There were over 100 community leaders from around Australia and representatives of 30 media publications at the multicultural community forum with Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Minister Alex Hawke and Assistant Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs, Jason Wood. Only several of their questions went answered, and these were from emerging communities rather than established ones. 

Vasso Zangalis had submitted her questions beforehand but they were left unheard, so she is sharing her concerns with readers of Neos Kosmos:

On 28 April, 2021, I represented the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria (GOCMV) at a meeting on COVID-19. My advocacy was from a Greek-Australian perspective, and I wanted to address the needs of all people in the country, especially pensioners, refugees, migrants and their children and grandchildren, with the objective of creating a more egalitarian society.
With this article I wish to bring to the attention of a wider readership, the questions I sent in advance to the forum though they weren’t touched upon during the meeting:

1. Community Languages

Recently, Modern Greek Studies at La Trobe University were saved, for the moment, at the eleventh hour of being terminated and will only survive if there is an increase in student numbers. There’s a bigger battle ahead as La Trobe is one of only three universities in the country to offer Modern Greek. At the University of South Australia, Modern Greek is fighting for its existence.
The battle for the salvation of languages at universities starts well beyond their boundaries.

Australia cannot really claim to be a multicultural and multilingual country unless it has a well-funded National Policy on Languages at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, with the inclusion of immersion programs. We have seen Arts degrees being decimated at the tertiary level with flow-on effects to languages.

Victoria’s mandate that Languages be one of the eight mandatory learning areas from Foundation (F) through to Year 10 (10) has met with limited success. To learn a language properly one needs more than 50 token minutes per week. I am a product of one of two experimental programs in the mid 1980s of a ‘bilingual’ (now called ‘Immersion’) programs at Collingwood and Richmond Primary (similar to the bilingual program which currently exists in Lalor North). Throughout my six years of primary school at least 50 per cent of my classes were taught in Greek.

Research has indicated that the multilingual brain increases the ability to problem solve, offers a broader world view and helps children achieve higher academic results.

Community languages are also Australian languages and they should be treated as such. As an established migrant community, Australians of Greek descent advocate for the teaching of their language, however there are currently 10 schools teaching Greek in Victoria at the moment: five primary and five secondary which are equally shared in the public and private/independent school system. All other Greek language programmes are extra-curricular, however languages must be taught during normal school hours and shouldn’t be left to after school hours where extracurricular competition is tough with out-of-school sports, music and other extracurricular activities.

READ MORE: Greek studies continue at La Trobe University for now, but a review will take place in March 2023

Funding for out-of-school teaching is also insufficient, barely enough to cover rental asked by state schools where the classes are run. As a result, families are charged extra fees to cover costs.

The Victorian School of Languages (VSL) offers affordable out-of-school tuition (under $100/year per student), but languages aren’t offered at face-to-face in all areas.

Exposing all students to an additional language (properly funded with some real outcome that is beyond tokenism) is critical, however Australia’s white colonial past has created a system which devalues languages unlike Europe where students are required to learn at least another European language and English – a far cry from our status quo.

Though the multicultural forum was at a federal level, it is important for the state governments to also step up. For instance, a grant application for a pilot program has been submitted by Public Libraries Victoria to the Victorian Multicultural Commission, in order to deliver ethnic story times at Public Libraries in 10 councils. If successful, a proposal for a bigger statewide program will be submitted in future grant opportunities.

2. Section 44 of the Australian Constitution

Section 44 of the Australian Constitution disqualifies anyone who has dual citizenship from running for the Australian Federal Parliament.

In 2002, the Howard government made major amendments to the Citizenship Act which would allow for dual nationality for Australian Citizens wishing to run for a seat. A person’s ability to run for Federal Parliament should be based on whether they are good citizens, whether they pay their taxes, whether they have a criminal record, and so forth.

Disqualifying citizens simply because they hold another passport is discriminatory, creating division and dual classes in Australia. Anyone able to vote should be eligible to stand for a seat. Let’s not forget, Peter Lawlor fought for this right at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat in 1854 when miners paying fees were barred from representing themselves in parliament. The miners won that moral fight (after blood, sweat and tears) and Lawlor was the first miner elected to parliament.

3. A living wage for all

The global pandemic may have drawn attention to what really matters, and that a universal fairer society is possible while still keeping the economy strong.

In February 2021, the Fair Go For Pensioners Coalition shared its concerns that the basic utility allowance has remained static for more than 20 years with Victorian Minister Lily D’Ambrosio. Meanwhile, the new Job Seeker rate at $44.35 per day is creating more poverty, while Job Dobber schemes will continue to erode working conditions, keeping pensioners and the disabled in poverty and robbing waged workers of their bargaining powers for a better deal.

A respectful living wage can be funded. Recently the ATO revealed that in the last financial year one third of all big companies (such as Facebook, Shell, Blue Scope Steel, Murdoch News Australia, Pratt Holdings, Woodside Petroleum, etc) paid no tax, equating to billions of dollars which, had they been taxed, could have been redistributed to create a more equitable society.

READ MORE: Thousands of international students sign on to new Victoria relief fund

4. Adoption of a National Multicultural Act

Victoria is the only State in Australia that has a Multicultural Act, and I believe it is not a coincidence that it also has the lowest Indigenous incarceration rate. A National Multicultural Act would promote diversity and inclusion, acceptance, understanding, knowledge and power. Let’s set the standard in terms of what we want a harmonious multicultural society to look like and let us close the gap, not widen it.

5. Adopt the Uluru Statement from the Heart

At the 2021 Annual General Meeting of the progressive, largest and oldest Greek community organisation in Australia, the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria (GOCMV), which was founded in 1897, we unanimously moved a motion that included:

‘Recognising that we are proud Australian citizens, of Greek descent, who acknowledge and respect the continuous historical presence of Indigenous Australians for 60,000 years now and that:
a) The GOCMV flies the Aboriginal, Australian and Greek flags at their headquarters in 168 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
b) Supports the Uluru statement from the Heart.’
This is crucial to ‘closing the gap’ and for ‘grass roots’ change to occur in repairing relationships between a largely white dominant anglo saxon community and the rest of the nation. It is essential that the Federal Government take the same approach by signing the statement and by showing leadership on this issue. This would enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament in the Australian Constitution. Furthermore, this should be extended to be a First Nations Voice and Ethnic Communities’ Voice in the Australian Constitution, given that our constituent law as a nation, the constitution and the parliament, the representative body of our people, need to be inclusive and representative of the history and of the cultural make up of modern day Australia.

Vasso Zangalis is a member of the Board of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria.