Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 24 September 2002
Page: 4739

Senator BOLKUS (3:52 PM) —I also rise to pay respects to George Georges. I would like to start off by referring to an amazingly isolated island in the south-east of Greece. It is an island which is minute, isolated and barren. It is the island from which George Georges's parents came in 1916 and 1918. It is also the island from which my parents came at around the same time. It is an island now with a population of some 188 people. In its history it had a maximum population of some 9,000 people but over the years they have all fled or migrated, and Australia is now home to some 30,000 or 40,000 descendants and former inhabitants of that island.

Its population is 188 people for most of the year—apart from summer, when it gets repopulated. Not only do we see whole suburbs of Australia migrating to the island but the plethora of shimmering pink bags of Peter's of Kensington seem to dominate the landscape. That is one of the dominant feels of the place. Most of the migrants from that island who live in Sydney live in the suburb of Kensington and they take with them much of what they experience in Australia. So Peter's has, at some times during the year, a branch store on the island of Kastellorizon.

I think the island has been the source of one of Australia's most remarkable immigration success stories. The migration from there was at the turn of the century and in the early twenties. As I said, most of the people who have migrated from there now live comfortable lives in Australia and there are some 30,000 or 40,000 of them. It is an island that had a very difficult and tragic history. For some 400 years it was run by Turks. It was under the dominance of the Italians and French for a number of years in its history. The British were there for one day and the folklore has it they did more damage in one day than the Turks did in 400 years. It is the home island of George Georges and I think when one looks at the location, the geography and the history of the island, one gets to appreciate some of the characteristics that we experienced in George as he lived his life of politics in this country: strong commitment to independence, a sense of justice, an enormous stubbornness against all odds and a commitment to activism. I think those characteristics sum up George Georges very well.

He was, in the early days, a role model for many people like me who were looking at getting involved in politics. Being of migrant heritage and being a person who basically pioneered the presence of migrants in the national parliament, he was someone whom we looked to for advice and guidance. I first met him in the 1970s in Adelaide, some 30 years ago. He was doing then what he continued to do for all his life in politics— fighting for the cause of justice wherever it may have been necessitated. In this case he was fighting against the junta in Greece. He did so with a passion and commitment that he applied to issue after issue in international affairs. It was not just with Greece and the junta; it was in Cyprus and he was a pioneer in the campaign against involvement in the Vietnam War. He got into trouble for meeting with Yasser Arafat in the early days. His commitment to the overthrow of the racist policies in South Africa and his support for Nelson Mandela were issues that continually got him into some strife with the authorities in this country. He had a strong underlying commitment to justice and democracy and was a strong adherent, for instance, to the principles that guide the United Nations.

In terms of his commitment to justice, there was hardly a minority group that he did not have some association with and whose cause he did not sponsor. Senator Faulkner mentioned his migrant background and George's commitment to working people, not just those with migrant backgrounds, is one that this parliament got to appreciate every time issues relating to workers' rights were raised here. He railed against Bjelke-Petersen's anti-worker laws. He was prepared to go to jail in respect of them. In fact he went to jail a couple of times for peaceful resistance in the streets of Queensland. He was even prepared to be suspended from the Labor Party because of his commitment to the workers' rights that he so cherished. It did not stop him from being a member of the Labor Party for some 50 years, but he was prepared to take the action when he deemed it appropriate.

In terms of civil rights and social issues he was very much on the progressive side. In the seventies and eighties he led marches against Bjelke-Petersen's anti-democratic laws in Queensland to the extent that he was recognised by the former Premier's special branch and given file number 2A9627. He was in good company, it must be said. Sir Zelman Cowan had file number 2E1184 and even Prime Minister Billy McMahon had a file number. But that shows the extent of the undemocratic nature of the system in Queensland, a system that George was prepared to go to jail to try and overthrow. Even in prison he was the rascal that we knew him to be in this place. On one occasion he was released after one day because, as the authorities said, he was a disturbing influence on other people in prison—as he was, obviously, for those who shared this prison cell with him on a number of late nights and sittings.

His commitment to civil rights made him take a strong stand against the Australia Card—one that I shared at the time. He was a pioneer in raising issues in respect of Indigenous Australians, the environment and animal welfare. He spent five years on a Senate committee looking at securities and exchange issues, which led to some of our early trade practices legislation. He had prescience of the sorts of problems this country is now having with drug use and drug trafficking.

As I said, I first met him 30 years ago, in the early seventies. The second time I met George was in about 1974 or 1975 when I began working for ministers in the Whitlam government. On more than one occasion, late at night, when I would be walking past the caucus room in the Old Parliament House, I could hear loud Greek music flowing through the corridors. On just about every occasion I would walk into the caucus room and there, in a luxurious old lounge chair, George would be sitting, inevitably asleep, while the music affected the lives of all of us around him. He was a person who had experienced all the extremes in political life but he also enjoyed the richness of cultural appreciation which is so important to people in our community.

In closing, I wish also to recognise the role of Gloria and the children. Gloria always seemed to be present in the Old Parliament House. She is a strong and influential person who tolerated George's unpredictability. She is warm and endearing, and that probably enabled her to handle a character like George for such a long time. I think parliamentarians' spouses often deserve medals. If medals were being given out, I think she would have reached the top of the class in respect of her work and the support she gave. In her case she did not know what to expect next, but in that respect she was probably no different from the rest of us in the Labor Party when it came to anticipating what George might do next.

He was, as I have tried to depict, a very passionate and committed man: someone with an enormous commitment to justice; someone who was prepared to cop personal consequences in the interest of the causes that he so firmly believed in; and someone who made an impression in this parliament and on the history of the Australian parliament.

In essence, he was a lovable rascal and we are all saddened by his departure—not just Gloria and the family but also some of the old comrades who spent quite a long time in this parliament with him. I refer to people like John Scott, Lewis Kent, and Peter Milton from Victoria. I refer also to people like Tom Uren and Arthur Gietzelt, with whom he crusaded on a whole range of issues, as well as people who were not close to him but who I think have benefited from the way he championed causes. For me, he was an important early trailblazer, in a sense. He gave confidence to people from migrant backgrounds that they could participate in the parliamentary process. I think this country will be all the poorer for his departure.