The above, positioned above a photograph of John Laws holding a bottle of Valvoline motor oil, is the caption from one of the countless memes with which I inundated social media in the lead-up to the extraordinary general meeting of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria in order to obtain member approval for the sale of part of its holdings in Bulleen. My favourite meme, however, is one I posted of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, grinning devilishly while saying: “A referendum for Bulleen? Even if you vote No, the result will still be Yes.”
The aforementioned meme proved to be not far off the mark. Despite strident opposition, primarily expressed via some sections of community radio, a whopping 92 per cent of members present and entitled to vote voted in favour of the GOCMV board’s proposal for the sale. As I stood in the immense Andrianakos Centre, itself a product of the board’s strategic engagement with previously unharnessed sections of the community, watching the crowds mill and discuss the proposal enthusiastically, I was taken aback by the frisson of excitement that pervaded the space.
Here there was none of the fractious, acrimonious and combative atmosphere that generally characterises the gatherings and deliberations of organised Greek communities in Melbourne. There was no breaking off into smaller groups, the famous ‘πηγαδάκια,’ there to indulge in skullduggery and number crunching. No recalling of past favours or marshalling of apparatchiks seemed to be conducted. Where there were once scowls, smiles abounded and an almost palpable buzz of optimism and goodwill was omnipresent.
Everyone I spoke with had a different interpretation of what they were voting for. Some thought they were voting for the construction of a tower, others, for the construction of an old people’s home with adjoining shops, and one particular elderly gentleman laboured under the opinion that he was voting for the construction of a more genteel counterpart to Oakleigh’s Eaton Mall.
We are, after all, talking about Bulleen. When it was explained to them that the resolution they were being called upon to vote for was for the subdivision and sale of part of the Bulleen property, this did not perturb them in the slightest, where only a few years ago, questions of: “And what will they do with the money? Why should we sell now?”, would have left the proposal dead in its tracks. Indeed, so firm in their convictions were the attendees of the meeting that they kept coming in droves, long after the meeting had started. Most were not interested in hearing the arguments for and against. Instead, they were there, as most of them put it, to vote for progress and change. As one voter put it: ‘Να κάνουμε κάτι επιτέλους.’ For them, the GOCMV’s vision for Bulleen represents that change.
The fact that the Greek community can go from nitpicking profit and loss statements in order to trip up boards about the unaccounted five dollars spent on postage stamps to placing their trust in a board’s vision for a multi-million dollar development represents an important cultural and sociological shift in the way our community conducts its affairs and, I would venture to say, is of historical importance.
Furthermore, the presence of leaders of diverse smaller community groups in the Andrianakos Centre last Sunday, all of whom felt that they had a vital stake in the deliberations of the GOCMV and were more than ready and willing to assist, where only a few years ago, they were excluded and had no hope of even getting close to the GOCMV, also represents a historic shift in the dynamics of our community. From a fragmented, dysfunctional mosaic, we can see disparate forces, while retaining still their own sense of identity, gradually coalescing around the central pole of the GOCMV. What is more, rather than being dragged, kicking and screaming, jealously guarding illusory privileges to the grave, they seem to be wishing to offer themselves to the GOCMV voluntarily and, with rapture.
The sale of the Orestias brotherhood’s club building and its subsequent donation of $1 million of the proceeds to the GOCMV must be viewed in this light. Such a donation would have been inconceivable a decade ago and yet there they were, the committee members of the Orestias brotherhood, standing before the members at the extraordinary general meeting, received the acclamation that is their due. Soon after, the members, some of whom I know to be the most querulous, minutiae-delighting community leaders ever to disrupt an election or undermine a committee, streamed to the ballot boxes, also to give of themselves willingly to the GOCMV, in a docile and friendly fashion. I found myself scratching my head in incredulity. Looking up at the board, seated on the stage above, I found myself asking: “Who are these people and what have you done with the real Greeks of Melbourne?”
The answer is simple. The GOCMV board has presided over one of the most progressive, dynamic and productive eras in that institution’s history. By embarking on necessary infrastructure projects and successfully completing them, they have managed to galvanise a hitherto apathetic and disengaged community. By boldly and actively engaging with Greeks of all regions, political persuasions and religious affiliations, the GOCMV has transformed itself, in the space of a few years, from an insular, exclusive, ideological ghetto into that which its founding fathers dreamed it should be − the all-embracing, inclusive, peak representative body of Greeks in Victoria. Any chance visit to the Greek Centre on any given day, but especially on Saturday, when its floors are bursting with children learning the Greek language in brilliantly-appointed classrooms, or on a Thursday night, when all and sundry can attend lectures on Greek culture and history, speaks volumes about the historical revitalisation of our community under the current board of the GOCMV.
The Bulleen vote was thus more than just about Bulleen and its future. It was a ringing endorsement of the direction the GOCMV has taken under this board and most importantly, given that the plan to redevelop Bulleen is subject to numerous conditions and circumstances falling into place, that rare thing for a Melburnian Greek − a declaration of trust, that this board, which has taken upon itself the task of re-imagining our future as Greek Australians and is proceeding to lay the necessary foundation to secure that future, will deliver on its promises and most importantly, has the capacity, to make a collective dream, a functional reality.
The magnitude of that trust (92 per cent of the vote), marks a historical turning point in the affairs of our community, as does the way its leadership is perceived. The almost rapturous manner in which GOCMV president Bill Papastergiadis was received by the majority of members at the general meeting, the way in which large numbers confided in me on the day that they were “voting for Bill” or that they “came here for Bill” or that ‘οΜπίλληςξέρειτικάνει’ suggests that we may be witnessing the emergence of a charismatic leader in Hellenic Melbourne, a historic aberration for a people that both laments the absence of ηγέτες and proceeds to defenestrate anyone displaying leadership pretensions, refusing to acknowledge their legitimacy.
In the case of president Bill Papastergiadis, there appears to be a tacit, taken-for-granted acceptance among members that he is their leader, that his words carry weight, that his vision is true and that he is the appropriate person to represent us within the broader Australian social fabric and beyond. That, in and of itself, is truly remarkable.
From a sociological, cultural and even psychological point of view, the Bulleen vote, which by means of future hindsight will most probably be viewed as Chapter 2 in the process of our community’s redevelopment and reorganisation, is thus of immense historical importance. Just how far that vision can be carried forward depends, largely, upon our ability to maintain the unprecedented level of communal cohesion the GOCMV has been able to achieve and, ultimately, upon all of us.