The Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians as the First Peoples of Australia and a formal acknowledgment of the manner in which their land was taken from them by the colonialists is long overdue, both as a means of providing healing but also so as to provide a true reflection of the history of this country and the basis upon which its current legal system was created.
The current proposal to create an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament does not constitute formal recognition of Australia’s First People in the Constitution however and indeed, an amendment of the Constitution’s preamble to provide a form of such recognition (“honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country”) was defeated at referendum in 1999. Instead, the current proposal seeks to enshrine within the Constitution, a federal advisory body to represent the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice or “Voice” as it is currently termed would be tasked with advising the Federal Parliament and Government on matters which significantly affect Indigenous Australians. It is envisaged that delegates to the Voice will be chosen by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the wishes of local communities and will not be appointed by the government of the day.
The initiative is an important one and it has been enthusiastically supported by prominent members and organisations of the Greek community, notably the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria. What has been overlooked up until now however, is that until relatively recently, the various Greek communities of Australia participated, for over a decade in another Voice, the Council of Greeks Abroad.
While there are significant differences between the Voice to Parliament proposal in Australia and the legislation for the Council of Greeks abroad, there are also some similarities in the broader goals and objectives of both initiatives.
One key similarity is that both initiatives are aimed at promoting the representation and participation of traditionally marginalized communities in the political process. The Voice to Parliament proposal seeks to establish a representative body for Indigenous Australians that can advise the federal parliament on issues affecting their communities. Similarly, the Council of Greeks abroad was conceived of as an advisory body to promote the interests of Greeks living abroad and to provide input to the Greek government on issues affecting the diaspora.
Of course what becomes apparent from the outset is that it is the dominant, ruling class, that is those espousing the culture of the agents of colonisation and violent occupation who purport to “grant” the Indigenous Australians a “Voice,” thus defining and fashioning the terms by which such representation will take place in order for it to be deemed legitimate in their eyes, rather than submitting to the will of the Indigenous Australians themselves as to the terms according to which they wish to be heard. As such, it could be argued that the “Voice,” is merely one more manifestation of the ruling classes’ ontopathology, wherein the colonised are co-opted, by a “grant” of rights over those whose sovereignty was abrogated, to legitimise the violent occupation of this continent.
In similar vein but in mirror image, rather than seek, let alone adhere, to the wishes of the diasporan Greek communities as to the manner in which they seek to be organised and heard, the Greek government imposed a structure of its own upon diverse communities that are citizens of other countries and thus far removed from Greece’s jurisdiction. It could thus be argued that by imposing structures upon these diasporan Greeks, rather than consulting with them, the Greek government is re-enacting the same acts of political and economic aggression that caused those Greeks or their ancestors to leave their homelands in the first place.
Considering however, that the above aside, both initiatives formally recognize the importance of acknowledging and addressing historical injustices and inequalities faced by the communities they represent, one cannot but support them in principle. The Voice to Parliament proposal is part of a broader effort to address the historical injustices and ongoing challenges faced by Indigenous Australians, while the Council of Greeks abroad aimed to promote the rights and interests of a diaspora that has historically faced discrimination and marginalization.
Regardless, the Council of Greeks Abroad failed dismally despite its lofty aims for a number of reasons. Its delegates were supposed to be drawn from the Church, which in Australia at least, declined to participate, and like the “Voice,” via democratic procedures from community organisations. A flurry of Federations were hastily formed, for the Greek government did not recognise legally registered regional brotherhoods as eligible participants in the Council, granting franchises only to “Federations,” of these. Comprised of a membership that in most cases by no means was representative of their region or of the broader community, these “Federations” largely controlled by the same people for decades, mostly lacked the qualifications to understand let alone provide any advice with regard to issues pertaining to Greeks Abroad. Nonetheless, these were the only delegates acceptable to the Greek government.
Further, the premise of recognition set out by the Greek government with regard to the Greeks of Australia and elsewhere as being comprised largely of federations organised on the basis of their region of origin in Greece was compromised by the fact that within Australia, the culture and operation of regional Greek organisations is largely the same and by focusing on irrelevant differences in place of origin, the vital diversity of diasporan Greeks in relation to education, class, professions, interests, culture, language and contact with Greece itself, was totally ignored.
Such delegates as attended the various Council of Greeks Abroad conferences in Thessaloniki, bizarrely appointed the capital of diasporan Hellenism, instead of a place within the diaspora, derisively termed «τζάμπα τουρίστες» by those who were not selected, rather than being armed with reports and submissions containing data obtained after extensive consultation with their non-existent or disinterested members, simply attended because the Greek government paid for their ticket to Greece, and instead of lobbying for issues pertaining to the diaspora, utilised the occasion as an opportunity to take photos with Greek politicians, seek cash injections for their organisations or, as I did, when I was a youth delegate, lobby for change in government policy on “national” issues and external affairs, something which was not envisaged or condoned by the Greek government when setting up the organisation.
It should be noted that subsequent ministerial decrees regarding the Council’s structure granted the Greek government freedom to invite ‘noteworthy’ individuals and other organisations, thus circumventing the electoral process altogether and undermining the Council’s pretensions to democratic franchise and broad-based representation. Nonetheless, although there existed hand picked appointments to youth, business, women and diasporic politician networks, these were effectively neutralised, because apart from the bi-annual deliberations of the Council’s World Conferences, there never existed any workable framework for participating groups to submit advice to the Greek government. That advice was never sought by the Greek government and when various groups did attempt to make recommendations or ask questions, usually of parliament, these were largely met with silence or fobbed off with rhetoric.
While advocates aspire to have the Indigenous Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, Greeks of the diaspora can point to Article 108(2) of the Greek Constitution as constitutional recognition of the Council of Greeks Abroad, that article stating: “Law shall specify matters relating to the organisation, operation and competences of the Council of Hellenes Abroad, whose mission is the expression of all communities of Hellenes across the world.” However, the relevant legislation setting out the functions of the Council, passed in 2016, was repealed by the passage of article 479 of 4781/2021, and from that date on, although mention of the Council still remains within the Constitution, the Council has effectively been dissolved, in keeping with Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Terence Quick commenting in 2018 that while the Council needs to be re-created, its name needs to be changed because its title is “a word our Diaspora hears and freaks out.”
Greece and Australia are worlds apart, in political culture, governance, social responsibility and implementation of legislation. However, the fate of the Council of Greeks Abroad, whose aims were lofty and laudable, and which, during the brief times it was permitted to operate smoothly, was able, at least in Australia under the leadership of Costas Vertzayias and George Angelopoulos, to make some remarkable achievements, can serve as a cautionary tale as to what can happen, despite Constitutional recognition, to institutions when not enough work is undertaken to understand the needs of the communities they supposedly give a voice to, when adequate care is not taken to ensure they are truly representative and independent, when the political will does not exist to take such recommendations as an advisory council may make seriously and when not enough political goodwill exists to ensure that such institutions are not degraded or subverted to suit ephemeral political agendas.
The constitutional recognition of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament deserves our unswerving support. However, it can only ever truly be effective and fulfil the aspirations of those who will be represented by it, as well as the progressive elements of Australian society, if it is underpinned by an extensive and functional legislative framework. As the ultimate demise of the still constitutionally recognised Council of Greeks Abroad indicates, the devil is still very much in the detail.