When Councillor Emilia Lisa Sterjova, 22, was elected Whittlesea’s Mayor in November there was celebration that a new era would begin with a young person bringing a fresh perspective to the role.
A few months down the track, Whittlesea is plagued by all sorts of controversy, however the youngest female mayor of Australia has neither shown diplomacy and mature leadership, nor has she been an instrument of peace in the district and this was particularly evident during Tuesday night’s marathon council meeting.
Instead of focusing on crucial matters of interest to the local people of Whittlesea, the meeting was dominated by a controversial Facebook post featuring Mayor Sterjova at an event for North Macedonian students holding a red flag and a yellow sun of Vergina – a Greek symbol. The post was not in accordance with the Prespes Accord signed in January and diverged from Australia’s official protocol aligned to the UN-ratified agreement. The post, a faux pas, caused unnecessary division and friction between the Greek and North Macedonian communities before the inexperienced mayor was asked to remove it by the acting CEO Kelvin Spiller, who also requested a printed apology following the intervention of Cr Kris Pavlidis. The matter could have been resolved had Mayor Sterjova been more careful in the wording of her ‘apology’ which did not sound remorseful in the least.
“I was surprised by the negative response to my posting which included death threats against me, threats to remove me from the office of Mayor, threats to have me expelled from the political party I am a member of, and stalking threats necessitating the engagement of security services and police for my protection when attending certain future events,” she wrote.
Her actions incited a North Macedonian group, which calls itself ‘Macedonian Australian Pride’, to mobilise members to attend the council meeting wearing red and yellow t-shirts, some with the sun of Vergina, whereas others carried flags similar to the one featured in the original controversial post.
Outside, four police cars were present to contain what has been described as a “hostile crowd”, whereas within the Council chambers, Mayor Sterjova – supported by her parents and relatives in the front row of the meeting – defended her activity in the initial Facebook post. A number of members of the North Macedonian community filled the gallery of the chamber and flooded onto the corridors.
“The very long meeting was remarkable and unusual,” Cr Pavlidis told Neos Kosmos, adding that it ran from 6.30pm until well after midnight. “In my view, by the way she was conducting the meeting, it seemed that she was also putting on a performance. I had to call her out for inconsistent chairing. She interjected, and threatened to remove me from council.”
In an effort to put an end to the confusion regarding international protocol, Cr Pavlidis moved an urgent motion for a letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to seek clarification on the stipulation of the Prespes Agreement and its terms and conditions, something that Mayor Sterjova opposed and labelled “defamatory”.
Members voted for the motion which had the support of Cr Steven Kosmevski, who also has North Macedonian background, however Greek Australian Cr Mary Lalios left the chambers during the voting session. The motion received a 5-5 draw which, in such cases, allows a double vote for the presiding mayor and allowed Mayor Sterjova to overrule it.
Andrew Ballis, who heads the Panmacedonian Association of Melbourne and Victoria, had alerted Mr Spiller to the planned activity by ‘Macedonian Australian Pride’ whose Facebook page includes maps incorporating most parts of Northern Greece into their country’s territory. “This provocation is an act of aggression and I am sure you understand if anybody came to an official government meeting carrying flags with a portion of Australia incorporated into their country, it would be called extremism and an act of terrorism,” Mr Ballis wrote.
“Propaganda like this has no place in Australia and should never be accepted.”
Cr Pavlidis agrees. “When you hold public office, you swear an oath to uphold the values of the position,” she said, adding that she feels proud of her Greek heritage however values the anti-racist and multicultural policies of the government which any official is “obliged to uphold”.
Neos Kosmos reached out to Mayor Sterjova and Cr Lalios but has yet to receive a response.