Inside the Brethren lobby horse

Eureka Street, Australia/October 17, 2008

Bachelard, Michael; Behind the Exclusive Brethren. Scribe Publications, Australia, 2008

Australia's 15,000 Exclusive Brethren are easily recognised by their distinctive unworldly dress, especially in the rural areas where they are prominent. Many are involved in small business. One of the nation's structural landmarks, the gigantic metal flagpole astride Parliament House, was produced by a typical Brethren light industrial enterprise.

On the face of it, it seems the Brethren are simply a small business version of the agrarian Amish - reclusive and fundamentalist, but essentially industrious and harmless. But Michael Bachelard paints a different and thoroughly convincing picture in his readable and well researched investigation.

He focuses on Brethren efforts to secure favours from politicians and governments in Australia and New Zealand. Brethren members do not vote, but their lobbying efforts are extensive. Bachelard reminds us of their extraordinary involvement in the 2005 New Zealand election campaign where, in an attempt to establish a close working relationship with former opposition leader Don Brash, they ran anti-government advertisements that led to cries of foul play and eventually Brash's resignation.

The Brethren energetically and successfully cultivated a relationship with John Howard, from the earliest days of Howard's election to parliament. This secured them generous access to him while was prime minister. Kevin Rudd has made it clear he has no time for them, and they have 'gone quiet'. But they are expected to re-emerge when the political climate is more congenial.

There have been other exposes of the Brethren's involvement in politics, on the ABC's 4 Corners and elsewhere. But Bachelard's is the most thorough examination. It incorporates a history of the sect, a description of Brethren life, an analysis of the sect's involvement in politics, and details of the Brethren approach to education, marriage breakdown and dissent.

At the core of Brethren doctrine is a belief in separation. It pivots on a verse in Paul's second letter to the Timothy which requires Christians to 'withdraw from iniquity'. Friendships with 'worldlies' are forbidden, and social intercourse is limited to necessary contact such as business negotiations. The sect's current leader Bruce Hales said: 'Unless you come to a hatred of the world, you are likely to be sucked in by it.'

Bachelard details the Brethren response to family breakdown, and their relationship with the Family Law Act. In common with other sects, there is a high degree of tension when a non-sect parent wishes to have contact with their children who remain in the sect.

The Brethren resist scrutiny, and the release of Bachelard's magnum opus of investigative journalism will challenge their hierarchy, perhaps to the extent that they will understand why their energetic engagement with the body politic attracts scrutiny consistent with the value society places on transparency.

John GunsonJohn Gunson is a legal practitioner in rural NSW who has represented estranged Exclusive Brethren members in court cases against the sect.

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