A Tasmanian Senator presses on, inspired by the gospel and its values.
Eric Abetz talks to Mark Powell
Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Party Senator since 1994. He has served as the Minister for Employment under John Howard and Leader of the Government in the Senate under Tony Abbott.
Your family is originally from Germany, the home of the Protestant Reformation. What does the Christian faith mean to you?
Well for me personally, the Christian faith is about a foundation in life, an anchor. It provides a purpose in life and a hope at the end. When you think about life you can either think that you’re here as somebody made uniquely in the image of God or you are here as a result of a random accident. One provides a real purpose, the other no real purpose, that you’re here as a result of a cosmic accident and you’ll disappear at some given time.
Was there a specific time in your life when you were converted?
I was blessed in having been born into a Christian household. It would be fair to say that I have had my ups and downs. I would not say that I became a Christian on a particular day. It’s been more like a progression throughout with lapses and other things but I always had a consciousness of God and that was embedded within me from the very beginning and has been a constant throughout my life.
Are any of your other siblings believers?
Yes, I have two brothers, who are in fact ministers of religion. One of those brothers, Peter, became a member of state parliament in Western Australia for two terms. When I look back at that, out of six children, three have been ministers, two of religion and one of the crown (which is me), but I think that our parents helped to embed within us a sense of service and committing one’s life to the service of the community.
I could have made more money and enjoyed a better “lifestyle” in pursuing law and living for myself, and I have absolutely no doubt that my brothers, who are a lot smarter and more gifted than I am, could have done a lot “more” with their lives. But they wanted to devote themselves to the service of other people and to God by becoming ministers.
More and more we are seeing people say that there should be a separation between church and state and that anybody with religious beliefs shouldn’t be allowed to talk into the public sphere. What’s your view on that?
This is one of the great dilemmas in the Western world now that we are not teaching history. Because if history were taught then everybody would know that the separation of church and state was largely about the church saying to the state “get out of the church” and not the other way around.
In relation to the Christian worldview not being allowed to speak into the public sphere, I would point out that everyone has religion, whether they like it or not. Legislators seek to encourage good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour. To have a concept of good and bad you have to have a moral framework. Your moral framework is informed by your worldview. So I say to those who contend that I shouldn’t be having a Judeo Christian worldview that you must have a worldview that informs you as to what is good and bad legislation and informs your sense of morality.
Many Christians would say, “Well it’s only the gospel that transforms society, therefore we should have no confidence in legislation.” How do you see the relationship between the gospel and legislation in God’s purposes?
That’s a very good discussion point and at the end of the day it is the gospel that saves. A government, no matter how well meaning, is not able to legislate people into becoming Christians. If you have a legalistic framework you will have people going through the motions of the Christian life rather than seeing them as a response to the gospel which is a free gift that we have not earned. One cannot legislate people into Christianity.
“The Bible provides a wonderful blueprint for a good society because it does talk about reward for effort, against laziness, about individual responsibility, looking after your neighbour.”
However, the Bible provides a wonderful blueprint for a good society because it does talk about reward for effort. It does talk against laziness. It does talk about individual responsibility. It does talk about looking after your neighbour, if you have the capacity. So, if you take it as a whole it is a wonderful blueprint for society. If you take a step back and have a helicopter look at the world and ask, “Which societies are the societies to aspire to or to imitate?” it has been the Western world that has stood out. Why? Because in the past it was built on the Judeo-Christian ethic.
We seem to be drifting away from that Judaeo-Christian heritage. Why do you think that is?
Sadly, we are drifting away, and we are at a stage in our culture where we are apologetic for all the blessings we have received and we want to celebrate anything and everything that is not Christian. I am often at a loss to understand why people would be like that. Sadly, there are people who still believe that humankind can develop its own utopia on earth, be it fascism, or communism, or any other worldview, and I’d just say: “Take a step back, have a look at them all and see which one you would choose.”
You have been in politics for more than 23 years. How has it changed in that time?
Over those 23 years there has been enormous change on social issues. If I had said in parliament 23 years ago that I supported gay marriage, for example, people would have been aghast. People would have said, “That’s never going to happen.” So, that is one example of how the cultural shift has occurred.
What role do you think the media has played in the way that politicians in particular communicate?
Sadly, the media in this country is more of a cheerleader than a reporter. A reporter should simply state the facts and let the readers make up their mind. I’m often labelled, though, as “extreme” or the “right wing” Liberal Senator – but the journalist doesn’t use equivalent adjectives of opponents on the other side. The other thing is, that if you are a leaker to the media then they will always write you up as being this wonderful political genius who should be promoted.
There must be many discouragements for you personally in politics. What keeps you going?
Well, there are discouragements in any task, in any job, and what keeps me going is my hope that I am supporting good and maintaining values. In public life, it is a great encouragement to other people. I have often felt that I am a lone voice on an issue and I think, “Oh my goodness, wait for the response.” And the response has been, “Oh my goodness, I am so thankful that someone in public life has actually said that.” So, you do get many encouragements from people. But as a Christian you ultimately seek to serve only One.
As you look back on your time in politics, what are you most proud of having achieved?
Look, many people ask me that question and use the word “proud” but I don’t like that word. I am thankful for what I have been able to achieve and I feel blessed if I have been able at times to be used to facilitate a good outcome. Looking back, there have been a lot of small individual cases such as helping refugees, or helping people with their hearing aids. I feel very thankful that I have been able to make a difference in people’s lives.
On a bigger scale, as the minister for employment I tried to get people into jobs and see that the economy was humming along. The social good of getting someone into a job cannot be over-emphasised. In Tasmania, in particular, we’ve seen unemployment fall from 8.1% to 5.8% since 2013, which means that thousands of people’s lives have been turned around.
If you could make one change in Australia, what would you do?
That’s a very good question. I think it would be quite esoteric. I would like to see a re-engagement of the Australian people with their history and their Christian heritage because it’s just so important. We have to get our education system back to teaching the
basics and to teaching history. Ultimately I think that will permeate throughout the rest of society and inform people as to whether they want to have an entitlement attitude toward society or whether they want to have an attitude that favours contributing.
So why have our academic institutions largely gone to the Left?
Another very good question. The Left has been relentless in its march through the institutions and, sadly, coming from Germany, and talking to my parents, when they were young – and they were about university age in the Second World War – the vast majority of academics were fascists. They agreed because it was the popular sentiment. It was just a lot easier to say, “We agree with everything”, and not make waves.
“I would like to see a re-engagement of the Australian people with their history and their Christian heritage because it’s just so important.”
Similarly, when I was at university, I was amazed at how the majority of academics were apologists for the authoritarian communist regimes. If ever you asked about Siberia or the Gulag Archipelago it was always just brushed off as “you’ve got to understand the cultural differences”. These academics would give unbelievable, full-blown explanations as to why Soviet Communism, for all its horrors, was justifiable, and indeed the face of the future.
You travel through the country. Do you think Christians are engaging effectively in the public sphere?
No, I don’t think so. Too many Christians have, I think, been too comfortable for too long. For example, my local church would have roughly 300 people go to it on a Sunday. That’s just one church. The whole Liberal Party in that Federal electorate has a membership of about 300 people. And so you think to yourself, “If these 300 people were involved in the political party of their choice, what a difference they could make!”
Why do you think Christians are so reluctant to become involved?
I think it’s often because you have to compromise. There is that great saying of the Lord Himself that we need to be as shrewd as serpents but as innocent as doves (Mt. 10:16). That is something that in politics you have to do. In politics, you have to say sometimes, “I don’t like this, but it is the least-worst option and so therefore I will support it in the circumstances.” I think some Christians take a very purist approach, which they don’t often do in their own personal or business lives.
Do you ever try to encourage Christians to be involved in politics? How does that go?
I do. It would be fair to say that it meets a lot of resistance. One person I know joined up after talking to me. But his wife refused, saying: “Oh no, politics is not for me.” A very keen personal supporter of myself, and I had absolutely no doubt she always votes for me, but the idea of joining the Liberal Party to potentially make my life easier for endorsement or whatever never entered her mind. She saw all the stuff in the media about politics, that it was a dirty and nasty business, so she didn’t want to be seen as associated with it.
What made you choose to give up law and go into politics yourself?
I suppose I got the political bug at university when I discovered that my results would be withheld until I paid the compulsory student union fee. I was of the view that one’s right to a tertiary education shouldn’t be predicated on joining a student union and handing over your money. So I then got involved in student politics and the students were relatively good to me with voting and I topped the polling often at university despite having conservative views and values.
Is there a particular social issue that concerns you at present?
The most recent speech I made in the Senate was on freedom of speech. It concerned the University of Tasmania when it was approached to provide a forum for the “no” case in the same-sex plebiscite. It initially decided against and then decided in favour. A number of senior academics got together and wrote a letter saying how offended and hurt they were, and they used the email addresses of the students that they had to email all the students with an email blast asking them to co-sign the letter.
“I think some Christians take a very purist approach (to politics), which they don’t often do in their own personal or business lives.”
The power imbalance there and the use of students’ email addresses, which
should only be used for academic purposes, to promote a political ideology (was wrong). Students felt intimidated, that they had to support their lecturer’s political position. One student said, “So what happens if I don’t sign?” Because the lecturer knows all the students whom she had emailed she would also know which students had not responded positively to her “request”.
The university should have provided a forum for the no case just as much as it should have provided a forum for the yes case. But there is now this growing intolerance, that uses the word “tolerance” to assert that to be tolerant you have to do everything a certain way or I will not accept your point of view. There is a creeping fascist type of approach.
Is it fair to say that Australia is becoming more and more divided and fractured along these lines?
Yes, I think that, sadly, it is. For example, the Hobart City Council decided by resolution to support the yes case and they flew the rainbow flag above their public building. I wrote an opinion piece for my local public paper indicating that I had a flag pole on my electorate office and it only ever flies the Australian flag, even in the heat of an election campaign. I will not demean the public office of a senator’s office by pulling down the Australian flag to put up a Liberal flag. Because as a servant of the people, whilst I’m a Liberal, I am first and foremost an Australian parliamentarian.