Macedonians and the Political Mainstream

by Victor Bivell

This is the text of the speech delivered to the public meeting on Human Rights for Macedonian Australians held in Wollongong on June 6, 1994.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight.

There is no doubt that the Macedonian identity in Australia is now under attack in exactly the same way that it has been under attack in Greece since the partition of Macedonia in 1913.

Before 1913, our parents and grandparents referred to themselves simply as Macedonian. Since the partition, those Macedonians who suddenly found themselves in Greece have been called Bulgarians, Bulgarophones, bi-lingual Greeks, Yugoslav sympathizers, Slavophones, Slav Macedonians, Skopjians, and even "non-existent". This name changing, this inability to call a Macedonian a Macedonian, has been an important part of the Greek Government's ongoing policy of genocide through ethnic cleansing, denationalization, and assimilation.

Among the many tragedies is the fact that for the past 80 years, the rest of the world has known very little about the real events in Greece. Fortunately, this is now changing. In the past 12 months, for example, all of the world's major international human rights bodies have published reports that are highly critical of the way Greece denies basic human rights to the Macedonian minority.

These bodies include: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the British Section of the International Society for Human Rights, the Danish Helsinki Committee, and the US State Department. A growing list of influential publications such as the Times, The Economist and The Independent have also written on the subject. The latest report from Human Rights Watch, published in April, is called Denying Ethnic Identity: The Macedonians of Greece.

It is events such as these that are helping Europe to see through the deliberate veil of Greek secrecy. Unfortunately, the level of awareness in Australia is far less, and this may help explain why we suddenly find ourselves fighting the same battle that our fellow Macedonians in Greece have been fighting for decades.

There is evidence that the Greek lobby in Australia has been trying to initiate the use of the 'Slav' prefix in Australia since at least 1991.

However the first real advance came on March 10 when the Greek lobby met with the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Ethnic Affairs Minister and sewed up the "slav prefix" deal. The Labor Government caved in on this for no reason other than the promise it would retain the Greek vote. The attempt to change generations of inherited identity with the stroke of a bureaucratic pen is simply unprecedented. From the outset it was clear that this is one of the most arrogant and dictatorial acts by an Australian government in recent years.

The prefix and the way it was introduced are unanimously rejected by all Macedonians, and all of us want to know how we can reverse this directive as quickly as possible.

If I could briefly touch on some of our options.

* The best weapon in history is still the pen, even if it is now called a typewriter or a computer. It is only through a continuous supply of words, letters, articles and reports that the rest of Australia will learn how we feel about this prefix and why it must be changed.

* Peaceful civil disobedience is also an option. The prefix applies to country of birth and nationality data. If you tell a public servant that you are Macedonian, he or she has been instructed to write "slav-Macedonian" instead - you tell someone your name is Bill, and they write down Harry. If you see this happen, or suspect it will happen, you have the right to insist that they write "Macedonian". Senator Evans has confirmed that public servants have the right of conscientious objection to the prefix. Many public servants are opposed to this directive and if we remind them that they are entitled to object, they may do so. However, if they insist on writing "Slav", then insist that they write nothing, or tell them to write "Slav-Greek."

* If an organization or employer, including the public service, begins to use the prefix, it is our right to complain to that organization. Complaints can also be taken to bodies such as the Anti-Discrimination Board and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission.

It is worth knowing that the Greek community complains by the truck load. While the Press Council, Broadcasting Tribunal and other bodies receive hundreds of complaints from Greeks over the slightest incident or phrase, they rarely receive a complaint from a Macedonian.

Only last week the Greek lobby in Perth complained to a radio station about the local Macedonian program. What did the Macedonians do wrong? They had read out an article from The Age newspaper. The article in question was about the lack of human rights in Greece.

* Demonstrations are now being planned around Australia. Of course these can be a two edged sword. There is a high level of emotion in the Macedonian community that needs to be expressed, so it is very important to keep all demonstrations peaceful. It's not that we don't have a right to be angry: we do and we are. But that anger has to be expressed in a way that it acceptable to the rest of Australia, and in a way that does not give political free kicks to our opponents.

I can't emphasize this too much. If a demonstration is not peaceful, it is easy to lose public support.

And as we have seen previously, the Federal Minister for Immmigration and Ethnic Affairs, Senator Bolkus is more than able to cynically turn a so called "incident' to his own advantage.

Instead of being perceived as the aggressor, he has now twice tried to paint the Macedonians of Wollongong as the aggressors. Well, that's politics, unfortunately.

But amid the headlines, the real point of the demonstration in Wollongong was lost. That is: having sampled the strength of feeling and opposition, Senator Bolkus chose not to delay or withdraw the directive, but to push ahead with its implementation. The only conclusion that Macedonians can draw is that Mr Bolkus has a more important agenda than maintaining the peaceful status quo in Australia.

By implementing the directive rather than simply talking about it, Senator Bolkus has irresponsibly and shamelessly escalated the situation.

Yet his fellow parliamentarians, the media, and others have been more concerned with the "incidents" at the demonstration rather than with this incredible behaviour. Senator Bolkus has used exaggeration and sympathy to deflect attention from the fact that it is the directive itself, sponsored by him, that is the real issue and the cause of the emotion in the first place.

The extent to which ethnic affairs has been politicized in this country is now appalling. Two months ago we asked for the withdrawal of the directive as a goodwill gesture. That goodwill gesture has not been given.

Instead, Senator Bolkus has pushed ahead with its introduction. The NSW Minister for Ethnic Affairs, Mr Photios, has pushed ahead with its introduction. The Victorian Minister for Ethnic Affairs, Jeff Kennett, who is also the Premier, has openly supported the Greek position. This bi-partisan politicization of ethnic affairs by the ethnic affairs ministers is a scandal. But does any one care?

We are entitled to ask: if we live in a multicultural country, why are the top positions in the ethnic bureaucracy dominated by one ethnic group?

This is important because if we look at where the impetus to introduce this prefix is coming from, we see it is coming from Greek members of the Australian community. From the Federal Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, which is run by a Minister of Greek decent, from the NSW Dept of Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs, which is run by a Minister of Greek descent, from the NSW Ethnic Communities' Council, which has some 13 Greek members out of 26 on the management committee; and from the Canterbury Council in Sydney, which has a number of Greek councillors.

This is a very dangerous development for Australia, yet the very people who should be resisting this, the ethnic affairs ministers, are themselves the chief players.

The issue at the core of this sell-out is not who is right or wrong, but who is electorally stronger, who has more votes to sell. That is why we are now fighting the Federal Labor Government, the Federal Opposition, the NSW Liberal Government, and the Victorian Liberal Government. Each of these is more concerned with retaining or winning the Greek vote than with being fair or evenhanded. This is what I call a Greek auction. Labor and Liberal have been led to believe that whoever kicks the Macedonians the hardest will win the Greek vote.

This is despicable. And it is for this reason that Macedonians around Australia have begun to join the political parties and become politically active.

I have to say that when I heard that 300 Macedonians from Wollongong had joined the Labor party, it was music to my ears. Apart from the prefix itself, I think this is potentially the most significant development for the Macedonian community in Australia in many decades.

It is true that Macedonians are proportionally under represented in parliament, in the political parties, in local councils, semi government bodies etc. This is our own fault, and if we are to remain in Australia, this must change. That is why our best long term means of defence is to join the political parties, Labor and Liberal, it doesn't matter which one, and as soon as possible to gain our own voice in parliament.

I think that the Macedonians in Wollongong have distinguished themselves by seeing the need for this much sooner than other Macedonian communities in Australia.

I urge you to keep this up over the coming months and years. Do not stop. If you do this well, I believe you will become a role model for other Macedonian communities around Australia. We need at least one politically successful Macedonian community to help wake up the other communities - to show them how it is done, and that it can be done. This is the only way we will have a say in the political decisions that affect us.

So to sum up I would like to say: good luck.