Let’s start at the end, from the assessment. Our meeting with the Greek Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, whose portfolio includes the Greek diaspora in charge of the Greek Diaspora, did not offer any surprise, either positive or negative. Terence Quick, being the seasoned journalist that he is, came to Australia very well-briefed on the issues that the Greek community has been dealing with for decades, and he was eager to learn more in order to go back and inform the Greek state about the community’s needs. Which means that, once again, no new wisdom and no solution was presented. Which is also not a bad thing, since there have not been any empty promises either, the kind that Greek officials easily make on such occasions. The only commitment that the Deputy FM was willing to take was to resolve two issues that are long overdue: the working holiday visa and the re-establishment of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad. The former will be presented to the Greek Parliament before the end of June and the latter will be resolved by the end of the year. Both deadlines are very narrow, which makes it easy for the Greek community to reprimand the Greek government if the matters are further stalled.
We have proceeded to legislate so that anyone investing in Greece would be under a 12 year protection, regarding taxation. This means that he would be in a safe environment, one in which his tax rates could not go up, only lower
The full interview is as follows:
Mr Deputy Foreign Minister, what has been the outcome of your visit to Australia?
The goals of my trip were double: first, tending to our relationships with the Greek community, which is part of my duties, but there are also bilateral relations to maintain. Before every professional trip, I get polical advice from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, but also from the Alternate Foreign Minister, in charge of Financial Diplomacy, Yorgos Katrougalos. In this case, I had planned 55 meetings, which became 59 when I got here. I have to say that everything went great; I was very happy to meet with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, with whom we had very good chemistry. I also had a meeting with the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten and Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, and of course I had meetings with state premiers in Sydney and in Melbourne. I met as many Greek Australian MPs as I could possibly fit into my schedule, both in the federal and state parliaments, but what made me particularly proud was the fact that Greece was honoured in the House of Representatives in Canberra, where both Julia Banks and Steve Georganas talked in Greek to welcome our delegation to parliament. It was a moment when I felt the Republic of Greece really being honoured and acknowledged.
Which was the main priority in your agenda, regarding the Greek community and bilateral relations?
Regarding bilateral relations, I have to say that Greece and Australia don’t have any issues to resolve. Our political and diplomatic relationship is cloudless. My meetings were more of an informative nature, regarding what is currently the situation in our broader region; what is happening with Syria, with Turkey, with the Ukraine-Russia relationship, what is happening in the Balkans with Albania and Skopje, what is going on in the Middle East, etc. Ours is a neighbourhood in turmoil at the moment, but at least everyone acknowledges Greece as a factor of stability in the region.
Having said that, we do have a serious pending issue, one that I inherited when I was appointed Deputy Minister and I have already done what was needed for it to be resolved within the next few weeks. I’m talking about the working holiday visa. This was the first thing that Ms Bishop asked about and it was an issue I had already discussed with the Ambassador of Australia in Athens.
Why has this matter been stalling? A year ago, the general secretary of the diaspora had promised that this issue was to be dealt with by the Secretariat of Youth.
I understand and I do have the obligation to cover for any oversight and delay that a colleague of mine is responsible for, but I did take over some issues that had to take priority, such as the Memorandum of Understanding with the Republic of Cyprus and the trilateral cooperation among Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. As for the working holiday visa, I have already forwarded it to the Greek Parliament. We were wating for it to be approved by the Parliamentary Budget Office. Since this does not burden the State Budget, the approval document awaits for me, as we speak, at my desk. As soon as I return, I will discuss it with the minister, so that it can be included as an amendment to the next bill we have to vote for.
So, this is a matter of weeks, you say?
Yes, it should be over within June.
What were the most important issues that you discussed with the community leaders?
There has been a great deal of interest for investments in Greece, something we are very keen to pursue, of course within the limitations and restrictions that we have as part of the EU. For instance, Greek Australian or Greek American businessmen often ask for better tax rates, in order to invest in Greece. But we cannot have different rates for the diaspora, the way that we cannot make exceptions for Chinese, or Russian, or German investors, because that would be against the EU legislation for competition. However, in November the former Export Promotion Organisation, which now trades as ‘Enterprise Greece’, is coming to Australia for a roadshow, to promote both investments in Greece and exports from Greece. I cannot go into detail, because I don’t want to pretend I know everything, but I did get briefed about it and I can say that we have proceeded to legislate so that anyone investing in Greece would be under a 12-year protection, regarding taxation. This means that [they] would be in a safe environment, one in which tax rates could not go up, only lower. For instance, we will now vote to lower the tax rates from 26 per cent to 24 per cent and, in cases where it is [already] 24 per cent, to get [it] to 20 per cent. Another issue we’re very keen on pursuing is that of establishing special tax zones in Greece, to encourage investment in areas plagued by deindustrialisation and unemployment, especially in border towns, such as Alexandroupoli, Komotini, Drama, and Veroia. We met severe opposition from Bulgaria within the EU, and other countries that feel that this would be unfair competition, but we insist in pursuing this, as we’re very interested in seeing these areas brought back to life.
What about the issues affecting the daily life of people in the Greek Australian community?
I’m not daydreaming. I know too well that my job is to listen to people and give answers, regardless of whether this answer is pleasant or not. People don’t want to be lied to. In essence, what we do, in the ministry is to intervene; we cannot give answers to every issue. But, as a former journalist, I tried to come as best prepared as I [could] and listen to people. I know there is a series of issues dealing with everyday matters, such as property tax; people who inherited a house in Greece, which remains empty, are now required to pay heavy taxation. The law says that since you bought a property, you need to pay tax, unless you come and live permanently in Greece, within two years [of] purchase. As you know, first residence in Greece is tax exempted.
Pensioners are the ones dealing with the biggest problems. There are people in Australia who have spent years trying to understand what is happening with pension funds and how to start getting paid.
Delays in pension approval are also common in Greece, this is a broader problem. But we do have a law making a temporary pension obligatory; you promptly start getting one third of your pension and then, after all the paperwork is finished, you get the rest in backdated payments. But I understand why this is an issue. In Greece, if you have a problem and have to deal with two or three insurance and pension funds, you may be able to resolve it, if you go to each respective office; here, the only way to do this is to hire a lawyer, and do this through the consulate. The main problem is that computerisation in Greece started in the late 90s, regarding pension and social security funds; we’re still lagging behind and I don’t know how much faster things may be going at the moment. I will address this issue to the Deputy Minister of Labour, in charge of pensions, Tassos Petropoulos. I have asked the consulate to gather and send me every single case of pension delays in Australia, writing down names and social security numbers, in order for me to forward them to the ministry and then get back with answers, in writing. Before I came here, I did have a meeting with Mr Petropoulos to see which pension-related issues there may be and he informed me on the matter of pension cuts for Australians staying overseas for more than six weeks, which would affect Greek Australians. But I was assured, when I visited federal parliament, that this is no longer an issue; it had been dealt with, largely thanks to the Labor Party MPs, from what I understand.
What about the cadastre?
I’d say that this is the most thorny issue for the Greek diaspora. I know that there are people who have inherited land and they discover that each year, if they can visit Greece, their property becomes smaller, due to trespassing. I have discussed this with the director of the National Cadastre & Mapping Agency SA and we came up with an idea: to resolve it with a teleconference, with the help of our consulates. We expect the Greek community organisations to gather all the issues and questions and submit them, during the conference, which will take as long as it needs for the cadastre officials to provide adequate answers. I think that this will be the most helpful approach.
Is the issue of voting rights for the diaspora high on you agenda?
I personally envy Italy and France, which have parliamentary seats reserved for their diaspora MPs. I think that we should follow their example, but under conditions, such as having a Hellenic passport, naturally, or first conducting a census. But I have to make things clear. First we resolve the issue of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad (SAE). We will present a bill for the reinstatement of the council whithin 2017, which will state that it will function according to the constitution, as an advisory agency for the government, a kind of think tank, as this kind of councils are, all over the world. The Greek state cannot keep assuming that Greeks abroad are sheep. The Greek diaspora are not sheep, you can’t tell them how to organise and how to staff their organisations.
The SAE started off as a good idea of Andreas Papandreou’s, it was functioning well under Grigoris Niotis’ supervision and some time it started malfunctioning, especially when the parties got involved and each government, through the parties, started patronising and using the diaspora. This stops here. Our legislation will be clear; self-regulation and self-funding. This will be a great chance for the respective Greek communities to organise, to form boards, to hold an international conference, permanently hosted in Thessaloniki. This is what we offer, our resources for this conference and we believe that we have to deal with people who did what they did on their own, and not by taking directives from the Greek state. So, the SAE should work as a think tank; when the Greek state has any issue regarding the diaspora, for instance matters of taxation, the government should ask from the council to come up with a plan. This is what we want from you. Of course, and this is my personal opinion, I think that there should be room in the council for individuals and not only for organisations, and we should also allow for the church to be able to cooperate with it and work for the benefit of the diaspora, without friction.
The church issue has largely been resolved in Australia, apart from some areas, such as South Australia. You mentioned that you’re not planning to act as a ‘peacemaker’, right?
What I said was that my role was not to police the issue. Our small country does not have the luxury of internal divisions and fighting and adversity. We should all understand that we’re more powerful when we are united. This is what I’m saying in Adelaide and I will bring out how everyone behaved well, when our Presidential Guard visited the state. Everyone should be reminded that in national holidays, we honour our flag, our country and the Hellenic democracy. The diaspora has two identities: the Greek language and the Christian Orthodox Church.
Language is an issue that the Deputy Minister of Education Kostas Zouraris is in charge of, but since you mentioned it, we understand that Greek schools here are mostly happy with getting educational material from Greece, but there is a need for teachers and also for a policy regarding Greek studies in tertiary education.
One of the things that made an excellent impression to me, especially in Melbourne, was that 90 per cent of my meeting with the community had to do with matters of culture and education. This is something that I haven’t experienced in any other Greek community in the world. As for the teachers, my suggestion is to get support from the communities, and this is something I discussed here, [and] also in Sydney and Canberra; the communities would provide teachers with lodging, because the main problem has to do with their wages. Few teachers accept to be transferred to Australia, because their salaries cannot cover their expenses, particularly rent.
In what concerns tertiary education, I was very inspired when I recently travelled to Vancouver, Canada and visited the Greek Studies Department at the Simon Frasier University. Professor Andreas Gerolymatos, who comes from Kefalonia, has done [a]great job there, getting funds from the Niarchos Foundations and setting up a team of 20 Greek researchers, some from Greece and others raised in Canada; they created an amazing digital platform for learning Greek, which they’re about to officially present to the Minister of Education. A lot of universities are connected to this platform and I was thinking that we could set up a network of universities for these issues.
This sounds like the database announced by the Minister of Interiors, Mr Kouroublis, to register all the business people and academics . . .
This is actually being implemented by the Ministry of Finance and the Foreign Ministry’s General Secretariat of Investments. I had a similar thought, when I was recently in the US, where I had a discussion with a university professor and said that we should get all the academics of Greek background in the world together in Athens, one day; I’m sure we could easily fill the Kallimarmaro Stadium. But no-one knows how many they are. We need to have an open invitation through the internet, so that all these scientists and business [people] get connected, like they do on Facebook and [other] social media, because this is a human capital that we need right now.
During your meeting with the Greek Community of Melbourne, President Bill Papastergiadis mentioned the issue of the consulates, which are understaffed due to the crisis.
No, it’s not only due to the crisis. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not hired administrative officers since 2003. This is not an excuse, by any means, but this is not up to me. We did have a meeting with Mr Kotzias and came up with an idea in order to get some administrative staff aboard. But it is a bit premature for me to further discuss it. Rest assured though, it will happen. You can take my word for it.