ELEANOR HALL: After emerging at the last federal election, the secretive Christian sect, the Exclusive Brethren, is now accused of being behind a number of controversial political campaigns, both in Australia and across the Tasman.
The group is alleged to have donated thousands of dollars to the Liberal and National parties at the Tasmanian election earlier this year, then yesterday, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark accused the group of hiring private detectives to dig dirt on her family.
And now it seems the Exclusive Brethren are attempting to play a behind-the-scenes role in the upcoming Victorian election
Daniel Hoare reports from Melbourne.
DANIEL HOARE: Exclusive Brethren is an intensely secretive religious organisation, which shuns not only publicity, but modern society itself. The group believes modern technology is evil and it bans everything from women cutting their hair to its members keeping household pets.
It’s estimated Exclusive Brethren has around 40,000 members worldwide, 8,000 of whom are in Australia. The group’s universal leader, known as the Elect Vessel, is Australian businessman, Bruce Hales.
Exclusive Brethren has caused a political storm across the Tasman in recent days. Only yesterday, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark accused the group of muckraking, peddling what she refers to as “vile, baseless” rumours.
Helen Clark alleges that Exclusive Brethren hired private investigators to trawl through her private affairs. The Brethren-inspired rumours, she says, have included fuelling publicity questioning the sexuality of her husband, Peter Davis.
Australian Greens Senator, Christine Milne, says the group played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Tasmanian election in March as well as the 2004 federal election.
CHRISTINE MILNE: They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting the conservative side of politics and acting as attack dogs on the Greens. They did it in the federal election, they did it in the Tasmanian election, they’ve done it New Zealand, and they will do it again in next year’s federal election, and in the Victorian election.
DANIEL HOARE: Evidence has now emerged that Exclusive Brethren is indeed attempting to influence the Victorian election. The Victorian National Party leader, Peter Ryan, says he met with four members of Exclusive Brethren recently to discuss a range of policy issues.
Mr Ryan says he shares many of the Brethren’s views, including an opposition to abortion “on demand” as well as gay unions.
He insists the Victorian Nationals have never taken donations from Exclusive Brethren, but he hasn’t ruled out the possibility.
PETER RYAN: I meet with a lot of groups from all sorts of backgrounds. Anybody who wants to come and meet me is entitled to do so, and…
DANIEL HOARE: Have you ever taken financial help from this group?
PETER RYAN: Never.
DANIEL HOARE: If they offered a political donation, would you take it?
PETER RYAN: Well, it’s a matter for our party administration that looks after those issues.
DANIEL HOARE: Are you concerned at all about some of the allegations against this group, particularly in New Zealand?
PETER RYAN: Well, I knew nothing of that, and in as much as anybody indulges in that activity, I think it is absolutely abhorrent. I’ve no interest in any such thing at all, and I would decry anybody who did any such thing to anybody of any political persuasion.
DANIEL HOARE: So despite the fact that they are being implicated in this type of behaviour, that doesn’t concern you, you will still give them… you will still open your door to listen what they’ve got to say?
PETER RYAN: Well, you’re making a nexus, which is unfair. I did not know of the activity which you now describe, and to the extent that anybody indulges in that, I abhor it.
DANIEL HOARE: Would you be at all embarrassed now, that you have met with them, and you didn’t know about this type of€¦
PETER RYAN: No, not at all. I don’t pretend for one moment to be the font of all wisdom or knowledge about the activities of people in the community. Some weeks ago, these four gentlemen came to me with a request to have a conversation with me about policy matters generally, and to add to certain aspects and some aspects of social policy and my beliefs.
DANIEL HOARE: Victoria’s National Party leader, Peter Ryan, concedes that his social policy stance will put the party even further at odds with its former Coalition partner, the Liberals.
State Liberal leader Ted Ballieu has taken a progressive stance on issues of abortion and gay rights, which has caused much friction within his own party.
Greens Senator Christine Milne says there’s no doubt that Exclusive Brethren is targeting Victoria’s Upper House at the upcoming election, now that its make-up will be decided by proportional representation.
CHRISTINE MILNE: Whoever controls the Upper House, or has balance of power in the Upper House, will have considerable influence on what gets through, in terms of the legislative program of the Government.
And that is where the Exclusive Brethren will be using their influence to try and get the most conservative people in the National Party elected to the Upper House.
DANIEL HOARE: The World Today tried to contact Exclusive Brethren but was unable to find either a phone number or email address.
ELEANOR HALL: Daniel Hoare in Melbourne.