New Zealand’s government and opposition today turned on the secretive religious sect which is accused of spying on Prime Minister Helen Clark and her husband.
The Labour-led government said it’s looking at removing labour law exemptions for the Brethren, while opposition National Party leader Don Brash severed all links to the group under pressure from colleagues.
But Brash and his party are ahead in polls despite the controversy, one year after narrowly losing elections.
The morally conservative Brethren have attempted to influence elections in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, and allegedly hired detectives to dig up dirt on senior Labour government figures.
A private eye revealed last week he had been indirectly hired by the secretive sect to investigate Clark, her husband Peter Davis and others.
It’s believed the snooping is connected to unsubstantiated reports that Davis is gay, a suggestion both Clark and her husband have strongly denied.
Labour Minister Ruth Dyson today said she would considering getting rid of an exemption which gives Brethren-owned businesses the right to bar unions from workplaces.
The exemptions for religious groups are held by 649 employers, most of them members of the Brethren, Dyson said.
She said the law could be amended to end the practice because the organisation, whose members do not vote, could no longer claim to be outside mainstream political processes.
“Either their previous submissions that they were not involved in political activity were not correct, or they’ve changed their behaviour,” Dyson said.
“That certainly puts their situation – in light of their exemptions – as being worthy of reconsideration now.”
The spying allegations led Brash to cut ties with the Brethren, who spent $NZ500,000 ($A441,250) campaigning against Labour and the Green Party in last year’s national vote and held meetings with the opposition leader.
“Tomorrow I plan to tell my caucus colleagues that National wants nothing to do with anybody who tries to influence the political process in an underhand way – and that includes the Exclusive Brethren,” Brash said.
“They crossed the line, and National wants nothing to do with them. I think it’s important we make our distaste for this sort of behaviour crystal clear.”
Brash’s statement came despite admitting on the weekend he had met Brethren members since the election and not ruling out doing so again.
But pressure from National colleagues is believed to be behind his change of tune today.
“Today’s u-turn is a sign Dr Brash is not in control of his caucus. He should save himself further embarrassment and resign,” Labour government minister Pete Hodgson said.
But the scandal has not yet hurt National’s standing under Brash, with a weekend opinion poll giving the party an 11-point lead over Labour.
Clark pointed out that the survey was carried out before revelations about Brethren spying and Brash meeting with them.
“I think it’s a very volatile and dynamic political scene,” the prime minister told Television New Zealand.
However, another poll conducted over the weekend and released today gave National a lead of nearly eight points.
An election is not due for two years.