2008: A year of ambitious plans and sad goodbyes

It's that time of the year that I dread the most - when my editor instructs me to write something recapping the major events of the past 12 months. I dread this exercise because regurgitating old stories is like lying on your psychoanalyst's sofa and recounting events. It's useful in a cathartic sort of way; out with the old and in with the new. So here goes my 2008 kaleidoscope for local events within the Greek Australian context.

The year started with a surprise change of guard in the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne Victoria (GOCMV). As much as it was anticipated after 18 years of continuous reign by the former president George Foundas, the leap to power by current president Bill Papastergiadis was and still is unorthodox, hanging by a thread of a single vote.

The GOCMV produced two more major news stories for this past year. As Neos Kosmos English Edition (NKEE) reported on February 11, the Antipodes Festival was postponed until early November. “The rescheduling was necessary,” according to Mr Bill Papastergiadis, the newly appointed President of the Community, “because it appears that there was no funding application made.”

Moreover, “no administrator had been appointed, so there was insufficient time to organise an event that was worthy of the status that the Glendi has achieved in the years gone by,” Mr Papstergiadis was quoted as saying on that issue. But the postponement at least for the Lonsdale St Glendi was only short lived as it was officially announced in mid April that it would not take place during 2008. However, the issue that overshadowed any Glendi cancellation disappointment was the launch of the ambitious plan by the new GOCMV administration to erect the so-called Greek Tower. The 26-storey building was proposed to be built on the site of the present GOCMV building in Lonsdale Street. Bill Papastegiadis revealed that eight floors will be kept for community use and the remaining 18 floors will be leased out as serviced apartments or as strata offices, when announcing the proposal officially last week. The preliminary plans suggest that a gigantic fresco with an ancient Greek theme will be holding a prominent position on the building’s 20-storey facade. The main entrance however will be situated in Russell Street and not Lonsdale Street. The first eight floors will house the needs of the GOCMV with offices and conference rooms, according to the current plans. One floor will be allocated for a cultural centre and additional space could host exhibitions and performances, we reported on May 26.

A month later on June 30, NKEE reported on the Social Security Agreement between Greece and Australia that would officially take effect on October 1. A long-time demand of Greek Australians was finally gratified after the two governments worked out the technical details. “According to Australian government estimates, about 13,000 former Australian residents living in Greece can now claim an Australian age pension. Additionally, an estimated 37,000 Australian residents will be entitled to receive a Greek old age pension. The agreement does not include healthcare costs, although Greek Australians who live in Greece can make a claim for a Greek pension which will enable them to be covered under IKA (Greek Social Security) healthcare and medical schemes,” read the NKEE article. Three months after the inauguration of the Agreement, Centrelink has sent the applications to approximately 55,000 Greek Australians. These forms have to be filled out by everyone irrespective of whether they are lodging a Greek pension claim or not, because otherwise they stand to lose their Australian old age pension benefits. In hindsight, the long awaited Agreement is causing more headaches for Greek Australians.

Soon after the controversy and national debate over the photographs of a naked pre-pubescent girl by artist Bill Henson, Greek Australian artist Polyxeni Papapetrou’s photographs of naked Olympia, her daughter, were on the cover of Art Monthly. This re-ignited the debate and the Minister for the Arts, Peter Garret called on the Australia Council for the Arts to develop new guidelines for artistic presentations of naked children. Bill Henson’s art was subsequently found not to be pornographic by the courts. Ms Papapetrou’s daughter Olympia was outspoken in defence of her mother’s actions, with many media commentators and child’s rights advocates claiming that Olympia was ‘brainwashed’. NKEE published on July 14 an interview with Polyxeni Papapetrou. “Polixeni Papapetrou is aghast at the suggestion that Olympia may have been brainwashed. People do not give Olympia credit for been a strong-willed girl; she is remarkable. To say she was brainwashed is denying a child their voice. We seem to be going back to the Victorian times where a child should be seen and not heard – why not let children speak up for themselves and respect their opinion?” asked Ms Papapetrou as reported by NKEE.

By all indications the story that shocked our community and Victoria in general was the Theo Theophanous saga, a story that is ongoing to this day with consequences yet to be determined. “Former Minister of Industry, Trade and Major Projects, Theo Theophanous is proclaiming his innocence and is categorically denying any truth to the allegations of an unidentified woman that she was raped by the Victorian politician in 1998. Mr Theophanous announced last Monday his decision to step down from his office. ‘I believe that I have a responsibility as a minister in such a successful Government to act with complete propriety and to step aside until this matter is resolved,’ said Mr Theophanous last week. ‘Even though I know that I have done nothing wrong, the test for ministers in a government is rightly high,’ he added. Last Friday the family of the embattled MP appealed to the media for the respect of their privacy,” we reported on October 20. A brief of evidence has been submitted by the police to the Department of Public Prosecution, which is considering whether or not charges will be laid against Mr Theophanous.

On October 20 the closing of the National Centre for Hellenic Studies and Research, also known by its Greek acronym as EKEME, was announced by La Trobe University. “The University will establish a new Research Centre for Contemporary Greek Studies in its place which will be located within the University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. The announcement followed the release of the report arising from the academic review commissioned by La Trobe University to assess the academic activities and contribution of the NCHSR over the last five years and to make recommendations on its future.

“The Committee found the Centre’s own account of its vision and mission to be unfocused and unclear, that the Centre’s work – academic and otherwise – is not well integrated with other research and academic activities at La Trobe University, and that there are serious problems in the way the Centre reports its activities, in particular its research activities and publications. The Committee also found it impossible to reconcile different accounts of what the Centre’s income is, and was not able to form a satisfactory view of how usefully the income had been expended,” read the statement in a report prepared by the Chair of the review board, Professor Andrew Brennan. A more “thorough investigation” into the finances of EKEME was also recommended by the reviewers, we reported on October 27.

The imminent departure from politics of Federal MP Petro Georgiou was a sad goodbye story for the Greek Australian community. “Many believe that Petro Georgiou was punished for his outspoken criticism of Howard’s policies on asylum seekers, Aboriginals and multiculturalism by not being given a portfolio, regardless of his skills and acumen. History will surely judge Georgiou fairly as one of the architects of multicultural policy and as a keen intellect who fought for what is right for all rather than what is right for him,” we reported on November 24.

Last but certainly not least and without following the previous chronological order, the story that sent a cold shiver through Neos Kosmos and NKEE was the arrest in Thailand on August 31 and consequent imprisonment of our former colleague, Harry Nicolaides. Charged with the obscure crime of lese majeste (insulting the royal family), Harry is languishing in a prison cell having been denied four times the right to be released on bail until his case goes to trial. January 19, 2009 is a critical day for Harry when he will formally enter a plea and a trial date will be set. The NKEE staff’s thoughts are with Harry and his family who are enduring this ordeal which we hope will come to a speedy conclusion.