Here I am in the main square of Athens outside the Greek parliament. I look around at the people demonstrating in this, the democratic heart of Greece, and as an Australian of Greek background I feel sad when I see in their faces the devastation left by five years of austerity.
Successive Greek governments accrued massive debts which were largely hidden from ordinary Greeks. But to simply insist on more and more austerity measures with little or no attention to investment, jobs and growth strategies is wrong. Greece is stuck in a pincer movement where it cannot pay its debts and it has no control over the money supply to stimulate its economy because of its euro membership.
I and about 30 Greek background MPs from around the globe enter the parliament for discussions about the Greek crisis and economy.
We are in the old Senate chamber, being lectured to by the ultra-Left Speaker of the Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou, about how Greece did not owe any of its debt which was applied illegally by those nasty Germans and the dreaded troika made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. She distributes a report she had commissioned entitled ‘Truth Committee on Public Debt’.
I am flicking through the report and I cannot believe what I am reading. Its conclusions include that “Greece should not pay its debt because it is illegal, illegitimate and odious” and that Greece was the subject of a “conspiracy” by other governments in the EU and the subject of “premeditated”, “violent”, immoral” attacks by the troika.
I had been invited to speak on strategies for economic development but I felt that I had to point out that this document commissioned by the Speaker undermined the government’s credibility. If the Greek government thought there was a genuine case that the debt was illegal, why had it not taken it to the European Court?
The document did not address real issues facing Greece: endemic tax avoidance; a bloated inefficient public service; one quarter of the population on pensions; 26 per cent unemployment; 60 per cent youth unemployment; 30 per cent of the recurrent budget being spent on pensions and the rest on debt and public sector salaries; and very little money left to spend on new employment creating infrastructure and economic growth.
My critical contribution was roundly attacked by the president of the Greek Parliaments Production and Trade Committee Litsa Ammanatidou, from the ruling SYRIZA party. She especially took exception to my suggestion that privatisation of assets in some circumstances was appropriate and was certainly not an attack on human rights as the ‘Truth’ document had claimed.
When she became aggressive, I intervened, pointing out that in Victoria such sales allowed us to pay down debt when our debt had got out of control, invest in job creating infrastructure and still maintain low energy prices on world comparisons. I note recently that the Greek government-owned electricity company introduced new software that identified up to €2 billion in unpaid bills mostly from corporations and even five star hotels. No wonder they don’t want to sell it.
Even Greece’s Prime Minister Tsipras is beginning to see that while the taxation and austerity measures are tough, if implemented in a thoughtful way with a parallel growth strategy they will ultimately benefit Greece. This is why he is staring down the ultra-Left in his own party.
But the measures are tough and Germany in particular should be sensitive to the fact that despite the devastation of Greece resulting from German occupation, Greece had supported debt relief for Germany after World War Two. A Greek economist I spoke to also pointed out that the German Industry juggernaut gets a massive terms of trade advantage by the devalued euro, which is held low by struggling EU countries like Greece.
Ordinary Greeks that I spoke to recognise that they have to get their own house in order. Even though they voted against tough new austerity measures, in the end, they want to stay in the euro even with tougher measures. They know they have to accept responsibility for reform including changing attitudes to tax avoidance at all levels.
They don’t believe the nonsense peddled by the extreme Left and the Fascist Right that they can go back to the drachma and denounce the debt. They know such a course would lead to shutting down the country in terms of trade and investment and rapid further decline in living standards.
What amazed me was that through it all Greeks remain friendly and generous. They help each other with donations and patiently wait for cash from banks and for access to limited health services. They even accept responsibility for looking after boat people who arrive illegally.
Australian Greeks are proud of our heritage and especially the fact that the heart of Western civilisation and democracy comes from the Greeks. We are proud of the fact that Melbourne is the third largest Greek city.
We looked on in hope and pride when the Tsipras government decided to appoint an Australian Greek, Yiannis Varoufakis, as the countries finance minister. We overlooked the fact that he was a middle-level academic with little political or negotiating experience.
Varoufakis made such a negative impact in negotiations and upset so many seasoned economists and negotiators with his idealistic lectures that in the end even Tsipras had to dump him. Recently he revealed a ‘plan B’ which involved the government hacking into the private accounts of citizens to set up a parallel banking system to allow transfers outside of the banks if they could not get money from the troika. Amazing.
We ask our fellow Greeks to please not judge Australians by the contributions of Mr Varoufakis.
In Victoria we should remember that the Greek debt problem has echoes of the debt that Victoria had accrued in the 1980s. What the Greek situation reinforces is that we should never again allow state budgets to go into deficit or excessive debt as we may not have the buffer of state assets to sell in the future.
* Theo Theophanous is a political commentator and former Labor minister.