The Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria (ECCV), the peak advocacy body representing more than 220 ethnic and multicultural community organisations in the state, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

The organisation, whose vision is the creation and existence of a culturally diverse and harmonious society that is just, fair and inclusive, where all people have the opportunity to participate in and contribute to community life, was the brainchild of the late Walter Lippmann.

The ECCV was established in 1974 as an umbrella group representing 22 different ethnic groups to provide a voice for migrants and today boasts as its patron one of the founding fathers of multiculturalism in Australia, former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser.

“It was personalities rather than communities that set up ECCV. Some of us from the Greek community were representatives of community organisations, others, like Walter Lippmann, the founding chair, had very little support from their communities,” says George Papadopoulos, a leading advocate and policy makers of multiculturalism in Victoria, who at that time was representing the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria and the Australian Greek Welfare Society in the effort to set up the council.

The organisation that existed before the formation of the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria, the Good Neighbour Council, was basically set up by the Immigration Department of Australia, through various ethnic community organisations, and at that time the council and the Immigration Department were dominated by the philosophy of assimilation, Mr Papadopoulos tells Neos Kosmos.

Members of the Greek, Jewish, Italian, Croatian communities played an important role in the beginning of the organisation, whilst other community groups joined the effort later on.

“Some of us at the time understood that people from non-English background were not getting the best opportunities or even a fair go in Australian society,” says Mr Papadopoulos, an Australian-born lawyer himself.

“Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the immigration minister Al Grasby were doing their best to try and change things, but they were blocked time and again by senior immigration people who held assimilationist views,” he states.

Things have changed since then, he argues. An effective facilitator needs to have a moral position and a set of coherent policies that can be negotiated into programs with government departments and others involved in the formulation of policies relating to the settlement of migrants, he states.

The council 40 years down the track has done reasonably well, despite the efforts of governments, who contribute funds, to make it adopt more ‘moderate’ positions, believes Papadopoulos.

“The ECCV and the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) of Australia are effective in raising issues and educating the wider community and politicians into taking multiculturalism for granted. However, it is debatable as to how effective we are in resolving issues. It is debatable how much Australia has changed in terms of employment and training opportunities for migrants,” says Mr Papadopoulos, a member of the Education, Employment and Training Committee of the ECCV.

Eddie Micallef, chairperson of the organisation, speaking to Neos Kosmos on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, stresses the fact that the ECCV enjoys strong bipartisan support by all political parties, by local government and by ethno-specific organisations. The gala night last week could be described as “spontaneous combustion”, he says.

Victoria’s Ethnic Communities’ Council was the first one to be set up in Australia in 1974. New South Wales and Western Australia followed in 1975, Queensland in 1976, Northern Territory in 1977 and finally, in 1979, we have the formation of the federal body, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA).

According to the latest Scanlon survey, says Mr Micallef, multiculturalism enjoys the support of 80 per cent of Australians. “We are seen as leaders by many countries in the world – when President Clinton was in Australia he praised our multicultural practices,” he says.

Asked about whether or not there is a gap between the official rhetoric of multiculturalism and everyday practices, the chairperson of the ECCV responded by saying there will always be a bit of a gap.

“We have to be aware that there are forces that resent multiculturalism.”

“Victoria has a multicultural Act, we should have it federally for symbolic and pragmatic reasons,” Mr Micaleff says, and he acknowledges the former Victorian immigration minister Nick Kotsiras as a very important advocate for this cause.

The ECCV is working in order to improve its relationship with the first Australians even further, states Mr Micaleff, who goes on to highlight some other priorities of his organisation.

Amongst other initiatives, he says “we have very successful aged care and health programs, we have helped introduce the Home and Community Care Program (HACC), we are linking up with ethnic communities with ageing members to make palliative care much more culturally responsive, we monitor the media, we provide media advice and advocacy whenever negative stories appear”.

The annual Wheeler Centre Walter Lippmann Memorial lectures, which acknowledge the founding chairperson of the organisation, are becoming extremely important in term of policy directions, says Mr Micaleff.

“In the past we have had Tim Costello speaking, Indira Naidoo linking refugees with the environment, Lindsay Tanner talking about the economic benefits of migration and we are trying to get Michael Kirby for next year,” he announces.

The concluding words of the president of the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria are his acknowledgement that we have a successful multicultural society, but “we still have a way to go, we can do better and we should do better”.