Post-war Migrant Protest and Ethnic Activism

Post-war Migrant Protest and Ethnic Activism
Fellowship Presentation with Alexandra Dellios
Fellowship presentation

Recording date: 
18 September 2019

‘Migrant rights’ was a familiar term in the 1960s and 1970s before the introduction of a state multicultural policy. At the forefront were groups within the Italian and Greek communities that worked with trade unions to lobby for better pathways to citizenship, housing, community services and workplace conditions. Dr Alexandra Dellios will be discussing the rich community memory of migrant rights activism.

Dr Alexandra Dellios is cultural historian in the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies and is a National Library of Australia Fellow.

Transcript

Fellowship Presentation Post-war migrant protest and ethnic activism with Alexandra Dellios

 

*Speakers: Nicky Mackay-Sim (N), Alexandra Dellios (A)

*Audience: (Au)

*Location: National Library of Australia

*Date: 18/9/2019

 

 

N:        Well I think we’ll kick off then. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Nicky Mackay-Sim and I’m the Senior Curator for the Pictures and Manuscripts Collections.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet this evening. I would like to pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, past, present and emerging.

Well thanks very much for coming along this evening. We always like welcoming back past fellows and summer scholars who perform important and often inspiring research work into the Library’s collections. Earlier this year we welcomed back Dr Ashley Barnwell as an NLA fellow who had also been a summer scholar with us back in 2014, I think it was.

Over the past 17 years the summer scholarship program has been offering PhD candidates and students an opportunity to spend six weeks researching material for their theses and so it is with great pleasure to host another of our past summer scholars this evening, Dr Alexandra Dellios, whom we first met – I think it was back in 2012.

At that time she was exploring how the migrant reception and training centre, Bonegilla, had been presented in public history and memory. Three years later in 2015 Alex was awarded her PhD in history at the University of Melbourne and two years later in 2017 her research was published in the book, Histories of Controversy, Bonegilla Migrant Centre.

Alex is now a cultural historian with the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies at ANU. Her research considers the history of migrant and refugee communities in Australia. She has published widely on child migration, popular representations of multiculturalism, immigration centres and hostels and public history and heritage in Australia.

Previously Alex gained first class honours at the University of Queensland, being awarded the University Medal for her outstanding work. She continues to work on Queensland-based oral history projects as well as community volunteering and heritage conservation projects.

Having been awarded an honorary National Library fellowship for 2019 Alex joined us in July this year. Since then she has been exploring the collection for discourses, centring around rights of self-described ethnic groups and seeking out evidence of the emergence more broadly of an ethno-consciousness in Australian political culture from the 1970s onwards and particularly the transition to multicultural settlement policy and ideology.

The Library is of course replete with collections to support Alex’s interests whether about individuals and campaigners on behalf of ethnic communities or of major representative organisations such as the Greek Welfare Society and the State Ethnic Communities Councils.

The manuscripts and oral histories held by the National Library of key figures like [Spiro Miratis] 3:37 and [Jerry Zabritzke] 3:37 as well as Barry York amongst others – he’s in the audience – tell the story of protest and activism in early multicultural Australia as well.

As we’ll hear tonight it is a story that has at times been one of official silence, particularly surrounding this transformative period of Australia’s history. Alex offers us a new lens with which to analyse the political deployment of governmental multiculturalism. Please join me in welcoming Alex Dellios tonight.

Applause

A:        Thank you. I too would firstly like to acknowledge that this lecture is being held on the traditional lands of the Ngunawal people and I pay my respects to both elders past and present.

So this is a fairly new research project for me and it’s still in its early stages. It was sparked as Nicky said by my initial research into some of the riots that occurred at Bonegilla Reception Centre in 1952 and 1961 and those were over unemployment and poor living conditions.

I must say I was also frustrated with the existing historiography and public discourse around multiculturalism that seems to me to give little credit to the actions of migrants themselves.

So I thought I’d open up with a series of statements about the history of multiculturalism. Some of these we’re quite familiar with, especially the first two, perhaps not the last one. They’re statements that privilege government foresight and government decision-making, that is, government taking the step ahead of public will to enact a multicultural policy.

Sometimes in some of these statements I think we forget the fight that occurred outside of Parliament and some of those key people and organisations involved. So multiculturalism is traditionally talked about from a top-down perspective as a set of policies concerned with the management and containment of diversity by nation states.

As I said this project endeavours to offer a contextualised approach to the personalities and groups I encounter and their actions - sorry, accounts of migrant activism and struggle in the ’60s and ‘70s. So obviously this involves a close consideration of not only national policies but local on the ground interactions in complex and rapidly evolving social settings.

I think we should also acknowledge that the descriptive and prescriptive of state multiculturalism has had a pervasive effect on how we discuss, study and think about our community histories today and how we conceptualise race relations in this country and how it may have limited the historical narratives that we tell.

Nicola Copoulos and [Vacilia] 6:53 Copoulos, philosophers based at La Trobe University have addressed this historical amnesia around migrant rights in their own work on Greek migrant activism in the ‘50s and the ‘60s in Melbourne in particular. But it’s important to note that the work of key activists and the groups I’ll be talking about extend beyond that period and most importantly that the material conditions of many migrant and ethnic minority groups, especially groups that arrived without the English language, that their conditions didn’t much improve in that time and certainly not by the 1970s as I’ll show, and particularly if we’re to look at issues like education and health which were still being hotly debated into the 1970s.

So I want to stress that my consideration of how these discourses of migrant workers’ rights and collective campaigning from ethnic minorities was subsumed or even erased by the policy and rhetoric of government-administered multiculturalism. I want to stress that this is not a new argument. As early as 1978 the sociologist, Jean Martin, in her work, The Migrant Presence, which is one of the first studies to consider institutional responses to the influx of migrants of – was then called non-Anglo Saxon origin but they reported – or she reported that some saw the promotion of cultural pluralism in ignorance of structural pluralism as diverting attention from the ethnic rights issue.

We do of course have the publications of activists themselves including most prominently George Zangalis’ epic volume which is a grassroots account of migrant activists and left wing politics.

More recently other scholars have stated that within the revised anglophone discursive framework of multiculturalism organised community life can become focused on the cultivation and enjoyment of ethnic difference to such an extent that the political question of the promotion of democratic community processes has become an incidental concern.

Marxist scholars in particular have argued that this can result in the gradual removal of the question of the fundamental nature of democratic citizenship from the political landscape of the ethnic communities in this multicultural era.

The same arguments have also been voiced by Andrew [Jekervovicz] 9:24, a Marxist sociologist, since the 1980s and he also argued that multiculturalism and I quote, was a liberalist conception designed to integrate migrant problems and ethnic issues as promoted by the bourgeois community leadership into a new political style to be institutionalised for the creation of ethnic affairs units based in state capitals. It allowed the political and bureaucratic leadership an ear to the group and it militated against mass organisation forms in favour of an elite ethnic community structure.

I think more historical work needs to be conducted on some of these statements about what multiculturalism did within the communities that I’m discussing so I wanted to access and assess this empirical detail in those arguments, focusing as I said on individual activists and community organisations, some of whose publications are held here at the National Library and that includes the Australian Greek Welfare Society and workers’ leagues like the Democritus League and the Atlas League, to name a few.

So I ended up focusing in less on actual incidences of protest as was implied in the title of this lecture and more on general activism around welfare and service provision. In the long run I hope this project will explore the strength of alternative community memories or the degree to which collective self-determination and the tradition of activism and protest around working rights and worker solidarity is a part of community memory and how it functions in a multicultural presence if it does at all.

So the ‘60s and the ‘70s obviously contained many more radical grassroots movements that challenged dominant assumptions about not just migrant and ethnic minority groups but also women, LGBTIQ peoples and of course indigenous Australians. In this context ethnic rights meant at the basic level the right to English language learning on the job as one of the main barriers to service provision and navigating Australian institutions, to ethnically relevant social services, to community language schools and to activist trade unions that would support migrant workers’ rights against exploitative employers and conservative Anglo union hierarchies.

As indicated Marxist sociologists have been at the forefront of some of these studies and they have argued that multiculturalism, when it was introduced by the government in the early or mid-1970s was about deflecting challenges to state authority in the face of these migrant rights activisms, allocating financial support on a needs basis and through competitive schemes therefore confining struggles to demands for a greater share of existing – for social services budget and fragmenting the movement and in many ways pitting groups against each other.

So while multiculturalism obviously has continued to develop and continued to develop from the 1980s onwards with some but mostly decreasing reference to access and equity issues increasing hostility to refugee arrivals has in some ways hijacked this public debate around multiculturalism, especially the early 2000s. So that is the seemingly bipartisan policy of multiculturalism, not only as a settlement philosophy but now as an identity marker. It’s pretty much divorced from any discussion around government actions at the border and the reception to or hospitality granted to new arrivals and humanitarian entrants, especially those from non-European countries. Previously these issues for migrant activists at least were at once very closely connected. Now the privilege of multiculturalism is something we reserve for those who have rights and not for those to whom we deny rights.

So as I’ve said most of the authors that I’ve cited adopt a Marxist perspective on this question of what multiculturalism did to the migrant rights activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s so it ultimately depicts the introduction of state multiculturalism as ensuring an interest determined relationship so ethnicity within the community and multiculturalism in its capitalist state form. I think the welcome input of cultural studies scholars as well in later decades have helped us to move away from some of these static conceptions of identities within migrant communities of which sometimes Marxist scholars are guilty of ignoring and introduce more dynamic conceptions of race and ethnicity and I hope that I am capable of blending those two approaches.

I just wanted to mention how race and ethnicity is operating in the context that I am working with so discourses of race are obviously coded and historically contingent. The meanings and boundaries of race in Australia have changed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and while I’m focusing in this paper and in a lot of this research mainly on Greek migration and Greeks in post-war Australia, and while it must be said like all migrants to Australia they have arrived and continue to arrive on lands that were never ceded by indigenous peoples, it’s worth taking a moment to consider their shifting racial subjectivity in the period that I am considering, that is, the post-war era in which the white Australia policy was very much still in place.

Looking at a much earlier period, Andonis Piperoglou has argued in relation to Greek migrants living and working within the British empire that these Greeks were precariously classified as white but not white enough within the operations of race and labour that underpinned the power dynamics of settler colonialism.

In Australia this produced very inward-looking and isolated communities and in the case of the Greek communities dominated by a shopkeeper class and of course the Greek Orthodox Church. Many of these communities felt disengaged from mainstream politics and institutions well into the 1950s. New arrivals continued to encounter these structural disadvantages in a society that expected total assimilation to the ambiguously defined Australian way of life bound of course by English-speaking institutions.

[Snia Gamyav] 16:30 in her exploration of the colonial dimension to multiculturalisms in the UK, Canada and Australia has questioned whether new racism or culturalism with its focus on culture and its retreat from older scientific racism that developed from the late 18th century, whether these services to camouflage issues to do with unequal power relations. Her response has been to centre minority perspectives and to use minority perspectives to critique dominant discourses and practices associated with state multiculturalism. Ultimately, and as this project progresses, I’m hoping to unearth more grassroots version of this narrative around multiculturalism and one like [Gamyav] advocates that focuses on minority voices.

So the radical performance poet, [Py Oh] 17:31, who migrated from Greece as a small child and grew up in Fitzroy in Melbourne has obviously witnessed and written about the drastic change in the rhetoric around migrant rights and multiculturalism since the 1960s and the National Library hold copies of his underground poetry magazine, Nine to Five featured in the middle there which was called – sorry, subtitled Poetry for the Workers, By the Workers and About the Worker. I’m told it was distributed at factory gates and he sees this current narrative, the narrative around multiculturalism today as forsaking a focus on inequality in favour of promoting cultural consumption for what he calls trendies. I think it’s part of why he states that he hates ethnics which I interpreted as a statement about the institutionalisation and possible commercialisation of the migrant or the erasure of migrant history as a working class history.

I suppose the obvious question here is why did I choose to focus on the Greek community? As a quick run-through of the Greek community in post-war Australia which could really take up the whole lecture but I’ll just do this quickly, over 250,000 Greeks migrated to Australia from 1952 to 1974 alone. Of course these numbers don’t include Greek-speaking migrants from Egypt or Cyprus either or other parts of the world. Historians have attributed the Greek diaspora’s survival as separate and culturally distinct communities to their forced exclusion. The historian, Michael [Tsunis] 19:17, attributes this cultural gap, he says, to the language barrier, the Greek Orthodox religion which were both used of course as racial markers that othered this community from English-speaking and preferably Protestant conceptions of whiteness in Australia. Other factors such as low socioeconomic status, an unfamiliarity with laws and customs and inadequate access to institutional systems were of course important in determining the isolation of what [Tsunis] describes as ethnically aware communities.

So 82% of Greek migrants arriving after 1952, when a migration agreement was signed between the Greek and Australian governments, 82% were unskilled peasants or labourers from the impoverished northern countryside. The largest number of Greeks to arrive in Australia settled in Melbourne between 1964 and 1965 and they were primarily employed in the manufacturing sector and therefore settled in close proximity to these industries. Obviously the situation was not exclusive to Greek migrants, they also worked closely with and lived in the same streets as Italian, Maltese, Dutch, German, what was then called Yugoslav and eventually Turkish migrant community groups as well.

Greek and Italian migrants however seem to have been most politically active or at least visible in this period and Simone Battiston’s fabulous book, Immigrants Turned Activists on Italians in 1970s Melbourne unpacks this history, looking to politically active Italian migrants and their left-wing grassroots organisations. He also draws on archival data an oral accounts from former and current members and collaborators of leading left-wing organisations like the Italian Federation of Migrant Workers and their families formed by Giovanni Sgro in the early 1970s.

So I also found in the research that I’m beginning that certain personalities and characters dominate and their story’s best captured through personal documents, of course, but also oral histories and while they did work from within ethically defined or aligned community groups they also formed alliances across these groups across ethnic lines and across party boundaries.

So a bit more on the material conditions facing some of these migrant groups. Throughout the ‘60s and the ‘70s sociological studies and surveys revealed that many new arrivals and indeed longer-term communities were living in poverty. I refer especially to the first volume of the Henderson Report on Poverty in Australia released in 1975. It showed that quite a proportion of migrant households from non-English speaking countries had incomes that placed them below the poverty line or at least numbers that – or double the amount of the overall population of 6.7% living below the poverty line.

They were also reported to be spending more on housing costs due to discrimination in the rental market. In employment they had higher rates of workplace accidents due to language difficulties and unfamiliarity with safety procedures and of course their concentration in heavy industry. Migrant groups also had higher rates of health problems more broadly and mental health problems and across the board it was said that language difficulties compounded their problems.

None of these statistics came as a surprise to grassroots migrant organisations and welfare groups. They had been dealing with the needs of migrant groups since the 1950s. Migrant communities were at a structural disadvantage and desperately required special services and programs. For many community groups the starting point towards equity was articulated in terms of the distribution of resources and aiding access to mainstream services through the provision of culturally appropriate materials including interpreters and translators.

Initially the role of workers’ clubs, active in the era, served the purpose of course of offering familiar cultural mores in an unfamiliar and hostile environment but very soon these community organisations found it necessary to respond to the material needs of migrants. Organisations like the Australian German Welfare Society, the Australian Jewish Welfare and Relief Society regularly provided aid to new and older arrivals especially in accommodation and finding employment. Such groups were often the first port of call for new arrivals.

Many found it difficult to navigate Australian institutions dealing with legal system, healthcare, police, employers, the education system, trade unions. I don’t think we can underestimate the language barrier in this context especially as it aided or hindered participation and representation in Australian life. Many also were unaware of their rights and responsibilities as migrants and as workers and this left them vulnerable to exploitation.

In the 1980s there was quite a significant amount of sociological research into migrant involvement in trade unions and much response to this idea that – or more immediate in the post-war era, I think, this idea of the apathy of migrant working masses, the idea that immigrants felt isolated and alienated from unions. This became a problem area in some of these studies and it comes up again and again in these publications. Few of these studies however seem to include the personal testimony of migrant workers themselves beyond statistics gathered from workplace surveys.

June [Herne’s] work in the 1970s was quite useful in trying to unpack some of this, this presumption around migrant political apathy. She argued that the union movement was not monolithic, obviously, and that she recognised that across the board those from non-Anglo Australian backgrounds were admittedly underrepresented in fulltime union positions. During the 1970s in particular some unions sought to address this imbalance however some did more than others to foster active involvement from their migrant members including the Waterside Workers’ Federation, the Amalgamated Metals and Foundry and Shipwrights’ Union among some other more activist unions in Victoria.

I wanted to address head-on something I came across in the literature, the suggestion that Greek migrants in particular were politically disengaged. So it’s obviously something that key migrants rights activists explicitly dispute but it is a myth that is repeated in some academic publications. In her impressive history of the Department of Immigration Anne-Marie Jordan argues that southern Europeans, especially rural migrants which as I said constituted the majority of Greek migrants at this time, they expected little of the state, that they relied instead on family and community structures and networks which were defined by village or region. I did find this to be the case in many studies that I’ve looked at.

At the same time there are many examples I’ve come across that don’t necessarily reflect Greek migrant politics, that recoiled from the involvement of the state, a politics that for many was formed during the Greek civil war and before that in the face of resistance to German occupation. But in Australia their search for work and housing often relied, and necessarily so, on strong and well organised community networks, a practical response to an unknown context in a foreign language.

So approaching this question of political engagement from the angle of emotions I looked to Joy Damousi’s work in her book, Memory and Migration in the Shadow of War where she argues that the assimilationist policies of the ‘50s and ‘60s set the context for a climate that did not allow for a public expression of grief or an emotional response to the challenges of migration.

The psychic and emotional dimensions of the Greek community in Australia I think is important to bear in mind if we are to tie emotions to political expression and engagement and the legacies of loss did as Damousi argues sometimes result in a – what she’s labelled a conspiracy of silence and a familial – a family unwillingness to engage in politics in their new home. So a sort of keep your head down type of mentality was understandable.

But there are also other factors at play here. As indicated mainstream institutional disinterest in migrant concerns coupled with migrant unfamiliarity with Australian systems of governance as well as obvious language barriers I think were the main ones in creating the impression that Greek migrants were not politically engaged with politics or interested in joining their unions.

Alternatively James Jupp and June [Herne] have suggested that it wasn’t necessarily apathy towards Australian political life but rather a wider and institutional hostility towards migrant political participation. This is documented clearly in the cases of migrant activists who were under the surveillance of ASIO for being politically active and I’ve included a quote there from George Zangalis at the bottom which we’ll get to later on. George – I mentioned his book earlier as well – he initially worked in the car industry, was a member of the Communist Party of Australia and an organiser for the Australian Railways Union and for his part he paints all Greek migrants as intensely and inevitably political. He says this is because of their formative experiences during the occupation and the civil war in Greece and his life narrative is shaped by this communal vision of class solidarity which I’ll return to a bit later on.

So in the cases that I have looked at those who did seek out community networks found that these were mostly left-leaning organisations, especially the workers’ leagues, that they had clear political ideologies that extended to issues beyond insular community politics. They attempted to make connections with the broader Australian Labor movement and other migrant groups including in international causes when it came to the opposition of dictatorships and the promotion of democracy in Greece and Cyprus.

So nowhere is this alliance between leftist organisations, trade unions and migrant workers’ clubs better represented than in the large migrant workers’ conferences hosted by the Fitzroy Ecumenical Centre in 1973 and 1975. So these events brought together migrant activists from separate community groups, migrant union leaders, allies within the welfare sector and academics to discuss as they said ethnic rights, power and participation towards a multicultural Australia.

So the first 1973 conference aimed to raise the question of the rights - and I quote, the rights of non-Anglo Saxon migrants to participate more fully in all aspects of the social, cultural, economic and political life of present day Australia, end quote. They also were interested in addressing questions of injustice and discrimination against ethnic groups by those institutions. All speakers stressed the key point that this required the involvement of migrants themselves and directly condemned the government’s paternalistic and patronising approach to migrant welfare including lack of consultation with migrant groups and representation on government-appointed or supported groups like the Good Neighbour Council and the Australian Council of Social Service.

It seems not even the Whitlam Government and Grassby, which on the whole are now viewed as heroes in this wider history of multiculturalism, it seems not even they were free form this criticism with one participant, Con George, stating that we don’t believe that the policy of the present Labor Government, despite its goodwill around the issue of migration, will change fundamentally. Again George Zangalis, at that time a Communist Party member and a representative for the Railways Union, argued that ethnics were poorly represented in the bodies that the new government, the Whitlam Government has set up, citing the Advisory Immigration Council and Grassby’s Migrant Taskforces.

Around this time two groups that I found were quite active in this space, and also participated in those migrant workers’ conferences, were the Ecumenical Migration Centre and the Fitzroy Ecumenical Centre and they found themselves offering services to communities in need and conventional histories for multiculturalism, particularly Mark Lopez’s history, stressed the role of these two organisations in the 1960s. The former I suppose had a more integrationist approach, one particularly interested in challenging existing systems and had a dependence or connection with church groups. The Fitzroy Ecumenical Centre was I suppose more activist and they were informed more clearly by the civil rights movement in America.

Despite their ideological differences I don’t think it was that black and white, many – they shared many positions on many points including their rhetoric around access and equity, staff within both groups published together in the same publications and in many conference papers as well, all of which are held here at the National Library. Annual reports from the late ‘60s and ‘70s have both of them commenting on providing services to clients from mainly Greek-speaking and increasingly Turkish-speaking migrants in the areas of Richmond and Fitzroy.

So as I said more conservative histories of multiculturalism identify these two groups and focus on this new generation of social scientists that kind of surrounded them who from the late 1960s onwards questioned assimilation but I think perhaps some of these histories, again particularly Mark Lopez’s history of multiculturalism, maybe gives too much credit or agency to some of these groups and academics like David Cox and Jean Martin.

The EMC and the FEC were organisations that contained, as Lopez states, leading ethnic rights activists who were mainly of Anglo-Australian background and although they worked closely with individuals from groups like the Australian Greek Welfare Society and groups in the Italian community there were less migrant representation in them than the workers’ leagues in clubs that I will discuss now.

Starting with the Atlas League which I admittedly had not heard of before I started this research. I came across mention of Atlas League in [Strathos Muvrandonisis’] 36:04 oral history and my excuse for not knowing about their existence is what I think is a kind of Melbourne-centric lens in much of this research which is understandable given the high concentration of Greek settlement in that city. I have just put up a couple of quotes to demonstrate that Melbourne-centric focus in the literature. [Muvrandonisis] joined the Atlas League just a few months after arriving in Australia in 1958 and he described the Atlas headquarters as a hive of activity in Sydney. I’ve also included a quote there from [Con Rorus] 36:50’ experience in encountering the Atlas League and the services that they provide.

So aside from offering a space for Greek origin peoples in Sydney to socialise so the Atlas League also had a very active choir and a theatre group as well as a large and well stocked library. The League also encouraged migrants to be politically aware and involved. They maintained a close relationship to leading members within the Waterside Workers’ Federation and other unions as well as the Communist Party of Australia. Ultimately this was how [Muvrandonisis] joined the Communist Party of Australia, it was through the Atlas League.

So the issues that the Atlas League tackled were not confined obviously to the needs of Greek migrants in Sydney nor were they isolated from other issues that concerned the left or the Labor movement in Australia. As this quote demonstrates they were interested in broader migrant and social justice issues including the issue of democracy in Greece.

As an example of their transnational or global perspective on migrant rights’ issues [Muvrandonisis] here speaks about the Atlas League and the unions in checking Greek ships docking in Sydney so this is after the military junta took over in Greece in 1967. The Atlas League worked with the Maritime Unions of Australia to effectively boycott all Greek shipping in the ports of Australia and here he describes how every Greek ship – well not here but further on in the eight-hour oral history interview – how every Greek ship that came into the ports of Australia in those days were blacklisted by the Maritime Unions, that many of these ships would stay in Australian ports for weeks. He argues that in this way some of the campaigning in Australia was successful in bringing about the release of political prisoners in Greece. I have to check that, actually, I have to verify that but the unions offered necessary assistance in settling some of these disputes that Greek crew members had with their captain and the company that owned the ship.

For his part [Muvrandonisis] worked with the union delegation that would inspect these ships as a translator and a representative of the Atlas League. Often crew members when docking in Sydney would come to the Atlas League for support, complaints about boat conditions, complaints about the withholding of pay and a number of times I came across Greek crew who jumped ship and ended up staying in Australia.

So obviously the point is that the activities of these ethnically-aligned groups are much broader and outward-looking than first thought or at least the memories associated with this era are concerned with broader social justice issues beyond the Greek community of inner city that the Atlas initially served.

Which brings us onto the Democritus League in Melbourne established in 1935. It also – and since its inception maintained strong ties with the Communist Party of Australia. Again Nicola Copoulos and [Vacilia] Copoulos have done the most amount of work on this group and they argued that a shared ethnicity was never enough to unite the members of the Democritus League, that they had a – integrationist understanding of workers’ solidarity. They strengthened ties with both the Anglophone progressive and democratic organisations in the form of trade unions and the Communist Party, helping to form Greek branches of the Communist Party of Australia. This Greek branch of the CPA also had control of the Greek language newspaper, Neos Kosmos, in the first few years of its existence.

So when discussing the nature of the Democritus League’s relationship with the Communist Party Zangalis argues that they wanted the same thing and that they saw themselves as forming part of a broader working class movement. He implies that the alliance was a practical one and for a young activist the Democritus League was the place to be. At the time it was the most politically active group in Melbourne’s Greek community. Their advocacy role again on the behalf of Greek and other migrant workers meant their base and their numbers grew throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s.

But as was the case with the Atlas League their effectiveness in meeting the needs of Greek working classes began to suffer due to internal divisions in the Communist movement after 1968 and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. So eventually from the mid to late 1960s many members of the Democritus League formed close ties with branches of the Victorian ALP, that is, they felt that they were able to do so once the ALP had officially scrapped the white Australia policy from their party platform. Many of them of course went on to campaign for Whitlam.

So the Democritus League’s struggle was also about transforming Melbourne’s Greek Australian community from an inward-looking and isolated community to a political force that was functioning in Australian social and political life. Like the Atlas League they too provided services then not available to migrants, translation and interpretation, helping navigate the legal and health systems, helping find employment and suitable accommodation. They also supported collective action in factory workplaces including strikes at Ford and Holden car factories in the ’60s and the ‘70s and they published materials that tried to communicate to Greek migrants their rights as workers and migrants. However their staff, all volunteers, and their resources were limited in terms of the welfare and services they were able to offer and in this context the Australian Greek Welfare Society in Melbourne emerged in the early 1970s.

So Jean Martin argued that their work represented the most sustained effort in the promotion of ethnic rights at the time. She stressed the importance of the Greek Action Bulletin, the official organ of the Society in communicating these needs. I’m very thankful that the National Library hold those copies. There was input of course from members of the Fitzroy Ecumenical Centre in the formation of the Society. As indicated the Fitzroy Ecumenical Centre were a grassroots community force interested in mobilisation and envisioning migrants as a key part of the working class.

According to Lopez they hoped to multiply into a movement of ethnic rights-orientated organisations to change Australian society from the bottom up. This wasn’t necessarily the aims of the Australian Greek Welfare Society. This Society was originally headed by George Papadopoulos and [Spiro Miratis] and it officially launched in 1972 in Melbourne. They were concerned with social welfare and service provision.

They were less transparently political than the Democritus League or at least their agenda was certainly less radical. At most they pushed for more Greeks on municipal councils and full participation in community life. They also maintained close ties with the Victorian Labor Party. Papadopoulos was an ALP with a broadly Marxist philosophical orientation. [Miratis] was a GP who’d worked in St Kilda Road – sorry, St Kilda since 1959. He was not a Marxist and not a member of any political party.

Throughout the 1960s the pair of them did a lot of unpaid welfare work for Greek migrants. Seeing this need they attempted to launch the Welfare Society through the government’s grant in aid scheme in 1968 which they failed to receive then but it was with the help of the Greek Professionals’ Association and the Fitzroy Ecumenical Centre that they were able to launch in September 1972.

I’ve put up a quote here from one of their first editions of the Greek Action Bulletin in which Papadopoulos argued for new approaches to migrant problems. He says that most migrant problems are working class problems in a capitalist society. The question is basically whether there can ever be meaningful political action to structurally alter that society so as to give the dispossessed or repressed groups in that society proper access to resources and an ability to determine the conditions of their experience.

He then goes on in this edition to outline other avenues to achieve access and equity which I’ve listed up here. He ultimately determined that the fourth option was the way to go and that that option would give them greater influence and greater chance of success provided, he says, that the Australian Labor Party were capable of greater receptivity to their ethnic groups than appears at the moment. Arguably given the development of multiculturalism since that time he also flags option 3. I guess that’s where we’re at.

Representation within existing institutions was also an issue for the Welfare Society, something their leadership, men working in professions or as business owners, aimed to achieve. In this way they were more integrationists rather than radical left wing workers’ club like the Atlas League. Understandably leaders of the Society were also constantly appalled by government bodies’ inability to even consult let alone appoint members of ethnic minority groups in matters that directly concerned them. Thinking here of debates around the Good Neighbours Council of Victoria I think this stands as the beginning of the formation of ethnic communities councils in large interethnic lobbying groups which I don’t have time to cover.

In fact I’m running out of a lot of time so I might skip ahead to what these groups actually did in terms of service provision. So these are a lot of the services that the Fitzroy Ecumenical Centre were struggling to provide to the local Greek community before the Australian Greek Welfare Society was established. A report from their first 15 months showed that the average monthly number of people seeking their help was about 150. Many of them required help dealing with government departments and most of them involving social benefits cases.

To completely change track and I guess end this lecture I wanted to briefly talk about oral histories and three men that I ended up spending quite a lot of time with here at the National Library and all of them I’ve already mentioned, George Zangalis, [Con Rorus], [Strathos Muvrandonisis]. Their testimony has as I said featured throughout this talk. All three were interviewed as part of the Unwanted Australians collection in 2017. What they have in common is all three were repeatedly denied naturalisation in the ’50s and the ‘60s due to their political activity which was subject to extensive ASIO surveillance along with hundreds of other migrants in similar situations. Of course their applications were accepted after the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972.

So this particular collection stems from the Unwanted Australians SBS investigative report in 2015 which interviewed 12 migrants including Giovanni Sgro, also includes a news feature and an extensive radio program. I see this as part of a broader trend in our memory culture, to uncover the stories of those who can bear witness to the damage of state intervention.

Of course the idea that this was unearthed by investigative journalists I think is a false one, these stories were accepted narratives in many Greek community groups of which these men are – three men are still a very active part. The original investigation and the interviews focus on espionage and government activities adjoining on previously classified ASIO material held by the National Archives so it was an important investigation and interesting glimpse into Australia’s cold war history.

I did wonder in the course of this research, in focusing on this specific scenario in their lives, the rejection of their applications for citizenship, whether we lose sight of the wider context of their activist work or from my research where they fit in the migrant rights’ movement and the social justice work around access and equity that they campaigned for.

The earliest critiques of oral history including those made by academic oral historians suggest that much oral history risked valorising individual experience without much critical analysis. Linda Shopes pointed to early work within – with feminist activists in the US and the UK in particular as guilty of narrowing definitions of activism that was bound largely by autobiographical trajectories.

I don’t want to take away from the importance of these accounts, though, they’re very highly engaging accounts and I too for a while got very lost in party politics and splits in the left and the personalities of these individual men before pulling myself out with a renewed focus on welfare. But that’s also I think just part of using oral history and recognising how the actions of individuals fit within a larger social milieu as well as how the telling of their stories was in turn shaped by their own evolving conceptions of an activist life in a multicultural context and as part of a mostly working class ethnic minority in desperate need of special services.

I did notice one thing that was common across all three interviews so while we expect personal life stories to stress agency, the agency of storytelling, these men demonstrated more comfort in talking about abstract movements and ideas and talking in collective terms rather than centring themselves as agent and actor. Andrew Flynn, who works on activist archives and biographies, argues that activist autobiographies may have a certain formula, they stress formative moments in a political life and then a dedication to collective causes.

Zangalis for his part was more comfortable with collective pronouns and I think much to the dismay of the interviewer who repeatedly interjects with but where did you see yourself in all of this? What was your role? Where did you see yourself specifically? What were your personal perceptions? You’ve consistently resisted throughout the interview and I don’t know, maybe some of these responses and the limits of their emotional registers speaks also to the limits of Greek masculinity that these men feel bound by. But again I think it also speaks to their autobiography as activists.

Second last point, I promise. I think they’re also deploying a multidirectional memory in their testimonies here, they’re connecting their memories as migrant rights activists with subsequent and alternative social justice issues across the country and around the world including the need to challenge current welfare practices and approaches to migrant settlement as well as offering a longer historical timeline for the radicalised politics that surrounds migrant and refugee welcome in Australia. So they’re connecting their ethnic and political discrimination to that of others. I put up a credit here from [Mardontonis] 54:11 in particular drawing parallels with the present and his particular migrant rights activism.

So they see this a part of a longer continuum of inequality and institutional discrimination and Zangalis, still an activist, articulates this in his latest public statement regarding the Victorian Multicultural Commission and its elections. That said they stopped short of identifying themselves as victims and we should recognise that they operated in a radically different political context and that they were eventually granted citizenship. I feel like they too reject the suggestion when the journalist, Kristina Kukolja who conducted the interviews at SBS, when she asks if they would like an apology from Parliament. I have a lot more I could say about these personalities, I spent a lot of time with them but I will finish up by flagging where to from here?

So after the 1970s I obviously still have a lot more research to do including more work on the Australian Greek Welfare Society which continued to grow throughout the ‘70s and their more professional and middle class leadership had to work within a new competitive government funding scheme which privileged ethnic-specific services in order to achieve their goals and in the context of the Greek Orthodox community’s now apolitical stance.

Other historians have argued that the strength of the Workers’ League, the Democritus League and the Atlas League declined as a united political force after the 1970s and that they remained a marginal force in the broader Australian political and Labor movements. But their greatest legacy, at least the historian, [Alimnos] 56:09, argues, their greatest legacy is that it provided a setting for politically aspiring Greeks to propel themselves into the broader Australian left movement which did happen for some who entered politics through the Australian Labor Party. Some however remained throughout their lives dedicated to the Communist cause including [Mavrondonis] 56:34 and Zangalis.

Overall more radical agendas were shelved in the 1980s and as small wins were made on access and equity fronts and in the wake of the [Golbally] 56:45 Report in 1978 and with the support for SBS and ethnic communities’ radio and of course when the ethnic communities’ councils in states and the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils emerged small wins were made. But these councils as well lost some of their bite under the pressures of a shrinking funding system and the creation of a multicultural motive that stressed the consumption of static food and folklore by CALD communities.

That said, some community groups, particularly the Migrant Workers’ Centre in Victoria performs a function reminiscent of the migrant workers’ committees of the early 1970s. There’s still clearly a need for some of this work. I suppose overall I wanted to end by saying I didn’t want to start with the arrogant assumption that this is a history that needs to be rescued and I recognise that this memory is still alive in elements of the Greek community but considerations of power are also important here and who controls the narrative around multiculturalism is important. I’ll leave it there. Thank you.

Applause

N:        Thank you very much. Now we do have a bit of time for questions. We have a roving mike. We have one down here.

Au:      In the 1950s the term, new Australians was bandied around quite a lot. I’m not sure whether that was the press pushing it or the government but from what you were say – oh and an implication of that, while it seems a welcoming phrase, means that you should assimilate as fast as possible. But if you couldn’t speak the language you couldn’t assimilate and I suppose the great influx of migrants was unaware of the connotations of new Australians.

A:        Yeah, I mean the term is an interesting one, isn’t it? It was tipped off by Calwell himself who pushed the use of the term, new Australians as a means to encourage them to become integrated into Australian society but you’re right, a key barrier was always language and communication and limits to funding for language learning. Yeah.

Au:      When you were concluding you were talking about almost trying to apologise for putting your particular research in the context of different narratives but isn’t it the case that there are multiple narratives and that one narrative doesn’t necessarily have a dominance over different narratives? The same could be said for your interpretation of oral histories and the agency actor thing, I mean oral histories provide a great deal of insight and whether they’re about the individual or whether they’re about the collective it’s just part and parcel of a broad narrative within which there are particular and divergent narratives.

A:        Yeah, totally, of course I agree with you and I’m not claiming that this is the final sentence in this history on migrant rights activism. I suppose my apology was more about the idea that a historian, an academic historian could come into this space and claim to be rescuing a story that I think has a rich community memory, albeit one that maybe doesn’t appear on a national scale or in more political contexts. So yeah, there are many different narratives jutting up against each other here. Again the same can be said about my interpretation of these oral histories and I don’t mean to step all over the testimonies of these men and how they have chosen to narrate their activist lives and obviously as public figures they do want to retain control of their narratives. But as an oral historian and a historian it’s also my job to include those in the histories that I tell and the stories that I unpack.

Au:      Thank you, Alexandra. I just want to say that your providing a searchlight into ethnic activism in the ‘60s and ‘70s is fantastic. It has long been ignored in traditional historical narrative and in its broadest sense it does show with all the inflexibilities around the possibility of working within our democratic system to augment social change. People may argue about the extent of it but certainly there is no doubt that the push for adequate services in the ‘70s and ‘80s by some of the organisations that you mentioned was seminal and I think in the fullness of time your searchlight will be seen to be the beginning of what is an important narrative in the evolution of our democracy so thank you very much.

A:        Thank you, thanks, Dan. I recognise there’s a lot more work that can be done here, particularly around the Australian Greek Welfare Society and I've kind of just touched on some of the issues they attempted to address. There were quite a few debates throughout the 70s which you were intimately involved in around education and migrant children within the education system and how we address some of those issues so there’s so much more to unpack here in this history.

N:        One last question? I’ve probably got a last question. Where’s your searchlight going to go next?

A:        Good question. No, I started by looking at particular events and I think I want to return to that, particularly strikes at General Motors Holden and Ford and other protests but focusing I think more on collecting oral histories and looking at community archives and of course returning to the Welfare Society’s papers as well.

N:        I did have another question, one last one, sorry, I’m holding everyone up now. Any female activists out there?

A:        Oh I had a whole slide on that that we missed. This is a tricky one. No. Not in this period, not in this era and to some degree that’s bound by ethnic stereotypes but they are there and they’re quite active as volunteers in many of these societies but you can see that split between committee members and volunteers here which I found quite stark. But otherwise they were difficult to unearth here.

N:        In time then. Well thank you very, very much for a really interesting talk tonight. Can everyone join me in thanking Alex?

Applause

N:        Before we leave I’ve just got to plug the next talk we’re going to have from – when is it? We’ve got - our next fellowship presentation is on the 8th of November, I hope to see you all here for that one. It’s going to be our creative arts fellow, Joel Bray. Joel is a dancer and choreographer of Wiradjuri, Scottish and English heritage and while he’s at the Library at the moment Joel has been looking at indigenous ceremonial practices and stories which he is going to be putting into a new dance theatre work. Really exciting and definitely one to look forward to, I think so we’ll see you all then. Thanks very much.

Applause

End of recording

Download transcript 249.83 KB

Recent audio All recent audio