New Essendon chief executive Andrew Thorburn has urged Bombers fans and the footy world to judge him by his actions, behaviour and ability to “equip people”, rather than his faith and connection to a church with controversial views.
It comes as Victorian Premier Dan Andrews labelled some stances held by Thorburn’s church as “absolutely appalling”, but declared he’d still renew his Essendon membership.
The Bombers on Monday announced Thorburn, the former boss of NAB and Bank of NZ, had been appointed the club’s new chief executive.
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Hours later, the Herald Sun detailed Thorburn’s Christian journey and how he’d become chair of City on a Hill – a faith movement with eight churches around Australia, which has published sermons across the past decade that have included stances against abortion and homosexual acts.
The Premier told reporters those views were “absolutely appalling” and the “intolerance … hatred, bigotry — it is just wrong”. But asked if the club’s board needed to reconsider Thorburn’s appointment, Mr Andrews said: “That’s entirely a matter for them.”
City of Port Phillip deputy mayor Tim Baxter revealed on Twitter he’d handed in his Bombers membership because of the Essendon board‘s decision to “appoint the chair of a homophobic and anti-health care church to the position of CEO”, urging “anyone who cares about queer rights” to do the same.
“While the decision to appoint Brad Scott as coach was, in my view, a good one, the decision to appoint Andrew Thorburn as CEO is spitting in the face of every queer Essendon member, as well as any member or supporter who supports womens rights to reproductive healthcare,” Baxter wrote on Twitter.
“As a bisexual man I cannot feel welcome in this club. @essendonfc your decision, when the club has desperately needed a solid, uncontroversial path forward, has instead ripped the club back to the dark ages, and alienated your members.”
The Herald Sun reported some Essendon supporters had written to the club asking it to reconsider Thorburn’s appointment.
Despite the revelations — and “the many reasons to be a somewhat disappointed Essendon supporter” — Mr Andrews said he would renew his Bombers membership and encouraged all club members to do the same.
“The Essendon footy club is about more than one person,” Mr Andrews said.
“I hope we can get ourselves on the back page of the paper a bit more often than we’re on the front page.”
Speaking on SEN Breakfast on Tuesday morning, Thorburn stressed he wasn’t part of City on a Hill when some of the sermons highlighted were preached — some back in 2013 — and had “never heard these things expressed since my time”.
While Thorburn didn’t clarify his views on abortion or homosexuality, he said he didn’t always agree with what the corporate church expressed but that it was important all views could be respectfully said, heard and debated.
“I also want to say in the church, like any diverse place, there are very different views on all these matters. I have different views on all these matters,” he told SEN Breakfast.
“I’m not a pastor. My job in a governance role is to make sure it’s run well. I don’t always agree with what’s said, but in a way that’s not the point.
“If you want a diverse society it also means there’s going to be people with different views. And I think as we go forward in Australia, it’s not whether those views exist – because they do – the question for harmony is whether we can coexist and hear each other and respect each other’s views. It’s that point around ‘I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it’.
“I think people forget the church does a lot of great things for disadvantaged people to help them – it still plays an important role in the community. It‘s a diverse group itself, not everyone holds the same view.”
Thorburn said he understood some of his church’s statements would be “offensive to people and upset people”, but pointed to his ability to lead large, diverse organisations in the past.
“Firstly, my faith is a very personal thing. I think my faith has helped me become a better leader, because at the centre of my faith is the belief that you should create community care for people and help people be safe and respect them as humans,” he said.
“Second is I‘ve been a CEO for 12 years and this is my third CEO job. I was CEO of a bank that had 5000 people and the CEO of a bank that had 35,000 people and now I’m going to a different organisation. But in all those, there’s diversity of people … of different races and sexual orientation and faiths and cultures – that’s society, right? My role as a CEO is to ensure that the organisations I lead – which I think my record stands for this – is inclusive and welcoming and caring and diverse. I think that makes us a more human organisation and it makes us a higher-performing organisation.
“My commitment, and it‘s always been this and I think my record stands, is that I will create that organisation and lead that organisation. Personally, I feel I have role modelled that.
“I haven’t been a perfect CEO, but I think my respect for people, my care, my love, my welcoming style – I welcome all those people, everybody is welcome. So that‘s really what I want people to look at – look at my actions and look at my words as a leader and the organisations I’ve created to enable safe, diverse, inclusive workplaces. That’s my record that I want people to look at and have confidence in.”
Asked how he’d respond to a gay player challenging him about his church’s views, Thorburn said: “I would say thank you and I respect and care about you and you’re welcome in this organisation and I want to hear what you think and to ensure that you feel safe and can speak out.
“So I want people to know who I am and how I lead and how I engage, that’s what they should rely on.”
Thorburn said he wasn’t surprised by the backlash that had arisen since his Bombers appointment after experiencing “little firestorms” in his previous jobs.
“People should see how I act and behave and how I lead and equip people. But if people ask me about my faith I express it,” he said.
“I totally respect that people will have a different view to what was expressed – and I’m sort of saying in some ways I do – but it’s very important that, one, people judge me for my actions and my words, as a leader … and the second thing is the church itself has very different views, not everyone in the church agrees with those views, but it’s very important in a society that those views can be expressed.
“And people should disagree with them, but respectfully.”
After serving as Bank of NZ boss from 2008 to 2014, Thorburn was NAB chief executive. He was forced to resign from that position, however, following the scathing Royal Commission into misconduct in the banking industry.
Thorburn, who was part of the club’s coaching subcommittee that recently appointed Brad Scott and has been running the external review embarked on under new president Dave Barham, said he was keen to return to a chief executive role, but didn’t expect it to be at an AFL club.
“I‘ve been a CEO for a long time, I’ve been out for a couple of years and, to be honest, I started to miss it. I love being part of a team, I love building an organisation, creating a vision, developing people, winning, serving the community – I started to miss that,” he said.
“I didn‘t think this would be it. But I’ve been a lifelong Bombers supporter – I love the Bombers – and when I was invited to come in to do the review, which is still underway, you get a good look at the issues. Like any good organisation you look at, there’s some strengths and some areas to work on – and I started to think what the club needed was a few things, but I could help and that my experience in leading and building teams and getting people focused on execution, supporting players and supporting members, I thought that I could be a pretty good match.
“Now is the time for Essendon to be united and aligned. So I think, for whatever reason, the pillar of the organisation, the board and the CEO and the senior team through the coaches and the players, that pillar has not been as tight as what it needs to be. Once we get the right people in the right jobs and we get open, trusting relationships with a clear sense of what we want to achieve, I think that alignment will come.”