It’s not just Eric Abetz’s views on abortion and unemployment that have made headlines since he took a seat in the upper house. The Leader of the Government in the Senate tells SBS about the pressure faced due to his German ancestry and family history with the Nazi Party.
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Eric Abetz is a man who would never be accused of being avant-garde.
Everything about the 56-year-old Senate leader - from his views on abortion and unemployment to his sporadic approach to social media - paint him as a man fond of tradition and conservatism.
‘I don’t even recall the boat trip from Germany’
It’s not just his politics which have caught the public’s attention during his time in parliament.
His German ancestry and family history with the Nazi Party have also made headlines since he publicly acknowledged his great-uncle’s senior role in the totalitarian regime during World War Two.
But for the Stuttgart-born Senator, his homeland is one he barely knows.
Senator Abetz told SBS that he and his family migrated to Australia when he was just three-years-old, leaving post-war Europe behind them in 1961.
“Every now and then I allow myself a little indulgence, like with the World Cup. When Australia’s out of it, I barrack for Germany and it was great to see them win the World Cup."
“My first memories are in fact in Tasmania,” he says.
“I don’t even recall the boat trip from Germany, through the Suez Canal to Freemantle in Western Australia, where the family first set foot on Australian soil.”
While he brought no memories from his homeland, there were some German traditions that made the trip with him, his parents and his five older siblings.
Chief among them was Christmas.
“That was something that hung over from times German,” he says.
“My mother used to make this wonderful array of Christmas biscuits, which was especially the tradition from southern Germany, in the Black Forest area. I was born in Stuttgart and that was a tradition that my mother kept up until she passed on.
“My sister Hilda continues that tradition for me and every Christmas I get a nice basket full of Christmas biscuits.”
‘If you are of German origin, it does make you an easy target for certain elements’
Abetz’s German ancestry has followed him from his youth to politics, where his family history has made him - in his words - an “easy target” for his critics.
"I judge people on the basis of who they are, what they are, how they are, not on… whether you had a great uncle who was involved in the national socialist regime of Germany at the time.”
A failed High Court challenge involving his citizenship in 2010 may have highlighted his German origins, but it was insults over his grand uncle, a high ranking member of the Nazi Party, that gained the most attention.
Otto Abetz, an honorary SS-Standartenführer, was present in Adolf Hitler's entourage at the fall of Warsaw and was later trialled for his role in arranging the deportation of French Jews to the death camps.
His accidental death came less than four months after his great-nephew’s birth, but Abetz says that hasn’t stopped his critics comparing him to the Nazi operative.
“The children are old enough now for me to talk about it, but if you are of German origin, it does make you an easy target for certain elements,” he says.
“There were the gratuitous comments such as ‘we didn’t fight two World Wars to allow this to happen to our country’ and those types of comments. Certain people in the Senate in the past have tried to make certain allusions to my background.
“All I would say is I judge people on the basis of who they are, what they are, how they are, not on… whether you had a great uncle who was involved in the national socialist regime of Germany at the time.”
‘My parents have imbued within all us children a sense of service’
There are some relatives that Abetz is happy to be compared to, including his older brother Peter.
The 61-year-old former pastor holds the seat of Southern River in Western Australia, where he has been a Member of the Legislative Assembly since 2008.
Also Liberal, the older Abetz has been labelled as one of the “God's squad” due to his readiness to bring his Christianity into his public life.
It’s a habit that the Senate leader has also been accused of in recent days, following his controversial comments linking abortion and breast cancer.
His appearance on Channel Ten’s The Project, where he cited studies that “assert that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer”, sparked a media storm and highlighted his involvement in the upcoming World Congress of Families.
Abetz denied the comments, saying he was cut off before he could clarify his comments, but it wasn’t enough to stop colleagues such as Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Health Minister Peter Dutton distancing themselves.
It was this sense of traditional Christianity that Abetz inherited from his parents, along with a work ethic that has stayed with him and his siblings throughout their varied careers.
“I think my parents have imbued within all us children a sense of service,” he says.
“Undoubtedly, that’s what motivated myself and my brother to be in public life.”
‘Just because it is difficult to get a job does not mean you should… sit at home and not even bother’
Indeed, it may be his sense of service that drives his support for the controversial return to the Work for the Dole scheme.
The Employment Minister has come under fire for the proposed unemployment and welfare reforms, particularly the requirement for job seekers to complete 40 job applications a month.
He says the scheme is overwhelmingly popular, but has conceded that some conditions may be seen as a “box-ticking exercise”.
Concerns have been raised over overwhelming businesses and pushing people into low paid, short term work, but Abetz insists the measures are essential for job seekers’ self-esteem and mental health.
“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,” he says.
“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.”
But when it comes to his home state of Tasmania, Abetz is willing to concede there aren’t enough jobs.
It’s a view shared by his fellow Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, but it may be one of the few points they agree on.
The outspoken Palmer United Party politician has some out against the Coalition in recent weeks, accusing Abetz of playing “silly little political games” and saying he should be sacked.
Despite her criticism, Abetz refuses to bite back.
“I’m happy to receive the character assessments, but I’m not in the business of giving them out,” he says.
“The electorate and the people will make up their own mind as to whether someone’s got intellect, a work ethic, the capacity, the sincerity, the integrity – I leave that up to the electorate to determine if they want to make that assessment of the various public figures in our home state of Australia.”
‘That was always good, to know where your roots are’
While he represents more than 364,000 voters in that home state, his parents are no longer among them.
Abetz says his both his parents passed away before he entered politics, his father at 60 and his mother at 63.
“My father passed while I was at university and my mother saw me graduate, but that was it,” he says.
“I was never the less very blessed to have them as my parents.”
He has been in touch with his relatives in Germany and while he had no memories as a child, he says it was important for him to visit his birthplace.
“That was always good to know where your roots are, but there is no doubt in my mind that Australia is my country,” he says.
“Every now and then I allow myself a little indulgence, like with the World Cup. When Australia’s out of it, I barrack for Germany and it was great to see them win the World Cup.
“But if it were to be a match between Australia and Germany, I’d be barracking for Australia.”