It was April, 1978, I was 16 years old. I walked into the kitchen as my Dad was listening to the Greek language radio news. He had paused from his morning bit of getting breakfast together for his six children. The news was reporting of a police raid on more than 100 elderly Greeks who had been accused of welfare fraud, who were recipients of the disability pension. My father disbelieved the likelihood there could be such a presumably extensive conspiracy to defraud.
My father knew all too well the battered and broken bodies of Greek migrants, and from other nations, who laboured twelve hour days in factories, warehouses, on construction sites decade after decade to sponsor the hopes of their children that they were personally denied. He understood the long awaited rest that could be scored for some with an early pension. However he doubted the reports of widespread conspiracy. He was appalled that all the alleged conspirators were Greeks. He said that reputation bore above all else and that it was not possible for so many to be risking their reputations, to be diminishing the legacy they fought long and hard for their children.
He was right.
But for a long while Australia was sold a different story, one that there was a clandestine mass culture of deceit and welfare fraud connived by Greeks. All of a sudden the hard working sacrificing Greek migrant fathers and grandfathers were welfare cheats.
Australians, like most western societies, have been conditioned to chase down the pennies of the alleged welfare cheats while turning the proverbial blind eye to the avoidance of tax paying by the top end of town.
The vast majority of Greek migrants, like the majority of migrants, remain hard-working. However April 1978 saw Greek migrants indicted as dole bludgers, stealing from the Commonwealth.
In 1976, the federal police tipped off by discredited individuals salaciously bought into gossip that Greek migrants were defrauding their fellow taxpayers. On the whiff of allegations alone the investigating police turned gossip into a widespread scandal. Racism bit hard. Migrants went from being those people who were taking jobs from White Australians to thieving bastards. White prejudice smacked around the nation’s institutions but also the Malcolm Fraser led government. The Coalition went wild on the scandal, and alongside the police racialised the scandal – to the Greeks. A little of what Gough Whitlam’s government had begun in the multicultural journey with Al Grassby at the head was undermined.
Australian governments go hard on alleged welfare cheats and publicly shame despite often without evidence. Of course it’s always been staunch defence of the big end of town corporate tax evaders.
The investigating police would years later be the subject of scathing criticism from judiciaries over the so-called scandal, but the damage had been done – lives were ruined, one individual suicided, a small number had been railroaded with convictions and the nation had soaked up a generation’s worth of mudslinging at Greek migrants.
In 1976, the Sydney office of the then Department of Social Security was told of an alleged conspiracy where medical practitioners of Greek heritage were assisting elderly Greek workers to fraudulently secure ‘invalid’ pensions. The Commonwealth Police (COMPOL) was called in.
COMPOL was told by now discredited informers that μεσάζοντες – intermediaries – introduced the migrant workers looking for an early retirement to the doctors. It was also suspected that some of the intermediaries were also paid coaches for Greek migrants in how to obtain sickness and disability pensions, in how to describe symptoms and in how to appear. The notoriety of the μεσάζοντες grew into an alleged shadowy Greek underworld. They became known as Kolpo – κόλπο.
On the basis of an informant in September 1977, the acting Commissioner of the Commonwealth Police informed the Director-General of the Department of Social Security of an alleged longstanding fraud perpetrated by Greek migrants against the Department of Social Security. Eight doctors were implicated and it was believed that at least 500 Greeks were involved. Three million dollars a year were being defrauded by the Greeks it was alleged.
The acting Commissioner argued that with the testimony of the informant who would be paid a reward of $30,000 that the alleged perpetrators could be brought to justice.
Search warrants were issued on the doctors’ medical practices. A huge list of pensioners was compiled.
The government was coming after the former workers with the full force of the law, with the intent to jail and not with fines alone. The argument was the public purse had been stolen from.
Detective Chief Inspector Don Thomas led the raids on the pensioners on that April dawn. More than 160 homes were raided and five medical practices.
The raids made the media fast and maxed national coverage because COMPOL had invited to the raids the Sydney broadsheet, The Sun.
181 Greeks were arrested. So much for multicultural Australia; all of a sudden they were not Australians but Greeks. Many were charged with defrauding the Commonwealth. Many could not speak English.
Two days later, 83 pensioners, the first lot, appeared in Sydney’s Central Court. The public diminution, humiliation, disparaging and racism was underway full-blown. COMPOL boasted that this was the biggest breakthrough in the nation’s history on catching out welfare cheats. COMPOL carried on that there may arise a thousand more arrests and the extradition of around 300 Greeks from Greece.
The real scandal was that the Minister for Social Security did not intervene and stop the Department of Social Security prematurely terminating the pension payments of the 181 accused. This soon escalated to 669 recipients having their pensions cancelled.
While the nation’s media ran wild with Greeks as welfare cheats, only a few were convicted but the hundreds of others whose lives were ruined had the charges quietly go away. They were genuinely entitled to their pensions after breaking down in heavy labouring work and through industrial accidents.
I know, I spoke on behalf of many of the accused. They could not communicate well in English. I was only 16 and was soon worn out explaining on their behalf. My heart ached for many of them. They and their families deserved better. My father was right, it was racism and we saw it firsthand close up with the families we supported through the thick. It was also a time where I was speaking up on behalf of other families of asbestos affected Greek workers wired up in their beds gasping their last breaths. I won nothing for them as such was the silence of the times, for migrants. But I was hardened by how the unscrupulous employer wins out more often than not in perpetrating wrongs and injustices.
In the 1950s there was a time when my father, a young migrant worker, shovelled asbestos onto the back of trucks. Who knows what impact on his health as he struggled, physically debilitated, during his 70s till he passed at 84 years.
There was an air of the Kafkaesque as police raided the homes of pensioners, with the elderly no longer just fathers and grandfathers but all of a sudden criminal suspects taken away to appear in court days later. In one swoop with the nation’s media pouring over every charge being Greek became a liability.
One elderly Greek who was still receiving psychiatric care at the time of his sudden arrest soon after took his life.
So what were the rudimentary injustices by the Commonwealth Government, the Department of Social Security at the time? The Director-General issued a directive for the suspension of pension payments without the pensioners having a chance to defend themselves. The grim reality was that many families were left with no income. Many endured financial hardship and some became homeless. It is little known by most Australians that one-third of Australia’s homeless are migrants. More than one quarter of Australia’s suicides are migrants. The impropriety brash-laden scandalous conduct by the government, by Social Security, by COMPOL led to mortgages lost, tenancies terminated, families losing their homes.
One of the doctors that the discredited informant had claimed was corrupt was tested by an undercover police officer of Greek heritage. He visited the doctor seeking favour from the doctor to secure a disability pension. The doctor refused to assist but this did not make COMPOL stop and think. COMPOL had the testimony of an informant! It’s as if Vyshinsky’s Law. It was as if the soon to be discredited informant who had approached COMPOL in 1977 could say anything – he had been granted ‘indemnity’.
Mass arrests and a conspiracy prosecution made the police and government appear champions, but at what cost? It is said that lies do not live forever but for the affected Greek migrants, their generation was outlived by the lie and its impacts.
COMPOL had hoped that after the mass arrests of the 181, that some would testify against the doctors. Those pensioners would be indemnified. But the reality is the pensioners did not know what was happening to them let alone of a conspiracy.
Many of the elderly were charged because they were pensioners with a surname of Greek origin who had visited one of the doctors.
Eventually the Department of Social Security realised that they had been caught up in COMPOL’s initial excitement that they had penetrated some mass conspiracy on welfare fraud. The Department slowly began to disassociate itself from the prosecutions. Having a Greek surname was not all of sudden incriminating, and would not be for the judicial process. .
The prosecution’s case rested predominately on the testimony of a single informant. The informant’s testimony was ineffectual when tested by the judicial process. There would be a second Crown witness but her disconnected testimony that could not be corroborated came to an overdue end when the Crown itself prematurely ended her testimony to the court.
The medical practitioners were committed to trial but this was challenged in the Federal Court and in 1985 the committals were successfully appealed.
Of the April Fool’s day dawn raids and arrests of 181 elderly Greeks only four were convicted of ‘defrauding’ the Commonwealth. Three of them, debilitated by illness, pleaded guilty, were convicted and placed on good behaviour bonds.
Thirty-three were convicted on minor irregularities. Eight were fined and twenty-five dished good behaviour bonds.
One medical practitioner would be convicted and dealt a prison sentence.
After the defeat of the Coalition government in 1983, the Minister of Social Security, Don Grimes and the Attorney-General, Gareth Evans, announced an inquiry into the raids and for compensation to be determined for those unjustly prosecuted. On April 30 1986, the Mitchell Inquiry recommended compensation payments totalling over $6 million.
The thereabouts $3 million that had been alleged was being stolen each year by welfare cheats who were Greek migrants finished up costing the Commonwealth $100 million.
Long after our bones our soaked into the earth, there may come the day when racism and classism may be wrongs only known by a distant past.