In a country where voting is compulsory, it may seem moot to explore the issue of political participation. All eligible Australian citizens over 18 years of age are required to register to vote and take part in state and federal elections (and often in local government elections as well). If political participation is compulsory, why should we give this issue a second thought? Most eligible Australians are participating politically. Or are they?
This question is difficult to answer. There are no studies that look at this question or organisations who collect this data. However, there are a myriad of examples of individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds who are politically engaged, actively influencing the conduct of public affairs through their networks and spheres of influence. This essay tells the stories of some of those individuals and reflects on the factors that encouraged them towards greater participation. It also shares their thoughts on where the barriers lie for other members of their communities. In an election year, it is important to reflect on the issue of political participation and how all Australians can access the spheres where decisions are being made. An essay conducted by The Scanlon Foundation Research Institute (scanloninstitute.org.au) contributes to this discussion and challenges the view that there is only one form of political pathway.
One of the participants is Aggelos Makrigiorgos, a political satirist and Electorate Officer at the Parliament of Australia for Maria Vamvakinou MP.
For the political satirist Greek family dinners rarely conclude without some discussion of politics, and Aggelos’ was no exception. As a boy, sitting at the table, he was filled equally with keftedes and spanakopita as with political opinion and philosophy, the great food of the ancients. As he grew, he fed his burgeoning interest in politics with music and satire. Rage Against the Machine provided the lyrics for his frustration at wanting to understand what was happening in the world. The irreverent humour of The Simpsons and South Park spurred deeper questions about the effectiveness of political machinery.
Eventually Aggelos found the right medium to explore these issues: art. Events with both local and international significance found their way onto the page. The Greek financial crisis, suicide rates, drug use and economic disaster all became subjects of artistic works. Through his pencil, Aggelos asked questions and formed opinions and continued to wrestle.
After concluding high school, Aggelos travelled overseas to spend a year in Greece. He was there during the referendum of 2015 when Greek citizens rejected the austerity measures proposed by European institutions to dig the country out of its debt crisis, only to have them accepted by the government some days later. Returning to Australia full of the frustration of seeing a political system fall down, Aggelos was faced with the question of what to do next. He was passionate about art and wanted to channel his interest in politics in that direction, but he was very aware it would limit his future employment prospects so he decided to study politics. Through his course he picked up a placement at a federal MPs office and, soon after, was offered a job on staff.
The opportunity he was given to work directly within Australia’s political machinery caused him to reframe his thinking about the possibilities open to him for political engagement.
Although he was studying politics, Aggelos felt that working in the system was an opportunity only afforded to some people – the “lawyer’s son or daughter” or those with the correct pedigree or the right background. He felt acutely that his working class roots and his overtly Greek name would pose barriers to political employment.
His experience proved otherwise: “I just didn’t think that normal people were cut out for this type of stuff. I went to a public school, both for primary school and high school. None of my friends are really into politics. I didn’t know anyone who was working in politics. So if I was the norm in my world, people like me weren’t getting the opportunities to work in these types of environments.
I thought because my name was really Greek I could never really get a job with a resume. I always got work through meeting someone. I was pretty convinced that if I changed my name, I might get a job more easily. But that isn’t true. I think that anyone has the chance just by me doing it. I’ve had people come to me and say ‘if you can do it then we can do it too.’ And that’s been pretty inspiring.”
Aggelos works within the MPs office on community engagement. The electorate is large and very diverse and there are a lot of refugees settled there, particularly from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Much of his work revolves around immigration issues, which Aggelos can relate to as someone from a migrant background. He can understand where they are coming from.
“A lot of the cases I deal with are going nowhere. And sometimes when the system is harsh or unfair, you just need good people working in the bureaucracy who are just not going to give up on the person. I’ve found that with perseverance I’ve achieved almost miracles. If there are people within the hopeless system… people who care… then I think it’s hopeful. It makes it possible even for the impossible to be achieved.”
However, for Aggelos, the question of what to do long term still remains unresolved. While he wants to keep his “foot in the door” in politics, the art scene still calls to him. He’s drawn to the idea of producing political satire through art, in a space where he can combine political engagement and creativity to explore a range of issues. There are advantages to using art as a political medium: “I think sometimes political satire helps people understand really what’s going on. People like Jon Stewart helped me growing up to understand some really complicated topics. To simplify the madness a little bit. Art, comedy and satire can just help you understand how crazy it all is.”
Regardless of the next step in the journey, it is important to Aggelos that he keeps engaging with the issues. His Greek Australian heritage has given him a sense of what he terms “survivor’s guilt”. As someone who hasn’t been impacted to the extent that his Greek compatriots were during the financial crisis, who hasn’t lived through the economic hardship and the failures of the political system that people he knew experienced, he feels particular responsibility to use the opportunities he has been given to engage politically to the fullest extent possible.
Trish Prentice is a researcher with a particular interest in social cohesion and religious communities. She has worked in Australia and overseas in the government, academic and not-for profit sectors, including in Cairo, Egypt, working for an organisation specialising in Arab-West Understanding and in Geneva, Switzerland for a human rights advocacy group. Trish has managed research projects in Indonesia, Singapore and Pakistan and written on various topics, including Islamophobia and Australian values from an Islamic perspective.