An election campaign already awash with allegations of covert agendas took a new twist yesterday with revelations that National leader Don Brash met members of a secretive religious group behind a costly anti-Government offensive.
For days Dr Brash has been distancing himself from the anti-Government, anti-Green literature financed by members of the Exclusive Brethren.
Seven members of the group owned up to the pamphlets yesterday, saying they were friends and businessmen who happened to be members of the church.
One of the group, Neville Simmons, said they had spent $500,000 on the campaign. More pamphlets would be circulated.
And inquiries last night suggest that members of the ultra-conservative group, traditionally apolitical, have been involved in a concerted drive to offer their services to MPs in the past few months, especially National ones.
They have been regular visitors to Parliament.
The disclosure of the meetings has given Labour fresh material for further allegations of covert agendas.
Prime Minister Helen Clark said it was impossible to believe National was not aware of the leaflets.
Dr Brash continued to deny any links to the literature yesterday, as did deputy leader Gerry Brownlee.
But Dr Brash then confirmed his recent meeting after Labour Minister Trevor Mallard claimed members of the Exclusive Brethren had been seen at Parliament “over quite a long period of time” and had not been meeting with Labour.
Dr Brash has already been dogged during the campaign by allegations of covert agendas and leaked emails of advice from Business Roundtable and Act officials.
He said the meeting with the Exclusive Brethren was for prayer.
“They just wanted to assure me they were praying for the National Party and praying for the leadership of the National Party.”
He cut short his press conference when asked again about the pamphlets.
Several National MPs contacted last night confirmed they had been approached by members of the group with offers of help with their campaigns – all of which had been declined.
National Party general manager Steven Joyce said through a spokesman that the party had not received donations from the church but it did not ask people’s religions when accepting donations.
The seven church members held a press conference at the Villa Maria Estate in Mangere, Auckland, to own up to the leaflets. They were: Neville Simmons, Timothy Lough, Douglas Watt, Phil Win, Greg Mason, Andrew Simmons, and Andy Smith.
They said the group had also met “nearly every MP in the country” in the past 18 months including New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, United Future leader Peter Dunne, and Act leader Rodney Hide.
National finance spokesman John Key had met members.
“In fact, the only leader of a party who has refused to have a formal meeting with us is Helen Clark,” Neville Simmons said.
The group said they were not representing the Exclusive Brethren church, but were a group of friends and businessmen who happened to be members and were “very alarmed at the deterioration of the country”.
Their sole aim was to promote and protect New Zealand on a sensible, economic basis.
Mr Watt said the group, in accordance with Exclusive Brethren ideals, would not be voting.
A former church member, author Ngaire Thomas, told NZPA yesterday the group had been visiting National Party members for months.
“But maybe the National Party don’t realise what an insidious group this is.”
In April the church had taken out two half-page “wake-up New Zealand” advertisements in newspapers.
“They’re a very wealthy group. they can well afford to.”
The church had backed the re-election of President George W. Bush in the United States and John Howard in Australia. This was the first election in New Zealand where they had been so vocal.
In New Plymouth yesterday, Helen Clark rejected comparisons between unions supporting Labour and the Exclusive Brethren supporting National.
The unions’ support of Labour was open and transparent and unions had been part of the Labour Party since it was formed in 1916.
“This was a covert, secretive wealthy organisation, known to support Republican right-wing causes in the United States which has swung in behind the National Party.”
Helen Clark said the secretive way the Exclusive Brethren went about the leaflets was what made it so disturbing.
“They put a name on a leaflet and made it look like an ordinary citizen.”
She said it was impossible to believe the National Party was not aware of the campaign.
VOTE OF NO CONFIDENCE IN DEMOCRACY
The seven Exclusive Brethren members funding a battle to roll the Government will not vote for its dismissal.
The reason is their strict beliefs forbid them exercising a democratic choice. The same rigid code prevents members forming friendships, or eating, with people outside the church – who are known as “worldlies”.
“Governments are raised up and dismissed by God. Our conscience would prevent us from voting,” said Douglas Watt.
“But if the country is in decline we feel we have to do something .”
Members had taken legal advice and all the material complied with the Electoral Act. Mr Watt, who in accordance with church rules was not wearing a tie, promised there would be further leaflets, “which will no doubt answer other questions”.
Peter Lineham, associate professor of history at Massey University and an Open Brethren church member, said he found the involvement “bizarre”.
“It’s a big, big blunder,” he said.
While the church tried to distance itself from the leaflet drop yesterday, saying individual members were responsible and it was not the view of the church, Professor Lineham said that was “complete nonsense”.
“Nobody has a mind or view independent of the church in the Exclusive Brethren. You couldn’t possibly have an independent mind from the church because that’s what you get excommunicated for.”
The Open Brethren member said he had family members in the Exclusive Brethren church: “They are completely closed off from the world.”