Victoria Parliament’s Greek Night brings canapes, conversation and back patting

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By Mary Sinanidis.

An event was held in Victoria’s Parliament on Wednesday to recognise the vibrant Greek-Australian community’s contribution to Victoria. Delayed by a year due to COVID-19, it brought together Greek-Australian community leaders from around the state who mingled and built connections between bites of keftedakia and baklava while sipping Riesling and other beverages.

Instead of being a celebration of the 200-year anniversary of Greek Independence as originally intended, it was just a celebration of being Greek.

Ros Spence, Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Community Sport and Youth, said, “As many of you already know, my husband is Greek, and when you are married to someone who is Greek you are indeed married to Greece.”

She shared fond memories of the Acropolis of Athens and the islands.

“I think every island has its own story. It is a very beautiful place and I can’t wait to return to again experience the rich culture, history and architecture of a very beautiful place,” she said, before pointing to the rich contribution of the Greek community to Victoria.

Indeed, many in the room were stakeholders from within the rich Greek community, including Steve Dimopoulos, Victoria’s Minister for Tourism, Sports, Major Events and Creative Industries, and Member of the South Eastern Metropolitan Region, Lee Tarlamis. Even more attendees came from local government, but there were also many high-profile pollies missing.

Greek Community of Melbourne President Bill Papastergiadis spoke of the importance of these Greeks in high places, especially in regard to advocacy.

“Although synergies are important, it’s the programs and the funding from government that demonstrates goodwill and this is the message I pass on in conversations in Greece,” he said, before pointing to some examples:

  • The Greek programme’s closure at La Trobe was prevented thanks to lobbying by “Kat Theophanous MP who went to bat for us in funding scholarships at this university and that was part of winning the battle,” he said.
  • The state government-funded programs for the Greek language to be preserved after a wave of Greeks came to Australia post-2008 following the Greek financial crisis.
  • Infrastructure works at grammar schools, including Alphington, St John’s College and Oakleigh Grammar, is thanks to funding by the state government.
  • State funding for other projects such as the Antipodes Festival, the Parthenon Marbles frieze at the 14-storey Greek Centre, and the Centre itself.

Greek Consul General Emmanuel Kakavelakis said, “The dynamics of the Hellenic diaspora in Victoria is also expressed clearly in the success of foremost academics, scientists, entrepreneurs, journalists and artists of Greek descent.”

He pointed to the doctors and lawyers creating their own Greek Australian associations, the many schools and Greek Australian media outlets.

Ms Spence said that 160,000 migrants arrived from Greece to Australia after WW2, but we should not forget those who arrived even earlier, thirty years after Greek Independence when a wave of fortune hunters flocked to Australia following the 1851 Gold Rush.

“Records show that by 1871, as gold had begun to dry, an estimated 146 (Greeks) had already come to Australia, with many buying property and staying to work in restaurants and shops, taking root alongside the Chinese, German and Polish Communities,” she said, adding that today Australia has one of the largest Greek diasporas in the world with 44 per cent of Australia’s Greek community living in Melbourne.

Mr Papastergiadis said, “Many of us thought that this diaspora would shrink post the Fifties and Sixties migration boom. In fact, it hasn’t. The Greek Financial Crisis has ensured that there is a second migration wave post 2008 and is still continuing – despite COVID. It is my view that we have come out stronger and more united.”

Greek Consul General Emmanuel Kakavelakis said that throughout history, alliances between Greece and Australia have strengthened bonds.

“Anniversaries and historical landmarks play an important role in keeping alive the memories of common historical experiences such as Lemnos and Gallipoli commemorations or the Battle of Crete commemorations which take place every year in both countries,” Mr Kakavelakis said.

And if history wasn’t enough, there’s the potential of trade with the volume of trade in goods and services tripling between 2018 and 2019 from 400 million to $1.2 billion just before the pandemic. In 2019, Greek exports reported their highest performance at 188.5 million euros, marking an increase of 19 per cent. In 2021, Australian total investment in Greece reached $345 million while Greek investment in Australia was at $183 million that year.

Meanwhile in Victoria, Mr Kakavelakis groaned that he has no personal life with so many events held by 530 Greek clubs and associations, as well as 29 Greek Australian football teams (27 of these in Melbourne) and a plethora of Greek Australian activities.

Mr Papastergiadis pointed to the Census, which confirmed the importance of the Greek Australian contribution, with Greek being the third most spoken language after English in Victoria.

Speeches at Victoria’s Parliament were in English and Greek-speaking was kept to a minimum. As for the Greek soul, it was only there in a high level. The real Greek community in all its life, robustness and large numbers was busy elsewhere, probably preparing for the Antipodes festival on Lonsdale St this weekend no doubt – provided it doesn’t get washed because of the poor weather forecast.

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