A major issue affecting the Maltese in Australia
Links between Malta and Maltese living abroad are tenuous at best, maintained primarily through visits every few years to the home country.
Another important mechanism providing links with Malta and anything Maltese is through radio and television. It is therefore understandable that any threat to this service is met with considerable opposition.
The news that the major ethnic radio transmitter, SBS, has decided to reduce the number of hours of transmission from eight to two per week was understandably received with considerable dismay by the Maltese community. This reduction of six hours per week is the worst punishment suffered by any of the ethnic groups in Australia.
The number of elderly and home-bound Maltese is increasing dramatically. These people depend on Maltese radio for most of their information about life around them, and depend on it completely for news about Malta. Reducing the programme to a couple of hours a week, taking place, moreover, at an awkward time of day, is bound to be seen as merely tokenistic.
The criteria used to assess the number of hours to be allocated to ethnic community groups were meant to take into consideration the rapidly changing demographic pattern in Australia, and the substantial increase in the numbers of people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East: all of them demand and have a right to be represented in a multi-lingual radio programme.
There has been a concomitant reduction in the number of people born in Malta. At its peak in the 1960s, the number of Malta-born individuals was over 56,000. Now this number has dropped by a quarter to 43,000.
More disturbing, and quite unexplainable are the recent census data that show that of these, only 23,000 profess to speak Maltese at home.
To some extent this is balanced by another 9,000 people born in Australia and several more born elsewhere (including Egypt) who, while not born in Malta, profess to speaking Maltese at home. This brings the total of Maltese speakers in Australia to 34,000.
The Maltese Community Councils in both Victoria and New South Wales have reacted strongly and have set up public meetings as well as meetings with members of the SBS board and with political figures to ensure that the voice of the public is heard. A petition with the hundreds of signatures is currently being prepared.
What irks the Maltese more than anything else is the fact that the largest communities have taken the lion’s share of the available hours: six ethnic groups have been allocated more than one-third of the available hours, with the other 68 ethnic groups having to share what is left. These larger groups are, moreover, the groups that have a plethora of other mechanisms to maintain their contacts, with daily newspapers and 24-hour radio programs in their own language, which is not the case with Maltese.
It appears indeed to be a case, to paraphrase the gospel of Matthew, that: “To him that hath, more shall be given; and from him that hath not, the little that he hath shall be taken away.”
We believe this is inequitable. More emphasis should have been placed on needs rather than numbers. It has always been difficult to impress the fact that while Maltese have been a substantial presence in Australia, even now being the fourth most common non-English speaking group in some districts of Melbourne and Sydney, they belonged to the smallest, and for a long number of years, the poorest country which could not provide those who left the country with any support whatsoever.
Even now, when things have changed considerably, and the migrant who left Malta is not forgotten but still considered to belong to the ‘Greater Malta’, we still cannot expect to find facilities like newspapers and television programmes readily available, particularly for older and disadvantaged people.
It is hoped that the SBS board will see sense and review the allocation of hours, unlikely as that appears to be at the moment.
It is also hoped that every effort be made by the Malta government to facilitate culture and language maintenance to counteract any deficit resulting from the loss of these radio programmes.