What a stunning turn of events yesterday. A Christian church board member feels he has no option but to resign from his role as a newly-appointed CEO of a football club because of a sudden firestorm over his association with its conservative views. The Victorian Premier, weighing in, labels them as hateful, bigoted and intolerant, descriptions perhaps more suited to his own divisive commentary.
Of course, the Opposition Leader has also been abrasive toward churches. Expect a backlash of ‘teal’ voting at the next state election!
The ending of Andrew Thorburn’s proposed tenure as a CEO, while also being chair of an Anglican church congregation, has highlighted three concerning problems.
1. Increasingly, an opinion is not permitted if it falls out of favour with the majority of society, no matter how it is expressed. It is assumed now that certain non-preferred opinions are innately disrespectful and they quickly become characterised as self-evidently dangerous. This has to be concerning in a diverse and free society.
Surely, we can still tell the difference between unacceptable denigration of individuals and the right we have to hold contrary views or to associate with people who do. Surely neither side of a debate on such beliefs should engage in intolerant mudslinging.
2. People are becoming more and more likely to be judged on associations and views that society rejects, when these disproportionately outshine other attributes. Andrew Thorburn’s experience and skill for the role of CEO (having run a major bank) was seemingly less important than being connected to a view that someone else expressed nine years ago. It was a view he was purportedly unaware of, anyway. That the banking royal commission found fault with Thorburn is perhaps beside the point, as this was not of concern yesterday. However, the football club is now being accused of carelessness with its recruiting homework.
Thorburn was seemingly being expected yesterday to distance himself from the church in question more strongly than he did, even to the point of being willing to resign as its board chair. This was despite clearly demonstrating his respect and tolerance for all comers in media interviews. For some, there appears to be no room left for juggling roles, even for working closely with people who hold diverse opinions in society.
3. Governance roles will increasingly pressure board members to mitigate risk differently. Should elected officials, often with skills in unrelated areas, really be expected to regulate the views of their staff and volunteers? From a risk perspective in relation to the running of the organisation, yes, but without overstepping. This balance is sometimes delicate, but is shifting all the time. It seems that staff are at growing risk of being muzzled on personal views with no direct connection to their roles. Board members are now more likely to feel the need to choose their allegiances, ‘pick sides,’ demarcate battle lines. Is that the kind of society we want to create?
It would be hoped that organisations such as churches, at the very least, would model how to have safe and productive discussions on sensitive issues, finding ways to respectfully disagree while building better understanding and healthier communities.
The Essendon Football Club is now being presented with the view that its new CEO should never have been appointed (which he was, just one day before his resignation). Why? Because views not even stated to be his own were not expressly rejected. This is a fascinating case study in regard to perceived conflicts of interest, as it could easily be argued that any conflicts in this case – if they existed – were able to be managed.
I wonder whether board members’ and CEOs’ best work in a football club might actually allow appropriate areas of expertise to provide safe boundaries and effective compliance standards that enable beliefs, community connections, and internal practices to co-exist for the benefit of all people, regardless of their background. What we now have is a situation where attempts to protect the interests of some by jumping at shadows potentially then creates an unsafe environment for others. The Premier’s belligerent caricaturing doesn’t help here and I wonder whether he would speak as strongly about his Catholic Church, or about the associations of a Muslim or Jewish candidate, if the situation arose.
Of course, some would say that this is a storm in a tea-cup. Andrew Thorburn resigned, after all. Had he stayed, or been allowed to stay, one wonders whether everyone could have gotten over this week’s offence (which has not been fully quantified). As it stands, though, many are aggrieved that he felt he had to go. Just as people were upset by his appointment (for fear of what he might believe and practice, in spite of his track record), others will rightly be upset at his ‘unappointment,’ wondering why what was presumably best for a football club’s footballing success has now been punted away in favour of playing with a different football altogether, one of the political kind.