The speaker of the Canadian Senate, Noel Kinsella, has just completed a busy six-day trip to Greece, which even included a brief meeting with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras shortly before he was due to meet troika representatives.
Apart from Athens, Kinsella also spent time on Rhodes and returns to Canada impressed by the work the Greek government has done in terms of fiscal adjustment but acutely aware of the effort that has to be made in terms of structural reforms.
Kinsella, visiting Greece with senators James Cowan and Leo Housakos, spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the encouraging signs he saw during his trip and where there is potential for Greece and Canada to make further progress.
What prompted your visit to Greece at this particular time?
We?re here within the context of parliamentary diplomacy, which is different from the diplomacy of the executive branch of government. We come as parliamentarians and the objective was to meet our Hellenic Parliament colleagues, who we know are going through a challenging time. We wanted to express our solidarity with them, to encourage them, particularly as they are focused on the national interest of Greece and come together, as parliamentarians do in my experience, for the common good. The whole notion of the common good finds its philosophical roots in these lands through the writings of people like Aristotle.
We first wanted to go to a region. We met the governor and mayor of Rhodes to get their perspective. In Canada, the region vs federal dynamic is part and parcel of our system of governance. Those kinds of checks and balances speak to the quality of freedom. We were impressed with the governor and the mayor, who demonstrated that there is so much opportunity and we heard how the regions could be the ones to lead Greece to profitable days.
Then we came to Athens, where we held meetings with members of the government and Parliament. We wanted to encourage and to objectively express from a North American perspective that you have done incredibly well in terms of the operational budget cut. What?s been achieved is enormous. It?s a good-news story but as politicians we know that sometimes it?s awfully difficult to get the good story communicated. They were pleased that we recognized the tough job they?ve been engaged in. As we left the prime minister, his next meeting was with the troika.
Greece has been in the unusual position over the last two or three years of being in the international headlines, usually with negative connotations. You?ve been reading the newspapers and watching TV; was there a contrast between what you saw in the media and what you saw during your trip?
I?ll express it in one word: I think that message is very unfair. Our parliamentary colleagues have been achieving very good results that I was impressed with and I think my two senate colleagues were impressed with. In politics you deal with what?s thrown at you and I said to our colleagues here that getting the message out is really important because it helps with the social cohesion. People need to know collectively that these sacrifices have been made. In any big organization, and the state is a huge organization, you don?t see the results immediately. It?s important too for people to see that they?re on a track and that it will take two or three budget years. One can see the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the operational budget. You?ll be in surplus within the next budget.
From a Canadian perspective, is there any more advice that you can give to Greece to beat the crisis?
Greece has been very supportive of Canada?s negotiations with the European Union for a comprehensive free trade agreement. As Canadians, we wanted to articulate this incredible opportunity from a bilateral point of view, building on tremendous bilateral relations, and that we are also a gateway to a whole continent. We went to the minister of shipping and laid a map on his table and told him that one of the best-kept secrets is that you can save one day?s sailing from Piraeus to North America if you sail into Atlantic Canada. We showed them the inland logistics, where the Canadian National Railway has been buying up very quietly over the last 26 years small American railway companies. A day less sailing is a big saving for shippers. Tie that to free trade, the fact that 92 percent of products will at some point travel by ship and Greece having the biggest mercantile fleet in the world; there?s great convergence.
You need to contrast the economic challenge with the economic opportunities. From a bilateral perspective, Canada and Greece need to get a lot closer. We think this could be one of the engines to put Greece on top of Europe.
One of the issues that comes up again and again during this crisis is the need for structural reform in Greece and the need to make it easier to do business. You met with representatives of Canadian companies during your visit; was this raised during your discussions?
Absolutely, but let?s place that in context. You can go to the Unites States of America, you can go to Canada and there are regulatory regimes. Part of our job as parliamentarians is to provide oversight over all the regulations we have -- the joint committee for scrutiny of regulations in Canada meets every Thursday morning. Regulations that had a purpose 15 years ago may not be useful now.
Our colleagues from the Greek-Canadian business community articulated frustrations and gave examples of the regulatory regimes here. They have to be changed, as we?ve changed ours. It?s an ongoing process. You?re not going to change all of them overnight. Some of them had a purpose but they may not speak to the economic dynamics of today -- this is what we discovered. Our joint committee makes recommendations and a lot of the regulations are taken off the books.
We spoke about this in our meetings with some of the ministers and it was clear to us that they fully recognize it is critically important. I think you?ll see deregulation here. It has to be done sensibly. It has to be done based on solid public policy principles.
The world is different today; it?s global, not local. That requires us -- whether we are Canadian or Greek parliamentarians -- to ask what are the obstacles that stand in the way of mobility of goods, services and intellect. The idea of labor mobility in particular speaks to a global economy and it?s part of this renaissance that Greece is going through.
Greece and Canada signed a youth mobility agreement last year aimed at people aged between 18 and 35. Do you see this as a useful scheme?
We have ratified this agreement in Canada and we did not miss an opportunity to encourage our colleagues in the Hellenic Parliament to also ratify it. We have concluded the same agreement with a number of companies, including Italy. We have one young Italian who has received a special visa under this bilateral program who is working at an incubator firm in Ottawa. He has been given 150,000 Canadian dollars in venture capital money and is in charge of where it should be invested. He has access to venture capital which he could never get in Italy. When the program?s over, he will return to Italy with the contacts he made in Canada, so he could set up a company in Rome and gain access to capital.
I could see the same model working here. It?s hard to find angel investors, it?s hard to get venture capital, but if under this program, young Greeks from whatever field could gain the Canadian experience and return to Greece to start a business. It?s a brilliant program. We need our young people but we?ve got to break down the barriers we?ve allowed to build up.
Has your trip left you with the impression that there is potential for cooperation between Greece and Canada in other areas as well?
There?s no country in the Mediterranean that has the potential to increase productivity in a number of agricultural sectors more than Greece. A lot of your islands are virgin islands and when it?s put to best use, increasing the herd is an area where Greek-Canadian collaboration could occur. We do that with a lot of countries. Ships go down the Saint Lawrence River carrying cattle to restock the Russian herd.
Believe it or not, olive oil arrives in North America and it has been transformed somehow. It does not go on the shelf as Greek olive oil. The added value has occurred somewhere else. This is another issue that we spoke to people about.
The biggest crisis in the world today is the adequacy and security of the food chain. There are millions of people starving. The global community has to give priority to the adequate production, distribution, quality and security of food. If there was ever a question whether there is a demand for Greece to double its agricultural output, then the answer is that there absolutely is. [Kathimerini English Edition]