The other week, I set out to my local shops in pursuit of bread. It is relatively easy for one to perceive when I am in pursuit of something. I walk speedily, my head down, intent upon obtaining for myself the ardent wishes of my heart. So intent upon my quarry was I, that I almost ran straight through my local federal member of parliament, who casually attired in jeans and a corduroy jacket that made him look incongruously more like an upwardly mobile and ambitious social worker than a politician. Taken aback, he had just enough time to step backwards, out of the way of my momentous onslaught, thrust a pamphlet at me and say his name, as I sped by. Having reached my destination and divested the hot bread shop of its wares, I strolled casually past the café tables, which are invariably perpetually occupied by alternating groups of elderly Greeks and Italians, intensely debating the issues of the day, looking up from their coffees only to gesticulate at the few women of nubile to walk by. On that morning however, they were nowhere to be seen. Moments later, I came upon them, congregated around the member of parliament, fawning upon him, clutching at his hands and showering upon them, countless benedictions.
In my federal electorate, the sizeable but not in your face Greek community is organised around two churches, three Greek schools, two or three coffee shops, some obscure, insular, fractious and poorly attended regional organisation and an elderly citizens club. Years ago, some land was obtained from the local council in order to build a Greek community centre, near an Italian social club. The architecturally distinctive centre was built in a prime position but before it could be used, the community organisation under whose aegis this noble enterprise took place imploded under the weight of infighting and conflicts with other groups. As a result, the imposing edifice of hope was abandoned, its windows boarded up and it became, over the years a brooding hulk on a main road, a hollow and bleak reminder of what might have been. In its recently renovated form, it is now a vibrant childcare centre.
Consequently, save for the two aforementioned churches, the relatively well-to-do Greek community of my electorate, a community that has had a significant presence in the electorate from the fifties, has absolutely no other organisations, facilities or structures that would permit them to get together, identify with one another, relate to each other socially on a cross generational basis, or formalise any methods of joint action and mutual assistance.
Such a state of affairs, penultimate to total community assimilation, is parlous to say the least. A generation of young Greek-Australians has grown up in an area populated by people sharing the same background, with whom they have had limited contact. They have not been socialised in any way within a ‘Greek-Australian’ community since one does not exist in that region and thus, have limited means of relating to any such concept, when the first generation laments the dearth of latter generation participation in what they term to be “community affairs.”
In effect, we are now paying the price for our inability to supersede previous generations’ tendencies to organise themselves on the basis of village and regional affiliations and other narrow interest groups. Such groups may have been relevant in the past in so far as they provided both solace and a buffer from a strange new society but, having far outlived their use-by date as sole poles of representing the needs of the organised Greek community, have led both to our stagnation and irrelevance within the wider sphere.
Locally based Greek community groups, which are organised according to locality will, in conjunction with local churches, (that appear lately, though under-resourced to be bearing the brunt of dealing with emerging and unanticipated social and material problems pertaining to Greek-Australians living in their parishes) provide Greek-Australian families with the means to relate to each other once more. Adults and children alike can share experiences, forge bonds, assist each other and ensure that in the process, certain core values of identity and tradition are passed down the generations. After all, tradition is something that is not only passed down but lived. And how can one live it, adapt it and protect it, if one has no one to share it with? How are we to combat increased social isolation unless we foster links with each other that have been sundered due to the capacity for the first generation to fragment and quarrel about everything?
Owing to the fact that such proposed groups would be locally based, they would, as representatives of a resident Greek-Australian rate-paying and voting population, also be best placed, as a critical mass, to acquire certain privileges from municipal and government authorities. The opinions of members of such communities could for example, carry extra weight in determining the quota and quality of Greek language books to be purchased for local libraries. They could secure funding for Greek festivals, support for the creation of necessary institutions such as childcare and aged care facilities, social and recreational facilities across the generations in a way that no obscure regional club, boasting at the most 500 non-financial members, ever could. They could also mobilise the resident Greek community to support Greek-Australian candidates in municipal elections. The sole Greek-Australian councillor in the municipality has achieved electoral success in spite of, rather than as a result of, the indifferent local Greek residents.
It would be interesting to elucidate whether any of the fawners upon our local MP the other say know about his excellent relations with the FYROMIAN community and his rumoured support for their cause, even though that community is barely represented as a demographic in his electorate. Even if we pretend for a moment that they do really care about issues pertaining to Greek-Australians more than just obtaining kudos among their friends for speaking to a Member of Parliament who can barely comprehend their broken English, what could they do to alter his stance? He would be able to fob them off, as he did, with a smile and a hearty handshake. A visit to his office by the local priests, and representatives of a community organisation representing over 20,000 voters later, would be most efficacious in wiping off charismatic smiles and compelling members of parliament to grapple with issues that concern a large sliver of the electoral community. But at this stage, no structure exists whereby local Greek-Australians can be informed about the stances of their members of parliament, debate the consequences and come up with their own positions and demands. Think of how such local groups could have so much more effectively lobbied MP's in light of the imminent election on the issue of Greek in the national curriculum.
If we are to remain relevant in this country, we can no longer afford as a community to shy from engaging in its processes. We cannot hide away in our sinking regional organisations, bandy together for a quick jaunt to Canberra in order to seek lipservice support for a few remote Greek ‘national’ issues. Our survival depends on achieving a critical mass in the areas in which we live and to engage in our political system in order to provide for our real needs if we are to continue to identify as Greeks: education, childcare, recreation, social and welfare facilities. Leaving aside irrelevant regional community ‘leaders’ to preen themselves among their ever-diminishing bands of followers, we need to tap into our grass roots. Another election is looming in which we have once more failed to secure the promises we need from our politicians owing to the anarchic state of our antipodean manifestation. In short, we need to learn how to become a community again.