• Craig Kelly (second from the left) at the controversial community event in Sydney. (Photo courtesy of Boka CroPress newspaper)
Croatia has summoned the Australian Ambassador in Zagreb to answer questions about a federal MP's speech at a controversial Croatian community event in Sydney.
22 Apr 2014 - 6:42 AM  UPDATED 24 Apr 2014 - 9:01 PM

Liberal MP Craig Kelly is alleged to have conveyed Prime Minister Tony Abbott's best wishes at an event commemorating April 10, or the foundation date of a pro-Nazi Croatian government in the 1940s.

The event, held last week at the Croatian club ‘Sydney’ in Punchbowl, was to commemorate the date of establishment of the so-called Independent State of Croatia.

During the Second World War the so-called Independent State of Croatia was affiliated with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany - adopting their policies, including the deportation and killing of Jews and other non-Croats.

Liberal MP Craig Kelly attended the Sydney meeting, and the Croatian government is concerned about media reports that he conveyed Prime Minister Tony Abbott's best wishes.

Mr Kelly reportedly attended the event on behalf of the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Welles.

SBS World News reporter Kristina Kukolja has been following the story. She spoke to Zara Zaher.

A spokesperson from Mr Kelly's office confirmed the MP gave an off-the-cuff "brief speech in which he strongly condemned fascism and communism, both of which he described as 'evil'".

In a statement, the spokesperson said Mr Kelly had "further noted that through their lived experiences under both evil regimes, few nations understand the importance of freedom and democracy as does Croatia, and [that] is why the Croatian people so strongly cling to the virtues freedom and democracy today".

"...Mr Kelly offers his apologies for inadvertently appearing to endorse an outdated version of the Croatian flag, which had been placed on the lectern.​"

The flag, used by the Ustasha government, differs from the recognised national flag and it’s not uncommon for it and other symbols associated with that period to be used at community events in Australia.

A large number of Croatian migrants arrived in Australia after the Second World War while Croatia was still a part of Communist Yugoslavia.

Some members of the Croatian community, particularly among older generations, regard the current social-democrat government in Croatia as a return of Communist rule, and hold the view that Croatia was truly independent in the 1940s.
 
Related: Croatian PM speaks to Kristina Kukolja during his Australian visit in March

In a statement to SBS, the Croatian Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed it had called the Australian Ambassador to explain.

"We have summoned H.E. Cox on a meeting on 16th April to express our protest because it is absolutely unacceptable to commemorate 10th April and so called NDH (Independent State of Croatia)," the statement said.

"We believe that the fact that the statement was attached to Prime Minister Abbot only weeks after successful visit of Croatian Prime Minister to Australia is especially inappropriate."

"H.E. Cox has stressed that Australia had recognized only 25 June as Croatian national day and she has also underlined good and friendly Australian-Croatian relations."

The Croatian ambassador in Canberra, Dr Damir Kusen says it is a serious matter for Croatia and an official response from the Australian government is expected.
 
Mr Kelly has been unavailable for interview, but a spokesman has denied that he offered Mr Abbott's best wishes at the Sydney meeting.

In an alleged email believed to have been leaked to the InSerbia news website, Mr Kelly is quoted as saying media reports claiming he had given a speech supporting the fascist Croatian state were not true.

“Firstly I am mortified with what has been reported, as my words were selectively taken out of context to convey the opposite meaning, and I’m personally upset that the reporting of this has have offended by many Serbian and Croatian friends," he allegedly said.

"To explain the circumstances, I was requested by the Parliamentary Secretary Senator Fierravanti-Wells to represent her at an event at the Croatian Club which was described as ”celebrating Croatian Independence,” Mr Kelly is quoted as saying.

 
Mr Kelly denies he delivered any statement on behalf of the Prime Minister.

Also in attendance at the event were NSW Liberal MP for Riverstone Kevin Conolly, The Hills Shire Councillor Robyn Preston, Penrith City Councillor Marcus Cornish and Ms Nadia Namuren of the Ukrainian Council of New South Wales.

They have been unavailable for interviews.

NSW Labor MP for Bankstown Tania Mihailuk says she arrived at the Croatian club after the event.

In Croatia, Statehood Day is commemorated on June 25.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued the following statement to SBS on Monday:

"Australia's Ambassador to Croatia met Croatian government officials at their request late last week to discuss comments attributed in the media to the Member for Hughes, Craig Kelly, at a recent function in Sydney.

"During the meetings, the Ambassador underlined the warm relations between Australia and the Republic of Croatia, which Australia recognised on 16 January 1992 following its declaration of independence on 25 June 1991.

"She said that Australia looked forward to building on this relationship following the visit of Prime Minister Milanovic to Australia in March 2014.

"Mr Kelly attended a Croatian community event in Sydney last week in good faith. He has confirmed that, in his comments at the function, he strongly condemned fascism which he described as ‘evil’.

"Mr Kelly further noted that through their lived experiences, few people understood the importance of freedom and democracy as well as Croatians, which is why the Croatian people today so strongly associate with the virtues of freedom and democracy. Mr Kelly was not representing the Prime Minister at the event."