Stephen Castles, Caroline Alcorso, Gaetano Rando, Ellie Vasta (eds), Australia’s Italians: Culture and Community in a Changing Society

North Sydney, NSW: Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd, 1992

Jim Andrighetti

The arresting and vivid hand-coloured woodprint, ‘Men cutting cane, women stripping it’, by the leading ltalo-Australian artist, Salvatore Zofrea, on the front cover of Australia’ Italians is an appropriate metaphor for this collection of essays. The joint labours of Italian migrant men and women in Australia have contributed to an enduring Italian presence, which has reaped multiple harvests. Australia’s Italians examines the impact of Italian migration on Australian culture and society, with emphasis on the postwar period. It is an abridged version of Euroaustraliani: La Popolazione di Origine Italiana in Australia, published by the Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli in Italy. The result of a project co-ordinated by the Centre for Multicultural Studies at Wollongong University, the book reflects the centre’s multidisciplinary approach to research. Contributors from various fields have drawn widely from oral and documentary sources, including a wealth of statistical data. A pleasing feature of this book is the presentation of some of their recent empirical research. For me the pick of the collection is Claudio Alcorso on his internment; Jock Collins on Italian immigrants and Australian business, under the catchy title ‘Cappuccino capitalism’; Ellie Vasta’s two chapters on migrant women and the second generation; Gaetano Rando on ‘Narrating the migrant experience’; and the [mal chapters by the editors, ‘The Italo-Australian community on the Pacific Rim’.

The editors have produced a readable text ensuring an evenness of style throughout. However, in some cases, editorial intervention could have amplified certain points. The book’s two references to ltalia Libera, the wartime Australian-Italian Anti-Fascist Movement, are mute on the significant role played by Italian Jews in its formation, an area which has recently attracted research interest.1 Italian Jews represent a minority in Italian migration, but here they have been eclipsed by the Catholic majority.

Claudio Alcorso’ s account of his internment is not only a potent reminder of wartime xenophobia in Australia. but a welcome addition to the dearth of published accounts of internees’ experiences.2 His reminiscences are buttressed by archival sources, including the transcripts of his hearings before the Aliens’ Appeals Tribunal, which confirm he was unjustly interned. Behind wire for three and a half years, Alcorso was in Loveday Camp, South Australia. a witness to the volatile coexistence of Italian anit-Fascist and Fascist internees. In November 1942, the anti-Fascist Francesco Fantin was killed by a Fascist counterpart.3 His death brought into focus the Australian Government’s internment policy of segregating national groups regardless of political differences. Fantin , a canecutter from Queensland, died a martyr to the anti-Fascist cause, his memory lionised by a small circle of the Left. The compilers of A Biographical Register of the Australian Labour Movement (BRALM) might consider his candidature for inclusion, raising him from relative obscurity. Alcorso’s reference to Italia Libera modestly omits his contribution to its activities, including his role as founder of its bilingual newspaper, II Risveglio, in 1944.

Collin’s thesis that the contribution of Italians to Australian business broke down stereotypes of Italian migrants and aided Australia’s transition towards a multicultural society is well sustained. Not just ‘factory fodder’, Italians have shown a propensity to move from wage labour to small business, achieving success through long hours and the contribution of women in such enterprises. For some the heights of big business were attained by Franco Belgiorno-Nettis and Carlo Salteri, their engineering giant, Transfield Pty Ltd. arguably the largest Italo-Australian multinational corporation.

Discussion on the role of Italian migrant women in Australia filters through the book. It is, however, given focal attention in Ellie Vasta’s chapter. High incidences of Italian women in manufacturing and self- employment are recorded, as is the discrimination they encountered along ethnic, gender and class lines. Some illuminating case studies of the empowerment of working-class women offer a balance to an established literature which casts them as victims. Italian women also carry the responsibility of ‘cultural custodians’ of their native traditions and language. The contributions of Italian women to public life are nowhere better illustrated than in the two consecutive entries on former radio broadcaster, Mamma Lena Gustin, and NSW parliamentarian, Franca Arena (pp. 151-152). An omitted though piquant fact is that Arena, shortly after her arrival in Australia in 1959, was a protege of Gustin. While both women still await the biographies they deserve, recent fruitful sources are absent from the bibliography.4 A slim volume by an anonymous author, published in 1917, is cited as the sole source on Gustin’s life. Elsewhere, the captioned photograph of Mamma Lena is erroneously dated 1976; it should be 1967. Another quibble is that she was appointed MBE not OBE in 1968. Arena’s biographer will do doubt correctly install her in the Upper House, not the Legislative Assembly.

Rando’s survey of the literary and cultural articulation of the migration experience is accomplished with elan. He presents a lucid and concise coverage of various genres – memoirs and personal accounts, oral histories, fiction, poetry, theatre, film and television. His oral historical research into the untapped area of working-class returnees to the island of Filicudi, off the north eastern coast of Sicily, is to be applauded. One is reminded of the Australian historian and Italophile Sir Keith Hancock’s advocacy of R.H. Tawney’s doctrine, ‘What historians need is not more documents but stronger boots’. Italo- Australian writing has provided highly personal reflections on Australian society that should not be ignored in future constructions of Australian cultural and national identity. Perhaps some attention could have been devoted to Salvatore Zofrea’s recent work in woodcuts, An Odyssey (1989) and The Capricornia Suite(l991). Inspired by his father’s migration experience, Zofrea has created two monumental artistic narratives.

In other chapters, AL Grassby on Griffith’s benevolent padrone, Peter Callipari, exposes the insidious and misappropriated stereotype of ‘The Godfather’. Castles, Rando and Vasta on ‘Italo-Australians and politics’ produce some interesting and ambiguous findings. Despite Italo-Australians having a low political profile, local politics being their best opportunity for representation, courting ‘the ethnic vote’ remains sacrosanct for the major political parties. The apotheosis of the Italian migrant worker in the trade union movement is evidenced in Nando Lelli, Secretary of the Port Kembla Branch of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia, 1972-1990, another candidate for ABRALM. A peculiar omission from this chapter, and the book, is reference to Paolo Totaro’s term as foundation Chairman of the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission, 1979-1987, and his high public profile as presenter of the SBS- TV program. Face the Press.

In the final chapter the editors offer some novel viewpoints on the impact of Italian and European migration to Australia. Italians through entrenched cultural practices, settlement patterns and community formation resisted assimilationism, rooted in Anglo-Australian cultural dominance. The State’s response was multiculturalism with its recognition of cultural diversity. The editors’ wiPashed view is that Australia’s future lies in the Asian-Pacific region and that Italians ‘paved the way for Anglo-Australian awareness of new geopolitical realities, and in the long run for the opening to Asia’. The editors see the second generation Italo-Australians possessing’ double-cultural competencies’, being better educated and more upwardly mobile than their parents, playing an important role in this future. They are seen to have the potential to contribute to new definitions of cultural and national identity. As the editors conclude, ‘the Italo-Australian presence has helped prepare Australia not only for a post- colonial but also for a post-European future’.


  1. Marcello Montagnana. ‘The Contribution of Italian Jewish Refugees to Anti-Fascist Activities in Wartime Australia: An Introduction’. Australian Jewish Historical Society: Journal and Proceedings. Vol. XI. Part 1. 1990. pp. 82-92.
  2. Claudio Alcorso’s forthcoming autobiography, The Wind You Say. is to be published in April 1993 by Angus and Robertson Imprint Lives.
  3. Paul Nursey-Bray, ‘Anti-Fascism and Internment: The Case of Francesco Fantin’, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, No. 17,1989, p.88-111.
  4. Dino Gustin, 70 Anni di Ricordi in Due Mondino Years of Life in Two Countries, Italy and Australia, Lakemba, NSW: T & R United Australia Pty Ltd, 1987, and Franca Arena, ‘Recollections’ in Ann Curthoys, A.W. Martin and Tim Rowse (eds) Australians from 1939, Broadway, NSW Fairfax Syme & Weldon Associates, 1987