Hard News by Russell Brown

Lying for the Lord?

Does it say somewhere in the Exclusive Brethren manual that church members should lie as they see fit? You have to wonder. Everyone's favourite secretive patriarchal sect has popped up again across the Tasman, this time denying a meeting between four of its representatives and the leader of the Victorian branch of the Australian National Party Peter Ryan - a meeting Ryan has already acknowledged took place.

Ryan has wisely backed off accepting money, but it seems that the sect will be funding a characteristically negative and deceptive pamphlet campaign in Australia. The leadership's line, as usual, is that it has no control over individual members who might get involved in political action. No one seriously believes this.

The New Zealand branch of the sect made the same claim when it emerged that the mysterious 'Green Delusion' pamphlet distributed last year was the Brethren's handiwork, and then that sect members had participated directly in the National Party campaign, erecting National billboards and distributing National's pamphlets alongside the Brethren's own, as well as having the children conduct clumsy push-polls on National's behaviour. Oh, and having a series of meetings that it took Dr Brash a few days to remember. It eventually emerged that the Brethren spent $1.2 million backing National, and only shrank from including a picture of Don Brash in a pamphlet when electoral authorities told them they couldn't do so without National having to declare the money as campaign expenditure.

The sect used a false address on one of the pamphlets to try and cover its tracks. One of its leaders told the press that the 'Green Delusion' pamphlets were entirely locally-generated and had no international connection - that turned out to be a lie too, when it became clear that the New Zealand pamphlets were a knock-off of those created to attack the Green Party in Tasmanian elections.

As Michael Carney pointed out on his blog, private individuals and organisations have every right to advocate in elections, and no law should abridge that right to speech. But I am also firmly of the opinion that the public has the right to know who's speaking.

I thought Chris Trotter had it right in this column earlier this month:

It's astounding how many New Zealanders have been falling over themselves to condemn the Labour Party for funding Helen Clark's pledge card out of the party leader's budget (as it has done in every election campaign since 1999) while brushing aside the Exclusive Brethren's extraordinary intervention as "yesterday's news", or - even worse - "trivial".

There is nothing trivial about a privately funded campaign budget of $1.2 million. The sum is without precedent in New Zealand political history. The campaign contributions of Labour's trade union affiliates pale into insignificance when placed alongside a war chest the size of the Exclusive Brethren's.

The largest affiliated union, the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, kicked in the princely sum of $60,000 for the 2005 campaign - the smaller affiliates, about half that.

All up, the trade unions would be lucky to have donated more than a tenth of the amount invested by the Brethren in making Don Brash New Zealand's next prime minister.

Nor should we ignore that the trade unions have never made a secret of their support for Labour. The money they donate is identified in their annual accounts. And the material they distribute on Labour's behalf (all of which is included in Labour's election return) carries the name and address of the union, or unions, responsible.

Recall how difficult it was to track down the identity of the people responsible for producing those pamphlets attacking Labour and the Greens during the election. Remember the security guard who greeted Jeanette Fitzsimons when she turned up at the address of the supposed authorising agent?

The "group of Christian businessmen" did not want to be known, and, had it not been for the public-spirited efforts of a handful of former members of the Exclusive Brethren Church, it is doubtful whether they could have been identified before election day.

These men had been very careful to hide their tracks - but that's not all they were very careful to do. As early as June 2005, they were in contact with David Henry, the chief electoral officer, seeking to discover how they could achieve their goal of "getting party votes for National".

National's spin on the Brethren, initially very defensive (Nick Smith forgot all about once describing the Brethren as "sinister" and "brutal" in Parliament and Chris Finlayson memorably ventured that political criticism of the Brethren was "rather like the pogroms launched by the Tsarist government against the Jews in Russia in the late nineteenth century") has moved on to a "we didn't want them anyway" message. But all the shouting about lies and corruption over the pledge card (and, once again, I think Labour needs to stop arguing with the referee and find a way to repay the spending) should be set against the ham-fisted but odious efforts at covert action on the other side.

In other Brethren news, No Right Turn has a post on the (covert, of course) intervention of the British-based Plymouth Brethren (who, it should be noted, are not quite the same thing as the EB, but have creepy views about the status of women and other things) in this week's elections in Sweden with a smear campaign. A Brethren member has admitted writing a letter to the Dom Post alluding to the Peter Davis slime. And … guess who owns the company that prints Investigate magazine? The Exclusive Brethren! Ian Wishart actually revealed as much himself in an editorial last year, so we should at least give him credit for that. I expect he gets a pretty good rate from his printers ... NB: Ian Wishart has been in touch (politely I might add) to say that his printing company is not EB-owned. My apologies, and my bad for not independently verifying something I was told by a reader. Consider the error corrected.

In the end, I don't think this is about the Brethren as much as it's about a fairly new conservative political axis in New Zealand - one by no means widely welcome even on the centre-right - that I'd like to know a bit more about. Who's in? How does it work? And who writes the cheques?

PS: Speaking of "corruption", Jordan Carter notes a fairly bizarre claim by Gerry Brownlee that National had never accused the Labour government of lying or corruption, and links to a speech last month in which Dr Brash said that "Helen Clark's Labour Government is quite simply the most corrupt government in New Zealand history." He also has Brash saying "I have never, to my knowledge, misled the New Zealand public," set against the news story in which Brash, having recovered his memory of the Brethren said "I certainly have to apologise for misleading the public." Not a scandal, but pretty funny.

PPS: If you are minded to send me an email telling me off for picking on decent religious folk, please read this story that ran in a Tasmanian paper last month. It's about a man called Mark Humber who left the Brethren (whose rules forbade him from, among other things, playing a musical instrument in a concert band) and whose access to his own family is now at the whim of church leaders. There are many more stories of abuse at Peebs.net. These people are bastards.