The Covid-19 pandemic has uncovered structural weaknesses in Australia’s approach to public health, immigration and multiculturalism. How could Australia, a country which has prided itself as one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world, be so ill-equipped to cater to its linguistically diverse populations during the pandemic? How could Australia, a country with an extensive migrant workforce (including many Greek nationals), exclude temporary visa holders from accessing social security benefits during lockdown? The immediacy of these questions has inevitably captured the attention of the Greek-Australian media.
I will focus here on one example, how the Greek-Australian newspaper Neos Kosmos has reported on multiculturalism during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Neos Kosmos is a major weekly Greek-Australia newspaper based in Melbourne (a city with one of the largest Greek-speaking populations outside of Greece) and is published in English and Greek with significant print and online circulations. The newspaper exhibits a range of political opinions and constitutes a significant platform in which Greek diaspora experiences are shared. My choice is not primarily motivated by the newspaper’s reporting on how Australia or Greece has handled the pandemic. Instead, I draw from this case study to highlight a nuanced pandemic phenomenon: how the diaspora media has engaged in an ethos of inclusive multiculturalism during a contemporary moment when xenophobic attitudes and restrictive immigration policies are on the rise.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Neos Kosmos has reported regularly on how Greece has handled the pandemic; delineated the closing of Australia’s international border and its effects on people’s lives; featured a Q&A column with notable Greek-Australians called “My Life in Lockdown”; and, crucially, has sought to gauge how “COVID-19 has changed Australian multiculturalism and migration to Australia”.
Recognising a rise in anti-Asian sentiment and the exclusion of temporary visa holders from accessing social security benefits during lockdown, the newspaper declared that “never before have foreigners felt less welcome in Australia”. According to the newspaper’s editors the pandemic offered an opportunity to “reboot” public discussion about Australian multiculturalism. Expert public officials were invited to share their views. The opinions of the conservative member for federal seat of Aston and Acting Minister for Immigration, Alan Tudge, were published alongside significant Greek diaspora representatives, including the Greek-born Labor member for the federal seat of Calwell, Maria Vamvakinou, and the Deputy Chairperson of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils Australia, Kris Pavlidis.
Tudge responded to the newspaper’s invitation by declaring “Australia is the most successful multicultural nation in the world.” Aware of the role multicultural organisations have played during the pandemic (like sharing and distributing Government information on safety measures and support services), he added, “I join with all Australians to thank multicultural communities for all they have done to help our nation get through this pandemic”. Silent on the issues related to temporary visa holders and Asian-Australian’s experience of racism, he concluded in rhetoric that aligned with his government’s inactive stance towards multiculturalism that “obviously our focus at the moment is on preventing the spread of the virus by keeping our borders closed.”
Vamvakinou, as an opposition spokesperson, declared in her response the “need to be unambiguously clear that an immigration program is quite a separate issue from multiculturalism.” She specified that “we have a responsibility to demonstrate to the nation that, while we can review our immigration policy according to our social and economic needs, racial intolerance, abuse and discrimination are NEVER acceptable”. Furthermore, “we must condemn the reported incidents of abuse and harassment of Asian Australians and international students in recent weeks. While people are clearly frightened by the disease, and frustrated by the impact of restrictions, there is no excuse for vilifying anybody on the basis of race, ethnicity or appearance. Multiculturalism has been built in this country over many decades, and is central to our social cohesion.”
Vamvakinou’s statement is consistent with dominant political discourses of multiculturalism since the 1990s when multicultural policies and organisations were defunded and rebranded by a conservative government. In the past, both sides of politics have proclaimed themselves the defenders and creators of multiculturalism in Australia, but the last twenty years has seen a new bipartisanism emerge in which both the conservative and Labor parties espouse a rhetorical commitment to multiculturalism, while emphatically separating it from issues of immigration and border control.
Pavlidis contribution approaches multiculturalism from another direction: that of the ethnic spokesperson who firmly links multiculturalism with migration, and defends both against persistent and recurring racism. “We cannot afford”, she wrote, “to lose sight of the economic and societal benefits of multiculturalism and migration. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, it is no surprise that through this unprecedented societal crisis has surfaced the best and worst of people’s behaviour. We’ve seen people banding together through their specific community: Greek, Sikh, Vietnamese and so forth, to relieve the devastation faced by individuals and families.” She stressed “unfortunately or fortunately, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed and highlighted our human fragility and the existing deficit in many structural and systemic areas. This includes the overt ugly racism experienced by individuals, vulnerable and marginalised groups”. “Our Multiculturalism”, Pavlidis specified, “is once again tested. Herein lays the opportunity to review, reflect and redesign for a safer, inclusive society for all”.
Taken together, these responses reveal a range of interpretations to multiculturalism which variously marginalise it at a time of crisis (as with Tudge); defend it against racism, while separating it from immigration policy (as Vamvakinou does) and unambiguously celebrate migration and multiculturalism in the face of new challenges. Pavlidis position belongs to a longer history of Greek-Australians articulating a strong assertion of, and stake in, robust multiculturalism as vital public policy, and in this sense COVID-19 – while acknowledged as unprecedented – has presented another opportunity to stake a claim for multiculturalism as an essential aspect of Australian society.
Yet the pandemic has also coincided with another global moment – Black Lives Matter. Since the brutal and deliberate killing of George Floyd, such tensions have taken on a new public vernacular. As tens of thousands of protesters openly defied lockdown laws during the first weekend of June, Neos Kosmos reported that there was a “Strong Greek presence in ‘Black Lives Matter’ rallies across Australia”.
A tweet by Maria Mercedes, an Australian actor with Greek heritage, was recirculated in a Neos Kosmos article. “There was the most beautiful, peaceful, passionate gathering of like minded hearts today in our multicultural city of Melbourne”, Mercedes’ tweet read. “Amidst the criticism and negativity for the organised march there was an incredible, powerful collective desire for accountability, acknowledgement and justice for our Indigenous brothers and sisters”.
Mercedes’ powerful language signifies a trend in how some segments of the Greek diaspora wish to engage and co-contribute to public dialogues on matters related to multiculturalism and systematic racism. Interested in rejuvenating public conversations about multiculturalism, Neos Kosmos’ commitment to addressing policy issues relating to the pandemic illustrates the role diaspora media can play in supporting national cohesion while cultivating cross-cultural modes of solidarity. As the ideological framing of multiculturalism evolves in Australia, so will the political discourse of selected Greek-Australian media.
Since the pandemic, Australian multiculturalism as a politically contested policy and lived reality is being freshly tested. As a vocal body of Greek-Australians demarcate between the changing dynamism of multiculturalism on the one hand, and increasingly restrictive immigration policies and racist sentiment on the other, diaspora media will continue to offer both novel and business-as-usual perspectives in the global media landscape. As Australia’s former Race Discrimination Commissioner and academic at the University of Sydney, Tim Soutphommasane notes, diaspora media “are often invisible” to many readers. Yet, as his words in Neos Kosmos makes clear, such forms of media “form an important bridge between one’s home county and one’s new country”.
In these precarious times, diaspora media will continue to play a critical role in rejuvenating public discourse on multiculturalism. It will continue to offer a platform for Greeks in Australia to partake in public dialogues that are pertinent to both national and international conversations about migration and citizenship.