In 2006, Victorian Member of Parliament and then parliamentary secretary for justice Jenny Mikakos did an inordinately brave thing. She stood on the floor of the Upper House and spoke about the Pontian Genocide. At the time, amidst howls of derision from power brokers of her party such as Adem Somyurek, who called upon her to sit down, she courageously continued: “The Turkish Government must begin the reconciliation process by acknowledging these crimes against humanity. The suffering of the victims of the Pontian genocide cannot and will not be forgotten.”
In the aftermath of her speech, she was accused of stirring up ethnic hatred, with Kazim Ates, secretary of the Labor Party’s Coolaroo branch writing to the Premier that Ms Mikakos’ principled stand on genocide, was “a cynical exploitation of the anti-Muslim sentiment that currently prevails in the Western world due to the threat of terrorism”. As is often the case for politicians of “ethnic” background, whenever they take seek to highlight an issue pertaining to their place of origin, Ms Mikakos’ commitment to Victoria, as opposed to the Greek community and her priorities as a State parliamentarian were questioned by some commentators.
Within the Greek community, the speech barely reverberated. For those who understand the complex synthesis of our community know full well that Pontian Genocide recognition does not tug upon the heartstrings of its members. Its commemoration is confined only to Pontian organisations, the members of which reside largely outside of Ms Mikakos’ electorate. Therefore, there was no political advantage to be gained from her speech. It did not result in any extra votes. There was no ensuing groundswell of support from the Greek community to boost her political profile. Instead, there was apathy in the face of an onslaught of condemnation, largely, from members of her own party.
It is likely that Ms Mikakos knew this. Yet she persisted in her chosen course of action, because hers was a stand not of the grandstand, but of principle. She wholeheartedly believed in the righteousness of this cause and despite the considerable cost, did not deviate for a moment. And though this noble act has largely been forgotten, it is arguable that it created the momentum that saw the Genocide of the Christian Peoples of the Ottoman Empire recognised in the South Australian Lower House in 2009 and by the New South Wales Lower House in 2013. Again, it could be maintained that her virtuous stance also led to mainstream media re-assessing Gallipoli in light of the fate of the victims of the Genocide, with a plethora of articles re-interpreting these harrowing events. In the briefest of moments, this self-effacing, plucky politician, re-shaped an entire narrative.
“Ethnic” politicians occupy a difficult space within the political discourse. Like any other politician, they are called upon to serve the interests of their electorate and their Party, the order of priority being of course, negotiable. At the same time, the disparate conglomerate that is their own “ethnic” community, expects them to be an advocate for its own interests, an expectation that a) cannot always be fulfilled and b) can give rise to accusations of serving an interest group rather than a Party or a State. Throughout her political career Ms Mikakos has engaged with and balanced those competing expectations skilfully and conscientiously, which is why that career has been so long in duration. Always accessible and available to provide honest and impartial advice, she has provided Greek community organisations with fresh perspectives and considered guidance, without this conflicting with her primary duties. She has highlighted options and generously shared her vision for a united Greek community, maintaining its language and unique identity, fully integrated within the broader Victorian social construct.
Ms Mikakos did not have to do any of the aforementioned. Just as she has nothing to gain from supporting Genocide Recognition, she too has nothing to gain from assisting Greek organisations or turning up to innumerable Greek community functions and dinner dances. She does these things not because she is a Member of Parliament, but rather because she is, and was, even before she entered politics, an engaged member of the Greek community. Her commitment to our community, is part of her identity, and it transcends politics, something which she has demonstrated time and time again, as is evidenced by her interest and unstinting support of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee, which is also reshaping the ANZAC narrative.
In 2017, the then leader of the Liberal State Opposition, Matthew Guy was kind enough to place under his auspices, an exhibition in Parliament House of Epirote traditional costumes organised by the Hellenic Women’s Cultural Association ‘Estia’ and myself. Ms Mikakos was one of the first persons present. As a member of the Greek community, she felt it important to lend support to the activities of her compatriots, regardless of which side of the political divide was assisting them.
It is for this reason that the hysterical and often bordering on the psychotic vitriol, the slurs and the slander emanating from sections of our community and manifesting themselves primarily on social media (for it appears these days, in the context of the manifold restrictions placed on movement that our entire community has opted for an online presence), against Ms Mikakos in her role as Health Minister during this Pandemic, are so disturbing, harbouring as they do, disquieting consequences for the cohesion of what we understand to be the Greek community of Melbourne. Rather than engage in constructive debate, increasingly, members of the community are, influenced by the disinhibited and anti-social attitudes exacerbated by social media, making malicious and misogynistic comments about Ms Mikakos’ ethnicity, sexual preferences and morals that are too vile and ludicrous to be repeated here. Some, exhibiting their own racist and intolerant convictions, ridiculously highlight her support for same sex marriage, her support for Islamic communities and her membership of the Labor Party as reasons sufficient to completely malign and impugn her entire character. The repellent meme accompanying these words is most eloquent in this regard. A member of our community possessed of poor spelling skills has seen fit to cast one of our own, into a pit of everlasting torment and suffering.
That is not to say that one cannot critique or criticise Ms Mikakos’ choices, beliefs or conduct as a politician. That is the essence of what a robust democracy and community is all about. Yet one must always engage in this important process with respect and with an emphasis solely on the issues at hand and, civility. Ultimately though, we are not just the electorate. We are the Greek community of Melbourne and Ms Mikakos is and always will be, regardless of her political affiliations, one of our own. This does not and nor should it grant her , or any one of us, immunity from evaluation or censure. What it should do however, is provide her what it should provide all of her members, a space of support, understanding and solidarity, for we are all human and we all family. We have created a unique place, away from politics and the grind of daily life, from which to be nurtured, to retreat to, bounce back from and ultimately return to, time and time again. All members of our community deserve to be secure in the knowledge that they belong to such an extraordinarily complex but at the same time resilient, brilliant and ever evolving network. When we turn on our own and display the unspeakably and unjustifiably vicious and callous behaviour currently directed towards Ms Mikakos, we are undermining the very foundations of the community we supposedly support and identify with.
The mark of a strong, cohesive community, is the ability to respect its individual members, even as we critique them, close ranks around them and unite in the face of adversity. We may have all grown increasingly tired and cynical in hearing the well-worn words: “We are all in this together,” yet it is in these trying times that the values, relevance and strength of a community are truly tested. Ever since the time of Homer, the Greeks have expressed the same sentiments in the following manner: Ἡ ἰσχὺς ἐν τῇ ἑνώσει. In critical times in our history, we have come together and displayed unprecedented heroism and determination in the face of catastrophe. It is this ability that has ensured our survival as an entity. Sadly, it is a quality that more often than not, in times of crisis, is replaced by its mirror image: the tendency for internecine strife, for intra-communal conflict, partisan politics and disunity.
Given that once the pandemic recedes, we will once more as a community embark upon the task of perpetuating our existence and reinforcing our relevance within the broader discourse, what message are we sending to the younger, emerging members of our community about our benevolence and utility when we abuse and vilify those who have stood by us and contributed to our vibrancy? How can those emerging generations trust us to treat them with the respect they so deserve? How can the young women of our community engage and grow up within it, safely knowing that they will not be exposed to crass misogyny? In this context, the reprehensible treatment of Ms Mikakos exposes fault-lines within the culture of our community that should be of concern to us all.