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Brash and the Brethren: The Real Problem

Letter from Elsewhere with Anne Else

Brash and the Brethren: The Real Problem

If you're reading this, you will certainly know by now that the Exclusive Brethren are running a hugely expensive anti-Green, anti-Labour, pro-National-in-everything-but-name leaflet smear campaign, which Don Brash has now belatedly admitted he knew about and enthusiastically welcomed. Two more leaflets are being delivered this week.

But many of those who read these leaflets will not be paying enough attention to the media to know that they are the work of the Exclusive Brethren. Even if they did know, they might not understand what this means. So it is entirely possible that this smear campaign will influence the election result - exactly as the Brethren and National's leader intended.

New Zealand has had very little experience of shadowy groups working very hard and spending a great deal of money to influence elections. What's more, this election campaign has been covered by many commentators as if it were merely some kind of "Political Idol" reality show. I guess that's why the issue of the Brethren's involvement itself has failed to excite much media interest, and had little in-depth coverage.

Brash's amazing dishonesty and even more amazing ineptitude over what he did and didn't know, and what connections he did or didn't have, with a group the Dominion Post has called the "Taleban" of the Christian world, is certainly very important. How anyone can continue to see him as fit to lead a major party, let alone become prime minister, is beyond me.

But bad though all this has been, it is not the worst feature of his behaviour, or of the whole affair. That centres on how Dr Brash appears to see his, and National's, involvement with this group. He repeatedly told the media, as he did over the leaked emails from ACT and the Business Roundtable, that many different groups come to see him, give him advice, and offer their help in "getting rid of this lousy government", and that the Exclusive Brethren are simply another one of those groups. He has tried to pass off their involvement in National's campaign as no different from the involvement of the unions on Labour's behalf - or rather less of a worry, because (as far as we know) journalists are not Brethren members.

The Exclusive Brethren certainly have been campaigning for National with a vengeance. The leaflet campaign is costing an amount equivalent to between a seventh and a quarter of National's entire campaign budget. Their members do nothing without the church's permission. It has now emerged that they have (with National's knowledge) also helped put up National billboards, delivered National campaign material, and even helped run National phone polls. There are reports that they have been engaged in "push-polling", where the caller responds to indications of support for the "wrong" party and leader (in this case, Labour and Helen Clark) by giving the impression that this is out of line with what other callers have been saying.
(Full story: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/event/story.cfm?c_id=1500891&ObjectID=10345035)

As even a quick Google search will confirm, covertly seeking to influence elections has recently become a consistent pattern for the Brethren in the USA, Canada, and Australia. In January, a Tampa paper, the St Petersburg Times, ran a story about their support for the Republicans that sounds eerily familiar:

"A mysterious committee backed by members of a secretive religious group whose members are forbidden to vote spent more than $500,000 on newspaper ads last year supporting President Bush and U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez. The Thanksgiving 2004 Committee raised the money from residents of 18 states, plus $377,262 from Bruce Hazell of London, England…The group of men who formed the committee belong to the Exclusive Brethren…Steve Truan, owner of a Knoxville map store, was listed as the contact person for the group, which formed just days before the November election [on 25 October, four days after the deadline for reporting pre-election campaign expenditures]. He said the group likes to "fly beneath the radar" and refused to talk about the ads, all of which were placed by a Knoxville advertising agency whose owners refused to answer questions. Calls to other members of the group were not returned…Both campaigns denied knowing anything about the committee or its members…"

"Placing the political ads is 'the first time I've known this to happen in the history of the movement,' says Ian Markham, professor of theology and ethics and dean of the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut [who was born into the Brethren, but his father took his family and left the group about 30 years ago.] Markham and others who have looked at the group say Bruce Hales, the Australian who is its international leader, may be encouraging some contact with the outside world…"
(Full story: http://www.sptimes.com/2005/01/18/news_pf/State/Veiled_sect_hails_Bus.shtml)

As Dr Brash must be well aware, the Exclusive Brethren are not just another group. So far are they from being "mainstream" that it seems inconceivable for any political party to welcome such significant support from them, any more than it would from, say, the National Front or the Ku Klux Klan.

So what is the real problem with what has emerged this week? It is that for Dr Brash (and, we must presume, other National Party strategists), the end justifies any means that are not expressly illegal.

He continues to deny that he lied to the media. He has now apologised for "causing confusion", and even (in the latest version) for "misleading" people. But not for anything else. And that is what frightens me most. He simply cannot see anything wrong with making use of extreme anti-democratic groups such as the Exclusive Brethren, whose members are not even permitted to vote, in order to win power.

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- Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via the Free My Scoop News-By-Email Service

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