Inside Story

The diaspora fights back

Rugby star David Campese, Victorian Labor MP Carlo Carli and Argentinean millionaire Luigi Pallaro (pictured) all took a keen interest in Italy’s experiment in democracy. But it looked a lot like politics as usual

James Panichi 4 December 2008 5071 words

The odd one out: the independent senator representing Italians in South America, Luigi Pallaro (above), in the Italian Senate in February last year. Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

IN HIS SHORT CAREER in the Senate, Luigi Pallaro achieved the impossible: he brought together Italy’s ideologically irreconcilable political parties. When it came to expressing its contempt for the new senator, the Roman establishment set aside deep differences and spoke with one voice: the guy was a post-ideological buffoon, a throwback to a peasant past that most legislators assumed had been consigned to the history books. Pallaro was never able to talk the political talk, with his Italian so contaminated by Spanish that he sounded like something out of a badly dubbed Zorro movie; nor did he walk the walk, often not bothering to show up to crucial sittings. It was agreed that his election to parliament was evidence – if evidence were needed – that Italy’s new electoral system was a dud; legislators would have to unite to find a way to ensure future Pallaros remained out in the Argentinian pampas shovelling cow manure rather than be given the chance to bring down Italian governments. If Italians abroad were all like Pallaro, maybe the time had come to cut them loose.

But who was Luigi Pallaro? And how was a permanent resident of Argentina and his wonky Italian able to make it into Rome’s corridors of power?

His biography is typical of that of an Italian–Argentinean. Born in 1926 in San Giorgio in Bosco, a small town near the Italian city of Padua, he emigrated with his parents when he was very young and grew up to become a successful businessman. But unlike the hundreds of thousands of mainly northern Italian immigrants to Argentina who quickly blended into the local population, he remained politically active within the expatriate community. By the 1970s, Pallaro was running almost all local groupings with Italian links, from Feditalia – the most influential confederation of Italian organisations in the country – to Argentina’s Italian Chamber of Commerce. In the large Buenos Aires Italian community his contacts were excellent and his politics unashamedly grass-roots rather than ideologically driven. He described himself as an old-style Christian Democrat, steered clear of the military junta and throughout the country developed a network of support made up of people of all political persuasions.

By the 1990s, Pallaro was in pole position to take control of what was rumoured to be the next big thing for the millions of descendants of the massive Italian diaspora scattered around the world: political enfranchisement. And he knew he’d be able to do it his way. The times would suit Luigi Pallaro.

AROUND 3.5 MILLION Italian citizens live outside Italy. While many of them are immigrants, a growing proportion of expats are referred to as oriundi – people of Italian descent who are born abroad. No matter what the degree of connection with the Italian mainland, until 2006 none of them were able to vote while residing in foreign countries; the only way to cast a ballot was to return to the Italian municipality they (or their parents, or grandparents) had left years ago. Voting by postal ballot was never an option – constitutional impediments and political realities ensured that exercising one’s right to vote was a privilege which belonged solely to people living in the country.

The politics of expatriate voting are incredibly complex. But there is one, pervasive cultural element which underpinned the debate in Italy: the widely held perception that Italians living abroad were – and remain – fascist sympathisers. On both the right and the left of politics, Italian legislators were in no doubt that to grant the diaspora electoral rights would spark an influx of votes favouring what Italians call nostalgici del fascismo – those with a sentimental attachment to an era when trains ran on time. “The history of Italian immigrations overseas is – bizarre to say – little known in Italy,” says Swinburne University’s Simone Battiston, who, with his colleague Bruno Mascitelli, is author of the recent book The Italian Expatriate Vote in Australia. “There’s an outdated profile of the ‘typical’ Italian immigrant and politically it’s a view of people leaning more to the right or the far-right.” Sydney historian Gianfranco Cresciani, who has written extensively on Italian fascism and anti-fascism in Australia in the lead-up to the second world war, says the stereotype may have had its origins in Italy’s 1946 referendum on the monarchy, in which conservative, southern regions of Italy voted overwhelmingly to retain the royal family. Many of those who voted for the monarchy, Cresciani told me, were “nominal members of right-wing parties in the South. When they began to emigrate, it was assumed they were leaving because they couldn’t stand ‘Republican, left-wing’ Italy. And this myth was believed, and peddled, for more than twenty years.”

So, while Italian democracy struggled to survive in the turbulent years of the 1960s and 70s, all sides of politics (with the exclusion of the post-fascist MSI party) agreed the time wasn’t right to deal with the expatriate problem. In other words, both the Communists and Christian Democrats were afraid that the votes of expat fascist sympathisers would be tricky to accommodate in a modern democracy. But by the 1990s, things had begun to change.

Mirko Tremaglia is a long-standing MP with the MSI and lives in the northern Italian city of Bergamo. At the age of seventeen he signed up to serve in the armed forces of the Repubblica di Salò, the Nazi puppet regime in northern Italy; his father had served in Italy’s colonial forces and had been killed in Eritrea at the beginning of the second world war. The circumstances of the death of Tremaglia’s father are important, because the legend of the MP’s come-to-Jesus conversion to the cause of expat Italians is linked to the young political activist’s first visit to the Italian cemetery in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. Finding the soldiers’ tombs well kept, with fresh flowers on every grave, Tremaglia wanted to know who was spending time and money to honour Italy’s war dead. It’s a story which Francesco Pascalis, a former Tremaglia staffer who now lives in Melbourne, heard many times. “Tremaglia was told that the local Italian community was looking after the cemetery,” Pascalis told me. “These were people who were not related to the fallen soldiers – they were simply people who wanted to show their respect. Tremaglia was overwhelmed with emotion and vowed he would do something for Italians abroad, who had been neglected.”

“Doing something” for expat Italians back then meant offering them the right to vote in elections – a gargantuan task, given the entrenched opposition to the idea. Yet Tremaglia persevered and by the 1990s his campaign started to gain momentum – but not for the reasons you’d expect. Italians still knew little – and cared little – about their large diaspora; but when the Berlin Wall came down, Italy realised it needed all the friends it could get in far away countries.

James Walston, professor of international relations at the American University in Rome, has studied the rapid transformation of Italian foreign policy. “Italy had to change its whole policy set-up, because with the end of the Cold War all the certainties which had lasted from the end of World War Two to 1992 were no longer there,” Walston says. So the Italian government “had to reinvent, or invent, a new type of foreign policy. And there was this realisation that we do have all these people who have at least some sympathy and maybe could be helpful in promoting Italian interests… There are these people who can show that Italy counts. And this is partly what foreign policy is about.” This may have been a major shift in Italy’s political outlook, but at a cultural level it was much more: Italy was set to redefine the often difficult relationship with its massive diaspora.

THE HISTORY of Italian emigration is one of the largest demographic events in recorded history. From the 1870s on, people began to leave their impoverished Italian towns in droves; by the early 1900s about fourteen million people had emigrated, leaving Italy with a population of around thirty-three million. It would change the face of Italy: entire towns were emptied and those who were left behind often relied on remittances from the New World to stay alive. Yet the towns the emigrants had left weren’t the picturesque Tuscan villages you see on cook-book covers – if anything, they were closer to the malaria-ridden towns described in Carlo Levi’s seminal book Christ Stopped at Eboli: backward, largely illiterate and completely pre-industrial. These were people who missed out on the unifying postwar influences of radio, television and the 1950s economic boom.

Italians in Italy thought of the diaspora as a group of dialect-speaking goat-herders – a painful reminder of a pre-industrial past they were desperate to forget. They kept references to emigration to a bare minimum in school history books and were happy to steer clear of the political demands the emigrants would occasionally make. But what’s worse, the diaspora mucked up the plans of Italian exporters, who were building campaigns around what’s referred to as marchio Italia: the Italian brand. How can you promote products with an image of sophistication (Milanese café culture, Ferraris and mopeds, nice shoes and Gucci handbags) when in the United States, Canada and Argentina things Italian were associated with the pre-modern, often under-educated communities in which giant meatballs in pasta dishes remained de rigueur?

So for the Italian government to suddenly view the thousands of Italian groupings scattered around the world as an opportunity, rather than a burden, was big news. How all of this was to translate politically, however, was unclear.

Battiston and Mascitelli’s book tracks the highs and lows of Tremaglia’s campaign in parliament – from the dark years of marginalisation in the 1960s and 70s to some small victories in the 1980s and, finally, his triumph in the late 1990s. The problem is that Italian politics muddies the waters of what should be a simple narrative. Plot point one: Tremaglia’s conversion in Africa to the cause of expat Italians. Plot point two: a constitutional change pushed through parliament in 2000, allowing Italians living abroad to vote. Plot point three: expat Italians vote in Italy’s 2006 general election. Roll credits. The subterfuge, the Italian political trickery, is to be found between the constitutional changes in 2000 and the actual vote of 2006. That’s where it gets Machiavellian.

THE CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES pushed through in 2000 and 2001 were the equivalent of a parliamentary group-hug. Legislators agreed that continuing to deny Italian citizens living abroad the right to vote was morally unsustainable – a truth only the Communist parties refused to hold as self-evident. But once the changes had gone through parliament, the politicians had to come up with an electoral model they could live with. Or rather, they needed an electoral model which would ensure that the wacky, pre-modern expats weren’t granted too much political power.

When Australian citizens are abroad and want to vote in Australian elections, they can do it at Australian consulates or request a postal ballot from the Australian Electoral Commission. Their vote is then counted in the last seat in which they resided in Australia or – for the Senate – their last state of residence. It’s a simple model, but one which Italian legislators were quick to rule out. In fact, Tremaglia dismissed a simple postal vote of this type as an “electoral distortion” and vowed he would have nothing to do with so primitive a mechanism. Understanding his position on this is the key to working out why the Italians ultimately opted for a bizarre – and completely untested – electoral model which sounded alarm bells in a number of “host” countries, including Australia.

In the late 1990s, New York-based Silvana Mangione was a member of the General Council of Italians Abroad, or CGIE, an Italian-government sponsored representative body for expatriate citizens. And she led the charge on the part of Council members against a simple, postal-ballot voting system. Mangione met with Piero Fassino, the undersecretary for Italians abroad in the first Prodi government. “He sat with us and he said ‘why don’t you want to vote in your jurisdictions – in your original jurisdictions?’ And I looked at him and said: ‘I am from Bologna. The bolognesi around the world are probably 3000. If we voted, we would not change the balance of the expression of political will on the part of the electorate in my home town. But if all Sicilians voted, throughout the world, they would choose the representatives for Sicilians residing in Sicily.’ Fassino looked at me… and said: ‘You’re absolutely right.’ From that moment, there was an alliance from the left through to the right, saying ‘If we have to give them the right to vote, we have to give them a right to direct representation.’” In other words, the prospect of millions of expat Sicilians voting was enough to put the fear of God into even the most well-intentioned of politicians.

The Italian expatriate vote comes down to myth-making and misunderstandings – from Tremaglia’s cemetery conversion to the assumptions about the proto-fascist diaspora. And the decision by Italy’s politicians to adopt a complex system of overseas representation, rather than implementing a simple postal vote, is another example of how Italian political spin can weave its way into history. A mechanism devised to insulate Italian politicians from change was presented to overseas Italians as the apotheosis of political enfranchisement – a system which would give expat communities a real voice in Italy’s parliament. The theory that a large diaspora needs a special device of political representation is where this myth begins.

Ahead of the 2006 election, the Italian government divvied up the world into four expatriate electorates: Europe, North America, South America and the rest of the world (Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica). It allocated a total of eighteen parliamentary positions to be filled by representatives based in these overseas electorates: twelve members of the House of Deputies and six senators. This number – eighteen – was plucked out of thin air and didn’t even come close to being representative of the number of Italians residing abroad: eighteen out of a total of 927 parliamentarians isn’t much for 3.5 million expats. Far from being an attempt to enfranchise overseas communities, it was a way of marginalising their reclaimed political power.

Columbia University political scientist Giovanni Sartori led the campaign against the voting model from his weekly column with Italy’s largest newspaper, Corriere della Sera. “Of course the Italian citizens abroad should be entitled to vote,” Sartori told me. “Any decent democracy does that, usually by correspondence. But the parties did not want the normal distribution of the vote from abroad – in other words, they didn’t want people to vote from the original constituency. So, if I’m born in Florence, I vote for the constituency in Florence; if I’m from Palermo, I vote for a constituency in Palermo, and so forth. They did not want that to be disturbed because they had a feeling that they couldn’t control that… So, the real reason why everyone agreed to what I call this monstrosity – because from the point of view of representation it makes no sense whatsoever – is because of that. They said, ‘Well, we’ll create these Sputniks travelling around the world and the vote that we control in our constituencies is not affected, or disturbed.’” In other words, Sartori argues, the concept of the “electoral distortion” was a meaningless cover for the real motivation.

So what was the real reason that Italian politicians were concerned about votes flooding in from abroad? The answer may be found in the country’s political culture. Italian politics centres on a concept called clientelismo, in which the politician offers support to a constituent – a job for a nephew, a good word for a cousin sitting a state exam – and in return the constituent makes sure he and his extended family get out to vote for the right people at election time. It’s small-time corruption which an Australian would dismiss as democracy Papua New Guinea-style, but which Italians see as part and parcel of the political process. Expat voters posed a problem: how can a politician curry favour with people living thousands of miles away? What inducements, what public service job, what raccomandazione for an appointment can he offer an Italian citizen residing in Adelaide or Montreal? And with some Italian towns having more people enrolled to vote from overseas than in the town itself, a simple postal vote would sound the death-knell of clientelismo.

In other words, the expatriate vote needed to be contained – kept separate from the mainstream vote – and then marginalised. The creation of the expatriate seats was just the ticket: it would prevent any disruption to normal voting patterns while receiving full support from the influential CGIE, whose members fancied themselves as (and later became) MPs. To quote Tancredi, the nephew of the Prince in the Italian novel The Leopard, “For everything to stay the same, everything must change.” So the overseas electorates were established and continuity was assured. But at what cost?

IT WAS THE FIRST TIME a country has split the world into overseas electorates. Sure, the Portuguese have a single electorate for citizens residing abroad and the French have Senate seats set aside for expats. But this goes much further: it’s the most complex attempt to create a political system outside a state’s borders. It was daring and it required the support of host countries – particularly those with very large concentrations of Italian citizens, such as Australia, Canada, the United States and Argentina. So after the constitutional changes in 2000, Tremaglia’s office – and Italian missions around the world – were forced to undertake a large diplomatic effort to reassure governments that the system wouldn’t be disruptive.

The Americans gave the system the green light, but Canada and Australia held out. The successive Canadian Liberal governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin had been lobbied by Italian-Canadian politicians (elected to Canadian federal and provincial parliaments) who opposed the new electoral mechanism. One of them was Sergio Marchi, a former Toronto MP and a senior minister in the Chretien government. “I thought that if we have Italian citizens in Canada, my first obligation at the time – as an elected Canadian representative – was to try to make them become Canadian citizens and become the landlords of Canada, rather than having them elect a member of parliament to somehow represent their views in the Italian parliament,” Marchi says. “I just thought that the orientation was wrong; I thought that from an integration perspective in Canada it was wrong.” Marchi told politicians back in Italy: “Listen, if you think this is a way of bringing countries together… It may apply to another country, but I don’t think it applies to a country like Canada. I think it’s wrong-headed.”

The Italian-Canadian politicians’ position was met with cynicism by parts of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where it was assumed the local MPs were simply terrified that their power base in local Italian communities would be eroded by the entry of new players. But the politicians’ objections carried the day, with Canada holding out to the very last moment and warning it would not allow its residents to campaign – or to run as candidates – in an Italian poll.

Australia was also concerned and the foreign minister, Alexander Downer, let his Italian counterparts know that he wasn’t inclined to accept the proposal. “I spoke to our then-ambassador [to Italy] about it and the advice of the Department and of the post in Rome itself was that we should oppose this whole idea of overseas constituencies being created in the Italian parliament,” Downer told me. “I was the minister and it was up to me to make up my own mind about that. But I thought that it was quite wrong to have political constituencies of other countries in our country.” Downer says Australia was particularly worried about the impact the electorates may have on local Italian communities and was afraid they may affect Italian-Australians’ relationship with the local political system. “It gets, in a sense, to the political integrity of Australia,” he says. Downer was uncomfortable with the prospect of candidates from Australia “campaigning in our country for the votes of a section of our community.” His view was that “Italian elections should be conducted in Italy” and that Italians should be able to vote by post for in constituencies in Italy – “but not create a constituency in Australia.”

Yet in spite of these objections, Tremaglia – who was by then a minister in the second Berlusconi government – simply went ahead and did it. Bruno Mascitelli has used freedom of information legislation to piece together Australia’s objections and has concluded that Canberra was ambushed by Tremaglia, who presented them with an electoral model as a fait accompli. The minister saw the model as worth the risk – assuming most of the expat electorates would be snapped up by his post-fascist MSI (a party later re-branded as National Alliance). Those close to the action – including the CGIE’s Silvana Mangione – are certain that Tremaglia had initially planned to run as a candidate in the expat seats and didn’t care which foreign governments he antagonised. This was to be his political swansong; he would march on Rome at the head of a posse of loyal, expatriate MPs.

Needless to say, things didn’t go to plan. An eleventh-hour political deal struck with the CGIE restricted the right to run as candidates to permanent residents in the new electorates. So there would be no openings for Italian politicians or carpetbaggers with plans to travel abroad and save the goat-herders from themselves. Tremaglia wasn’t able to run in the seats he had created and not one of his post-fascist candidates got up. And his main legacy was to have left a number of foreign governments feeling betrayed and resentful.

THE ITALIAN GOVERNMENT SPIN which accompanied the new, expat electorates suggested the voting system would give diaspora communities a political voice. Yet Italian political parties of all persuasions were determined to allow overseas communities to have little or no say in who would run as candidates. They became prompt and ruthless in striking down any attempt by political activists in host countries to establish preselection processes. People wanting to run would have to travel to Rome to kiss the rings of party secretaries. Nothing would be decided abroad, and nowhere was the supremacy of the Italian political party system more obvious – and more aggressive – than in Australia.

In 2006, an Italian member of the European parliament, centre-left powerbroker Gianni Pittella, was told that a group of Melbourne-based members of the Australian Labor Party were planning to run against the official candidates of Italy’s then centre-left coalition, l’Unione. From Strasbourg, Pittella started to work the phones. He managed to convince one of the Labor Party members – former Victorian Legislative Council member Giovanni Sgrò – to pull out of the contest. But two Labor members wouldn’t budge and threatened to split the vote in the Australian-based electorate of the Italian parliament. So Pittella contacted Victorian State Labor MP Carlo Carli and demanded that he force the rebel Labor members to reach a deal with the two Italian candidates. Carli agreed.

I first revealed the existence of this secret document earlier this year, in Australia’s Italian-language newspaper Il Globo/La Fiamma. In the agreement, the two preselected Italian candidates – Nino Randazzo and Marco Fedi – agreed that if they were elected they would hand control of their Melbourne electorate offices to the Labor Party members. In return, the Labor Italian-Australians – which included Lino Magnano, a former member of the militant Italian communist organisation Lotta Continua, and former Moreland City Council Mayor Joe Caputo – would throw their resources behind Randazzo and Fedi.

It was all highly unorthodox, yet it appeared to be small win for grassroots politics in Australia. Italy’s powerful parties would agree to allow Labor Party members in Melbourne to set up some kind of a preselection process in return for their commitment not to run against Randazzo and Fedi in 2006. Members of Melbourne’s Italian community were quick to joke that it was yet more evidence of how Labor factions in the city’s north were prepared to stack anything that moved – no matter what the context. Yet it was also a pioneering attempt to wrest power away from Italy’s party system.

But you don’t get to be successful in Italian politics by sticking to deals signed with hick politicians at the arse-end of the world, and the two Italian candidates ratted on the agreement within days of their election. Yet the deal is fascinating for what it attempted to achieve and the broader issue of the sustainability of transnational political identities. The agreement was signed in Carli’s electorate office in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg; it involved five Australian citizens, two of whom were running for parliament in Italy under the banners of two Italian political parties. But it had been instigated by an Italian member of the European parliament in Strasbourg, who had managed to force another Australian citizen to pull out of the race.

Those involved in the deal say there’s nothing surprising about it, that transnational identities are simply another manifestation of the rich, multicultural-tapestry which underpins Australia’s tradition of tolerance (etc, etc). Yet because the deal went unreported outside Australia’s Italian community a number of important questions remain unanswered. For example, should Australian public office holders be attempting to control a political process linked to a foreign state? And should an Italian politician be orchestrating political outcomes involving public office-holders (a state member of parliament, no less) in Australia?

Meanwhile, something just as unusual was happening in Sydney. Late in 2005, Australian-based members of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party gathered in the offices of the Italian Chamber of Commerce to finalise the process of preselecting their own candidates. Knowing that they would be up against the very high-profile Randazzo and Fedi, the local forzisti (as Berlusconi affectionately called his members) developed a cunning plan. They would come up with two of the most high-profile Italian-Australian names around – candidates who would be able to cut through and appeal directly to the largely disengaged Australian-born Italian citizens. They had contacted Australian rugby legend David Campese and former Socceroo Frank Farina (both had played in Italy, spoke Italian and had Italian citizenship). The two players agreed and were told their preselection was a done deal.

The Sydney Forza Italia meeting held a vote and the two candidates were confirmed; Campese and Farina prepared for the campaign. But within two weeks, Forza Italia’s headquarters in Italy had scuppered the deal and had imposed its own candidates on the Australian branch of the party. Berlusconi had given his blessing to Brisbane businessman Luigi Casagrande – who had close ties to Queensland’s Labor government – and Sydney property developer and Liberal Party member Teresa Restifa. Both were totally unknown in the key battleground of Melbourne and didn’t stand a chance; however, both had promised the party bosses in Italy that they were going to fund their own campaigns. What’s more, Forza Italia’s former coordinator for the expat electorates, Dario Rivolta, has confirmed that Restifa’s candidacy was supported by Renato Schifani, a centre-right powerbroker from the Sicilian city of Palermo and today the president of Italy’s Senate. Restifa – who grew up in Palermo – has since acknowledged that Mr Schifani was a “childhood friend,” but says that fact had nothing to do with her preselection.

If nothing else, the defeat of the “Australians” in the preselection process adds weight to the initial concerns over political sovereignty expressed by the Australian and Canadian governments. It also highlights the lengths to which Italian parties have gone to maintain control over a system which was designed to give a voice to expatriate Italian communities. And, of course, it raises questions over whether transnational politics can work, or whether the impact of Italy’s overseas electoral system has weakened the relationship between the Australian state and a large part of its own citizenry.

ALL BUT ONE of the eighteen candidates elected to sit in the Italian parliament in 2006 ran as endorsed candidates of Italian political parties; all but one of them voted along party lines once in parliament. And the odd one out was a maverick – the man with the bad Italian who answered to nobody but his own constituents: El Senador, Luigi Pallaro.

The Pallaro model offers an insight into how a political system with one of the worst records of governance in the western world can be kept at arm’s length from expat Italian communities. Because Pallaro ran as an independent – he headed what’s known as a lista civica – he was able to steer clear of party politics in Rome. He also had immediate access to campaign reimbursements – money which the government pays directly to the parties and which parties often neglect to pass on to candidates.

Until now, Italian politics hasn’t been linked to notions of territoriality. People are elected by proportional representation from party lists and the notion of strong local members with grassroots support remains foreign. Yet Pallaro became Italy’s Brian Harradine – he was the country’s first experience of an MP prepared to support a government of any political persuasion in exchange for real benefits for his constituents. And on this, the senator from Buenos Aires delivered: after 2006, Italian communities in Argentina received more government spending than any other as the Prodi government desperately attempted to parlay its Senate numbers into a working majority.

Pallaro’s Italian may have been wonky and his politics pragmatic to the point of appearing callous. What he had going for him was that he responded to his constituents needs and was able to extract real concessions out of a government chockers with wily political operators. He owed no favours to Rome’s political elites and right until the end he accepted no compromises. At the time of a crucial no-confidence motion in the Prodi government, he was literally out of reach – somewhere in Argentina. He was the rarest of Italian politicians: a true independent. •