Prime Minister John Howard revealed this week he had met members of the fundamentalist religious group but refused to disclose any details on the grounds that the meeting was confidential.
It took 11 months for him to disclose the encounter after the Greens Party lodged a query under freedom of information laws late last year.
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He defended the Brethren as a conservative Christian group with reasonable views and every right to its tax-free status.
“I’ve met a lot more fanatical people in my life than the Exclusive Brethren,” Howard said.
The sect’s abstention from voting in a country in which casting a ballot is compulsory was valid, he said.
His deputy and likely successor, Treasurer Peter Costello, also defended the movement, which espouses ultra-conservative social policies.
Ignoring the furore surrounding the Exclusive Brethren in New Zealand, Costello insisted the group was “just a religion that is not as well-known” as the Catholic Church or the Church of Scientology.
But those assurances are sharply at odds with the warnings of former Brethren members who are campaigning to expose a movement they describe as manipulative and reactionary.
“I regard them as dangerous and a force to be reckoned with,” said Ngaire Thomas, 63, a former New Zealand member of the sect who lives in Australia and has written a book about her experiences.
“They are using the same tactics on the world at large as they’ve used on their own people over the last 40 years. What we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg. They see themselves as God’s chosen people but they are the biggest liars on earth.”
The leader of the Greens Party, Bob Brown, called the reclusive group a “radical and devious sect” and said Howard should clarify the exact nature of his association with it.
“Here we have a Prime Minister who, much like Don Brash, refuses to say when and where he met the Brethren,” Brown said yesterday.
“My information is that the Exclusive Brethren have had extensive meetings or conversations with a whole range of ministers in Canberra.
“They campaigned against the Greens and told straight-out lies about our policies. It’s a pattern we’re seeing in all the English-speaking democracies.”
The concern is not that a fundamentalist group like the Exclusive Brethren is becoming involved in politics, but that they try to do so anonymously and put out political advertisements without clear attribution.
The Greens proposed a Senate inquiry into the Brethren this year, but the motion was voted down. They allege the Brethren ran a clandestine campaign against them during the 2004 federal election and a state election in Tasmania in March this year, funding pamphlets and newspaper advertisements.
“This secret sect puts a huge amount of money into changing the outcomes of elections, but never allows itself to be identified,” said Christine Milne, from the Tasmanian Greens.
The Brethren are also at the centre of a political row in Victoria, where residents go to the polls in November.
Politicians from the conservative National and Liberal parties have admitted they have met Brethren members, defending the movement’s interests as “part of the democratic process”.
The head of the Nationals in Victoria, Peter Ryan, denied his party had been offered funds by the Brethren. But he said National was united with the Brethren in opposition to same-sex marriage.
There is also disquiet in New South Wales, where an election will be held next year. The state’s Greens Party fears it will be the target of a Brethren-funded smear campaign in the months leading up to the poll in March.
“We’d be expecting an attack considering what happened in Tasmania, New Zealand and to a lesser extent, South Australia,” said Greens MP Lee Rhiannon.
“We think they’ll be up to some form of dirty tricks – maybe they’ve already got private investigators out there checking on us.”
Conservative political parties should disassociate themselves from the movement.
“We’re used to the rough-and-tumble of politics, but this is a whole new bag of dirty tricks and they’re not appropriate here.”
The Brethren claim 40,000 members worldwide, around half of whom live in Australia and New Zealand.
The world leader of the sect is an accountant from Sydney, Bruce Hales, who is known as the Man of God, or the Elect Vessel. He took over the leadership from his father, John Hales, also an accountant, in 2002.
In the 2004 federal election, a newspaper advertisement endorsing Howard was authorised by S. Hales, Bruce’s brother. But there was nothing to clearly identify it as being associated with the Brethren.
The movement is deeply conservative and reclusive to an almost paranoid degree.
Women and girls are expected to be subservient to their husbands and fathers. Contact with the outside world is kept to a minimum. Members are not allowed to have televisions, radios, personal computers or mobile phones.
They are prohibited from going to university and are not allowed to vote.
Kevin Rudd, a front bencher with the main opposition Labor Party, said he was vexed by the fact that the Brethren discourage children from using computers and other technology.
“I have real reservations having federal taxpayers’ money going into those sorts of schools,” he said.
Children at Brethren schools were brainwashed and ill-equipped to deal with the modern world, several former teachers told the Australian this month. Books were censored and strict control maintained over what pupils were allowed to read.
“One science book had all the chapters on reproduction cut out,” a teacher told the paper. “Most modern texts were banned.”
The chief executive of a Brethren school in Hobart, Tasmania, said many modern novels were banned because they were “contrary to the truth of scripture”.
The sect has 31 schools in Australia, with nearly 4000 pupils. The schools receive A$20 million ($23 million) a year in government money – funding which is now being questioned by some opposition MPs.
The Brethren first emerged on the political scene in Australia during the 2004 federal election, when members heckled Andrew Wilkie, an intelligence whistle-blower who stood against Howard in the Prime Minister’s Sydney constituency.
The sect has claimed that any campaign literature which appeared in support of conservative parties was the work of individual members.
But the fact that their rhetoric has been nearly identical in elections in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, suggests it is part of a well co-ordinated campaign.
The Australian Electoral Commission is deliberating on whether the Brethren broke electoral rules by failing to declare their expenditure during the 2004 campaign.
Founded in Dublin in the 19th century, the Protestant movement’s rigid belief system and cruel treatment of some ex-members is as controversial as its political activities.
In the 1960s the Brethren’s leadership decreed that members could not be married to non-members. Families were ripped apart, husbands and wives forbidden to see each other and children estranged from their parents.
Dissenting members were excommunicated or, in Brethren terminology, “withdrawn from”. Shattered by their treatment, some members have committed suicide.
By working hard and eschewing luxuries, the Brethren have amassed vast sums of money. In an ABC TV documentary this week, former members alleged the group avoided paying tax by smuggling cash into countries.
“It was totally illegal,” said Ron Fawkes, a former Brethren leader.
Another former leader, Selwyn Wallace, whose life was turned upside down by his involvement with the Brethren, said: “These people claim to represent Christianity in its purest form, but you look at the history stretching back 30 or 40 years, and it’s just carnage – broken families, broken lives, children who don’t know their parents, brothers and sisters who haven’t seen each other for 20, 30 years.
“If we don’t speak out, the wheels of pain will just keep turning.”
The Greens are bracing themselves for a renewed campaign of attack in the next federal election, due by the end of next year.
In a meeting with Brethren elders this year, Brown, who is gay, was told that homosexuality was “completely and utterly wrong” and “against God”.
“I have no doubt I will be a prime target,” said Brown.
“They are a homophobic, misogynistic sect. But the veil of secrecy is being lifted.
“There’s a lot more yet to come into the public arena about the Brethren’s activities.”