be restored to its original meaning. Surely every man will have advisers by his side, but the decision will be made by one man.”