Tom Koutsantonis’s office in Pirie St is open, light, yet Spartan – it reeks of utility and focus.

“Your time in government is limited,” says the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Minister for Energy and Mining, and the Leader of Government Business in the House of Assembly.

“Time is precious – I’m focused. If you’ve got a problem to fix, you gotta work hard and fix it.”

The minister’s central focus is economy, (οικονομία) – οικοs the house, and νέμειν to manage, to distribute. Simple.

Get that right and then the rest flows.

For thousands of years First Nation people of South Australia mined and traded red ochre for Greenstone from Mount Isa and Cloncurry .

Ancient Athenians mined silver, then the Greeks carved the Mediterranean, the Black Sea in in their ships trading, for economy. Nothing changes in the fundamentals of economy.

Koutsantonis is using the economy to frame South Australia’s narrative. The state is a “a major contributor to the national economy,” he says.

“Especially through the expansion of the state’s mineral wealth”. Mining is an essential part of human history, civilization, of economy. And South Australia is laden with mineral wealth.

The migrant’s son has no time for “cultural wars” between South Australia and the eastern states.

“The state no longer has a chip on its shoulder,” Koutsantonis says.

“Our premier is regarded highly nationally” Peter Malinauskas, with the Hollywood jaw, led Labor to victory again in 2022 after an uneventful and messy one-term Liberal government.

The Koutsantonis mind map

There are three artefacts in Koutsantonis’s office: a tsarouchi (τσαρούχι), a Greek Orthodox icon, and a copy of Paul Keating’s portrait.

“The icon is my faith and represents the importance of faith to all humans.”

The tsarouhi – the Ottoman shoe worn in 1821 by Greek revolutionaries and part of the ceremonial uniform of the Hellenic Republic’s elite guard, the Evzones – “was a gift from Greece”, he says.

“I brought out the Evzones here for the first time, and we shared that with Melbourne and Sydney.”

The portrait of former Labor treasurer and prime minister Paul Keating holds central space on an otherwise empty wall.

“Keating represents a personal belief in the importance of the economy, he was the most reformist treasurer this country has had since Federation, he was a transformational Prime Minister, and I like his style of politics,” the minister says.

“Economic growth is everything; investment in infrastructure must provide a dividend for the community and increase the economy’s efficiency,” says the rationalist politician.

The minister for infrastructure is stewarding one of the most significant road projects in Australia—the Torrens to Darlington (T2D). At an eyewatering (est.) $15.4 billion price tag, the aim is to complete the 78-kilometre highway from Gawler to Old Noarlunga, with tunnels bypassing over 20 traffic lights.

Tom Koutsantonis in Port in Adelaide, 2018 when Labor announced it will inject $150 million of equity into the SA ports authority. Photo: AAP/Roy Vandervegt

Identity politics are the enemy of good policy

“Identity politics has poor outcomes” says an unashamedly, “centrist” Koutsantonis.

“Look at the nuclear debate. Why aren’t the Greens embracing Peter Dutton’s policy?”

“Nuclear energy is a low-carbon generation source and will be state-built, state-sponsored, and state-owned, which are all Greens’ values”, he says.

“The Greens have chosen identity politics over policy purity,” he says in a pure Keating flourish.

He then turns on Dutton and accuses him of also “engaging in identity politics”.

“What is the Liberal Party doing building state-owned generators?” he asks, then bounces another question.

“What would the economic rationalists in the Liberal Party – of 20 years ago – say about state-owned enterprises and subsidising them?”

“Identity politics is about all herd mentality; it’s dangerous.”

Given a choice between “a nuclear generator and a gas-fired turbine firming renewables,” he’d choose gas-fired turbine firming renewables because “it’s cheaper.”

South Australia’s vast uranium deposits – Olympic Dam being the world’s largest– undoubtedly part of the minister’s thinking.

Koutsantonis sees identity politics as the enemy of industry, jobs and security. For example, the AUKUS deal with the United States and Great Britain to build the SSN-AUKUS submarines in South Australia is projected, by the Commonwealth to inject $6 billion into Australian industry “with at least $2 billion in the South Australian infrastructure alone”.

Koutsantonis says AUKUS is “nation-building work” and as part of the security partnership is important in maintaining a “rules-based order in the South Pacific”.

Tom Koutsantonis, Premier of South Australia Peter Malinauskas, Nat Cook, Katrine Hildyard and Stephen Mulligan leaving Government House in Adelaide, Kaurna Yerta, Tuesday, May 3, 2020. Photo: AAP/Morgan Sette

You can take the boy out of the west, but…

Koutsantonis was elected Member for West Torrens in 1997 and has been in the inner sanctum of South Australia’s long-reigning Labor governments since 2009.

The long-serving minister is from Adelaide’s inner-west suburbs, which by the 1970s were Greek immigrant colonies. Like many Greeks, the minister entered Adelaide High School – which provided a rung in class ascendancy for Greek immigrants, as it does now for others in newer migrant communities. Like many of us second generation Greek Australians the fear of failure was inculcated in Koutsantonis. He has not time to fail.

In Jay Weatherill’s government, he amassed a cluster of portfolios, none of them easy – correctional services, gambling, small business, transport, planning and infrastructure, mining, and energy.

Koutsantonis also served as the state’s treasurer. It was under his stewardship South Australia began its economic spring.

Labor lost in 2018 and spent only a term in opposition before Peter Malinauskas led them to victory in 2022. The premier again awarded Koutsantonis senior portfolios. The mining minister is buoyed by the ravenous global demand for “critical minerals” like lithium – up 30 per cent in 2023 – essential in the manufacture of batteries and “renewable energy technology.

Demand for nickel, cobalt, graphite and rare earth elements all saw increases from 8 to 15 per cent. The mining minister has also ramped up the search for graphite, nickel, rare earths, magnesite and platinum group elements amongst others. South Australia also escaped the COVID-19 pandemic, it avoided debilitating lockdowns, the deaths and COVID-borne budget blowouts suffered mainly by Victoria, and then NSW. The state is ok.

Detente in the epicentre of the Schism between Greek Community and Church

Koutsantonis welcomes the recent moves towards reconciliation between the Greek Orthodox Community of South Australia (GOCSA), and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.

New GOCSA and Archdiocese leadership are tentatively pursuing detente. Archbishop Makarios flew to Adelaide to assure GOCSA members that the church no longer had any designs on the community’s properties. The meeting of the head of the clergy with the GOCSA membership was itself an historic event.

“It’s terrible that we’ve got Greek communities divided – that needs to be fixed, and in a way that’s sensitive to the hard work GOCSA did to provide services for our community before the church was here,” he says.

“GOCSA does a great job with the social services it offers”, and the Archdiocese “does a very good job in providing church services.”

“The South Australian government is ready to support this unification, even through legislation, if necessary.”

The rift between secular and clerical authority began in the late 1950s in South Australia and then spread across Australia. The ‘Schism’ was a by-product of the Greek Civil War, played out in the Cold War. It divided communities, broke families and tore at the fabric of the Diaspora.

All other states have come to agreements, only South Australia held remains divided.

“We need to unify the Greek community; we’re the last in the country not to be unified,” says Koutsantonis.

The proud Hellene calls for unity, particularly as most Greek Australians under 60 would have little idea what the casus belli was.

“With only about 15 million fluent Greek speakers globally, it’s crucial to stick together to maintain our faith and culture,” says Koutsantonis.

Tom Koutsantonis, SA’s Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, and Minister for Energy and Mining, in his office with the tsarouhi behind on the shelf. Photo: Supplied

Living language – not symbolism

The Greek language is the glue in Hellenism says Koutsantonis. “Going to a Greek Orthodox Church or supporting the return of the Parthenon Sculptures is not enough”.

“Being able to speak Greek is the intimate link between us and our heritage—where our parents or grandparents came from.

“We must impart the importance of culture, ethnicity, and identity to our children and provide the necessary infrastructure.

Recently, the South Australian government funded the Hellenic Foundation to develop curriculum units to standardise Greek education, something Koutsantonis believes may have national impact.

“The aim is that Greek teachers across the country can teach the same material in the same sequence, making transitions smoother for students moving between regions.

“We must use our influence to support its teaching in public schools,” the minister says.

Greek Australian Diaspora treated as the ‘country cousin’ by Greece.

Koutsantonis believes Greece needs to focus more on Greek Australians not only the Greek Diaspora in the United States.

In the tense Southeastern Mediterranean and Middle East, Greece, a frontline NATO ally, leans on the Greek Diaspora in United States. However, the Hellenic Republic has missed the memo about Australia’s Greek Diaspora as far as the minister is concerned.

Australia is part of the Five Eyes security alliance led by the US, and includes Great Britain, Canada, and New Zealand.

“If Greece wants to adhere to a rules-based order and implement nautical law, Australia is your greatest ally.

“Australia has shed blood in the defence of Greece against the Axis invasion of World War II.

“The Hellenic Republic forgets who some of the most successful Diaspora is”, he says.

“South Australia was the first to take Turkey to court over Cyprus and first to recognise the Pontian and Armenian genocides,” Koutsantonis adds.

He emphasises how “influential” the Greek community is “in politics, with significant contributions in Victoria, NSW, and South Australia.”

Hellenism and economy are this Westie’s loadstar.

“I am of the view, as the dictum has it, when the tide comes in, I want all the boats to rise,” his minister says, and channels Keating one more time.

Asked what advice he’d give a young Tom Koutsantonis if he had the chance, “Simple”, he says “marry earlier”.

This interview is part of Neos Kosmos’ extensive editorial supplement on the Greeks community of South Australia out 27 July with our bilingual print edition.