At what will most possibly be the last ever function to be held at the Greek Orthodox Community HQ in its present form, the Immigration Minister Chris Bowen quipped that: 'Multiculturalism is like a marriage: you have to remind each other how good it is." He did so in the context of announcing that the Australian government was negotiating a deal with the Greek government, in which it is envisaged that 500 young Greeks will be granted working holiday visas. As a prelude to reminding the sundry representatives of Greek community organisations present just "how good it is," the Minister also took great pains to lavish praise upon the Greek community in the most artful and inspired manner possible - rather than appealing to our innate sense of fashion and style, our invention of democracy, theatre, philosophy and all other things beneficial to mankind, he dexterously caressed those erogenous zones of the collective Greek ego calculated to be stimulated to full effect, by alluding to our ubiquity, in his department as well as in broader Australian society in general. His velvet tongued delivery was met with rapture, as well as professions of everlasting and unceasing loyalty and gratitude to the Labour Party by certain members of audience, for the blessings they have conferred upon us, since our arrival within their sphere of jurisdiction - one which, according to the homage payers, is a fruit of their own vision.
In her prefatory remarks, Consul-General of Greece in Melbourne Eleni Lianidou was anything but velvet tongued. In anything but diplomatic tones, she bluntly and succinctly reminded the Minister and those present of some pertinent facts: that the Greek people are noble and dignified people who do not abuse the privileges that are granted to them, that Greek holders of holiday working visas would be of benefit to Australia, especially considering that the Greeks are one of the most highly educated peoples in Europe and that the Greek community present in Australia is proof of the manner in which Greek people make lasting contributions to the countries that welcome them. In the midst of the current economic crisis blighting Greece and the ensuing negative media coverage of all things Greek, this stirring speech was a breath of fresh air, with its rousing argument that instead of pity, the Greek people deserve respect because they will, through their own ingenuity and stoicism, slowly work their way out of the quagmire in which they are foundering, themselves. Minister Chris Bowen could only agree.
As I observed the Minister, the Consul-General, and the also in attendance Greek-Australian Federal and State Members of Parliament, inform, discuss and confide in the transfixed audience, I felt that surreptitiously adopting the Minister's choice epigrams for ourselves, that it is the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria is like a marriage, in which it is incumbent upon us to remind each other of its virtues. From the stagnating in the pool of its own internecine bile, alienated, riven by factions, fragmented and marginalized, peripheral,self-serving organization it had become, under its current administration, comprised largely of bilingual, second generation Greek-Australians, it has placed itself at the forefront of Greek community activism and life in general. And it is obtaining results, building a momentum of events, ranging from informative talks by visiting luminaries to, of course, the crowning achievement, the soon to be commenced construction of the much needed new Cultural Centre.
This is no moreso evident than in the fact that the Federal Government's volte face from an earlier stated position that it was not considering offering working holiday visas to Greek nationals, comes largely as a consequence of the fervent mobilization of the Greek Community of all its resources in order to effectively lobby for the desired outcome. Here mobilization is the key word - for there is none of the amateurish, self-appointment, mutual exclusivism and desire only to take photos with politicians in order to prove and justify one's pretentions to pontificate that historically characterizes other groups that take it upon themselves to 'represent' the combined interests of the Greeks of Australia. On the contrary, the GOCMV's function hosting the Immigration Minister, provided a valuable insight into a dynamic cross section of the critical mass of the Greek community, comprised of Greek-Australian politicians and local counsellors who work tirelessly behind the scenes, providing sage advice and guidance through the pitfalls on the paths of power, academics and educators, businesspeople and leaders of community organisations.
In short, the GOCMV is positioning itself like a wise arachnid in the centre of a web that radiates throughout the complex form of the community, in order to catch and utilize the talent of all those who can further the interests of Greek-Australians, living up to the connotations of centrality contained within its usual Greek appellation of «Κεντρική Κοινότητα.» Viewed in this context, not only the change itself, but the fact that the Minister condescended to attend a meeting organized by the GOCMV in order to explain the proposed changes to migration policy to the Greek community represents a triumph of the inclusivist and co-operative spirit that permeates that organization of late. Had this fortuitous event taken place in the past, and had it been occasioned by another community organization, chances are that it would have taken place behind closed doors, with functionaries jealously keeping the kudos and the photo opportunities to themselves.
What was also refreshing about the meeting was that amidst the profusion of thanksgivings showered upon the Minister, the inquiring and uncompromisingly independent Greek-Australian mind was not slow to emerge. Educator John Milides was quick to challenge the Minister on utilitarian approaches to language acquisition, rather than fostering multiculturalism through the enhanced teaching of community languages. This in turn provoked lively debate, with the member of Caldwell Maria Vamvakinou pointing out that as a community, we need to reassess approaches to Greek language teaching that have as a sole reference point, the need to preserve a Greek identity. As she presciently pointed out, what is understood as comprising a Greek identity is, with each coming generation, of less relevance to Australian-born offspring. Instead, thought should be given to the fact that for at least the next two decades, as the tail end of the first generation ages, there will be a great need for Greek speakers in the health, aged care and related sectors and that vocational training would have to include language instruction. This certainly provides food for thought and it is a mark of a community that is mature and comfortable with both aspects of its composite Greek and Australian identity, that this debate, one of soul-searching policy and direction could be played out unselfconsciously before the Minister, as a member of our extended family.
It is now incumbent upon the Greek government to conclude the negotiations with its Australian counterpart with regard to the working holiday visa. Whatever the outcome, it owes a debt of gratitude to the board of the GOCMV and its enlightened president, Bill Papastergiadis for their passion and prescience in insisting on an accommodation on the visas and uniting the community in pursuing this through the appropriate channels. As the Minister was at pains to point out, the proposed arrangement is beneficial to both countries and the key ambassadorial role in coming to such a observations can undoubtedly be attributed to our community, coalescing its resources around a central pole. Hubert Humphrey may have postulated that "the right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously," but it was Napoleon who posited that "ten people who speak make more noise than ten thousand who are silent." Either way, perhaps the best advice on girding ones loins and preparing to do battle is provided in the Art of War by Sun Tzu: " Those who do not know the lay of the land cannot maneuver their forces. Those who do not use local guides cannot take advantage of the ground." These days, our ground seems more solid than ever.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 13 October 2012