Author: H.E. Mr Colin Willis, High Commissioner, Commonwealth of Australia
I should like to begin by thanking the Organising Committee for inviting me to participate in this important Convention. When I say “participate” I mean precisely that. I am not here just to make a speech and then disappear. I am here to join in your discussions and to try to understand better the issues which concern you.
I should like to extend a warm welcome to the strong contingent from Australia and to assure them that there will be an appropriate celebration of Australia Day tomorrow.
This Convention is a very good thing. The bringing together of representatives of Maltese communities in a wide range of countries in itself reinforces link between Malta and the countries concerned. It also opens up the possibility of global perspectives, and in this day and age that is the way to go. It is no longer appropriate to think only in terms of bilateral links - we have to think of all connections. We cannot say, for example, that Malta-Australia links have nothing to do with Malta - Canada links or Malta-United States links. These links are linked. In the context of trade, Maltese are found of thinking of Malta as a hub. However, a hub requires a linked combination of spokes and a rim to work effectively. Maybe this Convention needs to reinvent the wheel in the context of Maltese migrants abroad.
One of the things that should come out of the Convention is a wider recognition in Malta of the achievements of Maltese migrants. I have a feeling that some Maltese are rather dismissive of those who left to undertake the daunting task of re-building lives on the other side of the world. I think that this Convention needs to reinforce the concept that Maltese migrants are assets for Malta as they are for their countries of adoption. The new Citizenship Law, which has just had its second reading in Parliament, is an excellent step in the right direction, especially in so far as it makes it easier for the children of migrants born abroad to retain dual citizenship. I know from direct experience that many young Maltese-Australians will welcome this change.
Clearly there are many benefits to be gained through the sharing of experiences and the defining of common problems. I hope that from the process of discussion, formal and informal, there will emerge a consensus - not always a word that is associated with Maltese - on action plan and agreement on how it is to be implemented.
I do not pretend to guess what will come out of this Convention, but I am sure that it will not be very much if all that is produced is a set of demands for governments to provide more resources for the maintenance of migrant communities. These days governments are more than ever in the business of reducing budgets rather than increasing them. People simply cannot rely on government subsidies. We need to find new ways of combining the resources and effort of interested groups to achieve common objectives. Governments can do their bit, but community groups must also contribute.
A successful action plan needs to have a clear definition of problems and objectives, a firm sense of priorities and a practical strategy for implementation which does not depend on handouts. It is not for me to tell you what your problems are, but I would expect that the more important ones would include care for elderly migrants, language and culture maintenance and the involvement of young people in community affairs. The stark fact for migrant community associations is that many of the original migrants who are the bastions of cultural maintenance are passing away or returning to retire in Malta (as is very plain to any visitor looking at house names in Gozo). Since migration from Malta has slowed drastically, new blood can only come from the young. It is my impression that the children born in Australia of Maltese parents move very easily into Australian society, see little incentive in learning to speak Maltese and do not see Malta as playing a part in their future. Maybe that is true in other countries. How to give these people an interest in and respect for their heritage seems to me to be the crucial challenge that this Convention must deal with.
I am sure that part of the answer lies in developing networks and schemes to bring more young community people to Malta to see for themselves that Malta is a good place. I recall the visit of a group of junior soccer players from the Melita Football Club in Sydney at the end of 1998. The group spent six weeks staying in various places in Malta and Gozo, seeing the sights and playing the odd game of football. When I asked them at the end of their visit what they had got out of it they all said, in one way or another, a new respect for their heritage. I was quite impressed by that. They also had some very sensible comments about how the level of Maltese football could be improved.
I look forward to hearing from you who have to deal with these issues at first hand. I am not a migrant, but I like Malta and I like the idea of ensuring that the Maltese heritage abroad does not disappear. Australian society for one would be the poorer if that happened. I really do hope that some practical and sustainable plan emerges at the end of your deliberations, and that the Convention will be a foundation for the networks required to implement that plan.