Remembering Migrant Rights Activism

The blog has been silent for a while, which has caused me enough anxiety to write this short piece—on a new research project. Since early July, I’ve been based at the National Library of Australia working on a project called ‘Migrant/Ethnic Protest and Activism in Early Multicultural Australia’. La Trobe University philosophers Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos have worked on a similar topic, especially in relation to the activist role of the Greek Democritus League in Melbourne. Also, the work of Andrew Jakubowicz, a Marxist sociologist, has shaped my understanding of multiculturalism in Australia—I broadly agree with his position on migrant rights’ activism, and his critique of the Liberal Fraser government’s formulation of cultural pluralism in the late 1970s as anti-working class.

But I wanted to access community memories. How do implicated community groups remember this period of ‘migrant rights activism’ and the prominent activists associated with the movement? I don’t think terms like ‘migrant rights’ and ‘ethnic rights activism’ are familiar to Australian audiences today—but they were frequently debated in the ethnic and mainstream press, and by politicians and community leaders in the 1960s and 1970s, before the introduction of a state multicultural policy.

Some migrant groups dominated this movement, bolstered by a wave of post-war chain migration. At the forefront were left-leaning and communist- affiliated groups within the Italian and Greek communities. They formed a broad alliance with select trade unions, the Communist Party of Australia, and some branches within the Victorian ALP to lobby for better pathways to citizenship, better housing and community services (especially translation and interpretation service), and better workplace conditions for non-English-speaking-background migrants. A series of reports in the 1960s and 1970s revealed that NESB migrants were struggling socially and economically; they had higher rates of homelessness and poverty, poor mental health, and their children had poor educational outcomes compared to the Anglo-Australian population. These were issues that community groups had long been aware of. Accordingly, groups like the Democritus League in Melbourne and the Atlas League in Sydney worked to alleviate the needs of post-war migrants—struggling against institutional apathy and government paternalism since the 1950s. Nonetheless, material conditions for migrants did not improve greatly throughout this time.

Sometimes their efforts culminated in protests (thinking here of co-ordinated protests around unemployment among assisted migrants during 1952 and 1961); organised (but not always union-supported) stand-offs with employers (thinking here of strikes at General Motors Holden and Ford throughout the 1960s and 1970s), and sustained attacks on government paternalism (in the form of the Good Neighbour Council).

As Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos argue, with the introduction of a state-sanctioned multiculturalism, what they call a “revised Anglophone discursive framework”, organised community life became “focused on the cultivation and enjoyment of ethnic difference to such an extent that the political question of the promotion of democratic community processes has become an incidental concern.” In turn, this saw “the gradual removal of the question of the fundamental nature of democratic citizenship from the political landscape of the ethnic communities in the post-multiculturalism era.”[1] Similarly, Jakubowicz argues that over time “a liberalist conception” of multiculturalism saw “ethnic issues” integrated into a model that gave prominence to “petit-bourgeois community leadership”, a professional elite within some communities. Multiculturalism, and its previous focus on structural inequality, workers’ rights, and the need for public and institutional recognition of difference, was “institutionalized through the creation of Ethnic Affairs units based in state capitals, allowed the political and bureaucratic leadership an ear on the group, and militated against mass organization forms in favour of elite ethnic community structures.”[2]

Therefore, I had also assumed, from a historiographical point of view, that this history of migrant rights activism has been subsumed by histories of government-administered multiculturalism from the late 1970s. Most of our conceptions of multiculturalism give credence and agency to government action and foresight—for example, the role of Whitlam, Grassby, Fraser, and the Grassby and Galbally reports of the 1970s. How can we ‘rescue’ the voices and actions of alternative community groups and workers? Such an aim no doubt reminds us of traditional justifications for the value of oral history—to ‘rescue’ the ‘voiceless’. But that’s not right either. They weren’t voiceless. Any in some communities, there is a rich collective memory of migrant rights activism—including in the ageing cohort of activist that are still members of Melbourne’s Democritus League (the current Atlas League in Sydney bears no resemblance to the original). I think these memories counter celebratory and state-centric histories of multicultural policy.

At the NLA, I’ve been listening to oral history recordings within the ‘Unwanted Australians’ collection, which features migrant rights’ activists like George Zangalis. But I’ve also been trying to build connections with former workers in industry; next week I’ll be in Morwell, hoping to speak to some (mostly Greek-origin) men who remember industrial action against the State Electricity Commission in 1977. I’m not sure what I’ll find, as most of the records I’ve accessed relate to leaders within the movement, rather than ‘grassroots’ participants. As the Unwanted Australians collection demonstrates, these men (and they were all men) went on to become infamous in Australia because of repeated government rejections of their applications for naturalisation before 1972—their left-wing political activity and association with the CPA and/or SPA made them targets for ASIO surveillance. Their files at the National Archives of Australia have been the subject of an SBS investigation. Interestingly, in their NLA oral testimonies, they’re less interested in seeking an ‘apology’ or an ‘official acknowledgement’ (as the SBS interviewer suggests), and more interested in speaking to broad issues of ‘social justice’ for migrants in 1960s and 1970s Australia. I’m hoping this will be the beginning of a project that will unpack this era of ‘migrant rights’ through the memories of those from within the community.

I’ll be giving a talk about my research at the NLA on the 18th September.

[1] Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos, ‘On the Methodology of Greek-Australian Historiography’, in Greek Research in Australia: Proceedings of the Biennial International Conference of Greek Studies, eds. E Close, M Tsianikas and G Frazis, Flinders Uni April 2003, (2005), 283.

[2] Andrew Jakubowicz cited in: ‘Migrant communities and class politics: the Greek community in Australia’, Michael Kakakios and John Van Der Velden, p. 161, in Ethnicity, class, and gender in Australia, eds. Gill Bottomley, Marie M. de Lepervanche  G. (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1984).



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