Greek Australians and the Voice Referendum

by Kostas Karamarkos

On October 14, Australia goes to a referendum to acknowledge in its constitution its First Nations People, who number approximately 800,000 people, or 3 per cent of its population and have a continuous historical and cultural presence on the continent for 65,000 years. Australians are asked to acknowledge this via the creation of a consultative body to the federal parliament and to the federal government, called the Voice, which is to give advice on issues affecting the lives of Indigenous Australians, who lag significantly behind in relation to white Australia, in health, education, employment and other areas.

Colonial nations like the US, Canada, and New Zealand, have recognized their Native People in a formal way much earlier than Australia. Last time Australians were called to successfully address issues affecting their black ancestors, was in another referendum in May 1967. With bipartisan support, almost 91% of the people voted in favor of granting the Commonwealth government the right to legislate for the Aborigines and the Torres Straight Islander residents of the country, as well as the right to include them in the official census. The 1999 republic referendum, which also addressed the issue of Indigenous and migrant recognition in the constitution, was only supported by 40% of the people.

For a referendum to be successful in Australia, it needs to win a double majority. That is, a majority of the votes nationally, as well as the majority of the states (four out of the six states). The Australian Capitol Territory and the Northern Territory do not constitute proper states and therefore the vote of their citizens is only counted in the national tally. Because of this requirement, only eight out of the forty-four referendum questions put to the people since the country was created as a federation in 1901, have been successful.

The Voice to parliament and to government referendum enjoys the support of more than 80% of Indigenous Australians and comes as a request by the vast majority of the representatives of the Indigenous communities, after an assembly convened in May 2017 in the heart of the country, at the sacred rock of Uluru, where they produced the famous one-page long Uluru Statement from the Heart. The Statement is a request by the First Australians to the rest of the nation, to establish a permanent Voice so that they can be heard by the white majority, to start a Truth telling process regarding the violent history of black and white relations in the country and ultimately, to achieve a Treaty.

Uluru Sacred Rock

The polls of the last few months indicate that the proposal for constitutional recognition will be defeated by approximately 60% to 40% nationwide. The Yes vote has a majority in those who are under 34 and enjoys majority support by well-educated people living in the inner suburbs of the urban centers, who vote for the left of center parties in Australia, that is Labor and the Greens.

Credit: [the official site of the yes campaign]

Suburban and rural Australia, voters of the conservative Coalition parties that oppose the Voice, conservative think tanks and wealthy businesspeople, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, the extreme, racist, and alternative right and a small minority of more radical indigenous people who think the Voice is a timid initiative, have created a popular front that will probably lead to the defeat of the Voice in the referendum.

The misinformation and disinformation that the No campaign has spread in the past few months, especially on social media, with the help of overseas right-wing supporters, has exploited the fear and the ignorance many Australians have about the Indigenous nations of the land. The No supporters argue that the establishment of a Voice will impose to the rest of Australians the agenda of the elites. The Voice will create constitutional problems, it will divide the nation along racial lines—even though there are already racial references in the constitution of the country—and it will threaten the property rights of Australians, because it will lead to requests for reparations. Additionally, the Voice will create a new expensive bureaucracy that won’t really address the real issues faced by Indigenous people, who already have representation in parliament through the political parties of the country, or through other bodies. These arguments are also adopted by Greek and migrant supporters of the No campaign, because the ideological, political, and cultural identities of the migrant communities in Australia are determined either by the cultural mainstream or by class.

It must be acknowledged though, that the Yes campaign was poorly planned and executed. It did not have any substantial assistance from the federal Labor government early enough in the campaign. A heterogenous group of Yes campaigners relied heavily on the support of peak business, union, church, and sports bodies, in an era when people do not trust the ruling elites. The Yes supporters ran a rational campaign based on historical truths and the universal values of fairness, human decency, and equality. They did not take into consideration the fragmentation of Australian society, the housing crisis, the cost of living and other bread and butter issues. They did not appeal to the emotions of the electorate. They did not attempt to find specific common ground between white and black Australia.

Photo credit: Pano Apostolou

Worth highlighting from a Greek diasporic point of view, is the support given to the Yes campaign by most of the peak bodies of the Greek-Australian community, including the church. Above all, the Yes campaign had on its side many progressive Greek Australians from all walks of life, who participate in the societal mainstream and who always get together from time to time to support issues that they consider to be of importance to wider Australia, Greece and to the Greek-Australian community.

On January 26 this year, the date the majority of white Australians call Australia Day because they celebrate the arrival in 1788 of the first British settlers in Sydney, or the day Indigenous Australians call Survival Day, or Invasion Day or Mourning Day, three hundred Greek Australians from all walks of life, after consulting the Aboriginal community, released a public statement calling for the establishment of a Voice and a Yes vote in the referendum. It is worth noting here that, the official Yes campaign started much later! This statement, which made it easier for the rest of the community and its institutions to come out in support of a Yes vote, was followed by the active involvement of many Greek Australians from civic society with the Yes campaign, mostly at a grassroots level.

The tradition of Greek-Australian engagement with the societal and political mainstream of Australia and Greece, goes back to the 1920s and 1930s with the involvement of Greek migrants and Australians of Greek descent with the Communist Party of Australia, the trade union movement, and the establishment of the first Worker’s League, that of Democritus in Melbourne, in 1935. A significant sector of the Greek-Australian community, for almost a century now, perceives and defines itself not only as a linguistic, cultural or religious community, but also as a political community, which rallies around universal values applicable to their country of origin Greece, to their country of birth and residency Australia, and to the Greek-Australian community itself.

Greek migrants and Australians of Greek descent were actively involved with the migrant workers movement and with the multicultural movement in the past. They were involved in significant numbers initially with the Communist Party, later on with the Labor Party, and from the 1970s onwards with the main conservative party of Australia, the Liberal Party. The Greek-Australian community was also actively involved with the anti-junta movement fighting the dictators in Greece and to a lesser extent with the peace and the environmental movements in Australia, or with other causes described broadly as progressive.

Specifically, progressive Greek Australians who do not usually participate in the affairs of the more conservative nowadays institutional Greek Australian community, took a supportive public stand during the past few years on the issue of same sex marriage in Australia and the denouncement of the neo-Nazi criminal organisation Golden Dawn in Greece.

Examples of activism within the Greek-Australian community, include amongst others the establishment of The Greek Australian Welfare Society (Pronia) in 1972, in order to address the welfare needs of the first generation. More recently, we have the denouncement of the publicly expressed anti-abortion views of Archbishop Makarios by 150 Greek-Australian women. Another similar recent example is the successful adoption of a unanimously supported resolution at an Annual General Meeting of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, the oldest and largest secular community organisation in Australia, to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart in its entirety and to permanently raise the Aboriginal flag together with the Greek and the Australian flags at the organization’s headquarters.

In conclusion, it must be stated that the October 14 referendum for the constitutional recognition of the First Nations people is a litmus test not only about the identity of Australia in the 21st century, but also about the dangers democracy might face in the country from the ascendancy of a Trump like political culture. The vocal supporters of the No campaign in the mainstream, but also within the Greek and the migrant Australian communities, were mostly “key board warriors.” Their attempts to have a physical presence failed miserably or were highjacked by the extreme and racist right and by the anti (COVID) vaccine movement.

It will be interesting to see though, how the referendum question will perform in electorates heavily populated with migrant communities, including Greek Australians. Especially, taking into consideration the support given to the Voice by all major migrant organisations and faith groups and the findings of the polls early in the campaign, which indicated that most migrants were supportive of the Voice.

Would racism and the marginalisation experienced by migrants in the past, become solidarity for the most marginalized sectors of today’s Australian society, its Indigenous people? Is there hidden racism within the migrant communities of Australia, towards the Indigenous custodians of the continent? The answers to these questions are only days away.

October 12, 2023

Kostas Karamarkosis a journalist living in Melbourne, Australia. He holds a Bachelor of Science (Honors) degree from the University of Melbourne. He has worked as an administrator for Melbourne’s multilingual ethnic community radio station 3ZZZ-92.3 FM and as an editor of the English edition of the Greek-Australian newspaper NEOS KOSMOS. While living in Greece, he worked as a newspaper columnist and as a radio news editor in Thessaloniki, as a senior advisor for General Secretaries for Greeks Abroad, and as a staff member in the Political Office of George A. Papandreou, when he was leader of the opposition and Prime Minister of Greece. He is a member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and in the past he was elected member of the Defence and Trade Policy Committee and of the Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Policy Committee of the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party.