Here’s why what happens in Athens matters to Australia

Greece in Melbourne.
Greece in Melbourne.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Greece’s dashing ex-finance minister can’t stop railing against how power really operates in Europe. But when Yanis Varoufakis resigned from his post at the request of prime minister Alexis Tsipras and under pressure from Europe’s assembled finance ministers, he gave his first interview not to The Guardian, The New York Times, Germany’s Die Ziet newspaper, or even his own wildly popular blog.

Instead, the motorcycle-riding academic and parliamentarian offered his exclusive to an Australian public broadcaster, anointing venerable lefty-in-residence Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live program. His seemingly unexpected choice reveals a fascinating story of migration, globalization and the power of ideas and political convictions.

European and US media reports often brush over the fact, but Varoufakis himself, like tens of thousands of Athenians, and many more across Greece, holds dual Greek-Australian citizenship.

There has been immigration to Australia from Greece since the 19th century. But the big increase came in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Australian government expanded its White Australia policy to encourage migrants from southern Europe. Greeks were targeted to fill labor shortages and most settled in Australia’s manufacturing heartland of Melbourne.

‘‘Australia created the world’s largest Greek diaspora in less than a generation,” political historian and Greek-Australian George Megalogenis tells Quartz. “At the peak in 1971, Greeks were 1.2% of the Australian population. In the US they represented only 0.1%. That gives you an idea of how big our ‘Olive Wave’ was.’’

Today Melbourne is a jewel in the Greek diaspora. It is often considered the third Greek city in the world, with greatest number of Greek speakers after Athens and Thessaloniki.

As he took to the airwaves on ABC Radio National, Varoufakis was potentially reaching hundreds of thousands of Australians with Greek passports too; Australia’s 2011 census showed close to half a million Aussies either claim Greek ancestry or were born in Greece. Some sources put the real figure at closer to 700,000.

Generations of Greek-Australians have become highly successful, rising to the top of Australian politics, business, media and the arts. Mad Max director George Miller, politician George Souris, author Christos Tsiolkas, and tennis player Mark Philippoussis are among the many leading lights.

In the last decade, when Greece’s economy enjoyed a euro-driven bubble, tens of thousands of dual citizens decided to leave Australia for Europe. But over the past five years, that migration wave has been moving in reverse: Greek citizens with Australian connections or dual citizenship are heading down under to escape the depression gripping their country.

Australia’s government does not track the return from Greece of dual Australian nationals, however applications for immigrants and temporary resident visas soared after 2010, with figures showing the Department of Immigration processed more than 8,000 for Greek nationals over the past year.  Hellenic cultural organizations say they are expecting a massive influx of economic migrants to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide in the coming months.

Varoufakis became an Australian after having been invited to teach at the University of Sydney in the 1980s. Embraced as a “radical” within the then neo-Marxist-friendly economics department, he stayed for more than a decade, even as Australia moved away from its collectivist welfare state past and towards exactly the kind of laissez-faire, low debt, small government, privatization-happy society the Troika is trying to impose on Greece.

Today, despite his ejection from the controls of Greek economic policy, Varoufakis says that he has no plans to leave Greece. However, considering the Eurogroup’s palpable hostility towards the firebrand ex-foreign minister, and his continuing controversial status in Athens, he may find himself in search of exile territory again soon.