The 20th Anniversary of Macedonian Independence on 8 Sept. 2011, provides a unique opportunity for Prime Minister Gillard and her Cabinet to rethink and upgrade Australia's foreign policy and to strengthen links with the Republic of Macedonia. It is also a time to critically examine the relationship between the parliamentary ALP and the Australian Macedonian community.
In the last two decades, the Republic of Macedonia has emerged as a vibrant multicultural democracy, a market economy and an exporter of security with Macedonian soldiers serving side by side with Australian diggers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Macedonia has been ready for many years to join NATO and the EU. It is also keen to connect with the rest of the world including Australia based on strong people to people links and engagement on international issues of common interest.
Over the last 100 years the Australian Macedonian community has played a positive and significant role in contributing to Australia's economic, cultural and social advancement. The hard working and family oriented Macedonians have built churches, monasteries, schools, businesses, roads and vineyards and have accepted Australian democracy and values. The community faces a range of challenges and issues that are of critical importance such as the teaching of the Macedonian language and Macedonian studies at Australian universities, aged care, social inclusion, community development and nurturing closer relations between Australia and Macedonia. The Australian Macedonian community has worked in partnership with the elected government of the day and with all representatives in the Australian Parliament, in addressing the above unmet needs and tackling the key challenges faced by Australian society in the 21st century.
The old relationship between the ALP and the Australian Macedonian community was based upon an unwritten contract influenced by Macedonian cultural traits such as solidarity, loyalty and cooperation combined with elusive political promises by the ALP. The ALP value proposition was simple. In return for unquestionable loyalty at federal, state and local government elections, the parliamentary Labor Party promised to advance the interests, well-being and the status of the largely working class Australian Macedonian community in the last century.
Under the old contract, the Macedonian community was essentially taken for granted because its voice was not heard or acted upon in the parliamentary Labor party, in the Australian Parliament, the mainstream media or in government. In opposition, the ALP invested little energy to understand and cater for the unmet needs of the Macedonian community such as the need for effective political representation in Australia, Macedonian human right concerns in the Hellenic Republic and in Bulgaria, lack of educational, health and community development opportunities for the Macedonian diaspora in Australia, underinvestment in diplomatic initiatives in Southeastern Europe. In government, the parliamentary Labor party continued with its unsustainable habits of expecting ongoing support from the Macedonians without giving much in return.
The arrogance of the ALP in government was most vividly displayed in 1994, when the Keating Government and its Foreign Minister Gareth Evans hatched a back room deal with the Liberals and the ultra-nationalistic Hellenic lobby dressed up as foreign policy on Macedonia. The policy on Macedonia was made without any input from the Australian Macedonian community or any kind of debate or scrutiny in the Australian Parliament and the media. By placing Macedonians and Macedonia low on the list of priorities, the Keating, the Rudd and the Gillard Governments have failed to provide financial and political support for capacity building programs which could empower the community and help meet its legitimate needs and aspirations. This has motivated the Australian Macedonian community to work more strategically on developing its capacity to influence public and foreign policy and resource allocation decisions by state and federal governments.
The old relationship has not delivered good outcomes for Australia and its Australian Macedonian citizens. Australia's image and reputation as a 'creative middle power' has been eroded by bad foreign policy on Macedonia. It does not have to be like this. The old relationship is undermining the hard work of the growing number of federal members of parliament with a genuine interest in catering for the unmet needs of their Macedonian constituents.
As a consequence of the above, the newer generations of Macedonians started questioning the return on investment from the old contract with the ALP and commenced searching for a new deal. The community became more politically active by organizing massive street protests around Australia in 1994 and most recently in 2008. For the last 20 years, Australian Macedonian community and civil society organisations have been demanding change and better outcomes from the Australian PM and the Foreign Minister.
In September 2009, the Australia Macedonia Parliamentary Friendship Group was asked by the Macedonian community to convert the Roadmap for Advancing Australia-Macedonia Relations into actions and positive outcomes. Prime Minister Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith were asked to lend their support to this important initiative in Australian foreign policy innovation. The Australian Government was reminded that it should look at the 133 nations in the world such as the USA, Canada, Russia, China, India, UK, Turkey and many others who have a nuanced policy in support of Macedonia's right to self-identification. Practical steps and options open to the Australian Government include empowering the Australia Macedonia Parliamentary Friendship Group and introducing a Bill to Recognise the Republic of Macedonia, based on the Canadian model. Australia's bipartisan policy on Macedonia is outdated, unsustainable, not based on evidence and has never been scrutinized in the Australian Parliament since 1994.
The Rudd Government responded by establishing the Australia Macedonia Parliamentary Friendship Group. In 2009, it hosted an official visit to Australia by the Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki. This saw the signing of a Social Security Agreement that is beneficial to citizens of both countries.
The Gillard Government is still timid to change its foreign policy on Macedonia and lacks boldness in implementing innovative and collaborative high impact programs and projects. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd needs to show fresh thinking and new leadership on Macedonia and on engagement with its diaspora. The ALP national secretary George Wright and the parliamentary Labor party have to find strength to innovate on Macedonia and to deepen the relationship with the Australian Macedonian community. Everyone from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to the drover's dog knows that Macedonia has been held hostage because of its legitimate constitutional name by its bully neighbor.
How is Australia being fair to Macedonia and its diaspora if it makes and keeps a discriminatory foreign policy in favor of discredited nationalists in the Hellenic Republic and in Australia who still refuse to recognise ethnic minorities, political realities and EU ethical standards. Despite the financial meltdown in Greece caused by mismanagement and corruption, the political and religious establishment in the Hellenic state still actively works to delegitimize the Republic of Macedonia and to Hellenise Macedonia and its diaspora? This makes Australia a blind follower of discredited ideology rather than a world leader and champion of equality and democratic values.
A new relationship is beginning to emerge. Australia's national and international interests need to be aligned with the needs and aspirations of the Australian Macedonian community and with the Republic of Macedonia. Macedonia has fought the 'War on Terror' at home as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has demonstrated its democratic and multicultural credentials since independence in 1991.
Under the new contract, the Australian Macedonians and their friends in the Australian parliament, in the media and in the public policy community expect genuine support for community capacity building, strong political representation and a solid commitment to rapid advancement of Australia-Macedonia relations. The good news is that almost 99% of federal MPs support closer relations between Australia and Macedonia and do not have a problem with Macedonia's constitutional name. This is something worth celebrating.