20 October 2022

Opinion Piece

One size does not fit all. It never has, and it never will.

What has happened in the last fortnight at the Essendon Football Club has taken me a while to get my head around. And many in the community may observe the happenings at the Bombers (a team I once supported) and not think much of it. But I beg anyone who reads this to stop for a moment and consider what happened and what it actually means.

Andrew Thorburn was the CEO of the Essendon Football Club for about one day. Before that he was the CEO at the Bank of New Zealand and the National Australia Bank – two of the most important jobs in Australian business.

Sadly though, Thorburn had to resign from his new role at Essendon in what I think are some of the most outrageous circumstances in recent times.

It all started in 2013, nearly one decade ago, when a pastor preached things that not everyone agrees with, but nonetheless on principles central to the Christian faith and embedded firmly in the Bible.

Mr Thorburn became a member of this church in 2014 and Chairman in 2018. It is this association, and especially in relation to a sermon preached before Mr Thorburn joined the church, that led to his resignation.

Outrageously, Essendon made Mr Thorburn choose between his role as Chairman of the church and his new job as CEO of the Essendon Football Club, the club he has supported since boyhood, and upon the announcement, he stated that it was “one of the proudest moments of my life”.

The beliefs and principles that the church group and Mr Thorburn hold have been tolerated in our inclusive community up until now, and are shared by a number of other faiths, including Islam to name but one.

And, while Mr Thorburn’s appointment apparently highly offended some people, the same rage (from people like Dan Andrews) was not expressed when it was reported that an AFLW player chose to not partake in the recent Pride Round.

So to be clear: Thorburn did not deliver the sermon, he wasn’t even a member at the church when it was preached, and he has made clear he doesn’t “always agree with what’s said” there. Yet he was, in effect, forced out of his job because the Essendon Board didn’t agree with what was said and, fundamentally, his faith.

While we, as Australians, have long respected each other’s differences, noting one size does not fit everyone, it now appears that if you don’t fit into many people’s ideals, ideals that are increasingly anti-Christian – you go.

This is a very dangerous precedent, one that flies in the face of what it means to be an Australian in our pluralistic society that is meant to be inclusive and tolerant.

It is on this dangerous precedent I was drawn back to a story I was told and one that I repeated in my first speech to the Senate six years ago. That was the story of Fran Mirakaj, who was executed by the communist dictatorship in Albania because he refused to renounce his Christian faith.

Mirakaj could have kept his life if he had, at gunpoint, chosen to deny his belief in Jesus Christ. He chose not to, and he was killed.

Thankfully there are gulfs between Thorburn’s experience and Mirakaj’s death, but the principle remains the same. Where do we draw the line at allowing people to freely observe their beliefs before it starts to impact on whether they can keep their jobs?

To allow another to hold or practise their beliefs, you don’t need to share them. But respecting that they and others hold such beliefs is an important part of what makes our country great, or at least it used to.

Thankfully, in 2022 it is wrong to fire someone because of their skin colour, their sexual orientation or their gender. The same should apply to one’s faith – but we now have evidence that it does not.

And in case you’re wondering – while I am a Christian myself, I would be writing exactly the same way if a person from any religious denomination had been fired from being CEO of Essendon because of their faith.

What Essendon has done to Thorburn and to Christians across the country is wrong, it is shameful, and it is unAustralian.