Imagine if about a thousand people all of Greek origin were rounded up mostly in one city over a couple of days by the federal police and charged with conspiracy. Of course it couldn’t happen. Wrong.
April 1 1978 is probably the worst day in the history of Greek Australians, as it culminated in the largest Commonwealth Police (COMPOL, as they were known then) raid in Australia’s history.
It was 40 years ago on this day in Sydney when over 180 migrants [in 160 houses] all of Greek origin and five doctors’ surgeries in Sydney were raided in the early hours of Saturday 1 April by the Commonwealth Police. Not knowing what and why it was happening these Greek migrants were dragged out of their homes in front of their petrified families by the police to be charged with conspiracy for allegedly defrauding the Department of Social Security. Initially, 181 people, virtually all of Greek background, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud the Commonwealth. Within the month, a total of 669 social security recipients had their benefits withdrawn and their payments cancelled.
Most of these people were receiving an invalid pension due to a physical or psychological incapacity while a few others were in receipt of sickness benefits. The charges against them were that they were supposedly involved with some doctors as part of a massive Greek conspiracy to illegally obtain pensions.
Hundreds of Greeks were investigated by the police throughout the month and had their pension or sickness allowances stopped on the simple premise that they were Greek and therefore might have illegally obtained a government payment. The department had believed for some time that Greeks were rorting the pension system by paying doctors to grant them an invalid pension via an underworld organisation called the Kolpo akin to the Italian Mafia. The police thought about 99 per cent of them were faking their illnesses.
To many of us it might not seem such a big deal that the government took these measures back then. But just think if you heard the news today, that nearly a thousand people of Middle Eastern or Asian background had been rounded up from their homes and taken into custody for investigation and charged with conspiracy. What would you think? Of course you would be surprised, but then start believing the news items of their apparent guilt and of course the media, social media and radio talkback shows would be going ballistic demanding these people be jailed and then deported to where they came from, without asking for any evidence of guilt.
That is exactly what happened in 1978 when members of a Sydney tabloid paper just “happened” to accompany COMPOL when they raided the homes of those Greeks that April 1 morning, reporting the arrests as a great triumph and coup for our federal law enforcement agency.
The media trumpeted how millions of dollars were involved with Greek invalid pensioners ripping off the system and many of them living in Greece like kings and queens. Suddenly anyone of Greek origin was looked upon as a cheat and bludger and this stuck until the next generation of newly arrived migrants came which happened to be the Lebanese and Vietnamese.
As someone who was involved in the investigation, I was appalled at the number of Greeks within the community who believed the media propaganda and were quick to accuse without any proof those who were arrested or were receiving a pension payment, of being cheats.
There were even instances where Greek interpreters used by the police made fun of the people being interviewed and investigated. Those Greek migrants who were taken in by the police were also made to hold a sign stating “Greece” while being photographed and had all their personal papers and documents seized and checked for any clues that might incriminate them. Pensioners were forced to remember why they had withdrawn or deposited paltry amounts of money e.g. $20 some years prior.
Can anyone reading this know why they withdrew a small amount of money several years ago? Of course not. But they were the type of silly questions being asked including why they couldn’t speak English after they had been here for 20 to 30 years.
All of us know many Greek Australians, whether it be a relative or friend that has been here for perhaps more than 50 years and still can’t speak English, however that doesn’t make them a lesser decent person than anyone else or someone not to be trusted.
On several occasions I was asked to check the palms of people’s hands we were interviewing and give an opinion if they looked like they were involved in some manual work.
Some of these invalid pensioners suffered greatly, I know of instances where suicide attempts were made, one unfortunately successful, while others had to borrow money from friends and relatives to survive as they had their welfare payments suspended for many months while several had their pensions stopped for a few years.
The committal hearing of the conspiracy case became the longest running in the English-speaking world and eventually all the charges of conspiracy were dropped eight years later.
It was also found that the head of the investigating police unit had tried to hide the information that he knew one of the Greeks charged prior to the arrests, as he was actually a paid informant who initially went to the police to tell them he knew of a secret organisation known as the kolpo being paid by Greek people so as to illegally obtain an invalid pension.
He himself was invalided out of the police force due to illness but nevertheless was able to then become a solicitor and work as one.
There was, however, a positive outcome for some of those under suspicion whereby they had their pension payments increased due to their benefits being thoroughly investigated by the Department of Social Security and had found their entitlements had not been correctly calculated years earlier.
The events were made into a play and a documentary called Witchhunt. More importantly, these incidents should not be forgotten so as remind us to be careful and vigilant when whole ethnic, racial, or religious groups are accused by government authorities of some conspiracy against the state.
This incident should also be taught in schools as part of Australia’s migrant history.