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Category: Interviews »

Subject: Politics »

Carlo Carli discusses the early involvement of young Melbourne Italians in the FILEF movement

Carlo Carli and Mara Moustafine.



Date Added:

15 April 2009


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mov (Quicktime);

File size:

28.6 MB




I got involved partly intellectually, I started reading books, 1975 I was 15 in 1975 so it was a clear point where I just took a side and went out and went to demonstrations, I mean I’d been aware of other things Robert Ryan thing, was something that I was aware of but ’75, clearly made a huge difference. It sort of also made me concerned about – the fragility of democracy, Democracy’s not as well entrenched as people think and I think that still remains my position, that I think even in Australia, even today that we – we always assume that we’re a rock solid democratic state but I thinkit is relatively fragile.
So I got involved in that. I got involved with the anti-uranium movement, which was getting a bit of momentum and then I got involved with FILEF which was an Italian workers organisation, it was very active in the Brunswick Coburg area.
 It was an interesting organisation because you had a group of older post-war migrant working class people. You had a series of almost refugees from 1968, in Italy, you know, sort of people who’d been in the far left in Italy, anarchists and you know, various far left groups who for various reasons had come to Australia. You had people like myself, younger people who had grown up in the area and we sort of came together and it was a time when we were still – it was just immediately I suppose, post Whitlam, FILEF obviously had a lot of activity under the Whitlam Government but you know, we were interested in the post – I was part of the post Whitlam and we saw, the importance of building not only political alliances in the Italian community but political alliances broadly.
I think FILEF was still very much seeing itself as part of a sort of – a migrant worker movement, the idea we have to defend and extend the rights of migrant – migrant communities to languages and to settlement services and also a lot of the emphasis was on the failure of trade unions to involved migrant workers, so there was a lot of focus on the migrant worker issue and trying to involve migrant workers.
  And that was a very interesting period, it didn’t last that long because I think a couple of things happened, I think one was we didn’t quite realise the significance of the Galbaly Report, and realised that in fact – that a lot of our immediate demands were going to be met by government. I think our assumption was it’s a conservative government, it won’t meet any of our demands. And at the same time, what was happening was probably that emphasis on working class unity was being lost. So you know, we were both winning– we were seeing a number of victories if you like in terms post migration services and language rights and – that came out of the Fraser Government at the same time where there was a weakening if you like of that desire to build working class solidarity and alliances.
The other thing that happened in FILEF which was a bit unfortunate, was there  emerged a fairly strong tension between those in FILEF that sort of wanted to get their teeth into Australian political life and saw that FILEF should – is a sort of – you know, is an organisation which should be involved with Labor Party politics because obviously Labor Party is – was a dominant political force in that area. Although there was obviously some interest in the communist party. And also trade unions, getting people involved and active in trade unions and – and there was another component of FILEF that were much more Italian centred and much more interested in, Italian political parties particularly the Italian Communist Party and its role. And I think that was a tension that eventually people like myself sort of moved on.
It’s an organisation based in Rome which, it’s basically built a network amongst Italian migrants and it was founded by Cardinal Levy who was both an artist – a writer and also an anti-fascist who had been exiled in – during the fascist period to southern Italy and he saw, if you like, the – both the problems of the south, because he’d come from Turin, but also the issue of migration, the town that he was exiled to, there were a lot of people that migrated to the United States and he saw that experience and basically devoted his life to building these networks, globally.
FILEF really emerged in Melbourne as a result of a number of individuals who largely had links back to the Italian left: Socialist Party, Communist Party, the Italian Left Trade Union Federation. They’d made initial contacts, they then set it up. It involved people like – Giovanni Sgró who later became a parliamentarian but it was quite a diverse number of people who had set it up. And it really – initially it was really trying to continue work that had happened , there were a history of – in Melbourne of left Italian organizations going back to – going probably back to the early part of the 20th Century. They had – they had grown, they had split, they had a whole lot of divisions, but they really grew very strongly during the Second World War as part of an anti-fascist struggle. After the war, again, they had their usual experience of breaking up. I think FILEF was that – really trying to pick up the pieces of that.
And its great success was really when an organiser came from Italy and a guy called, Ignazio Salemi who died a few years ago now, Ignazio Salemi came here and he was a Communist Party member and he came here, essentially to organise the organisation and really promote a number of young individuals. Many of whom became quite influential in all sorts of areas of political and social and cultural life.
and he was a brilliant tactician. He was eventually deported from this country by the Liberal Party and that was underground for a number of months but I think he was really the principal person that turned FILEF from an organisation that had always existed in terms of in the community, which always had been, if you like a left organisation or a series of organisations, into a very tight but a very dramatic organisation that really promoted new people and sought to be quite spectacular in political action and I think the other thing is, he linked very strongly to church groups, in particular and left intellectuals around the churches.
Who in that period were going through a period of inner-city political struggle, around anti-freeway activity and that. So there was this convergence and FILEF was really instrumental in that and it – and as a result of that did suffer some fairly rough treatment – you know, apart from the Liberal Government expelling their principal organiser, they also had a firebombing of their offices and – I’m not saying that there was a connection there with the Liberal Party but police connection there with someonepeople’s homes were raided and materials were stolen.
So there was a period of where there was a fair bit of effort to undermine them. Also, within the Italian community they did feel that did tend to polarise the community and a lot of people came out in support but equally a lot of people came out against it and I suppose it really demonstrated that there was an elite in the community that was not very keen to have an organisation like FILEF being – you know, trying to contest for political influence within the Italian community.
The Whitlam era was really when Salemi came out and became quite prominent and that was the years of the – well locally they were the years we had agitation around teaching of languages in the schools which then extended further beyond that area, we also had the migrant worker conferences, so that’s ’72, ’75. ’75 into the early ‘80s was really trying to pick up the pieces, trying to fight the Fraser Government, trying to work out what direction to take. By the early ‘80s I think you started seeing the drift of people away from FILEF because I think FILEF became less interested in influencing the Australian political scene and became more nostalgic about the Italian thing. So I figure if you had to describe it in phases: ’72, ’75, the Whitlam era was the real rise of the multicultural debate and this was a sort of – the migrant worker component of that. ’75 to probably about the late ‘70s was really trying to fight back against what was seen as the push by the Fraser Government and as I said, I think largely misunderstood some of that too.
Misunderstood that there were gains out of the whole Galbally Report and by the early ‘80s, you started seeing the drift away as people – a number of people decided that FILEF was less relevant and some people stayed and some people went on to other things. And FILEF continued to survive – I mean it’s still  exists as an entity but it probably still survived as a – you know, as a fairly useful organisation probably up to the early ‘90s. But I didn’t have much to do with them after about probably ’83, ’84.
End transcript