AGM Guest Speaker - Maria Vamvakinou MP
It is a great pleasure to be here this evening, especially given that this constitutes the final AGM for Voula Messimeri, in her capacity as the CEO of PRONIA.
Having known Voula, for many, many years – and having served with her as Vice President of then AGWS before entering parliament – I had no hesitation in agreeing to speak here this evening.
Voula and I share a common migrant experience and we have both drawn on that experience and used it to inform and guide the community we have served in our professional lives. Our paths have always crossed, so I am honoured to be here this evening.
First let me begin by saying a few things about PRONIA, where it has come from and then reflect on where it could head into the future.
For over 40 years the Australian-Greek Welfare Society, now known as “PRONIA”, has served the Greek-Australian community in Victoria. Its advocacy and culturally nuanced, linguistically appropriate, service delivery has seen this organisation always at the forefront of Australian multiculturalism.
PRONIA began in Melbourne 1972, with the expansion of the Greek Professional’s Association (I think it was on Level 1 at the GOCMV, in Russell Street. I first went there when Spyros Moraitis was President of the Board and Stan Piperoglou and John Karamanos were the paid staff).
PRONIA was established to provide assistance to the new wave of Greek migrants to Australia - three quarters of whom were categorized as unskilled labour and deficient in English language proficiency.
Its mission was to provide vital services to needy Greek families when they had little other support, and at a time when they faced significant obstacles in a predominately English speaking society.
By 1977 PRONIA had achieved a significant reputation not only as a service provider but equally importantly as an advocate for migrants’ social rights and a leading voice in the public debate on multicultural issues - it was consulted by leaders of the major political parties in its assistance of the Galbally Review of Post Arrival Programs and Services to Migrants (1978).
The Galbally report was pivotal to Australia’s move towards multiculturalism, and is a demonstration of how influential the organisation has been on Australian culture and society more broadly.
Today PRONIA continues its dedication to the Greek community at large, and remains focused on empowering its clients through advocacy and the delivery of specially tailored, culturally nuanced, ethno-specific services and bi-lingual resources.
The bulk of its work and caseload has been to support new arrivals, but its core business over the years has expanded into, and focused on, our growing Greek speaking elderly community, serviced through the “Aged and Co-ordinated Care Unit”. It has also included young people with disabilities and their carers.
The ‘Family and Services Unit’ also forms a large part of the generalised casework service offered by PRONIA and it continues to provide support and guidance to those who are lost or disadvantaged by a legal system which is highly complicated, expensive and technical.
PRONIA also runs a childcare centre from its premises in Richmond - one that I used with my kids and one that I think is an excellent model for governments to refer to as we work our way through the sorry mess which has become childcare in this country. My son went to Richmond the year that John Howard terminated the grants to community childcare centres. Happily that Centre survived, whilst so many others disappeared to make way for corporate childcare that puts profit before care.
Something PRONIA has never done.
The Organisation’s decision to change its name from AGWS to “PRONIA” – whose unveiling I attended in July this year – was made with the rational of reposition itself for future challenges whilst, however, also retaining its core mission.
Choosing the Greek word “PRONIA” –which means “to provide early care” – succinctly encapsulates the organisation’s essence: care, compassion, and foresight; with a mission to support the needs of all generations of the Australian-Greek community within a dynamic and changing landscape.
AGEING OF THE GREEK COMMUNITY
It is a well-known fact that Arthur Calwell’s new Australians today form part of Australia’s bourgeoning ageing community.
They migrated to Australia, mostly from Europe, in order to boost Australia’s then post-war labour shortage.
They came as young men and women – many with young families – in search of a better life.
We know their stories well: because they are our parents and our grandparents and we are the beneficiaries of their toil and sacrifices.
They were the nation builders who have now grown old, and the Greek community in particular is ageing at rate which is the highest amongst the migrant communities.
Years of hard work, predominately low skilled factory work, long-hours in overtime – sometimes holding down two jobs at a time - has taken its toll, physically and mentally on most of them.
This is a generation of people who bore the brunt of tough working conditions and endured the anguish of a separation from their ancestral homeland, and their traditional support networks.
They are people who had to struggle through the integration process, with none or limited English language skills, trying to negotiate their way through a country and a system whose cultural practices, language and attitudes they were strangers to.
PRONIA became their support network. It became their voice. The hand that held and steered them because it understood them better than the so called mainstream service providers, whose approach was mono-cultural and largely English-speaking only and therefore narrow and inadequate.
PRONIA has also paved the way for other ethno specific service providers to be established. It has been instrumental in forming coalitions with these service providers to advocate for services to the migrant communities.
But PRONIA has never deviated or strayed from its core mission. With years of experience and expertise, it continues to provide well-crafted services, to an ever growing client base of ageing members of the Greek community.
PRONIA’s job, however, is not yet done. In addition to providing services to the ageing Greek community, it also has a number of new challenges - I will come back to this point later.
But I want to say a few more words about meeting the needs of our ageing Greek community in a culturally and linguistically sensitive way. Traditional care of our Greek elderly is grounded in a family values system that expects them to be cared for by members of their family.
Essentially, this means that elderly parents expect that they will either remain in their own homes or live with their children. The notion of aged hostel care - although no longer a new concept for the Greek community - is often, viewed as a last resort; and it always, still, involves deep emotional pain, guilt and sorrow.
Caring for our elderly is especially difficult. Which makes PRONIA a crucial organisation in the Greek community. PRONIA has always responded accordingly, with the highest standards in culturally sensitive aged care delivery. For example PRONIA’s:
- in-home and centre based care for the elderly, their families and their carers, which helps frail elderly to live at home, is a signature service that reflects a value system still very much upheld by the Australian Greek community;
- its volunteer program sees trained bi-lingual staff and volunteers visit Greek elderly in aged care facilities; further building on PRONIA’s lead in managing and addressing the needs of the Greek communities ageing population, making it a standard bearer and a model for other CALD communities and service providers.
Australian governments now have an ongoing interest in tracking and understanding the aging of Australia’s migrant communities in order to better fund services and programs that are culturally appropriate and relevant.
The Parliamentary Friends of Multiculturalism hosted the launch of FECCA’s report “Review of Australian Research on Older People from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds” by then Social Services minister Scott Morrison in Canberra last year (March 2015). The report and its launch marked a momentous occasion because it affirmed the aging of the migrant community, its challenges and the need for an all of government response.
This report almost 20 years after PRONIA first commenced its advocacy on behalf of the aging CALD communities.
Whilst initially PRONIA’s main work and funding focused on assisting newly arrived Greek migrants with their settlement, there came a point in the second half of the 1990s where government attitudes and funding towards the settlement requirements of the Greek community change.
The Greek community and other similar ethnic communities relied on funding from the Department of Immigration to operate. When they were deemed to no longer need settlement services because they had been here for a long period of time – the proscribed settlement period, according to the Department of Immigration, being 5 years.
Phillip Ruddock was Minister for Immigration when the first cuts to settlement grants were made. I remember the town hall type meetings, led by PRONIA, to demand the re-instatement of the settlement service grants.
It was one of PRONIA’s many campaigns and it was not just about reversing a government funding decision; but one that demanded a re-think of the way in which governments perceived and treated the ongoing needs of migrant communities beyond the proscribed settlement period. It demanded an all of government approach.
In fact, I remember Voula on behalf of PRONIA, forcefully making the case at the time to the Minister that the Greek community’s need had not diminished but on the contrary, as it was beginning to age, its needs would increase and therefore should be a major concern to the Australian government and to the Federal budget.
It was PRONIA that began this advocacy. It was PRONIA that led the fight to extend the settlement services to take into account the needs of the ageing migrant communities and to also shift the funding responsibilities for this expanded settlement services to the Department of Aging, where they could be better funded and serviced as aging Australians.
Of course we have probably come full-circle now because today PRONIA finds itself supporting an entirely new cohort of Greek migrants who have come to Australia because of the Greek economic crisis.
They are often more highly skilled, but nevertheless, they have the same settlement needs as previous generations. This is a new and emerging challenge for PRONIA and reaffirms that this organisation has and will continue to have an important role to play beyond the ageing of the Greek community.
Challenges also exist for providing culturally nuanced services for third and fourth generations of Greek Australians. We need to begin advocating and planning for this.
PRONIA in the same way it led the charge 4 decades ago, now must continue to lead the way in the area of mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, domestic violence, gender and sexuality issues. These are major mainstream issues that, rightly, both state and federal governments have placed firmly on our political and social agenda and committed enormous amount of money in dealing with them.
It is not a given that these often difficult and sensitive issues can be effectively dealt with by other organisations that do not have culturally sensitive approaches. There is no better organisation in the Greek community to do this than PRONIA.
Another role that PRONIA can also play is in developing partnerships with other emerging migrant and refugee communities: lending support and advice, exchanging information and even training, or maybe even providing services for them as they do not yet have the capacity and infrastructure to help their communities.
I believe strongly that multicultural policy and ethno-specific service delivery remains as relevant today to Australian born people of migrant extraction as it did to the first generation of overseas born.
Cultural inheritance might be diluted through the integration process in subsequent generations and English language competency may not be an issue, but cultural nuances still remain a significant part of our identity and as such, understanding them is important in guiding how we think and behave, as service providers. PRONIA is well placed to do this today and into the future.
And I want to make this point:
PRONIA has grown and developed alongside the Australian Greek community. Always astute and alert to its current and changing needs, always one step ahead with its service response, it has always been at the cutting edge of multicultural policy development and will continue to be so.
The hundreds of people who have been associated with PRONIA over the years, in a professional and volunteer capacity, underpin its success. This organisation has benefitted from the selfless commitment and dedication of its founders, its board members, their expertise and guidance, its exceptional staff and its caring volunteers who genuinely care for the people whose lives they touch on a daily basis. The people of PRONIA have, and continue to, work together to make a difference. They are successful because they understand and speak the language of those they serve.
Of course no organisation can develop or grow without the support of strategic and astute leadership. As I have just said above, there have been numerous people over the years who have contributed to making PRONIA the success it is today. Too many to mention. But it is the enduring leadership of Voula Messimeri that I want to focus on this evening.
I have known Voula for many-many years.
Without Voula’s exceptional leadership, many of the achievements of PRONIA would not have been possible.
And after 27 years as CEO she has announced her retirement. An intuitive leader almost always knows when it is time to pass the baton on.
I would like to take this opportunity to extend a warm and sincere thank you to Voula for her unsurpassed contribution to the Australian-Greek community in Victoria and to PRONIA.
Voula, as you embark on the next chapter of your life, you leave behind a legacy of exceptional professionalism, commitment and compassion, which embodies the virtues and values of this organisation that you have led for most of your professional life. In short, you leave the place in great shape!
- Voula’s outstanding commitment to serve the community was recognised with an Order of Australia award in 2008.
- And as a truly remarkable female role model, you were included in the Victorian Honour Role for Women.
Voula was born in Thessalia and came to Melbourne in 1969. Her story and journey is a typical migrant one. You have personally understood the plight and needs of newly arrived migrants – in particular women. You have fought for multiculturalism; served as a member of the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council; a patron of the Multicultural Centre of Violence and the InTouch Multicultural Centre against Family Violence; and have also served as the Honorary President of Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA).
You have been a voice in government in your positions in the Ministerial State and Federal advisory structures in areas of health, ageing, income support, and media until 2011.
You have been a voice in boards of large organisations and businesses like the Rockwell Foundation and community management bodies such as RMIT University.
Al of this has been done alongside your role as CEO of PRONIA, adding gravitas to this organisation’s place and voice.
Voula, thank you. Your contributions as a Greek-Australian, as a migrant, an advocate, a leader and as a woman, will be remembered as a pioneer. You have made your mark and there is no greater achievement in one’s life and career than to be a role model for others to follow and build on.
PRONIA has a bright future, it will build on its past and will continue to deliver services and be a voice for Multicultural Australia for generations to come.