In 131AD, while on tour in Greece, Philhellenic Roman emperor Hadrian, who like all emperors since Augustus revered classical Greek culture and appropriated it in order to legitimise and provide an ideology for Roman imperial rule in the Eastern Mediterranean, founded the Panhellenion, a league of Greek city states, so as to recreate the apparent “unified Greece” of the Persian Wars and to pay tribute to Athens as the most pre-eminent city of the Greek world.
The final arbiter of who could join was the Emperor himself and contenders would have to establish their Hellenic credentials in order to gain admission. Many Hellenised, but not necessary Hellenic by Hadrian’s standards cities, outside of mainland Greece, did so by inventing a mythology for themselves that linked them back to the ancient Athenians.
Ultimately, the well-meaning emperor’s attempt to impose a cultural and ideological structure failed. The Greek states began squabbling with each other and even though a cult was founded to worship Hadrian Panhellene as their unifier, and the Panhellenic Games were held in Athens in 137AAD, the institution did not survive his death, although the ill-fated governor of free Greece, Ioannis Kapodistrias revived it for a short period as an advisory body that was scrapped when it did not do what it was told.
It appears then that the inability of successive Greek ruling entities to conceive of a workable conceptual framework to encompass all Greek communities, especially those without the boundaries of the Greek state, is an ancient rather than a modern phenomenon, one that has its antecedents in the spectacular demise of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad, (SAE), an institution that resembles the ancient Panhellenion in both ideology and scope and which spookily enough, sponsored its own successful Panhellenic Games in Australia.
SAE foundered not so much because of the predictable internecine squabbling within and among its constituent communities and regions but because its structure, externally imposed by Athens, was ill suited to the evolving needs of the communities it was supposed to represent. Most of the delegates participating in its deliberations were not the best qualified or motivated to do so and it is questionable that those in charge of administering the body and determining its agenda, held the interests of the diasporan Greeks and their connection to the motherland, rather than domestic political expediency, in pre-eminence.
READ MORE: SAE Oceania returns old board
In the absence of a coherent agenda or proper procedure, enlightened Hellenes such as Oceania Region Co-ordinator Costas Vertzayias in Sydney, pressed on regardless, espousing the cause of World-wide Hellenism and envisaged a structure that could permit us, here in Australia to share our concerns, expertise and resources with less privileged Greek communities throughout the globe. Under his guidance, the Panepirotic Federation of Australia was able to galvanise the community in order to raise funds for the construction of a technical college in Northern Epirus, Albania. Visiting that college and teaching classes there has been one of the most profound and meaningful experiences in my life. It served an example of the immense benefits that could be harnessed from the diaspora community, when the institution was approached in good faith. Sadly, for many participants in the experiment, encouraged by the cynical administrators at the epicentre of our modern Panhellenion, SAE provided nothing more than an opportunity for a free trip to Greece and to facilitate and perpetuate inter-organisational local conflict, vying for irrelevant political favours with irrelevant vote-hungry Greek politicians and it is these sorry practices that linger in people’s memories, obscuring the glorious potential of the institution.
It appears however, that after a brief hiatus, SAE is about to be resuscitated. The latest draft Greek bill for the reformation of the ”General Secretariat of Greeks Abroad…and Diplomacy” in which the recreation of the Council of Greeks Abroad is imagined, is however, embarrassingly vague, contradictory and unworkable. In parts, it reads like it has been written by a year 12 legal studies student.
Semantically, the addition of the words “and Diplomacy” to the already existing General Secretariat of Greeks Abroad is misconceived. This conjunction connotes the foreignness of the diasporan Greek communities to the administrators of the homeland, rather than emphasising the much touted unity with the centre. Bizarrely, the dilution of the Secretariat’s focus on the diaspora is highlighted by the fact that included within its ambit are UNESCO, Mount Athos (which is within the modern Greek borders) and the Institute of Byzantine Studies in Venice, all laudable institutions in their own right but of marginal importance to diasporans. We are no longer a priority. Furthermore, in the fine print, we read with alarm that the Secretariat is also charged with authority over religious issues. Given that in Australia a) Greek Orthodox Christians primarily belong to the Archdiocese of Australia which is under the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, and that b) other denominations that other Greeks belong to generally have no relationship with Greece, such an assumption of responsibility seems farcical. Will the Secretariat seek to intervene, for instance, in conflict pertaining to the Greek Evangelical Church, a body legally constituted in Victoria? And how does this piece of legislation give the Greek State extra-territorial authority to intercede in matters pertaining to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, also subject to Australian law?
The proposed provisions dealing with SAE’s restoration are also of concern. We learn from the outset that its role is, just like in Kapodistrias’ time, to be an “advisory” body, yet no framework is envisaged as to what form that advice will take, who will receive it and to what extent the organs of the Greek state are obliged to implement it, or within which time limits.
The Bill, for the purposes of SAE, divides the world into regions. For some unfathomable reason, Africa, the Middle East and the Far East, regions distant and diverse are lumped together as one, indicating complete ignorance as to the disparate prevailing socio-political and cultural conditions affecting Hellenism in these areas.
Significantly, the bill provides that diasporan “organisations” will be those that will constitute each regional SAE and that out of these, nine Oceanic delegates (which presumably includes New Zealand) will be elected to sit on the World Body. This amateurish and unsophisticated approach whose underlying assumptions present an antiquated and ignorant understanding of the manner in which our communities are constituted and have evolved, does not take into account that the vast majority of Greek organisations registered in Australia, especially those focused around a particular region in the homeland, are ailing, of limited scope and no longer represent the Greeks. Even if they did, why is it assumed that the presidents of such organisations, who present skill in being elected, organising dinner dances and holding barbeques, are in any way qualified to analyse or make recommendations on the plethora of complex issues affecting a multi-generational and multi-faceted community, such as language retention, acculturation and social welfare?
The Bill attempts to address this point by providing for the appointment of “experts” or “distinguished” members of the community upon the World Body, without voting rights. Paradoxically, these appointments are not to be made by the Regions, (who logically would know the identities of the most useful and relevant candidates and be in a position to evaluate their skill sets) but rather, according to the draft, by the General Secretariat and/or the Greek Parliament, bodies that generally have contact with and promote those with whom they are ideologically or politically aligned.
What the bill inadvertently is doing, is laying the groundwork for the same type of fratricidal squabbling that paralysed the previous incarnation of SAE, where local organisations scrambled to “federate”, present fake membership lists and invent a curriculum vitae, in order to gain the much coveted seat on SAE, knocking off rival groups in the process. The draft bill of course, is silent on the criteria according to which organisations will be deemed eligible to participate in the regional body and indeed how it will be governed, hearkening back to the chaos and inertia experienced by the Youth of SAE each time they attended a convention, where they were told to create their own Constitution, only to have it scrapped by Greece, at the next convention. This is a great way of keeping people busy with unproductive labour and conflict, but it undermines the integrity of the whole endeavour. It is also silent on the fate of the already existing SAE Oceania, a legally constituted body in Australia that has persisted in the SAE dream, organising Panhellenic Games even after the demise of its parent body and undertaking important advocacy work.
Interestingly, conflict is enshrined within the Bill; indeed its drafters seem to have anticipated it. One of its clauses purports to give Consular authorities, in the inaugural formation of the World Body, the right to intervene and play referee in determining just which organisations are representative. This of course undermines any belief in the independence of the advisory process, and indeed, in a manner directly akin to that of the Emperor Hadrian, connotes the Centre’s mistrust in the ability of Greeks Abroad to govern themselves. It is also a recipe for disaster, especially given the malign manner in which past consular authorities have intervened in community organisations and played “favourites.”
Regrettably, this Bill, which envisages the reconstitution of an important institution that has a great deal of untapped potential, displays no insight into the mistakes of the past. Drafted without consultation with the communities it purports to represent, it evidences a Greek government that fails to articulate a coherent vision for the broader Hellenic discourse. As such, it disappoints all those believers in worldwide Hellenism and the memories of such titans as Andrew Athens, the founder of SAE, who dreamt that we could be bigger, better and united.
The Greeks of Australia must resist the temptation to blindly accept and participate in flawed institutions that are setting us up for failure. It is incumbent upon us at this crucial time in our history, to come together and determine for ourselves, our priorities and the institutions necessary to ensure our survival, and in collaboration with Greece, our relationship with the Motherland, into the future.