Australian-Greeks courted for poll vote

AUSTRALIANS of Greek heritage have been promised a wave of reforms to increase their involvement with their former country by the man who is expected to be elected prime minister of Greece this weekend.

George Papandreou, the opposition leader who enjoys a hefty lead in pre-election opinion polls, said yesterday he planned to improve the recognition of Australian university degrees and change other regulations to make it easier for Greek-Australians to work in the country.

AUDIO: Peter Wilson talks to George Papandreou
Members of the Greek diaspora would also be allowed, for the first time, to vote in the nation’s elections without the expense of travelling to Greece, and any obstacles blocking the quick payment of Greek pensions to thousands of qualified recipients in Australia would be promptly removed, he said.

Mr Papandreou’s centre-left party PASOK leads the five-year-old conservative government of Costas Karamanlis in the polls by about 37 per cent to 30 per cent and is strongly tipped to win Sunday’s election. The win would break a string of losses for centre-left parties in Europe.

In an exclusive interview with The Australian before an election rally in Thessaloniki last night, Mr Papandreou, 57, said he would encourage skilled members of the Greek diaspora to spend some time working in their former country, which would require withdrawing hurdles such as the need for military service and restrictive hiring rules at government agencies.

“We would have to create a specific law which would give this possibility to open up positions for, let’s say, two or three years for experts and advisers to come … and work here,” he said.

While the population of Greece is 11million, there are estimated to be up to 7 million people of Greek descent living abroad. Some 365,000 people told Australia’s 2006 census their ancestry within the past two generations was Greek.

One area that has frustrated many of those Australians is Greece’s refusal to recognise three-year bachelor degrees awarded by Australian universities as the equivalent of Greek degrees, which take four years.

“No one can deny that Australian universities are high quality universities,” said Mr Papandreou, who did his university studies in Sweden, the US and Britain.

“There are obviously countries that give degrees that are much lower quality — Australia is not one of them.

“Sometimes these procedures are overly bureaucratic and unfair to countries like Australia and of course to the degree holders who have gotten this education. So I think we have to find a more simple way and a more fair way to evaluate and to recognise these degrees.”

More than 1 million of Greece’s 9.7million registered voters live overseas but current electoral laws require them to travel to Greece to vote in their original electorates — usually their place of birth.

But Mr Papandreou said he would like to see three to five seats put aside in the 300-seat national parliament for the Greek diaspora, who would be allowed to vote by mail or at consulates.

Prime Minister Karamanlis received an avid response from a large crowd in Sydney in May 2007, when he promised to give all registered voters an absentee ballot.

But such reforms need a two-thirds majority in parliament and PASOK vetoed the move, complaining it allowed consular votes but not postal votes and would have continued to count diaspora votes in existing seats rather than creating special seats as Italy has done.

The fact Mr Karamanlis now rules with only a one-seat majority shows that three to five new “diaspora” seats could prove influential, but Mr Papandreou’s system would still give each registered overseas voter less clout than a domestic voter.
(Article from: THE AUSTRALIAN)