Days after the Greek Parliament endorsed new austerity measures that included job cuts and tax increases to save the country from imminent bankruptcy, a delegation of seven Australian MPs will attend a conference with their business travel expenses paid by the same parliament.
The general assembly of the World Hellenic Inter-Parliamentary Association (WHIPA) will meet in Athens on July 13. Invitations have gone out to hundreds of legislators worldwide who have Greek ancestry to attend the four-day event. The conference brings together elected representatives of Greek ancestry from all countries with Greek diaspora communities. In total, 29 MPs (of around 200 who are eligible worldwide) have accepted the invitation.
Victorian MP Maria Vamvakinou, who attended the assembly in 2008, has declined her invitation this time around, telling Neos Kosmos that “juxtaposed against the current economic situation in Greece makes [attending the assembly] almost indefensible.” The Labor Member for Calwell added that at a time when the response of the Greek people to new austerity measures was painfully clear, it was “very difficult to justify the expense incurred by the Hellenic Parliament”.
Fellow Victorian MP John Pandazopoulos will be attending the assembly. As WHIPA’s president, Pandazopoulos refutes suggestions that the most appropriate response, given Greece’s economic problems, would be to cancel the conference.
“The reality is that WHIPA is a registered organisation in Greece. By Greek law you must have a general assembly within the constitutional timeframe, which is every two years for us, otherwise you become a defunct organisation.”
Talking to Neos Kosmos, Pandazopoulos accepted that there is a dilemma. “The Greek Parliament is the sponsor of the event and all the members have to be invited,” he said. He added that while deferring the meeting for a year had been discussed, it was felt not to be an option. The WHIPA president says the conference will cost the Greek Parliament 80,000 euro ($106,000) and that receipts for business class return airfares costing up to $7000 per airfare, plus hotel accommodation costs will be reimbursed at a capped rate.
Six State MPs and one Federal MP will attend, out of 14 Australian invitees. In addition to John Pandazopoulos, the six other Australian MPs who will attend are: Nicholas Kotsiras, Victorian Minister for Multicultural Affairs; George Souris, New South Wales Minister for Tourism, Major Events, Hospitality and Racing and Minister of the Arts; Tom Koutsantonis, South Australian Minister for Industry and Trade and Minister for Mineral Resources Development; Jenny Mikakos, Victoria’s shadow Minister for the Ageing; Tim Pallas, Victorian shadow Minister for Industrial Relations; and Lee Tarlamis, the newly elected Victorian state MP.
“Greece is dealing with its issues and saving 80,000 euro is not going to resolve them,” says Pandazopoulos. “If you’re going to run a global organisation, you’ve got to go and run it. Greece needs the diaspora to assist them with the changes it needs to make. It’s not going to solve Greece’s economic problems cancelling this conference. If Greece wants to have a network of legislators around the world, there’s a cost attached to it.”
Pandazopoulos cites a host of vital issues on which he believes interventions can be made by the inter-parliamentary association to encourage multilateral agreements between Greece and the diaspora nations, including collaborations on education, culture, trade, inward investment to Greece, migration and foreign policy.
Independent Federal Member Nick Xenophon told Neos Kosmos that he would not be taking up the association’s invitation. ”The group is a good idea, but the fact is, Greece can’t afford to pay its own debts. For it to have to pay the costs of parliamentary colleagues from around the world to travel to Greece for such a conference, when wages and pensions are being slashed for the Greek people, it’s ridiculous. Now is not the time for the Greek Parliament to be paying for this.”