The last time I saw the august leader of the opposition, Bill Shorten, I was just tucking into a feast of roast lamb at the glorious Philhellene restaurant in Moonee Ponds. In he walked, and a barely-concealed gasp was emitted from the mouths of most of the patrons. “Hey that’s Bill Shorten,” one elderly lady seated a few tables away from me gushed. “Let’s go and say hello.” “Leave the poor bugger alone,” her husband said. “He has enough on his plate without having to deal with the likes of us interrupting his tea. Still, good of him to support businesses in his electorate.”
Quite part from the fact that I appreciated immensely the husband’s subtle play on the word plate, I was quite taken aback by what next ensued. Bill Shorten sat down with his companions and ate, unmolested and uninterrupted by journalists, patrons, autograph hunters or clients seeking favours, as would have been the case in our ancestral homeland. This made me proud to be Australian.
Try as you might, you can’t ignore the Greek presence in the federal seat of Maribyrnong. Though not in one’s face, and not prone to congregate in large, noticeable numbers, except around the local shopping centres (notably, the coffee and cake shops purporting to be Greek are awful, though the restaurants, Philhellene, Meltemi, Lindos and Nobel, a novel name for a Greek restaurant if there ever was one, are local landmarks), nevertheless the Greeks are there, their existence denoted often by the presence of olive trees in the front yard, or a brief whiff of incense emanating from a given home as one drives past. In the summer, nine out of 10 leather-tanned, white-singleted, blue-shorted and leather-sandalled elderly men, driving around the streets of the electorate with a multitude of salvaged timbers in their trailer, tend also to be Greek. Our own family legend holds that we were the second Greek family to settle in Essendon, the heartland of the electorate, in 1954, though I have no way of proving this.
What having deep roots in one’s local area does do, however, is give you an enhanced sense of community, and of history. As I traverse the streets of my homeland, a myriad of family and village connections assume the form of an interconnected web in my mind. There on the right, my cousin’s house. Further down the street, the homes of people from either my mother or father’s villages, continuing a social network of support and mutual assistance that transcends both time and borders. Here, the home of a friend from Greek school. There, the home of our local priest. On the main road, the local branch of the Delphi Bank. In the new estates now currently being built up with hideous box like constructions lay the paddocks from which I would help my grandfather gather χόρτα. Up the road, the Child and Maternal Health Centre, which was built by the Greek community of East Keilor as a local club, until internecine squabbles caused the council to confiscate the building and put it to better use.
Furthermore, in our electorate, there are four significant Greek Orthodox parishes: Panagia Soumela East Keilor, Saint Dimitrios Ascot Vale, Agia Paraskevi St Albans and Apostolos Andreas Sunshine. The City of Moonee Valley, in which the first two aforementioned churches are situated, where my grandparents settled, my parents grew up and into which I was born and introduced into a Greek-speaking community, is without a doubt my πατρίδα. Without it, my sense of my own identity, both as a Greek and as an Australian, would be markedly different to what it is today.
It is for this reason, more than any other, the almost total identification that the electorate of Maribyrnong Greeks have with their local community, that Bill Shorten’s failure to include Greek among the languages in which he expressed his Season’s Greetings in a card sent to his constituents appears to have incensed the Greek community so much, as well as mystified it, for by all accounts, Bill Shorten has established a close relationship with the local Greek community of his electorate and has consulted widely and often with its leadership.
Granted, considering that we have been present in the electorate for over 60 years, one could argue that Bill Shorten, in omitting Greek from the other languages appearing in his card, these being Vietnamese, Maltese, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Spanish, French, Croatian, Arabic and Turkish, is paying us a backhand compliment, in that he is considering us so much a part of the fabric of the electorate that no further effort is required to ‘accommodate’ us. The presence of an Italian greeting on that card would contradict such an assertion. The Italian community’s arrival to the electorate precedes our own and, given the rate of language loss within its community, it is arguable that Greek is more widespread as a spoken language. Certainly, the Greek language is taught in more than 10 schools within the electorate, suggesting it is a major language within the electorate. Visiting the local cemetery, one notices that approximately a quarter of the gravestones are inscribed in Greek.
Our ethnolinguistic roots within the electorate are thus more than merely superficial, and its Greeks have not been able to understand why their elected representative would take the trouble to offer greetings in French or Korean, languages that few speak within the electorate, and not the language of a major ethnic group that has contributed so much to the evolution of the electorate of Maribyrnong, and which as a matter of fact has been a constant en masse supporter of that elected representative’s party.
As the Greek language declines in use (and certainly within the electorate of Maribyrnong, the Greek inscriptions or public signs that were once placed in the shopfronts of old Greek business, giving the area a cosmopolitan atmosphere, are almost extinct, as the latter generations explore other employment opportunities), it is logical for the Greek community to become defensive, or possibly even hysterical about each perceived slight or insult that is seen to diminish its importance or impugn its existence.
Bill Shorten’s paralepsis, however, does not give rise to hysteria. Instead, the Greeks, both of Greece and Cyprus, in his electorate are well-justified in feeling affronted because, after the passage of so many decades, it should have been axiomatic that Greek was a language to be included in any multilingual communication emanating from any member for Maribyrnong’s office, simply because the Greek people feel, and they are right to do so, that they are inextricably interwoven within the history and social make-up of the area. For them, Greek is one of the native languages of the electorate.
When confronted with complaints by local Greeks at the omission of such an important electorate language from the card, myself among them, Bill Shorten’s staff seemed genuinely distressed at what they stated to be an ‘oversight’ and were extremely apologetic. What this episode teaches us, however, is that we cannot and should not rely upon or assume as a given, any validation of our ethno-linguistic identity by a mainstream whose interests in this regard are not always the same as our own.
The fact that omissions of this nature can take place, omissions that the Greeks of the electorate broadly felt, served to efface their existence as a social entity, even after more than half a century of active involvement within the local community, teach us that we must look inward, strengthening our own community institutions, engaging more with each other and finding meaningful ways to articulate a Greek Australian identity, not as prescribed by policy-makers or by grant-givers, but rather for and of ourselves, if we are to persist as a viable, cogent and relevant entity to multicultural Australia, whether or not we are the recipient of Season’s Greetings.
In this, Bill Shorten, who in a follow-up letter to the parish priest of Saint Dimitrios in Ascot Vale commented, “the Greek community has had an integral role in shaping the identity of our country and the electorate of Maribyrnong, and we are richer for this experience,” before wishing him “Καλά Χριστούγεννα και Καλή Χρονιά” has the final word.