By Alice Rennison
Eric Abetz slowly moved his way up the ladder in his 21-year role as a Senator to become the Minister for Employment and Leader of the Senate in Tony Abbott’s government. Turnbull stripped Abetz of these roles and moved Abetz to the backbench, when he became prime minister.
Abetz joined the Liberal Party in 1976. He spent his university years as president of the Australian Liberal Students’ Association. During his university years at the University of Tasmania he also worked part time as a taxi driver and farm hand.
This work ethic stemmed from his family. In an interview with SBS he said, “my parents have imbued within all us children a sense of service”.
His family moved from Stuttgart, Germany, a country still reeling from the World War, to Tasmania in 1961, when Abetz was three years old. Abetz’s granduncle, Otto Abetz, was a high-ranking member of the Nazi party. Otto helped to arrange the deportation of French Jews to death camps, an action that would result in him going to trial at the war’s end. Abetz said to SBS that Otto’s actions have led him to be an ‘easy target’ for Abetz’s opposers.
Abetz also said to The Sydney Morning Herald that, “I think most reasonable Australians would regard any attempt to slur me by association with such a distant relative as completely unfair and, if I might say so, un-Australian.”
Abetz’s parents also instilled traditional Christianity into Abetz and his siblings. Eric Abetz’s older brother, Peter Abetz, is an elected member in the West Australia Legislative Assembly. He is also a pastor. Peter has been labelled by members of the West Australian Parliament as part of ‘god’s squad’, due to his earnestness to publicise his religious life.
Some of Peter’s religious values have been reflected in Abetz, which was seen in an interview Abetz had on The Project. During the interview he cited studies that, “assert that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer”. He later denied the claims, saying that he was cut off before he could further explain.
However the damage was already done. Tony Abbott and other colleagues were distancing themselves from him. As Minister for Employment, Abetz made further errors that led to his downfall.
The controversial ‘work for the dole’ scheme was introduced by Abetz in 2014. The scheme would require people who were receiving the Newstart allowance from Centrelink, to ‘Work for the Dole’ if they were aged under 50. The requirements were for recipients to work 15 hours a week, for six months each year they were receiving payments. The scheme also required recipients to apply for 40 jobs a month, modified later to 20.
The scheme passed through parliament, despite concerns about this scheme overwhelming businesses and would put people in to short term and low payed work.
Abetz’s response to this was, “I say to unemployed people, just because it is difficult to get a job does not mean you should as a result withdraw from society, sit at home and not even bother to apply for a job.
“What I’m encouraging, and what the government is encouraging, is if the times are tough, go try twice as hard to get a job.
“Be out there even more and get those elusive jobs. If you’re sitting at home doing nothing, as an individual you will suffer and the chances of getting a job will be diminished as well.”
Abetz’s response to his critics highlights his families hard working values, bringing his personal life in to the public. Yet despite his hard work, he was not made part of the cabinet. Another reason for that is his two failed attempts to pass industrial relations bills through the Senate in August. Both of the bills were cracking down on organised labor, but both failed to pass the Senate within 24 hours of each other.
His inability to pass the Bills through the Senate added a further fracture to Abbott’s leadership, signifying incompetence and an inability to negotiate. This incompetence left an opportunity for Turnbull to become the preferred prime minister. In his selection of the new cabinet Turnbull decided not to select Abetz, instead moving him to the backbenches.
Abetz played a key role in blocking Turnbull from leading the Coalition in 2009. Instead Abetz backed Abbott and acted at Abbott’s main attack dog, in order to secure Abbott as leader. Forming another reason for Turnbull not to want Abetz in his cabinet.
For now Abetz has been moved to the backbench, but only time will tell to see what will happen to him.