Haris Demas’ article about the Greek Social Security case is not new to me as I was involved in part of the investigation. I clearly remember when over 180 migrants, all of Greek origin, and about five doctors had their homes in Sydney raided in the early hours of 1 April 1978 by the Commonwealth Police. Not knowing what and why it was happening, these migrants were dragged off in front of their petrified families by the Commonwealth Police, to be charged for allegedly defrauding the Social Security Department.
Most of these people were receiving an invalid pension due to a physical or psychological incapacity. The charges levelled against them were that they supposedly were involved with some doctors as part of a massive Greek conspiracy to illegally obtain a social security invalid pension.
Nearly 1,000 people, all of them Greek-born, were investigated and placed under suspicion by the authorities throughout April 1978 and had their pension or sickness allowances stopped on the simple premise that they were Greek and therefore might have illegally obtained a government payment. The Social Security Department had believed for some time that Greeks were rorting the pension system by paying doctors to grant them an invalid pension via an underworld organisation called the ‘Kolpo’, akin to the Italian Mafia.
Although it might not seem such a big deal that the government took these measures back then, something of its equivalent occurring today would be if you heard the news that almost 1,000 people of Middle Eastern background had been rounded up from their homes and taken into custody for investigation and charged with a conspiracy. The media and radio talk back shows would be going ballistic, demanding these people be deported back to where they came from, without asking for any evidence to be provided.
That is exactly what happened back in 1978 when journalists from a Sydney tabloid paper just ‘happened’ to accompany the Commonwealth Police when they raided the homes of those Greeks on that April 1 morning, reporting the arrests as a great triumph and coup for our federal law enforcement agency.
The media trumpeted how millions of dollars were involved, with Greek invalid pensioners ripping off the system and many of them living in Greece like royalty. Suddenly anyone of Greek origin was looked upon as a cheat and bludger and this stuck until the next batch of newly-arrived migrants, which happened to be those from the Middle East.
As someone involved in the investigation, I was appalled at the number of Greek Australians who believed all the media propaganda and were quick to accuse without any proof those who were arrested, or who were receiving a pension payment, of being cheats.
There were even instances where Greek interpreters used by the police made fun of the people being interviewed and investigated. Those Greek migrants who were taken in by the police were also made to hold a sign stating ‘Greece’ while being photographed, had all their personal papers and documents seized and checked for clues that might incriminate them.
Pensioners were forced to remember why they had withdrawn or deposited paltry amounts of money as low as $20 some years prior. Questions were asked including why they couldn’t speak English seeing as they had been here for 15-20 years, as though it was a crime, even though these people had worked in heavy unskilled labouring jobs, usually with other migrants from their own background. Besides, this was no reason why they could not be trusted.
Some of these invalid pensioners suffered greatly. I know of instances where suicide attempts were made, one unfortunately successful, while others had to borrow money from friends and relatives to survive as they had their welfare payments suspended for many months, while many others had their pensions stopped over several years.
The committal hearing of the conspiracy case became the most expensive and longest-running in the English-speaking world and eventually all the charges of conspiracy were dropped some years later.
There was, however, a positive outcome for some of those under suspicion, whereby they had their pension payments increased due to their benefits being thoroughly investigated by the Social Security Department, which had not calculated correctly their entitlement years earlier.
This event should not be forgotten but should serve as a reminder to us to be careful and vigilant when whole ethnic, racial or religious groups are accused by government authorities of some conspiracy against the state.
Unfortunately, stigmatising a group of people based on their physical and or cultural background has become an art in this country during the last 20 years. These events should not be forgotten but also taught in schools as part of Australia’s history.