Maltese Identity in Australia - What Future?
Author: Dr. Barry York
Numerical Strength: Maltese and their descendants in Australia
The 1986 Australian Census found that there were 110,237 Australians with a Maltese ancestry. Unfortunately, the question on ancestry was not asked in the 1991 Census. The 1986 Census question provided, for the first time ever, a reliable estimate of Maltese ethnic strength. In the past, far bigger estimates, including one of 400,000, had been made. This figure had gained credibility when the History Unit established within the Commonwealth Department of Immigration in the early 1970s published it. I, and others, embraced the 400,000 estimate. However, when the results of the 1986 Census were released around 1988, we had to come down to earth a bit.
This question is related to the issue of "the future generation" because those who strongly advocated the 400,000 figure saw it as a measure of Maltese ethnic strength in this country. It was intended as an objective measure, based on the children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc., of all the Maltese who had ever come here since European settlement. But the great weakness in the formula was that it ignored, totally, the subjective condition that makes a Maltese a Maltese or that makes a Maltese-Australian a Maltese-Australian. In the final analysis, what matters is awareness, identification with, the Maltese ancestry. Without (Maltese) self-awareness, there can be no (Maltese) ethnicity.
Of the 110,237 with a Maltese ancestry, 51,905 were born in Malta. These are mainly of 1950s and 1960s vintage and thus we return to the harsh reality that the future of the Maltese identity here will rest largely with the Australian-born; in other words, the 51,959 who self-consciously have a Maltese background. Again, we confront a dilemma. How many of the 51,959 would actually, in daily life, think of themselves as Maltese-Australians? And how many just as Australians?
I recently encountered this dilemma when I was asked by a friend interstate to enquire into the background of a Canberra sportsman who had a Maltese surname. I rang the sportsman and he explained that, yes, his father was Maltese. It was very clear, however, that this was something that the sportsman had not really thought much about. Indeed, it was probably only through my call that he was thinking about it at all. When asked how he regarded himself ethnically, he said he is an "Aussie" but is also aware of his Maltese ancestry. He did not speak the language and had never been to Malta. Would you like to visit Malta, I asked? His reply, "Yes, sounds good. I've only been outside of Australia once and that was to Fiji", was hardly enthusiastic. Again, my question prompted the consideration. For this young second-generation Maltese-Australian - (well, should I call him that, he said he is an "Aussie"?) - there is of course no dilemma at all. The dilemma is for the Maltese community, or at least for those within it who want to keep alive some kind of Malteseness in Australia.