NSW voters are not the only ones grappling with the intrusion into politics of mysterious – and sometimes extreme – religious groups.
Across the Tasman, New Zealanders have just learnt that an expensive, last-minute anti-Labour Government leaflet campaign is the work of the Exclusive Brethren, an arch conservative group who are forbidden to vote, eschew worldly issues and even technology.
Led by an Australian, Bruce Hales, it was revealed in the United States last year that the group spent more than $500,000 on just three newspaper ads – including a full-page advertisement in The New York Times – in support of the President, George Bush, and US Senate candidate Mel Martinez, an advocate of traditional marriages.
The New Zealand leaflets, which also contained strong anti-Greens statements, are estimated to have cost more than $110,000 to print and distribute and emerged publicly this week. Despite initial denials from party officials, the National leader, Don Brash, admitted yesterday that he was aware the material was being prepared by sect members but insisted he had no involvement with their content.
“I knew they were going to issue some pamphlets attacking the Government and I said, ‘That’s tremendous’. I’m delighted about that because the Government’s lousy and should be changed,” he said on radio.
The appearance of Exclusive Brethren on the campaign hustings has sparked a wave of public debate in New Zealand, as very little is known about the group apart from information gleaned from former and excommunicated members.
One former church member, John Wallis, told The New Zealand Herald that the group’s entry onto the political stage was the work of Bruce Hales, who took over as leader in 2002 when his father, John, died.
He said Mr Hales told members before the US and Australian elections last year that if President Bush and John Howard were not returned to power, “the rapture”, or end of the world, would be near: “They have been very politically active in the last few years since Bruce Hales has been involved.”
With just nine days to the election, Helen Clark’s Labour Government and the National Party, led by former Reserve Bank governor and businessman Don Brash, appear to be neck and neck, with opinion polls suggesting a cliff-hanger result.