The federal attorney-general’s department has been placed under the microscope over its dealings with members of the controversial religious group, the Exclusive Brethren.
The move follows reports last year that the secretive sect asked the head of the Family Court to treat their domestic legal disputes differently.
Labor’s Chris Evans asked department heads in Senate estimates hearings today for details of correspondence from the organisation to the department over the federal government’s recent package of family law reforms.
He also queried whether Attorney-General Philip Ruddock had ever met with the group’s representatives to discuss the legislation or whether the department had ever provided advice to Mr Ruddock on family law and how it would affect groups such as the Brethren.
Department representatives told Senator Evans that Mr Ruddock had received submissions from the Brethren on the issue of family law, but were unable to give details.
They said they would get back to the senator on the issue of whether or not Mr Ruddock had ever met with members of the religious group.
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However, Justice and Customs Minister Chris Ellison confirmed under questioning from Greens leader Bob Brown that he had met with members of the organisation on two occasions, once in Canberra and once in his Perth electorate office.
“I had a meeting with representatives from the Exclusive Brethren in Canberra … I had one in Canberra and one in my electorate office,” Senator Ellison told the Senate hearing.
He said he recalled that both meetings were about a “customs processing” matter.
Senator Ellison said he would get back to the Senate committee with the names of the Brethren representatives with whom he had met.
Prime Minister John Howard revealed last year he had met with members of the sect.
The Exclusive Brethren is said to boast about 40,000 members worldwide – many based in New Zealand and Australia. It has been accused of underhanded campaigning against the Greens at the 2004 federal election and subsequent state polls.
The group came under the spotlight last year when NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark accused it of running a smear campaign against her and fuelling rumours her husband was gay.
Brethren members shun contact with the modern world, and are barred from going to university or having TVs, radios, personal computers and mobile phones.
It was reported last year that on two occasions, the Brethren lobbied chief justice Alastair Nicholson to treat their Family Court cases differently because of the group’s beliefs.