Former Premier Steve Bracks describes his family background, immigrants from Lebanon in the late 19th century, which was then part of the Turkish Ottoman empire
My family ancestry came here in the 1890s, so spanning two centuries ago now. Both on my mother’s side and also my father’s side – my father’s side from Zahle in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, and my mother’s side from north of Beirut in the high country in Bikfaya . And my mother’s side of the family – the Davises – they used to be called “Dahvis” and they changed their name to Davis – came to Ballarat and settled there and as hawkers initially buying and selling things with a cart that they had and my father’s side was up in – near Lismore and in Sydney later on in New South Wales.
And after the Second World War – after introductions, my mother and father married and settled in Ballarat so that’s my ancestry in Victoria and the ancestry in Ballarat so it goes back a long way. Not dissimilar to a lot of migrants of that period, you know, that came with nothing, came here because of poverty which was in Lebanon at the time, where the family structure could not sustain the number of people in the family and they were sent to what they thought was going to be the United States of America but ended up on a boat and ended up in Australia. And that’s not an untypical story.
Well the stories were about the difficulty of making ends meet, of surviving really and buying and selling which was a great trait of the Lebanese people of course, some of the greatest traders in the world but getting what they could and buying and selling it, getting on a train from Ballarat and going to – as my great grandfather did – going to Mildura and trying to sell his wares there. And eventually doing quite well and being entrepreneurial and owning businesses and drapery shops and real estate and doing quite well but – over a period of time. But it was of a difficult period.
Some of course, as you would expect, some racism, but not enormous. In fact I suppose the greater characteristic that my ancestors have had, my father, my mother, from what I know about my grandparents who died when I was young, was there wasn’t a great deal of animus and there wasn’t a great deal of racism. There was the occasional slurs in the schoolyard calling my mother a dago, which was common at that time, because they couldn’t distinguish between any nationality that wasn’t of Anglo Saxon Celtic background but it wasn’t regular, it wasn’t constant and certainly when I went to school, there was an absence of it. And I think that had been expunged by then.
Australia’s littered with people of my origin- of Lebanese background, whether that’s Jack Nasser or as we discussed off air before, Marie Bashir a whole range of people who have come from very beginnings and not many of which are known to have a Lebanese background
The script for this trip was written long ago. Immigrant made good goes back to the old country, touting sentiment and import-export schemes.
But visiting his ancestral Lebanon, Steve Bracks chose to play down the drama. “My grandparents were only three years old when they came to Australia,” he said.
“The Australia they came to was very Anglo-Saxon-Celtic and assimilating quickly was a survival technique. I’ve a Lebanese background but it’s not something that has emotionally a big pull after 110 years.”
In Australia the Brackses swapped Arabic for English and the Lebanese Melkite church for Roman Catholicism. At dinner, they would vary chop-and-three-veg with dishes from Lebanon’s famous cuisine.
The main purpose of his visit, says Mr Bracks, is trade. Lebanon was the final stop on a Middle East tour which included Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
So in between courtesy calls to Lebanese politicians (top offices are shared among the four main religions, and you have to meet them all or there’ll be war, possibly literally) Mr Bracks talked business.
“There are half a million people of Lebanese descent in Australia. In Saudi Arabia there are virtually no ties and we do about $1.2 billion worth of business a year, but here where we have family we hardly do anything,” he said.
One exception is Swisse Pharmaceuticals, a Victorian firm owned by the Australian-Lebanese Saba family. On Wednesday the Premier drove into the hills north of Beirut to launch a joint venture between Swisse and Pharmaline, a local company that will package and market vitamin products from Victoria.
Thursday saw the Melkite Patriarch present Mr Bracks with the Order of the Cross of Jerusalem, followed by a quick tour of the bullet-scarred ruins of downtown Beirut.
Yesterday brought the ceremonial homecoming, with a trip to Zahle in the Bekaa Valley, the little town which the Bracks family left more than a century before.
Now a sprawling mass of concrete and traffic, Zahle turned out dignitaries and a small crowd to welcome Mr Bracks. While the Premier admits his family did not stay in close touch with relatives back in Lebanon, Brax is still a common name. A cluster of Brax elders greeted the non-prodigal son. Sami Brax, a town muktar, or headman, told how he narrowly failed to get into parliament at his first attempt – but then so did cousin Steve.
Joseph Brax talked about Mr Bracks’s great-grandfather, who took the family to Australia. The Premier told them about Australia’s proud multiculturalism.
Bracks’ parents were both born in Australia to Lebanese migrants. A devout Catholic, his father Stanley worked as a grocer and salesman and unusually for his generation he helped with the cooking and ironing. His mother, Marion, taught music. Bracks was the youngest in the family, with three older sisters. The multicultural and feminine flavour of their household in regional Ballarat softened his character but the conservative politics of small-town life sharpened his ability to broker relationships and garner support from unlikely quarters. He left home to study accounting just as the Whitlam Government recast Australia.
He taught commerce for five years, meeting Terry, a PE instructor, at Maryborough High in country Victoria. An all-rounder who was good at organising people and good at arguing a case, he gained the confidence to stand for the state seat of Ballarat North in 1985. His father, who’d supported the Democratic Labor Party, handed out how-to-vote cards. Bracks lost. Stanley Bracks died three years later. His son kept at it. In 1988, first in a byelection and later in a state election, he knocked “on the door of just about every house in the electorate”. Again, he didn’t win, but his perseverance and energy attracted attention within the party.