On his recent trip to Greece, President of the Greek Community of Melbourne (GCM) Bill Papastergiadis met with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras with the chance to brief the Greek leader on various issues concerning the GCM and the Greek community as a whole.
“We had been allotted 15 minutes [on Friday]; he was in meeting after meeting, and [then our meeting] went for close to 40 minutes, so it was a very entertaining and stimulating discussion. I found him to be incredibly relaxed, very interested in the Australian story, engaging, and a lot of personality,” Mr Papastergiadis told Neos Kosmos while in transit to Australia.
The meeting, arranged by Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Terence Quick and SYRIZA MP Chrysoula Katsavria-Sioropoulou, was the first between the president and Mr Tsipras, who was moved by the numerous activities and initiatives carried out by members of the Greek Australian community.
“He was very impressed with the Cultural Centre, the size of it and the level of activity that the Greek Community of Melbourne is involved in,” Mr Papastergiadis said.
“He was also quite taken aback by the size of our festival as well. When he saw photos and the extent of the event and the number of performers, he was really impressed by that because for him language and culture are really important.”
High on the agenda was language education and the recommencement of student camp programs, which was given the green light by the PM and Mr Quick, in a bid to further ignite Greek Australians’ connection with the Greek language and culture.
“We had a discussion around education and the programs that were set up for the children of recent arrivals from Greece, but he was as interested, if not more interested, in the educational needs of our children, the kids born in Australia, and what level of Greek they’re achieving,” Mr Papastergiadis said.
“An immediate agreement [was] reached on the visitation by our kids on camps and cultural exchanges to Greece. That’s going to start from early 2018 – so in about six months time it should be up and running,” which the president says is a real achievement following years of discussion on the matter.
While an initiative of the GCM, the study programs will be open to schools across Australia, twice a year in January and June, and will be available to senior primary school, secondary, and university students.
“It’ll be quite a broad program. The major issue for us with that is the fact that it opens a door and the hearts and minds of young kids to language and culture and that’ll hopefully create new future leaders within our community as well. So he was all for that.”
Another issue brought to the PM’s attention was the satellite transmission of ERT programs to Australia, which was cut in 2013 and which Mr Tsipras said he would take upon himself to rectify.
“He was taken aback by the fact that that was the case; he thought it was up and running back in Australia. So for him that’s a really big issue and an issue he wants to press and get some immediate action on,” Mr Papastergiadis said.
The spotlight was also turned onto matters of investment and tax, with emphasis placed on the establishment of a bilateral tax agreement between the two countries to benefit current and prospective investors.
“If the Greek government seeks investment from particularly Greek Australians then it needs a comprehensive tax agreement so that people aren’t penalised for that investment property, taxed twice, which is what we’re seeing at the moment and that is a disincentive not only to individuals who want to buy some assets but also businesses who are investing,” Mr Papastergiadis said.
The pair also touched upon the vote for Greeks abroad, which Mr Tsipras supported, and also welcomed the GCM’s proposal for the opening of a Greek Tourism office at the Greek Centre.
Meanwhile, the Greek PM expressed great interest in travelling Down Under to attend the next Lonsdale Street Festival in 2018.
“He said he’d like to come in February and he looked forward to an invitation from the Greek Community of Melbourne to attend the festival; he was very interested in it,” Mr Papastergiadis revealed.
“He’s really interested in Australia; he was quite interested in our own culture, how it’s manifested in Australia,” his interest further piqued with the gift exchange, with the president gifting Mr Tsipras a collection of historical books on Melbourne along with a boomerang.
“It was a very positive meeting, and the point is that hopefully it will open the door to broader discussions. Certainly our access to senior ministers in Greece is really high and there are a lot of people interested in helping us to navigate our way through that.”
Mr Papastergiadis and GCM General Secretary, Costas Markos also had meetings with the President of the Hellenic Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos, Minister of Culture Lydia Koniordou, Minister of Tourism Elena Kountoura, Mayor of Athens Giorgos Kaminis and various other political leaders.