|Mr Alfred Brežnik (Photo by Florjan Auser)|
"If my work in helping members of my community will be judged as successful and that I have contributed to their well being, I’ll consider that as my greatest achievement."
You have been a member of the Slovenian community in Australia for more than fifty years and Honorary Consul for twenty-one years. How would you describe the Slovenian community in Australia?
A difficult question indeed and I’m not quite sure how to answer it. It is impossible to describe the whole Slovenian community in Australia with a single statement/label that would apply to all. The only thing that is common to all is the Slovenian heritage. What I mean by this is that not all came to this country at the same time and for the same reason. The fact is that most arrived to the shores of this country after the second WWII, the so called political migrants. These are those who escaped from the communist oppressors, to save their lives and who became refugees in the camps of Europe - waiting for resettlement in a number of western countries, including Australia.
The second, but a much smaller group, were the so called economic migrants, who started arriving in the late fifties. Their reason for migration was basically to find a secure job and better life. They didn’t want to be labelled as political migrants and were rather weary of the first arrivals and thus causing some resentment to each other.
Slovenian migrants in general, but particularly the first group, started building, besides their own homes, also communal homes/halls/centres and churches. They proved to be hard working, diligent, skillful and entrepreneurial, as well as family orientated. Education was always a very important part for a Slovenian Family, thus children also attended Slovenian language classes and participated in cultural performances. The fact is that the first generation was the driving force of all this that we have today. The second generation, who actually benefited a lot from the efforts of their parent’s, didn’t continue with such enthusiasm. This is understandable: mixed marriages, family, social and professional commitments, engagement within the local communities, occupied most of their free time.
Over the years the friction between the first two groups gradually disappeared, particularly after Slovenian independence, when the community was at its peak. They felt reunited and proud to be called Slovenian. Now they had an identity, which they lacked before – most didn’t want to be called Yugoslavs. However, despite all this enthusiasm, the number of Australians who call themselves Slovenian is falling drastically, according to the census. Many organisations with their huge club houses are experiencing a shortage of membership and are struggling to sustain their existence.
There is a small inflow of new young migrants from Slovenia, which is due to the economic crises in Europe, thus also in Slovenia. But these are different migrants from those arriving after the WW II, they are usually highly educated professionals and speak English. Their main interest is to find work, preferably in their profession, and a secure future. They have no time and/or interest to join the existing Slovenian organisations or clubs.
Now, let’s get back to you question: How would I describe the Slovenian community in Australia?
A community of people who are generally happy and content, they love their folk music and having a good time. They are hard working, diligent and responsible; proud of their country of origin and its culture. They are very protective of their own family – ‘home is my castle’. They are generous and always prepared to help, particularly in times of crises. They are exemplary citizens of their new adopted country – Australia.
What are its main strengths and its main weaknesses?
Strengths: Their work ethics, traditional family values – based on Christian upbringing, and tolerance for others.
Weaknesses: Due to diminishing number of the first generation through ageing, the descendants – second and third generation, lack the sense or need for Community’s survival, causing a gradual loss in membership of Slovenian organisations and clubs, thus questioning their future sustainability.
How would you like to see the Slovenian community develop in the future?
First of all, the younger generation would have to gradually take over the running of the organisations and clubs. Also, they would have to try to attract the newcomers – the new arrivals to this country. I know this is easier said than done. But, to achieve this, the first generation which in most cases still runs these establishments and holds to them – sometimes jealously, would have to let go and change their attitude, before it is too late. They’ll have to accept the fact that now are different times, that the young people have different requirements and needs - a consensus is required. They may speak English among themselves, but their Slovenian roots and the love for the country of origin is still dear to their hearts. Therefore, they shouldn’t wait much longer. The Slovenian Association Melbourne is an example of such a positive change and it appears to be a working.
Do you feel that the organisations that are in place now are fulfilling the role of community leaders and focal points?
They most certainly are - for the time being of course and for the existing membership. But survival is at stake, and not too far in the future! Now is the time to act! By the way, this s not a uniquely Slovenian phenomenon, it is universal, particularly among the smaller ethnic communities.
How did you see your role as the Honorary Consul General? What was your main concern? What were your main achievements?
It was indeed a great honour to represent my country of birth, one year after it gained the independence - a dream of the Slovenian people for centuries, as the Honorary Consul for ten years and for the last eleven years as the Honorary Consul General, in my new adopted country - Australia. But the appointment carried also obligations and duties.
It is necessary to point out that my work and duties at the time of my appointment were considerably different from those 21 years later, at the time of my retirement. As a representative of a new country, with no previous accredited representative, it was my first duty to bring to the attention of the Australian Government, non-government organisations and the Australian people the existence of a new state, a new member in the family of nations – The Republic of Slovenia. To establish and run a consular office was indeed a pioneering task. Slovenia had no experience in foreign affairs and protocol, and I had no special instructions. Even the Vienna Convention (Rules and Regulations for Diplomatic Missions) was given to me in the ‘Serbo-Croat’ language. The original letter of my appointment actually listed the following duties:
“The duties of Mr Alfred Brežnik are to promote broad-based cooperation between the Republic of Slovenia and Australia, especially in the field of economic relations, transport and communication, culture and justice, and ex officio to advise and help Slovenian and local citizens and legal entities in accordance with national regulations and international law”.
Of course, with the opening of the first Embassy of the Republic of Slovenia in Canberra, in April 1993, things became easier for me. My work load was reduced and I could seek advice from the Embassy when required. I could also concentrate more on my community, which was always my main concern.
You are asking about my main achievements? I have never thought of grading my work. I will leave this to others to do so, if they thought it desirable. However, if my work in helping members of my community will be judged as successful and that I have contributed to their well being, I’ll consider that as my greatest achievement.
Outside the community work there were a number of highlights that I was proud to be part of, for instance: The first WTO conference and exhibition in Sydney, 1994, where Slovenia had one of the largest pavilions, showing a variety of quality products (high tech, machinery, white goods, furniture, etc.) and was attended by a large business delegation.
The 2000 Sydney Olympics, where I was the attaché of the Slovenian Olympic and Paralympic teams (a great honour indeed), coinciding with two business conferences, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne. And also the great success of the Slovenian Olympic House in the Sydney CBD.
2004 - Slovenia became the member of EU and NATO.
2008 – Slovenia was presiding EU and our Consulate was presiding the NSW EU Consular Corps.
These are some of the historical events, to mention but a few.
The new Honorary Consul appointment for New South Wales is expected in the near future. What would be your advice to the new Consul?
The Republic of Slovenia in her 22 years of existence as an independent state came a long way and has established many diplomatic and consular missions all over the world. There are now official Guidelines for diplomats and Consular officers, including Honorary Consular Officers. It wouldn’t be correct for me to pre-empt the official instructions. If I should say anything at all as an advice, it would only be the following:
To be appointed an Honorary Consular officer of a country/state is great honour indeed. It is a prestigious position. Not a paid one – there are no financial gains or remunerations for expenses or work done. So, one may ask, why would I do it? There could be many reasons. One may love his country and is proud of her and may wish to help. / One may be particularly interested to help his or her Community. / One may do it simply for the honour and prestige or opportunity for meeting business people through networking – nothing wrong with that, it’s legitimate. Whatever the reason, the most important thing is sincerity and courtesy when dealing with people and to be a good listener. People who come to see you expect to be helped, and they can be very appreciative when granted assistance. At the end of the day, the feeling is good - it is a labour of love.
You are also a distinguished businessman. Does your company Emona Instruments trade with companies in Slovenia?
Yes we do. We trade with two specialist electronics companies in Slovenia.
What are your views on the trade exchange between Slovenia and Australia? Do you think it is adequate? Is there room for improvement?
Unfortunately, it is not adequate. There are great opportunities for improvement in the bilateral trade between our two countries. But to do this we need a dedicated person at the Embassy level – a Trade Commissioner or a Commercial Attache, who would be proactively involved with trade alone. Slovenia has a lot to offer and so does Australia, particularly through investments. Australia is one of the largest trade partners with EU and has investment in many of her member states. Slovenia seems to be missing out on that business.
What would be your advice to a company in Slovenia that wishes to sell its products in Australia?
Firstly, they must research the Australian market themselves, i.e. to look for similar products or services they are offering - this is very easy with the help of the internet. Then, they should approach them, preferably directly, or through an agent. It certainly would be easier with a help of a commercial representative from Slovenia, if we had one. If the product is good and the price is right it shouldn’t be too difficult. One must be persistent.
What are your personal plans for the future?
No particular plans. I hope and I pray for good health, happy and content remaining years of my life.
Thank you for the interview.