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Innocence lost in Greece and Australia


I have always worried about the inexorable march of time, and all too soon that march turned into Marvell's winged chariot.

It has been written that past, present and future are linked by the thread of the wish that runs through them; my wish is the trite but true one that most parents have, and try to make become reality: we want our children to be happy, healthy, and able to enjoy each stage of their lives.

My youngest son, the only Greece-born one, is now 30, a fact difficult to believe. When I was 30, I was married with two small children, Alexander's elder brothers. It was 1975, and in November the infamous Dismissal took place: PM Gough Whitlam was sacked by Governor-General Sir John Kerr in what has been described as the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australia's history.

Protest was immediate: Australians, often described as being apathetic about politics, took to the streets in large numbers. I heard much later that intensity of feeling in Canberra was such that a crack regiment had been put on full alert.

But during the ensuing month, the only instance of violence was the posting of three letter bombs, one of which wounded two people. The others were intercepted and defused.

When it comes to the dismal science of economics, my mind is in the Stone Age, definitely pre-wheel, but I can easily recall that way back then Australia's problem was money: the Senate had blocked supply, and Whitlam's innovative government was powerless to proceed with its plans.

Here in Greece, as most of the world knows, money, and lack of it, is again the problem.

The general population is confused, to say the least, as a favourite Greek game of blame goes on, as the poor and elderly suffer, as politicians continue to wrangle and manoeuvre with elections apparently uppermost in their minds, and as economists favour either austerity or stimulus, default or acceptance of yet another bailout from the EU.

So far the austerity and bailout lot are winning, although realists maintain that Greece has in effect already defaulted, and winning is a hollow word to use in this appalling set of circumstances.

Hard-headed economists observing from afar maintain that both default and bailout mean hardship, but that Greece would be better off going it alone. Some Greeks, however, consider that staying in the Eurozone is necessary, and not just for economic reasons.

A prominent Athenian journalist very recently wrote that without Europe, Greeks will cease to struggle against the patterns of behaviour such as sloppiness, incompetence and indifference that have always been prevalent. One of his colleagues wrote that 'God-blessed but mortally cursed' Greece has to change, and called on politicians to sink their differences with this aim in mind.

Greeks take to the streets very readily, noisily and peaceably. But often the protests are taken over by a small element of unruly young men, presumably because of their frustration and anger over the lack of change and the prospect of a bleak future: youth unemployment is over 20 per cent and set to rise. And this is what happened earlier this week: over 40 buildings burned in central Athens.

Alexander is a fire-fighter; his brother Nik is a commando in the Special Forces. Both have had their salaries slashed. I never wanted them to choose these jobs, but now I'm worried they might lose them: Nik has two little children.

In what I took to be an odd effort to cheer me up, he said, 'We're not going to get the sack, because we are part of the back-up for the Riot Squad.' As a friend cogently remarked: 'Poor Greece: one section of society is earning its living bashing in the heads of another.'

I remember reading that a post-war immigrant to Australia from a ruined Europe said Australians were innocent flowers in a pretty garden. I suppose that is what I was in 1975; events then seem  pallid in comparison with what is now happening in the land of Alexander's birth.

Our lives at 30 are totally unalike, but when I think of Alexander at present: ah, the difference to me. How I wish he could be an innocent little flower. 

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website. 

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Gough Whitlam, Greece



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Existing comments

One has to compare the benefits and costs of staying in or leaving the Euro. The problem is one of adjusting for the effects of time. The costs of leaving are huge, but they are almost all immediate costs. The benefits of leaving are those associated with eventually developing a more competitive economy. Most reputable economists think that these benefits are greater than the costs, even after discounting the deferred benefits to their smaller present value. The Greeks have a comparative advantage in the production of retirement services. A realistically priced local currency would enable them to fully exploit that advantage.

Sanford Rose | 17 February 2012  

Australia and Greece have a lot in common. In Australia we had a strongly unionised workforce, which seemed to be more often at strike then at work. We had businesses which enjoyed generous tax breaks and a “long lunch” work ethic. The Whitlam Government managed to ruin the economy of Australia in a very short time. It was Keating who actually had the guts to tell Australians what the reality was and it was Keating who introduced changes bringing Australia on a path to prosperity. We had a “recession we had to have” and after Keating we had an unpopular but capable John Howard Government. Sound rational management started by Keating was continued by Howard. The introduction of GST was highly unpopular, but it led to a fairer distribution of the tax burden.
Greece on the other hand managed to enter the Euro zone by falsifying treasury data. It had a Government which was extremely inefficient and extremely generous to its community. The trouble was that the generosity was financed by borrowing money and not from taxes. Tax avoidance and massive abuse of the welfare system has led to the current problems. Greece cannot afford to live in the past and trying to enjoy the glory of an empire long past or to blame anything bad on the Germany. Why can countries like Taiwan, Korea and Malaysia prosper despite the fact that they lack natural resources? Why do countries in the North of Europe prosper whilst countries in the South of Europe become international charity recipients?

Do you know of anybody who is seriously feeling sorry for Greece?

Beat Odermatt | 17 February 2012  

"The introduction of GST was highly unpopular, but it led to a fairer distribution of the tax burden" Of course it's much fairer to have the poor and rich pay the same rate of tax - self-evident, really. "Do you know of anybody who is seriously feeling sorry for Greece?" Well, I am. The author just told us of the high unemployment of the young - are you blaming them for the decades long mis-handling of the economy. There must be so many there who are suffering the consequences of mis-management but who didn't cause it or benefit from it. A little Christian charity wouldn't go astray.

Russell | 17 February 2012  

Yes, the GST is a fairer tax. High income people spend more, so they pay more. It also captures some of the taxes avoided by the cash-economy of our tax avoiding underworld. The only real social justice is to reward hard working people better and give the idle less. Government introduced poverty traps are usually promoted by non tax paying people. I am all for helping people to help themselves, but when we see third generation of welfare dependence, then we know that there is no social justice. Taking money from hard working people to give it to people unwilling to work is not social justice , it is ill conceived poverty trap maintenance.
I still think that Paul Keating has been the greatest Prime Minister we ever had. Without his hard nosed attitude, Australia could be as bad off as some the economic basket cases of Europe or maybe as bad as a “Banana Republic”.
Who feels sorry for older Australians unable to get a pension because they worked hard all their lives to have some resources during their old age? Does anybody feel sorry for struggling students whilst new arrivals to Australia are getting free accommodation and generous handouts?

Beat Odermatt | 17 February 2012  

Gillian, I had been hoping that you would write a piece on what is happening in Greece now and am glad to have read your account. It is easier to understand the effect on a country when you start with individuals and a family. May an equitable solution be found.

Kath | 17 February 2012  

Puts things into perspective Gill. Here we are trying to mount a campaign to provide a better way life for Carers and our families, which amounts to little more than a social justice issue in comparison to people trying to maintain their housing and keep food on their tables. Australia is so lucky. There is so much for so many and still we want more. Maybe it's not greed but hope that we can improve on that. We are assured that this is possible. We will see.

Leah Davies | 17 February 2012  

Like Beat Oddermatt my first thoughts run along the lines of "Who is feeling sorry for Greece" they got their just deserts - but the reality of the situation is far more complicated.
The people who caused this will not suffer like the vast numbers of innocent who did not cause the situation.
This is so often the case in this world that the innocent suffer for the crimes of the guilty, who are able to immune themselves to pay a lesser price.
Of course I do not believe that the Germans should act naively or go soft with the Greek Government. I believe a tough stand must be taken by the banks, yet I do spare a thought for the innocent who will be hurt.
I agree with everything you say Beat and I also have always been an advocate of Keating, but like Russell, I believe that tempered with a hard stand "a little Christian charity would not go astray" in attitude at least.

John Whitehead | 18 February 2012  

Notwithstanding that the Greek people face a tough time economically in the forseeable future, the reason for their current predicament is incompetent governance and an apathetic culture.

The only option for Greece is to continue membership of the European Union and agree to their economy and public sector to be managed by the European Commission. In the immediate future, the Greek parliament should be limited to an advisory role to the European Commission. The idea of withdrawing from the EU and reverting to the drachma currency is fantasy and delusional. Individual countries cannot operate in isolation of the global economy and they need strong and effective partnerships with other countries.

Mark Doyle | 19 February 2012  

The GST hits spending but there are tax breaks available to the rich which are not available to workers, and so any GST or even income tax paid by the rich is countered by deductions and tax minimisation schemes. What is happening in Greece and Italy is a threat to democracy. Democracy is being replaced by a form of oligarchy ( those elected by the people are being tossed out) In Greece and other parts of Europe we are going to see an increase in the privatisation of essential utilities (sold off to the bankers and the rich supposedly to pay off the debts) This means that working people will be burdened with lower wages and higher expenses so that the rich can retain their privileges. What is happening in Greece will in one way or another happen in Australia. The rich and the poor alike must come together as citizens of the world and work for fair solutions and proper stewardship of the economy. Greece and everywhere else needs less tax on workers and more on land and natural resources. In centuries gone by to obtain the resources of another country the war tanks rolled in. These days it is much more civilised to do it through banking privatisation and debt.

Anne Schmid | 20 February 2012  

Gillian It is only when the story is personally-based that it is easiest for distant us to really make the connection. Economics has always been hard for me to understand - maybe it's true even for economists! As you draw the threads between what is now happening at the national and EU level to the lives and careers of your sons we can relate it to our own. I recall being in Greece in late December 1972. It was exciting. A mate and I stayed in a little hotel off Omonia Square - where just two days a woman overwhelmed by the implications of her job loss struggled to keep from throwing herself from a building. 40 years ago Greece lay in the dark uneasy grip of the Colonels. I remember the sombre mood and drab appearance of one coffee shop of those days - but I also remember the brightness of another visit of some weeks to Greece in 1988. I can only believe that, things being cyclical, brighter days will come again for Greece and the Greek people!

Jim KABLE | 20 February 2012  

Gillian, I understand perfectly what you mean and how you must feel to have Alexander fighting the present riots .... Also, I agree with his position that he won't get sacked. Firebrigades are important in a country of regular and mostly set bushfires as well as in a country with regular demonstrations. Demonstrations have been a "too" for decades as I remember, LONG before the austerity crises showed up. Although, I am not sure if it is good fot a country to be held up by firefighters, police and military. I'd rather have the "normal" people creating their society - yet, beyond "family" there is hardly public interest or society connection - to my experience in Greece. This is what would is missing - not only to unite in demonstrations AGAINST - but to unite in acting FOR a better and creative future.

Wilma | 26 February 2012  

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