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Eric Abetz: the media is tough on Christians, but our leaders are far too timid

INTERVIEWS | John Sandeman
Thursday 22 October 2015

Eternity editor John Sandeman caught up with former cabinet minister Eric Abetz.

Is it conservatives that get a hard time from the Canberra Press gallery, or do Christian Conservatives do even worse?

That’s the point I have been trying to make – the negative sentiment override is applied to all conservatives, so that no matter what you say or do, the Canberra press gallery will put the worst possible spin on it. And heaven help you if you happen to be a Christian conservative, you’ll get a double whammy.

And you think Tony Abbott was a big victim of that?

There is no doubt the former Prime Minister was a victim of that from day one – when he became leader of the Opposition. We had all the luminaries of the press gallery chuckling and laughing and saying how the Liberal party had elected an ”unelectable” leader, how he was no good and would not get the votes. Within a year he had nearly won government and he had won a massive landslide. There was a nasty, relentless campaign against him, which included the on-going references to his Catholicism and one description that continued was “the mad monk.”

The Christian Church community failed itself dismally by not expressing disappointment at the media for these sorts of descriptions.

The Christian church just allowed it without comment. That is to its shame and I think ultimately will be to its regret. Once you allow it to happen to one person, it will happen more and more to others – and I think we are now seeing that. On that description of “mad monk” – just think what would happen if someone was to start using “mad Muslim” or “idiotic Imam.” The media would go into a frenzy.

Eric, do you think the Christian Church is scared of the media?

Eric Abetz

Eric Abetz

There is no doubt that many within the church community are intimidated by the pack approach of the Canberra press gallery in particular. Therefore they will try to nuance commentary in a way that will find acceptance.

Lets take poker machines as an example. Quite rightly church leaders attack state governments for their addiction to the revenue of poker machines (and what a terrible social evil it is.) You cannot argue with them. But they never talk about the other side of that equation. And that of course is individual responsibility. The men and women that put their money through the poker machines cannot hide behind the greed of state governments. They have to take individual responsibility for themselves. Of course the best way to dry up the poker machine revenue is to encourage people to not to gamble. But I don’t think I have ever heard that from a Christian leader. Bashing up a state government has got some resonance with the public – it’s the state government’s fault. From a Methodist and Uniting Church heritage I might say that this area is one where the Wesleyans were very strong.

They preached about Government social policy.

But also individual social responsibility.

Do you think the Christian community has supported Christian politicians?

I get support from Christians all around Australia. It has been extremely heartening. I get random letters from parishes all around Australia saying, “we have got a prayer roster and you are on the list this week.” And, “just letting you know, we prayed for you.” That is a great comfort, and a great source of encouragement.

Having said that, the church community needs to be a bit more active on some of the issues they are promoting.

For example, the celebration of Christmas – I am thinking of the City of Cairns saying we can’t have Christmas decorations because it might offend a couple of dozen Muslims in the city area. Or the singing of Christmas carols at childcare centres and schools. Yet you go to communist China and there are Christmas decorations in their shopping centres. So I say ,“Christian Church in Australia, if the Communist Chinese regime is willing to have Christmas decorations, why won’t you stand up and say for us, as a Christian church, the time of Christmas is the birth of our hope. This is a fundamentally important part of the Christian calendar, and yes, we want to celebrate it.”

I think there has been too much timidity amongst Christian leaders. I have seen it in Hobart recently, where the Archbishop Julian Porteous put out a booklet to students about the truth of marriage. The Catholic Archbishops Conference authorised it so it wasn’t just the work of one Archbishop. Greens’ candidate Martine Delaney is now taking him before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal. We should be hearing Church leaders saying this is an outrageous attack on Julian Porteous. Catholic students in Catholic schools should be able to hear what the Catholic Church believes on a particular social issue.

If Christians are too timid, do we get the press we deserve?

Bishop Tom Frame wrote an interesting book called “Losing My Religion.” He talks about how Christians and atheists co-existed exceptionally well in modern Australia right up until recent times where an element of atheism turned into anti-theism. And anti-Christianity.

So, if Bob Brown, as he, did, talks about Gaia-the Earth-Spirit, taking revenge because of climate change, that is just breathlessly reported. Yet if a Christian were to were to express their Christian values saying, “Jesus Christ is the hope of the world, people say “hmm, bit strange”, and when I say ‘people’ I mean the press gallery.

To give an example: A group of 80 indigenous elders presented others and myself with the “Uluru bark petition” in support of the truth of marriage. We got the media there, but it was not reported. On inquiry we were told, “it was dodgy.”

“Why was it dodgy?”

“Oh, it was coordinated by a pastor, they are all Christian elders.”

And so it was dodgy and not worth reporting.

When you say, “But many indigenous people identify with the Christian faith – in fact in some states like Queensland even more so – than the non-indigenous community,” you get a blank look.

When you tell them that in the 1980s the Human Rights Commission did a survey that indicated that marriage was an important part of traditional indigenous life, and that the Christian part is an overlay over something that was practiced for millennia in indigenous communities, they are just not interested. Why? Because it had the Christian element in it.

Are there particular offenders in the way Christian conservatives are reported?

I want to talk about the principle and the practice as opposed to the personality.

What about media outlets?

It would be fair to say that the ABC and Fairfax are not as well supposed towards conservatives generally, and conservative Christians in particular, let’s call it a greater negative sentiment override.

You have cited figures for interruptions on the ABC?

That is something I gleaned while we were still in Opposition. I asked Mark Scott (managing director of the ABC) questions that related to the Lateline programme where Tony Jones one night interviewed Wayne Swan – with no interruptions. And Wayne Swan got 57 per cent of the airtime.

The next night, Joe Hockey was on, and [was] interrupted 33 times. And Tony Jones got himself the majority of the airtime. And then poor old Joe Hockey is criticised for not being able to sell a message.

In more recent times, Leigh Sales, who has been described as being “virtually flirtatious” with Malcolm Turnbull, said, “Oh, sorry I am interrupting!” Whenever has Leigh Sales apologised to me, to Tony Abbott, or indeed anybody else for interrupting them? A genuinely professional person like Tony Jones should give the majority of the airtime to the person being interviewed. Sure, some interruptions are appropriate. But that Lateline example showed a huge double standard.

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