MP's speech exposes ethnic rifts

5/16/2006 12:48:31 AM

A SENIOR state Labor MP has caused uproar in Melbourne's Turkish and Jewish communities and embarrassed Premier Steve Bracks by accusing Turkey of committing a "holocaust" comparable to Adolf Hitler's.

Jenny Mikakos, the parliamentary secretary for justice, has been accused of "hate speech" after telling Parliament: "Unlike Germany, which has taken responsibility for the Jewish holocaust, Turkey has never apologised to its victims."

Ms Mikakos, who is of Greek heritage, told the upper house: "On May 19 the Pontian community in Victoria and around the world will commemorate the 87th anniversary of the Pontian genocide that occurred in present-day Turkey.

"Between 1916 and 1923, over 353,000 Pontic Greeks living in Asia Minor and in Pontus, which is near the Black Sea, died as a result of the 20th century's first but less-known genocide. Over a million Pontic Greeks were forced into exile. In the preceding years, 1.5 million Armenians and 750,000 Assyrians in various parts of Turkey also perished."

As two Labor MPs from Turkish backgrounds, John Eren and Adem Somyurek, called on her to sit down, Ms Mikakos, the member for the northern suburban electorate of Jika Jika, continued: "The Turkish Government must begin the reconciliation process by acknowledging these crimes against humanity. The suffering of the victims of the Pontian genocide cannot and will not be forgotten."

Labor MP Michael Leighton has written to Mr Bracks urging him to ask Ms Mikakos to "cool it".

"I find the various references to the Holocaust deeply offensive," Mr Leighton writes. "As the son of a Holocaust survivor, that is why I have no relatives on my father's side."

Alison Crosweller, a spokeswoman for Mr Bracks, last night confirmed the Premier had spoken to Ms Mikakos but would not disclose whether he had asked her to apologise or stop making such comments. "It is a matter for her. She is expressing her views of something that happened 87 years ago," Ms Crosweller said.

The Age believes Mr Bracks is concerned that the speech may stir up race-based tension in the lead-up to the November state election.

The secretary of the ALP's Coolaroo branch, Kazim Ates, has written to Mr Bracks accusing Ms Mikakos of "a cynical exploitation of the anti-Muslim sentiment that currently prevails in the Western world due to the threat of terrorism".

In his letter, obtained by The Age, Mr Ates writes: "Ms Mikakos' speech racially vilifies the Turkish community and incites inter-ethnic hatred between the various ethnic communities that reside cohesively and peacefully as Victorians in our culturally diverse state. The Bracks Labor Government and the ALP have been promoting racial and religious harmony."

Mr Ates demands that "Ms Mikakos should unreservedly apologise to the Turkish community for this act of vilification. Failing that, she should be removed as parliamentary secretary immediately."

Ms Mikakos, who said last night her speech spoke for itself, told Parliament: "The Pontic people lived in Asia Minor and in Pontus from ancient times. When the Turkish nationalists took power after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a deliberate policy of creating 'Turkey for the Turks' was adopted, essentially to rid Turkey of its Pontian, Armenian and Assyrian Christians.

"The process began with Christian businesses being boycotted, leading to bankruptcies and property being confiscated. Eventually, intellectuals and community leaders were rounded up and executed; women were raped and enslaved. Most victims died from exhaustion or dehydration on forced marches or work in the so-called labour battalions."

The president of the Council of Turkish Associations of Victoria, Erkal Eken, has written to Mr Bracks urging him to dissociate the ALP from the "inter-ethnic hate speech".

"All the Turkish community sees that she has to apologise," Mr Eken told The Age last night.

In an email to Labor MPs about what she describes as the "hysterical" response to her speech, Ms Mikakos writes: "Some Australians are mature enough to consider an apology to the Aborigines for the crimes of the past is an appropriate way of fostering reconciliation … That is all I was asking for."

She called on the Turkish Government to acknowledge that the events took place.

"Adolf Hitler is on record as justifying the Jewish Holocaust on the basis that no one cared about the Armenian genocide in the 1940s," she writes.