Victor George Borg AM, MQR, LL.B (Melb), LL.M (Lond)
(27.09.1941 – 18.11.2019)
By Edwin Borg-Manché
© Photo by Mark Avellino
We are all deeply saddened by the loss of arguably the most inspiring leader that the Maltese community in Victoria has had since its formation more than 60 years ago. Victor Borg was a larger-than-life character, an iconic community leader and a legend. But he was also a humble, genuine, generous and caring man – a true gentleman. He enriched the life of those who had the fortune to get to know him.
Victor George Borg was born in Gzira, Malta on 27th September 1941 in an underground shelter, half-way into the Siege of Malta during the Second World War, when the Axis powers decided to bomb Malta out of existence and starve its people into submission. He was the son of Joseph Borg and Carmelina Dingli. They had four children – Esprit, Rosemary, Victor and his twin sister, Jeanette.
His father was one of nine children. Like most of his seven brothers, he worked for the NAAFI, the Navy, Army and Airforce Institute, which provided supplies to the British services in Malta.
His mother was the eldest in the family. She was a teacher and won scholarships to study in the United Kingdom and Italy. She eventually rose to the position of headmistress at a school in Senglea. She also served as the Chief Commissioner for the Girl Guide movement in Malta. During the war years, she made her mark as a member of various committees dealing with the food distribution. With her drive, her deep sense of compassion and her involvement in the community, she would become the most influential figure in Victor’s life.
Carmelina was very passionate about social justice. She contested two general elections, in 1950 and 1951, as a candidate for the Malta Workers Party. At nine years of age, young Victor assisted her by handing out leaflets and placing them in people’s letterboxes. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful on both occasions.
Victor grew up in a fairly strict Catholic home where religion played an important role. At his mother’s insistence, he started each day by attending Mass before school. Reciting the rosary as a family every evening was part of the Borg household routine.
Victor was raised in Gzira and started his schooling at St Joseph’s primary school in neighbouring Sliema. After some time at that school, Victor’s mother thought that he was not progressing as well as he should have. He tended to be too easily distracted and he was more interested in playing sport than studying. So, she arranged for him to move to the government primary school in Gzira. An uncle on his father’s side of the family was a teacher there. His uncle could keep an eye on Victor and personally supervise his academic progress. Victor joined his brother Esprit at the Lyceum in Hamrun for his secondary schooling.
The fifties in Malta was a very difficult time for families. Victor’s parents became very concerned about the future of their children and felt that Australia would provide greater opportunities. After passing the medical checks in 1955 the family travelled by ship to Australia aboard the Strathaird – the first P&O liner that was carrying migrants. They disembarked at Port Melbourne on 20 May 1955.
Victor’s family initially lived in rented accommodation in South Yarra. His parents soon purchased the family home in Pleasant Road, Hawthorn East close to church and Catholic schools. Victor resumed his secondary education at Marcellin College on Canterbury Road. He later moved to Taylor’s College for his last year of secondary school.
Four years after arriving in Australia, Victor and his family suffered a huge setback. One evening his father collapsed at home and was taken to Prince Henry’s Hospital. The family was in a state of shock and disbelief. It was about midnight. They were all by his bedside. The Sister in charge told them that he needed rest and that they could come back in the morning.
Barely an hour after they got home, they received a call from the hospital to go back quickly and he died the next morning. He was only 57 years old. His father’s loss left a huge void at home.
Victor studied law at the University of Melbourne and graduated with a Bachelor of Law in 1964. He did his articles with Middletons law firm and was admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria that same year.
With his mother’s blessing, Victor then decided to travel to London and Malta for a while before settling down. In 1966 he successfully completed his Master of Law degree at the University of London.
Victor joined James P Ogge & Company, a law firm in Prahran, as an employee solicitor. He often represented Greek clients at the Prahran Magistrates Court. He began to realise that some of his clients went through the whole legal process without really understanding what it was all about. He felt that there was a lot of prejudice in the justice process.
So, in 1969, Victor set up his own legal practice, Victor Borg & Co, in Lonsdale Street. He later opened a branch office in Sunshine to service the many Maltese living in the western suburbs.
On 23 October 1969 Victor married Terry Coghlan, after having met through the parish youth group. They have three children: two daughters, Georgina, who is a lawyer like her father, and Laura, who is an elementary school counsellor at Chiang Mai International School in Thailand, and a son, Ben, who works in community health and wellness.
Victor had a very clear understanding of what needed to be done for the Maltese community. He felt that their leaders hadn’t shown enough interest in assisting those in real need. He also believed that the Maltese needed to raise their profile. Despite its long history of settlement in Australia, the Maltese community had nothing to claim as their own to give them some sort of standing.
In 1969 Victor joined the Phoenicians Association and the Maltese Community Council of Victoria, an umbrella organisation of some 40 Maltese associations in Victoria.
In 1974 he was elected MCCV President for the first time. His association with the MCCV was to last half a century, making him a household name among the Maltese in Melbourne, and his name synonymous with the MCCV.
On the Maltese language front, he convinced the late Joe Abela to commence broadcasting in Maltese on Ethnic Radio 3ZZ. He fought very hard for more airtime on this station to be made available for the Maltese program, establishing the first talkback program on ethnic radio. Victor was also the instigator in having the Maltese language taught at primary and secondary schools and to be recognised as a subject for the HSC, now VCE.
Victor was very proud of being able to speak Maltese. When addressing organisations where he was invited to speak, he would often start his address with a couple of sentences in Maltese to make a point, leaving those present wondering what on earth he was saying and whether they were at the right meeting. I recall him telling me about a talk on migrants and their challenges he once gave to the Police Ethnic Affairs Liaison Committee. Having bamboozled the audience for a couple of minutes speaking in Maltese, he explained that the only way to understand how a non-English speaker feels, when spoken to in English, is to experience what it is like to be spoken to in a language one does not understand.
Expansion of community welfare services was next on his agenda. Victor decided to establish a free legal advice service which he personally delivered from Council premises.
During his time as President, he was responsible for establishing various other welfare programs, mostly funded by grants from the federal and state governments. These included the Home and Community Program, the Care of the Aged Packages Program, and the Home Visitation Project. All were aimed at serving those Maltese migrants, who were in need of care, assistance, and some company.
Whenever Prime Ministers and other Ministers from Malta visited Melbourne, Victor took the opportunity to strongly promote his idea of establishing a student exchange between Malta and Australia to provide Maltese-Australian students with an opportunity to experience firsthand Maltese culture in Malta.
In 1982 Victor was appointed Honorary Consul of Malta for the State of Victoria by the Maltese Government, a position he held for three decades.
In 1998 Victor persuaded the Maltese government to hold a conference for the Maltese living abroad. This is now held in Malta every five years.
Victor was also instrumental in the push for dual citizenship with the Maltese government. His hard lobbying bore fruit with significant changes being made to citizenship laws affecting Maltese living overseas.
Victor’s integrity and outstanding reputation were recognised by both Labor and Liberal governments at state and federal levels.
He was appointed to several positions on boards and tribunals, including member of the Immigration Review Tribunal and Director of the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters. He was involved in organisations responsible for health issues, as Director of Diabetes Australia in Victoria and member of the Western Health Cultural Diversity and Community Advisory Committee. He also served as Chairperson of the Migrant Advisory Committee for the Federal Department of Social Security.
Victor was a champion of multiculturalism. In the 1980s he served as member of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of Victoria, which became the Victorian Multicultural Commission. From 1991 he served as Chair of the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria for six years. During this time, Victor’s notoriety spread to all ethnic communities in Victoria.
As ECCV Chair, he appeared before Senate Committees to make forceful and persuasive representations on the needs of the ethnic elderly, citizenship, and the impact of the Workplace Relations Bill on migrants.
Victor authored and co-authored several published papers including: “Migrants and the Criminal Justice System”; “Informed Consent – in relation to medical treatment of Non-English Speaking Background – The Right To Know”, and “The Critical Role of Government in Maltese Diaspora Engagement”.
To many in the Maltese community, Victor’s greatest achievement was the construction of the Maltese Community Centre in Parkville, in partnership with the members of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He provided the community with a clear vision and took them with him on the journey with his enthusiasm, passion and power of persuasion. With his profuse affability, he was able to forge strong relationships with important stakeholders. He led the fund-raising effort, inspiring Maltese associations to participate in activities such as the legendary annual fete, raffles and the Miss Maltese Community Quest competition between associations.
The Centre, which was inaugurated on 20 November 1983, is no doubt a lasting monument to his remarkable leadership and vision for the Maltese community. However, what gave Victor the greatest satisfaction was that the MCCV finally had decent premises to deliver welfare services to those in need. At last, his mission to make a difference in the lives of so many could be realised.
Victor was also instrumental in the construction of Rosary Home for the Aged in Keilor Downs, which was opened in 1986. For over three decades he assisted the Dominican Sisters of Malta in the Home’s management as honorary chairperson of the Board of Management. He also served as an honorary member of the Board of Management of St Dominic’s Hostel for the Aged in Blacktown, New South Wales, also run by the same congregation.
Victor’s amazing achievements were recognised by both the Australian and the Maltese governments. In January 1982, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to the community. In March 1998 the Maltese government awarded him the Midalja Ghall-Qadi Tar-Repubblika (MQR) – the Medal for Service to the Republic. In 2003 the Australian Government awarded him the Centenary Medal “for long and voluntary service to ethnic communities, in particular the Maltese community.”
Victor was truly unique. He had gravitas and presence. He had charisma. But he also had a mischievous sense of humour which endeared him to many. On social occasions, he was the life of the party. He was a man of many talents, a lawyer with a great intellect, and a persuasive advocate. He had the gift of the gab and was able to make brilliant and witty speeches off the cuff. He was a great communicator and orator.
More importantly, he was a fearless advocate for the disadvantaged and particularly for the migrant cause, not just for the Maltese community but for all ethnic communities in Australia.
Victor made a significant contribution to raising the profile of the Maltese community in Australia. Maltese dignitaries visiting Australia invariably commented on the glowing reports they received from federal and state authorities about the Maltese community’s great contribution to Australian society.
The Maltese community has lost a visionary and courageous leader, the kind of whom we may not see again in our lifetime.
May he rest in peace.