Early last month, as readers may recollect, the Herald Sun published prominently an article about the government forking out $100 million per year to” finance the holiday lifestyles of numerous disability pensioners who live overseas”. The article quoting the Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews went on to name Greeks as the main “offenders” followed by Turks, Croatians and New Zealanders. This article was published in the lead up to the government’s austerity budget and was clearly intended to inflame prejudices against ‘foreigners’ and deflect from the massive attacks on disability and other pensioner payments. These disability ethnic pensioners are in fact Australian citizens who contributed their best to the nation’s welfare and are entitled, yes entitled, to take their meagre pensions to the country of their birth and probably their last place, not living in luxury in 5 star hotels and resorts but in the modestly done up remnants of the house they were born in. They stretch the pension to cover needs that if in Australia they would have called on government and other public support agencies. But above all, is it not a fundamental human right for pensioners and, indeed all people, to see their last days and years off in the best possible comfortable and happy environment? The rich have no problems in buying one any time.
“The court case lasted 400 days. Two of the accused pensioners committed suicide during the stressful procedure. The court found no conspiracy and all of the accused not guilty.”
Inflaming prejudices with falsified ‘facts’ and with Greeks pensioners at the epicentre is not new; the perpetrators of injustice are very good at blaming the victims, as the following historical reference from my book Migrant Workers and Ethnic Communities reminds us.
The Greek Pension Scandal was one of the biggest campaigns fought by Greek Australians, led by the welfare organisations and social workers.
In 1978 Federal Government social security personnel and Federal Police had announced triumphantly to an eager press the uncovering of a scheme planned and executed by Greek Australian doctors and pensioners to defraud the Commonwealth through unlawful social security payments to Greek pensioners in Australia and in Greece. At that time, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was busy demolishing the universal health care system Medicare established by the Whitlam government.
Federal Police arrested 500 Greek Australian pensioners in Sydney, who had their pensions terminated and their bank accounts confiscated. A further 180 were arrested in Greece. They were all charged with conspiracy to defraud the Commonwealth. Many remained in custody for several days before being released. In Greece those arrested were put into the infamous Koridalos jail. Denied their pensions and with their bank accounts frozen, they were destitute.
The government and the media proclaimed them guilty months before their day in court. The media played a despicable role. The Greek pensioners managed to get legal aid through the Redfern Legal Aid Service in Sydney. The Greek Australian Welfare Women’s Association of Sydney coordinated the legal defence and the public campaign. There was no doubt the arrests were politically motivated. Other communities, like the ltalian, Turkish, Jewish and Yugoslav, joined the campaign. The court case lasted 400 days. Two of the accused pensioners committed suicide during the stressful procedure. The court found no conspiracy and all the accused not guilty. There was no apology from the government and no offer of compensation. The struggle for compensation lasted another 10 years.
When Bob Hawke became Prime Minister in 1983 he appointed Dame Roma Mitchell as a Royal Commissioner to inquire and report on the issue. She found all the accused were simply ordinary people with nothing to do with criminal activities. The government accepted the recommendation for a $10 million compensation package to all victims, and a sincere and public apology. The Sydney AGWWA was given $150,000 to administer the compensation payments. This was a tremendous victory.
Vivi Germanos-Koutsounadis was at the centre of this whole campaign. She rated this achievement as the greatest for migrant rights at the time. Her involvement with disability issues, teaching community languages, educating pre-school children and immigrant women’s speaking out movement grew deeper, particularly in the mental disability area, which was traditionally taboo in migrant communities.
Activism and advocacy influenced some progressive legislation such as the Child Protection Act, Human Rights and the Rights of the Child, the Disability Act and Ethnic Child Care. Vivi struggled to overcome sexism. She was usually the only woman and certainly the only migrant woman in most organisations she was involved with. But men, she said, came to respect her as she had something to offer: “We made some inroads to the men’s club.”
In 2002 she represented Australia at the United Nations Special Session for Children and addressed the world’s leaders. She found the time to help establish and co-lead the Greek Cultural Association at Marrickville (Sydney) with Maria Fotiadis, Fokion Vouros and Nick Papanikitas, the predecessor to the Greek Festival. She helped ECC leaders S. Constanzo, Paulo Tataro, Paula Masselos and Dorothy Buckland in establishing the Sydney Carnivale in the early 1900s, whose director for many years was another Greek Australian, Lex Marinos. The NSW Australian Non-English-Speaking Women’s Association was another of her initiatives.
In 1983 Vivi was awarded the Order of Australia Medal, in 1988 the Human Rights Medal of the University of New South Wales and in 2003 the Alumni award. None of these accolades took Vivi out of her natural grassroots environment and the Greek Community in which she still serves on the committee of management, the Welfare and Social Rights subcommittees, while working full-time for the Ethnic Child Care Family and Community Services Cooperative in Marrickville.
* George Zangalis is a former trade unionist and the secretary of Melbourne’s ethnic community radio station 3ZZZ.