In the early 1960’s a delegation of Australian Labor Party members of Parliament visited Cyprus at the invitation of the Australian Greek and Cypriot communities.
The delegation was criticised by the Liberal party in Australia, with members of the delegation being accused of committing the act of Treason by betraying “Mother England” in favour of the Greek Cypriots.
We have come a long way since!
The relationship is now non-controversial, and rests on some very stable foundations.
In part it is a relationship based on military engagements of the Battle of Crete in 1941 and the two world wars.
Moreover it is a relationship based primarily on community links, essentially the 400,000 Australians of Greek descent who continue to prove themselves to be good productive Australians who enrich their chosen home in every field of endeavour.
Whether it’s economic, politics, sport, the arts…wherever one looks Greek Australians are in the vanguard.
And in doing so they prove the value migrants bring to this country.
When reflecting on this we must also recognise that less than five per cent of migrants from Greece held tertiary qualifications.
We should remember and learn from history that on 12 July 1918, the Australian Government at the instruction of the Prime Minister that “passports and visas for Greeks who intend to proceed to Australia (Castellorizians), should not be granted”, and that they be turned back at Cairo.
The Australian Naval Transport Officer at Cairo was directed with the view “of preventing any intending Greek emigrants in Egypt from booking passage to Australia” (10/7/1918).
With haunting similarities to the present, the Australian Cabinet decided (24/5 1918) “to stop the landing of Greek immigrants, and refused to exempt those on the water”. Cabinet also decided to apply a language test “through a language that is likely to be effective” in keeping them out. It was not to be English because officials believed this group of Greeks understood English.
I believe that the passengers on the boats in question included my grandfather!
They almost kept me out!
All this is in official documents available through the National Archives.
From this inauspicious beginning, Greek migration took hold and developed to form an important foundation piece of modern multicultural Australia, bringing Australia close to Greece and in turn Europe.
Early Greek migrants did the hard work, by forging links and influencing agendas.
They made a major impact on the direction of the Trade Union movement and then the ALP, impacting on workplace, wages and industrial policies to begin with.
They met overwhelming acceptance from a broad range of Labor leadership of people like Prime Minister Whitlam and his Government, Premiers such as Don Dunstan, and Opposition leaders such as Clyde Holding as well as trade union leaders.
Their influence was felt in the development of broader domestic policy, such as Medicare, education, ethnic broadcasting and access and equity agendas.
Importantly they also made a major impact on International Affairs, firstly influencing the Australian Government’s view on Cyprus and also playing an integral role in the global Industrial Movements’ opposition to the Greek military dictatorship.
Along the way there have been difficult issues to handle, such as FYROM, but this was an issue that progressed closely with the Greek government amongst all interested parties.
And we should not ignore the ongoing role of the global network of Parliamentarians of Greek background who are the glue that underpins an important level of dialogue and friendship.
It is all part of a relationship based on shared democratic values and it is carried into the future by a culture which thrives in both countries.
* Nick Bolkus is a former Australian Labor Party politician. He was a member of the Senate from July 1981 to 2005, representing the state of South Australia.