REPORTER: Chris Hammer
ANDREW WILKIE: And for those of you who’re wondering about voting for the Greens and wondering about “¦
The federal election, October 2004.
ANDREW WILKIE: I’d remind you that the Greens are now polling.
Intelligence community whistleblower Andrew Wilkie is running as a Greens candidate in John Howard’s seat of Bennelong on Sydney’s genteel lower north shore.
ANDREW WILKIE: Questions? Comments? Feel free to stand up and say what you want.
But, as he finds out, it’s not always so genteel. He’s about to meet members of the Exclusive Brethren.
BRETHREN MEMBER: Can you tell us something about yourself – your marital status, your religion, your family, your background?
ANDREW WILKIE: There was a large group of young men who were very disruptive, very threatening, very aggressive. They disrupted the meeting. We all felt threatened enough that we made a point of leaving the meeting in groups, not wanting to be outside alone. There was no violence, but, as you know, people can behave in certain ways that leave you feeling physically threatened.
Andrew Wilkie says Brethren members ran anti-Greens ads in the local press and letter-boxed the electorate. Mr Wilkie says the ads were misleading, and those funding them were not properly identified.
ANDREW WILKIE: The point here is not whether a religious group was running a political campaign, the point here is that a religious group was clearly crossing the line between acceptable behaviour and unacceptable behaviour.
When I try to film a Brethren church in Sydney, I experience what Andrew Wilkie is talking about. Despite the fact I’m on a public street, I’m met with aggression.
BRETHREN MEMBER: Now, just stand here and witness because we’re going to have a real brawl with this bloke. Yeah, OK, start taking photos of him.
REPORTER: Please do.
The Exclusive Brethren like to keep to themselves and clearly don’t welcome scrutiny.
BRETHREN MEMBER: You’re infringing on their right to come in here.
REPORTER: Look, I’m not infringing on any rights.
BRETHREN MEMBER: Yes, you are.
REPORTER: Look, you’ve called the police. The police will be here in a minute. They’ll tell you what the law is.
BRETHREN MEMBER: Well, we’re just asking you to please leave us alone because we don’t want to have you here.
The Brethren believe in an apocalyptic end to the world – the Rapture – when they alone will be saved by Christ’s second coming. They don’t watch television, read novels, listen to the radio or go to university. They don’t eat, drink or socialise with outsiders. And they certainly don’t vote. The anonymity of this church building is typical – no identifying signs or emblems, a fence to shut out outsiders. For 150 years the Brethren have lived a quiet life in parallel to the rest of society. That is, until now.
BRETHREN MEMBER: And he’s outside right now photographing us. He’s actually on our property.
Now, many Australians will never have heard of the Exclusive Brethren, let alone any political activities associated with the church. But across the Tasman, here in New Zealand, it’s been big news. Indeed, the Labour Government here has accused the Brethren of engaging in political skulduggery and has even floated the idea of changing the law to place greater controls on the church.
These pamphlets appeared in New Zealand letterboxes during last year’s election campaign. They’re highly critical of Labour, and especially of the Greens, but some of the authorising addresses were found to be misleading. And because they don’t directly advocate a vote for the conservative National Party, they circumvent electoral laws that cap the amount political parties can spend on advertising.
PETER HODGSON, NZ CABINET MINISTER: It became clear that the pamphlets were, first of all, factually wrong, so they told lies. These are not to do with opinions, these are to do with facts, and secondly, they were designed to deliver a change of government, because they were directed at the Labour Party and Greens.
The Brethren’s connection with the pamphlets was exposed in the final weeks of the election. National Party leader Don Brash dodged questions about the pamphlets.
REPORTER: Did they tell you about their plans for the pamphlet drop? Did they tell you anything about that?
DON BRASH: Thanks.
The next day he conceded he did have advance knowledge of the letter-boxing campaign.
DON BRASH: The Exclusive Brethren have told me some time back that they were thoroughly fed up with this government and they would be distributing some pamphlets.
EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN MEMBER: We’re fundamentalist Christians. We seek to live our life by the Bible.
Seven Brethren members held a press conference to defend their actions.
EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN MEMBER: We follow and we are influenced by our Christian beliefs but it is not an Exclusive Brethren church initiative.
A gleeful New Zealand media dubbed the church leaders ‘the Secret Seven’.
EXCLUSIVE BRETHREN MEMBER: We hold government to be ordained by God, and governments are raised up and also, might I add, dismissed by God.
PETER HODGSON: They bent the electoral laws so overtly that we will now have to change those laws.
Pete Hodgson says the Brethren spent $1.2 million on the campaign – 10 times more than any other independent group – and more than half the total cap any one party was allowed to spend.
PETER HODGSON: There has never been third party financing of that ilk in New Zealand electoral history – nothing like it.
Then, in September this year, a new scandal broke in New Zealand. It was revealed a Brethren member had hired private detectives to dig dirt on senior Labour figures.
WAYNE ILDOUR, PRIVATE DETECTIVE: I was asked to make inquiries into unlawful activities of the government, the Labour Party in general, to find out what I could and report back. It relates to the Prime Minister and some of the information relates to her husband.
HELEN CLARK, NEW ZEALAND PRIME MINISTER: The rumours put in the public arena are vile, baseless lies.
A furious Prime Minister Helen Clark accused the Exclusive Brethren of participating in a smear campaign alleging her husband was a homosexual.
PETER HODGSON: mean, that is simply creepy – to know that our homes and families were under surveillance because the Exclusive Brethren wanted them to be.
So what’s going on inside Brethren churches like this one? Why have members of a sect that has removed itself from society for 150 years – including banning voting – suddenly plunged head-long into politics? So I come here, to Auckland’s Massey University, to find out why politics, and why now. Here I meet Associate Professor Peter Lineham – himself raised within the wider Brethren community.
PETER LINEHAM, ASSOC. PROFESSOR, MASSEY UNIVERSITY: Well, it looks as though the Exclusive Brethren in some sense believe that the government of Bush and Howard and the like can appropriately protect their interests and the interests of Christendom, and only after that will there be the turmoil that will lead to the Rapture and the end of the world.
REPORTER: So George Bush and John Howard, in their eyes, are delaying the end of the world?
PETER LINEHAM: Yes, George Bush and John Howard in some sense fulfil God’s purposes.
REPORTER: And alternately they’d see Labour and especially the Greens as perhaps accelerating the end of the world?
PETER LINEHAM: Yes, very much so. I have it on pretty good authority that Exclusive Brethren throughout the world are fulminating about Greens policies which they see Greens as perfidious, they see them as evil in their very essence.
Well, if the Greens are evil, meet the ‘antichrist’.
SENATOR BOB BROWN, LEADER, AUSTRALIAN GREENS: The elders of the sect told me in this room that John Howard was the right, that is the righteous, leader of this country.
REPORTER: But what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with the Brethren being involved in politics?
BOB BROWN: There’s nothing wrong with any group becoming involved in politics and we welcome Christian, Muslim and other groups becoming involved, but the Exclusive Brethren are different – they’re secretive, they’re sneaky, they lie to the electorate, which has a right to be correctly informed on the way to the ballot box.
During the Tasmanian State election earlier this year, Brethren members wearing masks hauled anti-Green slogans through the streets of Hobart. And during the 2004 federal election they letter-boxed the State with these anti-Green pamphlets. They are, in many ways, identical to these pamphlets that almost delivered power to the National Party in New Zealand the next year.
PETER LINEHAM: This is a very surprising change of outlook for the Exclusive Brethren who would normally have had nothing to do with these concerns.
Peter Lineham says in recent years Brethren members have also been politically active in the United States, Canada and Sweden.
PETER LINEHAM: We can be absolutely confident that no step taken by the Exclusive Brethren in any part of the world would have been done without consultation beyond that. The whole nature of the Brethren, going right back through their whole history, involves that no group can act in isolation from other groups.
This is the Sydney business of Bruce Hales – the worldwide leader of the Exclusive Brethren. It was after his elevation in 2002 that Brethren members stepped up their political activity. John Howard and Peter Costello acknowledge they’ve met with Brethren leaders – and Brethren members financed this ad supporting John Howard at the last election. It begs the question – how much of its political agenda has the Brethren been able to achieve in Australia? This is an amendment to South Australia’s industrial laws passed last year, granting Brethren businesses exemption from union visits. It’s a similar story federally.
SENATOR BOB BROWN: The industrial relations legislation which the Howard Government put through the Parliament has an exclusion clause for the Exclusive Brethren, and they’ve been able to register 30 of their workplaces in Australia as a no-go zone for unions.
Dateline contacted the Brethren leadership in Sydney requesting an interview and faxing some preliminary questions. A week later we received a solicitor’s letter on behalf of the Brethren, stating: “the Exclusive Brethren did not spend any amount whatsoever in newspaper advertisements and pamphlets in last year’s New Zealand election, nor did it finance any anti-Green material in this year’s Tasmanian State election.”
The letter also refers to the incident when I was accosted while filming on public property outside the Brethren Church. “I am instructed that if there is any repetition of this conduct, I am to seek appropriate relief from the Court against you personally and SBS. This includes…applications for apprehended violence orders and an application for a restraining order…”
Ngaire Thomas knows all about the Exclusive Brethren. She wrote a book detailing her years as a church member back before she was excommunicated. Now she’s free to travel in her campervan, and indulge in other once-forbidden ‘sins’ – like owning a pet and listening to the radio.
NGAIRE THOMAS: I just love doing all the things I wasn’t allowed to do before. Freedom to make choices is an amazing thing, and once you’ve got that freedom, you don’t want to forfeit it, you don’t want to give it up for anything.
Ngaire believes the Brethren leadership is now setting up new financial structures to help fund its political activities.
NGAIRE THOMAS: I spoke to a Brethren some time ago who told me he had a fax machine. And I said to him “I thought you weren’t supposed to have fax machines?” And he said, “I don’t own it – I rent it off the National Office Assist”.
Ngaire has obtained this confidential document detailing the workings of the Brethren’s National Office Assist. It’s signed by Bruce Hales and other members of his inner circle. It clearly states one of its aims is to make money. “This initiative will help to provide for the future financial needs of the testimony…” As well as renting equipment to Brethren businesses, National Office Assist will: “provide confidential bookkeeping and accounting services… without reliance on unsatisfactory worldly subcontract services.”
National Office Assist is co-located with the office equipment supply business of Exclusive Brethren leader Bruce Hales. It would enable the Brethren leadership to know exactly how much money each Brethren business is making and, presumably, what size of donations they can afford.
CHRISTINE MILNE, GREEN SENATOR: And Mr Hales has the capability of receiving automatic admission to the board.
Greens Senator Christine Milne has raised the power of Bruce Hales and the role of National Office Assist in the Senate.
CHRISTINE MILNE: Mr Hales already seems to have ultimate authority in possibly hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of Exclusive Brethren companies, charities, trusts and enterprises on a worldwide basis. We now have a new initiative called the National Office Assist, which seems to be a global fiscal structure that controls the finances of all Exclusive Brethren businesses.
REPORTER: What sort of money are you talking about here?
NGAIRE THOMAS: Billions.
REPORTER: Billions? Billions of dollars?
NGAIRE THOMAS: Yeah, worldwide, that is.
REPORTER: Is there any evidence of that? How do you come to that number?
NGAIRE THOMAS: No, I don’t have hard evidence of it, but I can do my maths. I’m not too bad at adding things up.
MELANIE MORRISON, COLIN COSIER