ELEANOR HALL: As New Zealand’s election draws closer, an extreme religious group has been grabbing the headlines. Exclusive Brethren has produced glossy leaflets attacking the Greens and Labor across the Tasman.
But, it’s less well known that Exclusive Brethren’s world leader is an Australian, and that the sect has been operating here in recent federal elections.
So what is Exclusive Brethren, and what are the implications of intervention in national politics?
Toni Hassan has this report.
TONI HASSAN: It’s a religious group like no other.
JOHN WALLIS: I think it used to be a fringe, but now I think it’s developed in to a very dangerous cult.
TONI HASSAN: John Wallis from just outside Perth is a former member of Exclusive Brethren who was expelled, he says, for exposing corruption inside the group.
JOHN WALLIS: A group of people that operate in a hierarchical system where the members sell their minds to the hierarchy.
TONI HASSAN: The head of the hierarchy is known as the elect vessel or universal leader. The current leader is an Australian, Bruce Hales – a businessman who inherited the top job from his father, John Hales, after convincing membership of his leadership ability.
The Exclusive Brethren are one of the strands of the Protestant family that developed a separate identity in the early 19th century. It’s not the same as the Brethren or Open Brethren, though both groups share a common heritage, coming from J. Darby and the Christian Plymouth Brethren.
Members of Exclusive Brethren shun mainstream society and modern technology as evil. The list of bans have included everything from preventing women from cutting their hair, to banning pets.
Former member John Wallis believes there are 40,000 members scattered throughout the developed world, with around 8,000 members here in Australia.
JOHN WALLIS: We are God’s chosen, we are the ones… perhaps even more fundamental, that there is no others, but that’s a bit of double talk, because they would never admit to that, but the fact of the matter is that we can only associate, eat, do business with any more than a third party.
I mean, you can actually deal with the world, but you can actually be in business with anyone else except the Brethren.
TONI HASSAN: And they’re forbidden even to vote?
JOHN WALLIS: Yeah, but what sort of hypocrisy is what’s been going on in New Zealand?
TONI HASSAN: Yes, how do you explain their involvement there with a pretty glossy campaign targeted at the Greens and the Labor Party?
JOHN WALLIS: Oh, easily. The Lord has moved on. That would be their way of explaining it, yes, the Lord moves. I think the basic problem is, their God is crazy. In fact, he’s insane. In fact, you never know what he’s going to do next. This is really the mortar that keeps the bricks together.
TONI HASSAN: But is it not biblically based?
JOHN WALLIS: Absolutely not.
TONI HASSAN: And how would you speculate they were able to raise the half a million that’s gone in just for the New Zealand campaign?
JOHN WALLIS: Oh, easily. Mr Hales would just tell them what to do and they’d do it. They’ve got a bit of a mix there, but most of them are men that could put their hand in their pocket probably for half a million dollars each.
TONI HASSAN: Greens Senator Bob Brown this week questioned the role played by Exclusive Brethren in Australia, asking Special Minister for State, Eric Abetz, about the sect’s funding pamphlets backing Prime Minister John Howard last year.
Senator Brown says voters deserve to know the link-ups by which huge amounts of money from the Exclusive Brethren is being channelled into politics.
John Wallis is in no doubt the group is playing an increasingly pro-active role in local politics.
JOHN WALLIS: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
I’ve only just become aware of it more recently, but back as far as 1993, they had their finger in politics then distributing… I thought it was only one area, where there was a bit of an uncertain seat, where they distributed pamphlets, but they apparently distributed pamphlets in ’93 all through New South Wales supporting for Liberal.
TONI HASSAN: I guess it’s not illegal for any one group to spend thousands of dollars on an election campaign, targeting anyone with leaflets?
JOHN WALLIS: No, I wouldn’t see it as illegal, but why can’t these people be… I mean, I know why they can’t be straightforward, but why can’t they be straightforward and just say, hey, we’re the Exclusive Brethren, we’re not going to vote, but we want to influence the voting.
TONI HASSAN: Marion Maddox, senior lecturer in religious studies at Victoria University in Wellington. She says Exclusive Brethren’s intrusion into politics reflects a wider trend among Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
MARION MADDOX: Towards a movement for what they call Christian Government. It’s the idea that it’s no longer enough just to watch from the sidelines, but that there’s really a role for Christians in trying to get governments that reflect what they see as Christian values, which of course they’re not necessarily what all Christians see as Christian values – reducing taxation, reducing welfare, increasing defence spending and then with the kind of socially, morally conservative positions also.
TONI HASSAN: The World Today did try and speak to Exclusive Brethren’s leader, Sydney-based Bruce Hales, but was unsuccessful. Family members instead referred us to books and a website about the group.
ELEANOR HALL: Toni Hassan reporting.