Senate debates

Tuesday, 15 August 2006


Community Affairs References Committee; Reference

4:04 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move the motion as amended:

That the following matters be referred to the Community Affairs References Committee for inquiry and report by 8 November 2006:

The role of the Exclusive Brethren in:

family breakdown and psychological and emotional effects related to the practice of excommunication or other practices;
Australian politics and political activities, including donations to political parties or other political entities and funding specific advertising campaigns;
the receipt of funding from the Federal Government or other political entities;
taxation and other special arrangements or exemptions from Australian law that relate to Exclusive Brethren businesses;
special arrangements and exemptions from Australian law that relate to Exclusive Brethren schools, military service and voting; and
any related matters.

The Exclusive Brethren is an extreme religious sect which has now existed for almost 200 years and has some 40,000 members around the world, slightly fewer than 15,000 of whom are in Australia. Its founding principle was to remove itself from the world because the world was essentially evil and beyond redemption. Everybody else in the world, described as ‘worldlies’, was to be kept at a distance. In the evolution of time since the 1820s, the Exclusive Brethren has eschewed politics and prohibited its members from voting and from military service. It has been quite rigorous about this. It saw politics as the domain of God, as a place for ‘worldly’ people and as something it ought to keep out of. But in the 1990s events changed. Under a series of world leaders of the Exclusive Brethren, the sect has decided to become involved in politics. It will of course say that its members have become involved, not itself, but the two are indistinguishable.

I have called for a Senate inquiry to look into the Exclusive Brethren because, as a consequence of that intrusion into political affairs—which happens to be global—a great deal of suffering amongst people who are at the interface between the Exclusive Brethren and the rest of the world has been drawn to my attention. There is extraordinary suffering amongst those people who are involved, and I think it is a matter that of itself warrants looking at. This is not, by far, the first time attention has been drawn to the Exclusive Brethren in parliament. In summary, the brethren’s current head, a claimed descendant of St Paul called the ‘Elect Vessel’, is a secretive man named Bruce Hales who lives in Sydney, in the seat of Bennelong. Mr Hales took over as the Elect Vessel of the Exclusive Brethren after the death of his father, John Hales, who preceded him in that office.

The fact is that as the sect has become wealthy it has determined that it should get involved in politics. Marion Maddox, a professor at a New Zealand university who is an expert in the relationship between religion and politics, points to an apparent change within the Exclusive Brethren from being totally divorced from public affairs to becoming involved on the basis of extreme right Christian fundamentalism in the United States, which says that Christianity must take over the governance of the world before the return of Christ. That means, of course, a theocracy.

The logic is that there will be an increasing intervention by the Exclusive Brethren, which former prominent British parliamentarian Tony Benn described as ‘an exclusive priestly caste claiming a monopoly right to speak on behalf of the Almighty’. The move is for this priestly caste—and the members are all men, because women are seen as second-rate in this sect—to have an increasing influence in politics. One cannot mind that so much by itself because we are a democracy and we welcome the involvement of everybody. But it is the secretiveness, the clandestine way in which the Exclusive Brethren has involved itself in global politics—not least in our own country—that warrants looking at it, because transparency is absolutely essential to the health of a democracy. It is essential for people to know what is going on and who is influencing the decision-making process in our democracy.

A person speaking on behalf of the Exclusive Brethren in the United States, where they moved to support the campaign of the current President, George W Bush, said that they like to fly beneath the radar—that is, they like to become involved in political affairs but not to be discovered to be doing so. The military analogy can be followed to the conclusion that they like to be able to support or damage components of a political contest in a democracy without being seen to do so. That is inimical to the health of any democracy. This inquiry is—

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A witch-hunt.

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The senator opposite can say what he likes, but this inquiry is an outcome of the Exclusive Brethren’s own activities.

Government Senators:

Government senators interjecting

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The government benches are going to object to this all day because the government has manifestly benefited from having the Exclusive Brethren as a benefactor. That is why it does not want an inquiry. We will see that play itself out later in the day.

It is worth looking at what the Prime Minister of New Zealand said just yesterday, as she moved in a debate to replace secret donations with public funding. She was talking about the National Party—the equivalent of the government here, but they are in opposition in New Zealand. She said that they had received vast amounts of money from the Exclusive Brethren and very large corporates. She was talking about the election last year. It is on the record now that in the last New Zealand election the Exclusive Brethren were working from a template taken from the Tasmanian elections in a campaign to bring down the Labour government, and against the Greens nationally, without telling anybody that they were there. It was discovered that the leader of the National Party had had talks with the Exclusive Brethren. He at first denied this but was forced to acknowledge it in the run-up to the election. That was a key factor in the National Party losing the election in New Zealand, because people do not like to be lied to. They do not like to be deceived and they do not like financiers moving in on elections without declaring who they are.

In Australia the Exclusive Brethren have been active for quite a long time. It was interesting to read in the Sunday Tasmanian of 13 August—last Sunday—under the heading ‘Ex-Brethren back probe’, that former members back this motion before the Senate today. The article says:

A former high-ranking member of the Exclusive Brethren is urging all Australians to support Greens senator Bob Brown’s move for an inquiry into the sect.

The article refers to a Mr Mark Humber, who was an ex-Brethren preacher. It says:

Mr Humber, now of Launceston, said the inquiry was needed to investigate the Brethren’s tax breaks for places of public assembly even though the meeting rooms are closed to outsiders and the sect’s growing involvement in politics.

Australians should be very concerned about the influence the Exclusive Brethren now has on politics, Mr Humber said.

The Brethren are a minority with only about 15,000 members in Australia, but they are learning the political game and they have the money.

Australians need to be aware that when they see Exclusive Brethren political advertising they are advertisements which are being run by a small group whose values they may not share.

I interpolate there to say that the Exclusive Brethren membership—and this includes all women, who have no say in this process—is a male hierarchical group. They make decisions—Senator Milne will have a little more to say about this in a moment—which are not representative, not canvassed and not politically discussed or voted upon within the Exclusive Brethren itself. I go back to the article.

Mr Humber said the Brethren started becoming politically active as far back as 1993 .

They have been behind the scenes for a long time, but until the 1990s lobbying was the group’s main source of political clout—

I note this—

and they were very active in getting laws passed or stopped.

Mr Humber said the lobbying turned into direct support during John Hewson’s 1993 GST campaign. The Brethren put a lot of money, possibly millions, into pro-GST ads because they thought Hewson wasn’t selling it well enough.

Who knew about that in this country? But here is a man from inside the sect who has come to the outside, at great personal cost, enormous personal cost, which no human being in a democracy should have to do, to reveal what has been going on for more than a decade.

He said he knew of Tasmanian Brethren who paid for full-page advertisements.

Yet afterwards everyone involved had to publicly confess to wickedness for doing it, even though the money was requested from up the Brethren chain.

Another former Tasmanian member of the Brethren, Peter Edwards, said he too remembered the campaign.

There was a stage about 10 years ago where people were putting ads in newspapers supporting the Liberal Party during an election campaign and then had to turn up in church and confess to doing the wrong thing ...

In the Launceston congregation we thought they were getting direction from the top and they thought so too. I don’t know why they are getting involved in politics but I know they are dead against unions and love the new workplace law reforms.

And, so it goes on.

Government Senators:

Government senators interjecting

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

A member opposite asked, ‘What is wrong with that?’ The question is: how much money has been flowing from the Exclusive Brethren to the Liberal Party and to other political entities? I have asked the Electoral Commission to look into the Exclusive Brethren’s very big role in the last election campaign, and they have yet to report although it is 18 months down the line. What we do know is that there is extensive advertising by the members of the Exclusive Brethren in Bennelong—in the Prime Minister’s own seat, where the Elect Vessel lives—and Parramatta, and members of the extended family of the Elect Vessel were directly involved in the election campaign.

There was also state-wide advertising in Tasmania—not declared to be coming from this very narrow-minded and focused political sect but as if it were part of an unnamed entity coming from a direction other than this exclusive church. The question is: what is the return that comes to the Exclusive Brethren, this group which bans its members from fiction novels, magazines, tapes, CDs, radios, TVs, videos, stereos and reading the Australian newspaper? It has enforced, according to the Sunday Tasmanian, that women must sit behind the men in church, only church leaders can give permission to marry and single women may work provided they have no authority over men but married women may not.

The fact is that the Liberal government opposite is in full voice today because it has something to hide and the government members do not want this put to public scrutiny. It is part of the control of the Senate and it says, ‘We are going to defend our interests and our connections between the very powerful and wealthy members of this sect and government operatives.’ We know that in the run-up to the Tasmanian elections, the convenor of the election campaign for the Liberals met with Exclusive Brethren members in Tasmania and a multithousand dollar advertising campaign against the Greens took place in the last election. Embedded in that advertising campaign were direct lies to and deception of the voters of Tasmania on their way to the ballot box.

Here is a sect which should read the ninth commandment: thou shalt not bear false witness. But it is absolutely on the record—and it is not just in this country but elsewhere—that the sect is involved in direct and premeditated influencing of the electorate to deceive voters on the way to vote in the election. I ask this Senate: if we should not investigate that then where do we leave democracy? With what vulnerability do we leave democracy?

I will read a tract from an ex-member—and many ex-members of this sect have horrible stories to tell about the excommunication from families simply because they no longer believed in what the leaders of the sect were doing. These are good people. They are Christians. They are people who believe in leading a good life but they have been vilified simply because they do not agree with what the leaders of this now politically involved sect is doing. The ex-member says:

The trauma of my actual leaving my home and parents has remained with me to this day—38 years hence. I had to pack up my belongings surreptitiously and get away while my parents were out at an Exclusive Brethren meeting. I saw my mother 3 weeks after I left to pick up some more of my belongings and the sight of the physical change in her appearance due to her heartbreak at losing me is something I don’t even have to close my eyes to feel and see—it is burned into my soul. At that stage I had 3 of my siblings and about a dozen nieces and nephews in the sect. I never saw them again. It had taken the 9 months of planning to achieve my escape, and I was skin and bone. All these years later, I am still thankful I had the courage to do it—

Government Senators:

Government senators interjecting

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The gentlemen opposite might listen to what this poor woman has so bravely put into writing. She continues:

I have never had any regrets about the path I have chosen, i.e. to live a life outside this sect. However, the sadness of being separated from my family has also never left me, it is cruel in the extreme that an innocent young girl in her 20s could be so punished and traumatized just because of not seeing eye to eye with their beliefs.

Subsequently, the Exclusive Brethren excommunicated my father when he was in his late 70s. They forced my mother to leave him and go and live with one of my siblings. They would deny this happened, they would say my mother made her own decision, but they would be lying. My father had committed no sin, other than not agreeing with one of their edicts concerning their vile leader at the time, James Taylor of New York. My father’s heart was literally broken, and he tried continuously until his death to get back into the Brethren and to try and be re-united with his wife. I took on the responsibility of his care, and he ended his life in a nursing home, and died of a stroke, a broken-hearted old man of 82. He grieved daily and any attempts at contact were rebuffed, they even sent a horrible Solicitor’s letter to him warning him not to attempt to contact his wife ... he was destroyed. I made several unsuccessful attempts to contact my mother during those years.

And so on, in a letter where she states she was not even told when her mother died and therefore could not attend her funeral. That is one of many attestations to a deplorable situation which led in Britain to a private member’s bill to protect children from what goes on in this sect. (Time expired)

4:24 pm

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

This motion from Senator Bob Brown to inquire into the Exclusive Brethren is not supported by the Labor Party. It has very wide-ranging terms of reference which seek to inquire into all manner of things concerning a private organisation—in this case, a religious organisation. Nevertheless, it is an independent, private organisation—one not controlled by government and not controlled by the parliament. We do not think that is an appropriate role for the Senate to undertake.

We are aware of the publicity surrounding the activities of the Exclusive Brethren. We are aware of some fairly serious allegations about some of that activity and that that has attracted a great deal of media attention. We in this parliament, and certainly those of us in the Labor Party, do not believe we are in a position to make a judgement on those allegations. They are clearly issues that ought to be pursued in appropriate forums if people have concerns.

The key point for us in this debate is not to make a judgement about the Exclusive Brethren because that is a question for others to judge if complaints are made. The key point for us relates to the role of the Senate and the inquiry functions of this chamber. Traditionally, we have seen our role as investigating and inquiring into matters of public policy and public administration—issues that the parliament of Australia ought to be treating seriously and issues that relate to how the government expends its moneys and runs its programs et cetera. That has generally been our practice. By providing that function, I think, the Senate has served the parliament and Australian democracy well.

I think it is a step too far for us to launch an investigation into a particular organisation that is outside of government, be it a religious organisation or any other form of organisation. I think it would set a bad precedent. I am not sure that Senator Brown understands where he takes us and whether, given a government-controlled Senate, that is an advisable path to go down. Senator Abetz complains loud and long about some organisations, and it might occur to him on a future occasion to inquire into them. Anyone who does not support the government is the subject of ridicule and abuse from people like Senator Abetz. I do not know that Senator Brown would welcome Senator Abetz starting a witch-hunt into organisations of which Senator Abetz is a critic. I am not saying Senator Abetz is intending to, but I think that the reality of the government majority in the Senate ought to make Senator Brown think very carefully. The Labor Party, having been the subject of the misuse of power by this government in terms of its use of royal commissions, knows only too well the potential for that abuse. The Labor Party is trying to look at this in the context of the principles that should be followed and the appropriate role for the Senate. Any enthusiasm one might have for a particular organisation being investigated by the Senate ought to be tempered by consideration of the principles the Senate ought to pursue, its function and the appropriateness of what the Senate is doing.

I understand there is no recent precedent for a Senate committee conducting a targeted inquiry into a particular body, particularly a religious body. Our issues are those of public policy and public administration, and from time to time those take us to questions of the roles of various organisations. When we had the very successful inquiries into child migrants, children in care and the stolen generation, those inquiries took us to questions of the administration of care by religious organisations. That was an appropriate public policy issue because it went to the treatment of children in care and the treatment of Indigenous people in this country. And it just so happened that the people administering that care on behalf of government or the community were religious organisations. Their activities were legitimately part of the process of examining those issues. But it was not an examination of the Catholic Church or the Salvation Army; it was an examination of the issues pertaining to the treatment of those children. So I think the basis on which we traditionally operate is very different from what is proposed here.

It is also, I think, more than appropriate for people to look at how public funds are administered. For instance, the churches are huge recipients of public funding through hospitals, aged care et cetera, and it is perfectly appropriate for Senate committees to inquire into how that money is spent, what rules are applied, whether we are getting good value for money, and how those people acting on behalf of the Commonwealth are providing services. Recently we had the question of grants made to the Hillsong Church. It was perfectly appropriate for senators to pursue how those grants were made, whether they were made in accordance with proper practice, and whether the money was administered properly—not because it was a church but because this was Commonwealth money. It is perfectly appropriate for senators and Senate committees to pursue those accountability measures.

Senator Bob Brown’s motion makes no attempt to disguise the fact that this is a reference for an inquiry into a religious organisation. I do not think that is an appropriate use of the Senate’s time, nor would it be seen as an appropriate role for us. We are not a quasi-investigative body. We are not responsible for investigating allegations into the activities of a particular body. I think if we go down that path it would be a very slippery slope. As one of my staff said to me, ‘Next they’ll want an inquiry into the activities of a gay and lesbian group or a trade union, or into the ACF.’ People of different persuasions will have different targets, but the question you have to ask yourself is: is this a proper function of the Senate?

I think there are a range of areas where the concerns that Senator Brown seeks to give voice to could be pursued, but I do not think the Senate is the proper place. If there are concerns about illegality, mistreatment of people or people being held against their will et cetera, those are matters for the police authorities. They are not matters for this chamber. We have no capacity to judge the quality of evidence; we are not a court. So people ought to take those concerns, if they have them, to the police, and we would encourage them to do so.

If there are concerns about the funding of political campaigns, they ought to be raised in the first instance with the AEC. The Australian Electoral Commission is responsible for ensuring proper disclosure and that people’s activities meet normal electoral law requirements. I would hope that the AEC is ensuring that that occurs. Senator Brown raises some concerns, and I hope the AEC has taken those seriously. I must say in passing that I find it a bit strange that an organisation of people who do not vote would be interested in campaigning. At first blush, I thought, ‘Well, that doesn’t sound terribly consistent.’ But I have no personal knowledge of those matters. It seems to me that the relevant body is the AEC, to which any complaints should be made. Similarly, if there are concerns about taxation or financial matters, the first place to start is with the ATO, the Australian Taxation Office.

As for suggestions of federal funding, Commonwealth money, being paid to organisations, that is why we have the estimates committee process. It is perfectly reasonable for senators to pursue those issues there. I would expect Senator Bob Brown, if he has concerns of that nature, to follow those through in estimates. At this stage, the estimates process is still available to senators, although I would not bet my last dollar on that lasting the length of this government. But it is the case that some of these issues can be pursued in that process.

In terms of the arguments about treatment under law, I would just make the point that we are the parliament: we draft the laws, we pass the laws. If there are concerns about how the Exclusive Brethren or any other group is treated under current law, we ought to seek to amend the law. We ought to have a parliamentary debate about that. So, in terms of the application of the law, again I think there are avenues available to senators to pursue those matters.

Effectively, for the matters that are serious, there are relevant authorities. Some of those involve us; senators already have the capacity to pursue some of the issues contained in Senator Brown’s motion. I do treat very seriously the questions of family breakdown and psychological and emotional trauma associated with any practices. As I say, I have no evidence of whether those allegations are well founded or not, but they ought to go to the appropriate authorities. We do not have the capacity to deal with them.

As I found, along with other senators who, like Senator Sandy Macdonald, were involved in the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry into the effectiveness of Australia’s military justice system—which I think was a very worthy inquiry that did great work and had bipartisan support—our constant struggle was to make clear to people that we had no capacity to judge individual cases. We could not investigate a death. We could investigate the processes, the culture and the mechanisms for redress, but we could not come to conclusions about individual cases. We are not a court of law. People always wanted us to make judgements on their particular cases, but we could not do that and that caused a tension that underpinned the inquiry. Having said that, I think we did a really good job, and the Senate did a really good job in progressing that report. But we were never able to deal with individual cases in the way that some people wanted us to, because we cannot do that. That is not our role. We could deal with the public policy issues of military justice—about applying fairness and equity to people who are members of the military and ensuring that the system supported them as much as possible.

I note that the terms of reference in Senator Bob Brown’s motion also include ‘any related matters’. I must say it looks a bit like a witch-hunt. Whatever one’s views, it has that feel, and I do not want to be part of that. I am happy to follow up any public policy issues that are relevant and I am happy for senators to pursue those in the parliament through estimates committees and inquiries into public policy matters in which the Exclusive Brethren might be involved, but I do not think this inquiry is an appropriate use of the Senate’s functions and therefore we will not support it.

The final point I would make is that it is pretty hard to have an inquiry into an organisation that does not cooperate, and I suspect from what I have read of the correspondence and submissions from members of the Exclusive Brethren that they are not exactly going to be overjoyed about participating in any inquiry Senator Brown or any other senators might like to make into them. So I am not sure that, even on a practical level, this will go very far. You would obviously hear from people who are in dispute with the brethren or who had bad experiences or complaints, but I am not sure that it will be a very fruitful inquiry beyond that.

Basically, Labor’s view is that a term of reference for a Senate inquiry into the Exclusive Brethren is not justified on the basis of our view of the Senate’s function. We do not think it is appropriate for us to be conducting an inquiry into a private, in this case, religious organisation. There are other avenues to pursue various points of concern that Senator Brown has listed in his motion. Some of those are available to him within the parliament, and I will certainly defend his right to raise these issues within the appropriate forums. Some of the matters really are a matter for the police, the AEC or for the Taxation Office; concerns in those areas ought to be referred to them. Labor will not be supporting the motion.

4:38 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

This motion vilifying the Exclusive Brethren marks a new low in Australian politics. The fact that it has been on the Notice Paper for three months and has been moved will be seen for years to come as a regrettable blot on this great chamber. It is a blot because it affronts the most basic of human rights—the freedom of association and the freedom of religion—and because it has been motivated by the basest considerations.

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I ask you to consider Senator Abetz’s use of the expression ‘basest’ of political motivations. It is not true, and I ask you to look at it and see whether it is parliamentary. Mr Acting Deputy President, you know the standing orders; the minister should abide by them.

Photo of Grant ChapmanGrant Chapman (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The comments that have been made thus far by the minister are simply points of debate.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

This motion to denigrate and vilify a lawful religious minority is a shameful act. That act is all the more shameful when one realises what has motivated it. This is no ordinary motion, and I urge all honourable senators to vote against it, including those Green senators who are willing to vote on conscience and not on the say-so of their misguided leader.

Some people in the community overlook the excessive and kooky policies of the Greens, believing that by voting for them they will do the environment a favour and will not do too much other harm. On this occasion, the Greens have so overstepped the mark that people can no longer ignore what the Greens actually stand for. You see, on 9 May, the Leader of the Australian Greens sought an inquiry into the religious organisation the Exclusive Brethren, a lawful religious minority with views that, chances are, none of us in this chamber would fully agree with. But that is the great thing about our society: our tolerance and acceptance of those whose views do not necessarily coincide with ours. All we ask as a community is that they abide by the rule of law, and there is no evidence that the Exclusive Brethren do not. By all means, engage in debate; but do not scapegoat. Nothing in the motion or in Senator Brown’s 20 minutes of pitiful self-justification of his unfair abuse of the parliamentary processes has suggested any illegality by the Exclusive Brethren.

The simple fact is that this anti Exclusive Brethren motion has its genesis in the Tasmanian election result earlier this year, when the Greens, after foolishly bragging about how many seats they would win, suffered another humiliating backlash from the people of Tasmania. Part of the election campaign did involve individual members of the Exclusive Brethren exposing Greens policies, such as their drugs policy. Senator Brown says that that was done not only by individuals but also by the whole religious organisation. In the absence of any shred of evidence to the contrary, I am willing to believe the Exclusive Brethren, but it is not a material point. The sheer fact that some or all were engaged in our democratic processes by campaigning ought to be welcomed. Instead, the Greens have brought on this motion of religious vilification against all Exclusive Brethren.

Senator Brown is on record about his proposed inquiry in the Sunday Tasmanian last Sunday, 13 August. He said:

... my beef with the Exclusive Brethren is not about religious belief. It is about them venturing into politics ...

It needs to be recalled that the Greens leader in Tasmania, Peg Putt, vilified the Exclusive Brethren in the most disgraceful and undignified election-night speech I have ever witnessed. I was willing to overlook the ugliness of that outburst as a fit of temper in the face of public humiliation. I note, as an aside, that she did later give a limp apology. I naively thought that the scapegoating of a religious minority for a lack of political success was not part of the body politic or culture in this great country. How wrong I was! The Greens motion that we are debating today is a steely, cold and calculated motion designed to intimidate, scapegoat and vilify a lawful religious minority—and their only sin is that they ‘ventured into politics’.

When the leader of a political party starts scapegoating religious minorities the alarm bells of history should be ringing loud and clear. The parallels with other periods of history are spookily familiar. This is especially so when the Greens leader in concert with his vile motion called for a public register of all Exclusive Brethren businesses. I table the document from the Greens website. Why not be done with it and make the Exclusive Brethren wear not exactly the Star of David, but something similar? Why the register? To marginalise, to scapegoat and to vilify. There is no other reason for this suggestion other than sheer nastiness and vindictiveness. Indeed, as the document heading stated when Senator Brown made this public call for a register of all Exclusive Brethren workplaces: ‘Exclusive Brethren’s payback’. There was no shame. He let it be known to the Australian people what this was all about. It was ‘payback’ on the Exclusive Brethren for daring to ‘venture into politics’.

Apart from such a proposal being anathema to every sense of decency and offensive to the most basic of human rights, it of course offends section 116 of our great Constitution which says, in part:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law ... prohibiting free exercise of any religion ...

Thank goodness for the foresight of our founding fathers. Thank goodness for the Australian people that voted for the Constitution. I have a very strong view that if the Australian people were given the opportunity to vote for section 116 again today they would be voting for it with 99.9 per cent support and the 0.1 per cent would undoubtedly be informal. I have no doubt that overwhelmingly the Australian people support freedom of religion and freedom of association in our great country.

But in case any honourable senator was left in any doubt as to Senator Brown’s motives in moving the motion before us, you only have to look at this heading: ‘Exclusive Brethren’s payback’. That is what it is all about—nasty, callous, vindictive payback. Senator Brown has sought to avoid the fundamental principles of this debate—and Senator Chris Evans covered those very well—by hiding behind the cases of disgruntled ex-Exclusive Brethren. I have personally spoken to many of them and I understand their concerns. But every single one I spoke to was personally horrified and had not heard of Senator Brown’s suggestion for a public register of Exclusive Brethren businesses. Many then felt they were being used to get his call for an inquiry some respectability, and they are right to think so. Senator Brown admits he would not be seeking this inquiry and would not be concerned with the issues of former Exclusive Brethren but for the entry by some into the political arena.

But nothing in their complaints suggested illegality. There was disagreement, hurt for family split-ups and especially hurt about the harshness of excommunication policies. I understand all of that and I sympathise with the ex-Exclusive Brethren about that. But let us not be unrealistic about this. The Labor Party and the Liberal Party have excommunication provisions, called expulsion in our constitutions. Indeed, you only have to see what happened when the hapless Mr Peter Garrett switched from the Greens faith to the Labor Party and the vilification that flowed his way from—guess who? Not a single shred of evidence has been produced to justify this intrusive and offensive call for an inquiry. The motion is full of snide innuendo but no actual facts have been presented.

In the time remaining let us go through the motion. First of all, there is the inquiry into ‘family breakdown and psychological and emotional effects related to the practice of excommunication’—and that wonderful catch-all phrase—‘or other practices’, whatever that might mean. These practices are not enumerated and there are no hints as to what these might be. It is just thrown out there that there are other practices—just smear and innuendo but nothing to support the claim. If Senator Brown is genuinely concerned about the excommunication practices of the Exclusive Brethren, can he tell us why he is not concerned about similar or identical practices by Muslims when they leave the faith, or by Orthodox Jews when they leave the faith, or Christadelphians or Jehovah’s Witnesses? Why does he simply pick on the Exclusive Brethren? This is about nasty ‘payback’ and vilification.

In my former life as a lawyer I represented many people in the Family Court. Family breakdown is nearly always hurtful and emotionally traumatic and family members refuse to talk to one another, without any religious belief motivating that separation. It is unfortunately part and parcel of the interaction. But to seek to single out the Exclusive Brethren and to scapegoat them is not something that this Senate should be condoning. When there are allegations and counterallegations of Mr Such-and-Such and Mrs Such-and-Such, for example, that is not for this Senate to be debating. I have been around long enough to know that with such tit-for-tat arguments the chances are there are two sides to the story. There is no need for the Senate to take a side on this unless there are accusations and allegations of actual illegality. The great thing about the Australian society is that people have the right to join and leave the Exclusive Brethren if they want to. People are going to continue to join and continue to leave the Exclusive Brethren, as you would expect in a free and democratic society. Nobody forces them to join and I would trust that nobody would force them to leave. It will ultimately be their independent decision.

Let us go to section (b) of the motion, which is about the involvement of the Exclusive Brethren in Australian politics and political activities. What a hide from a person who personally accepts anonymous donations and international donations! The sheer duplicity and gall of the senator is grotesque.

Photo of Ross LightfootRoss Lightfoot (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tens of thousands of dollars.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Tens of thousands of dollars, and yet he says, ‘It’s okay if I do it, but not if the Exclusive Brethren may be involved.’ If there is such an allegation, I suggest that he do what I did. When I was aware of Senator Brown’s money activities, I simply pointed them out to the Australian Electoral Commission to look at. I did not seek a Senate motion of inquiry into Senator Brown’s RJ Brown Forest Account, which was getting international donations and anonymous donations; I just referred it to the appropriate authority: the Australian Electoral Commission. That is exactly what Senator Brown ought to be doing if he has any allegations against members of the Exclusive Brethren.

In relation to the receipt of funding from the federal government, at every Senate estimates the Greens are able to ask questions. I think the fact that they have never done that is proof of the pudding. Nevertheless, Senator Brown puts the smear in the motion, makes the suggestion and the allegation, but, of course, never follows it up at Senate estimates where he might actually be told the truth—that there is nothing sinister.

I move on to section (d), which refers to taxation and other special arrangements. The last time I looked at the tax act there was no clause saying, ‘The Exclusive Brethren shall pay no tax.’ In fact, the clauses that apply to the Exclusive Brethren fall to them by virtue of them being Australian citizens—by virtue of them falling into the provisions of the tax act. But no case has been made; just another assertion, just another smear. Indeed, it reminds me of the infamous occasion when President Johnson was allegedly going to accuse one of his opponents of quite unsavoury activities. He was chastised by a staffer who said, ‘But, Mr President, you can’t say that,’ to which President Johnson allegedly responded, ‘Well, let him deny it.’ The same unethical attitude is being displayed by Senator Brown with this motion this afternoon.

Let us move to section (e) of the motion: ‘special arrangements and exemptions from Australian law that relate to Exclusive Brethren schools and voting’. The last time I looked, there were 2,694 independent, non-government schools in this country. Thirty-three of those were Exclusive Brethren schools and received funding from the Australian government. Do you know why they received funding from the Australian federal government? Because the six Labor states accredited them as being worthy educational institutions. So, if the state Labor governments tick off on 2,694 schools, why do you only pick on the 33 Exclusive Brethren schools and not the 2,661 other schools? We know why: this is all about vindictiveness.

I now move to the Commonwealth Electoral Act. I do not know how many Exclusive Brethren of voting age there are in this country, but let us say that there are about 10,000. Section 245(14), gives religious excuse as an exception for not voting. Do you know how many of our fellow Australians availed themselves of that provision at the last election? There were 62,290. So why do you seek an inquiry only into the Exclusive Brethren and not the other 50,000-plus Australians who availed themselves of that section of the Commonwealth Electoral Act? We know why: because they deem to ‘venture into politics’.

Of course, the coup de grace, the one smear in case you forgot any smear in all of the other recitals, is: ‘any related matters’. That is an opportunity for the Greens to attack the Exclusive Brethren on any other ground they might be able to drag up. No substance, just a smear and wild assertions—the usual stock in trade of the Greens. But when you do that to a religious minority, you have taken that very big step too far.

This motion has rightly caused Senator Brown many difficulties. The Privileges Committee has had to deal with Senator Brown’s motion. Then, when I accused him of religious vilification, he deleted the words ‘religious organisation’ from before the words ‘Exclusive Brethren’ on the lame excuse that it was bad grammar. The motion was not riddled with bad grammar; it was riddled with bad motives. The motion is a genuinely scary insight into what the Greens would do if they ever got power.

Photo of Kerry NettleKerry Nettle (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I rise on a point of order. I draw your attention to standing order 193, which says that a senator shall not impugn the motives of another senator. I ask you to look at the comments of Senator Abetz about the motives of Senator Brown and make a ruling in relation to that matter.

Photo of Paul CalvertPaul Calvert (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Abetz impugned the motion. The motion is in Senator Brown’s name, so therefore it may be seen that he has impugned the senator. Senator Abetz, I would ask you to withdraw the comment.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw. In short, the motion says more about the Greens and their intolerance than it says about the Exclusive Brethren. This motion deserves the overwhelming repudiation of all fair-minded senators and all fair-minded Australians.

4:59 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on Senator Bob Brown’s motion on the reference of matters to the Community Affairs References Committee, with respect to the Exclusive Brethren. This motion is interesting, and it raises lots of different and competing issues. Frankly, I think there are some interesting debates to be had on the role of religion in politics. It is probably something that has been debated ever since politics and religion were invented, and I am not sure which was invented first, but it is a current public debate. I have personal concerns, and I have knowledge of the organisation through personal experience with various people of the Exclusive Brethren going back for quite a long period. There are various aspects of their beliefs and the actions of individuals I have known that I have not been very comfortable with. I have been particularly critical of what I believe is their vilification of gays, lesbians and transgender people. I think that is unacceptable, and I would criticise those views and defend those people who are being attacked by them. That is something I continue to do.

But I find it hard to see why that justifies having a Senate inquiry into that group. I have also criticised Archbishop Pell. I have, indeed, criticised the Pope in this place for his comments with regard to gays, lesbians and others, and I will continue to do so. I have to say—and this does disappoint me a bit—that, such is the nature of this motion, I would have expected it more from the Howard government. If I take out the words ‘Exclusive Brethren’ and the sorts of allegations that go to it about the hidden support they are providing to the government and put in place the words ‘Wilderness Society’ then I hear echoes of the attacks from the other side of the chamber for the support they allegedly provide for the Greens and for their alleged role as a front for the Greens. We have heard speeches from that side threatening to take away their tax deductibility because of them allegedly being a political front.

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That’s rubbish!

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I have heard speeches from senators on that side threatening to take away the tax deductibility of the Wilderness Society because they are deemed to be engaged in political activity. I see that as a similar approach, of basically threatening organisations for being politically engaged in supporting your political enemy. There is no doubt that people involved in the Exclusive Brethren did quite strongly attack the Greens in the last election campaign in Tasmania. There is no doubt about that at all. As to whether or not they had orders from above, who knows? Frankly, for each of the issues that is put forward in the suggested terms of reference, there are far more appropriate bodies to look at those things. If there has been inappropriate receipt of funding, inappropriate declaration of expenditure or inappropriate declaration of associated entities then the Electoral Commission is the body for that.

I know that our electoral laws are very poor when it comes to disclosure of funding and disclosure of donations. There is no doubt about that. I take great pride in emphasising that the Democrats have, more than any other party, I believe, played a role in ensuring our disclosure laws are as strong as they are. But there is no doubt they have been weakened in recent times. That has allowed all sorts of groups to get away with funding political activity without being seen to have their fingerprints on it. But that is no reason to single out one group solely for the reason that they happened to criticise the Greens in the most recent election.

The Democrats have not been immune to attack from organisations that one might like to call shadowy. Indeed, we had an instance in Western Australia where an extremely well-funded group were basically able to set up a separate organisation, legally call themselves the Australian Democrats, get themselves registered and run against the Democrats. They called themselves the Australian Democrats (WA) Div. Inc. They had an enormous amount of money come from what we strongly believed were sources within the then Western Australian division of the Liberal Party and from certain people who were then involved in that party. It was extremely difficult to prove. We had to undertake an extended amount of court action to recover our own party’s name. So I am sympathetic to parties being attacked by organisations that might have significant funds, although I would suggest that what was done to us was far more extreme. There were basically people completely misrepresenting themselves as Democrats when they were not.

But these are people engaging in the political process and putting forward their view about other political parties. It is impossible to see this motion, in my view, I am afraid, as anything other than payback. It is attacking an organisation that attacked and stood against the Greens in an election. I think that is very concerning, because it does smell to me very much like what the Howard government does to a whole range of organisations that criticise it. It threatens their funding and it threatens to take away their tax deductibility. It attacks them publicly, it attacks their motives and it attacks individuals involved in them. I think that is a very bad habit. It is one I have criticised in the Howard government, and I do not think I would like to see it in any other political party either. Of course, the Labor Party does it at state level also. I do not think it is a practice we need to be encouraging.

None of this means I have any particular truck with the Exclusive Brethren. It is not an organisation whose views I am particularly fond of, but one principle I hold more strongly than any of that is the principle of supporting religious freedom and religious tolerance. However unusual I might find a religious view someone might hold, that is their business. There is an issue when people’s private religious beliefs move into the political arena. Frankly, that is an interesting debate. I would be interested in having some form of broad examination of that issue—that is, of the role of religious institutions, of the appropriateness of tax deductibility for religious institutions across the board and of the role of religious organisations in our systems of government. It would be for the purpose not of attacking religions or attacking everything they do but of assessing whether or not things have got out of balance.

Indeed, the Democrats have been doing that, and we have copped a bit of flak from some fundamentalist groups as well for doing so. We have a fairly comprehensive public survey on God and government running on our website, seeking people’s views about where the line should be drawn between religion and government, religion and politics. I am not sure you can draw a hard and fast line, frankly, but I think it is worth exploring. We have seen debates—indeed, we have seen them played out in the mainstream media—over differences of opinion within the government party about, for example, how much the religious views of the Minister for Health and Ageing are appropriate in influencing certain policy decisions. We know that is happening at the moment in the coalition party room when they debate stem cell research, for example.

It is a debate worth having, and I think there are appropriate limits to where people’s personal religious beliefs should be imposed on the wider community, but it is a debate we should be having about religion in general. It is not something we should be targeting at any one organisation or any one particular denomination, sect or whatever you want to call it. So I have to say I would call this a witch-hunt, except I know that some people who describe themselves as witches would find that offensive. They are another group of people—witches, Wiccans and others—who believe they are persecuted for their religious beliefs. So I try to avoid that particular phrase, but unfortunately it is a very good description of the act of singling people out, targeting them and trying to attack them. Whatever words you use, I do not think it is an appropriate approach to take and it is not one that I or the Democrats support in this regard.

The Democrats have a long tradition of supporting religious freedom and tolerance in general. The word ‘tolerance’ does have a little bit of an air of accepting something that you are not necessarily comfortable with, and that is probably appropriate in this case because, as I said, there are publicly stated views of the Exclusive Brethren that I am not comfortable with. I know from personal experience, as I said from the start, that for some of those who are excommunicated it can be very destructive to families. But that is not the only religion where that circumstance happens and, frankly, I do not think that is a matter for the parliament to be delving into.

If there are clear allegations of abuse, neglect or other activities like that, particularly of children, as there have been in some cases with particular sects or cults, then possibly there is a role for investigation, although I would suggest that the parliament is probably not the best body for that. There are other organisations that do not have the political taint to them that would be more appropriate for examining any allegations in that regard. I am not suggesting there are allegations specifically about the treatment of children against the brethren, but clearly there are circumstances and cases where there has been enormous emotional and psychological distress caused to people. Frankly, that is a situation that could arise particularly with the more firmly held beliefs or the more fundamentalist approach people take. Obviously, if individual members of the family move away from that belief, it can cause immense distress. That might be an argument against strong fundamentalist religious views, but again that is a decision for people to take as individuals.

With regard to Australian politics and political activities, I am not sure I like sounding like I agree with Senator Abetz terribly much, but he read out a quote from Senator Brown saying that his beef with the Exclusive Brethren is ‘not about religious belief’ but about them ‘venturing into politics in a big way with a big chequebook’. I can understand why he is concerned about that—I am concerned about it as well. I am concerned about people with lots of money who will be promoting a political agenda I strongly disagree with, and I am sure I strongly disagree with the political agenda of the Exclusive Brethren in most respects. But, again, that is not a reason to undertake a Senate inquiry specifically focused on the activities of that group.

Otherwise, the federal government or the coalition parties could quite rightly use a parallel reason to launch a Senate inquiry into the person who funded the skywriting yesterday over Parliament House urging people not to vote for the refugee bill and where that money came from. He may be appropriately declaring it—in fact, I am sure he is—but the fact is that people with large chequebooks getting involved in political activity is not in itself a reason to launch a Senate inquiry into them. It may be a reason to test the adequacy of our donation laws and it is possibly a reason for asking questions of the Electoral Commission in estimates or perhaps through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, but it is not a reason to launch a Senate inquiry into that specific organisation.

The issue here is about transparency, whether it is transparency of electoral funding laws, transparency with regard to taxation arrangements and the appropriateness of funding for particular bodies or transparency with regard to the impact on children even. If that is an issue then we could have an inquiry into the appropriateness of the transparency of our electoral funding laws or the adequacy of the transparency of our funding of or taxation exemptions for religious bodies running schools and hospitals. But to target it specifically at one religious sect or denomination is, as the word says, ‘targeting’. It is clearly targeting for the purpose of political payback, and that makes me extremely uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable because I have seen echoes of it from the major parties and it worries me to see it coming from another party as well. The core issue here is that issue of transparency.

We have had inquiries in the past, as I think Senator Evans said, into the activities of various church bodies in institutions where there have been allegations of harm to children. I will use the example of a religious institution I am far more familiar with, the Catholic Church. There has been a lot of criticism of them, whether it is of their attitudes towards gays and lesbians or towards the activities of some of their priests and other religious people with regard to the abuse of children, but the issue there has been the cover-up involved and ensuring that investigations of unlawful activities have occurred. It has not been an inquiry into the entire institution and certainly not because they happen to get involved in politics. We all know that the Catholic Church, going back a long period in this country, has been very heavily involved in the political domain, as have other religious bodies in various ways. In many ways, to use the example of the Muslim community, I think they should get more involved in the political process—not to impose their religious beliefs on people but so that people can be more aware of the diversity of opinion within the Islamic community.

So, again, I emphasise that in some ways I can take a more independent view on this because the brethren would never be likely to support a position that is terribly in line with the views of the Democrats. They are certainly not likely to fund us. Clearly, they have provided support to the coalition parties and, from my understanding of what I have read about the Tasmanian campaign, the brethren were about supporting a majority government, which in that case was a Labor government. So I think in some respects I can be more unbiased than anybody else in regard to this issue.

My very strong feeling about this is, as I said at the start, that I am very strongly opposed to some of the statements by people from the Exclusive Brethren, particularly in their attacks on gays and lesbians. But I am even more concerned about any perception that people would be attacked—and the mechanisms of the Senate used to attack them, investigate them, grill them and haul them over the coals—purely because they have taken a stance at odds with the political position that I might hold. I think that is a very worrying trend. It is one that I am concerned to see, to various degrees, in the government, and it is not one I want to see elsewhere.

Can I reinforce, while I am still on my feet, that it is a worthwhile topic of examination to look at the difference between the roles of the systems and engines of government and the roles of religious bodies, but we need to do that in a way that is not seen as attacking religion. It is a continuing debate in the community, and it is a debate we need to have. Indeed, I know that Father Frank Brennan, a Catholic priest who has involved himself in political debates from time to time and who has taken positions which have not been terribly welcomed by the coalition parties in some cases, is about to publish a new book examining some of these dilemmas that arise when private beliefs and public life collide.

I think it is worth examining those dilemmas and competing issues, but it is worth doing so in a dispassionate way. I think we need to get away from attacking religious people for getting involved in politics when they take a position that opposes us and supporting them when they take a position that happens to back our views. It is natural but nonetheless inconsistent to do that. I know that when some of the church leaders came out criticising the government’s workplace relations legislation they were told to stick to their theology and keep out of politics, but of course when the church leaders came out in support of the government’s position on banning same-sex marriage they were supported and their quotes were repeated approvingly.

We need to be more consistent in our approach with regard to this. Frankly, I think this motion is extremely inconsistent. It targets people purely for the offence, or the perceived crime, of attacking a political party, and I think that is a very dangerous trend. It is not one that the Democrats want to be part of.

5:19 pm

Photo of John WatsonJohn Watson (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to oppose this motion proposed by Senator Brown. What the world needs today is a greater degree of tolerance and respect for different opinions. The proposed inquiry would be a disgraceful abuse of the power of the Senate and would reflect adversely on the Senate as a powerful and respected debating chamber. The last thing we need is a witch-hunt under the auspices of a Senate committee.

I ask Senator Brown, through you Mr Acting Deputy President Forshaw: would this inquiry have been called for had two gentlemen, Mr Christian and Mr Unwin, not privately taken out advertisements attacking the Greens in the 2005 Tasmanian election? Having listened to the debate, I think that Senator Brown’s motion is going to be soundly defeated. And that, of course, will bring some comfort to the large number of Exclusive Brethren who are in the gallery today.

Regrettably, most of Senator Brown’s speech was about some aspects of what I refer to as the Exclusive Brethren’s strict discipline. The proposed enquiry would be a blatant attempt to intimidate individuals who oppose the Green agenda in Tasmania and maybe elsewhere. Let me say that, while I might disagree with a few aspects of the theology of the Exclusive Brethren, I will not tolerate this attack on a religious group purely because of its religious beliefs or because of the legal action of a few of its members.

I ask the Senate: where is the justification for the inquiry? Where are the widespread reports of tax dodges, of rorting government funds, or even of rorting the Electoral Act? I respect all Christian leaders who stand up for their beliefs and follow the doctrines of the Old and New Testaments, as do the Exclusive Brethren. Mr Unwin and Mr Christian, along with the Exclusive Brethren church, have been absolutely adamant that there is no link between the church and the election advertisements.

Is it really necessary to hold a Senate inquiry to investigate all such alleged claims? Why not hold a Senate inquiry into the links between the Wilderness Society and the Tasmanian Greens? Why not hold a Senate inquiry into the Tamar Residents Action Committee and the Tasmanian Greens? Again, with respect, Senator Brown, I would not support a Senate inquiry into the activities of either of these groups because they are, in my view, voicing a democratic point of view, even though those views may at times be contrary to the ones that I hold.

If there are alleged breaches of the Electoral Act, there are remedies other than through this chamber. Would not an approach to the Electoral Commission be the appropriate course of action in the first instance? The ironic thing about this proposed inquiry is that I am quite sure that the Senate would find the Exclusive Brethren to be hardworking, law-abiding, upright and moral members of society, who contribute in their own individual ways to the civic life of Australia. I admit many are friends of mine and, for this reason, I will take this opportunity to defend their rights to political participation in our democratic society and not be subject to vilification of the kind that is before the Senate today.

I note that members of the Exclusive Brethren were drafted into the Army during the two World Wars and the Vietnam War and they served honourably in non-combat roles, meeting both the requirements of their country and their religion. I firmly believe that the Exclusive Brethren have nothing to hide. However, I am sure that any Senate inquiry would be an absolute waste of time and would provide a platform for anti-Christian elements in our community to attack a minority, Christian group which has the temerity to believe something different to them.

Mr Christian and Mr Unwin were completely within their rights to place election advertisements. But because they attend a conservative, minority, Christian church, I think it is regrettable that they are vulnerable to the smears and attacks from a person such as the Leader of the Australian Greens. I believe in the end you should owe them an apology.

To finish, there is no legitimate basis for this Senate inquiry. I am sure that any inquiry would find that the Exclusive Brethren, as I said before, are upstanding citizens, but of course that was never really in doubt. The real motivation here is to intimidate private citizens who are opposed to the political goals of the green movement or should I say the leader of the green movement in the Senate. The real motivation here unfortunately appears to be to smear Christians who believe in a concept as novel as the headship of Christ in their lives. I might disagree, as I said, with a few of their doctrines, but the Senate is not the forum for that debate. I therefore urge my fellow senators to oppose this motion, as the Senate is not the proper place to pursue a campaign against the Exclusive Brethren. I thank the Senate.

5:25 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to support this motion and to note the feigned concern from many in this house about minorities. There is no group of people in this house who have stood up for minorities more than the Greens. I take you back to the Tampa, Senator Watson, and your colleagues on that side—where was the tolerance; where was the generosity? What about children overboard, where were you then with your concerns about minorities?

Photo of Amanda VanstoneAmanda Vanstone (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I’m not deaf.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I am delighted, Senator Vanstone, that your hearing is intact and I will take that into account.

Photo of Michael ForshawMichael Forshaw (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I can hear all of you at the moment. Senator Milne, would you address your remarks through the chair and other senators should refrain from interjecting. Senator Watson was heard in relative silence as were other speakers.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As I was saying, where was the concern for minorities at the time of the Tampa? Where is the concern for David Hicks and his family? Where is the concern for the West Papuans? Where is the concern for oppression and illness in Indigenous communities? It is not borne out in budgets, it is not borne out in actions, but today we hear the coalition standing up and supposedly having this great concern for minorities in Australia. I would add to that: where is the concern for the gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex community in Australia? I do not hear anyone standing up for that minority, either. That is the heart of where we are in this debate.

I would hope that the Australian community would ask themselves: why is it that Senator Brown and the Australian Greens are asking for a Senate investigation into this sect when they have spent their entire political career defending minorities, defending religious rights and standing up for people? Could it just be that there is a case to answer? That is the point that I am coming to today. What we are asking for in this motion is an investigation and we have had, as Senator Brown pointed out and I am not going to reiterate, numerous letters and emails from people who have been excommunicated and divided from their families for the rest of their lives for the crime of leaving a religious organisation. But I am not going to go into that because we have endless evidence of that.

I want to tell you about a situation when I was teaching in north-west Tasmania at a time of very poor retention rates to years 11 and 12. I spent my teaching career encouraging young girls and boys to go on to higher education. There was a complaint made to the principal. I was called in and told that a complaint had been made because I had been encouraging one of the grade 10 girls to go on to a higher education—to years 11 and 12. I was told that her parents were offended, that her religion said that she would leave school at grade 10, work in a shop owned by the family or the community’s business, that the marriage would be arranged and that I should mind my own business and stop encouraging this young girl to go on to higher education. I have been really concerned about that going on around Australia and to this day women who marry in the Exclusive Brethren sect are not allowed to work. Girls—or boys either, for that matter—are not allowed to go on to higher education.

This is happening in a Western democracy like ours where the Convention on the Rights of the Child says very clearly that young people have a right to achieve their full potential and goes on to talk about equality in education and so on. That just is not happening. That is not what I am going to focus on mainly today either. That is my personal experience of this sect. I can tell you the children at that high school had a very difficult time because they were not allowed to eat with other students, with the ‘worldlies’. They were not allowed to be part of the school community.

Today I want to address the issue of political activity. You are quite wrong to misrepresent the Greens’ concern. We welcome everybody’s involvement in politics. Participatory democracy is one of the four fundamental platforms of the Greens. What we do not support is people entering into election campaigns and remaining anonymous and, as they describe it themselves, ‘flying beneath the radar and affecting the outcome of elections’. That is why we have electoral disclosure laws. They are based on the principle that people who fund political parties, political advertising and so on ought to be upfront about it so that people know where that perspective is coming from. That is the point I make. Throughout this entire debate, every single time an Exclusive Brethren advertisement appears in the paper, the excuse is constantly, ‘This is an individual act. It has nothing to do with the church. It is just that as an individual in Scottsdale I woke up one day and decided to put an ad in the paper. The fact that it is exactly the same in content as a whole lot of ads is just a spontaneous thing.’ That happened in the last election.

It goes further than that, to connections with the Liberal Party. I think the Australian people would appreciate a bit of honesty here. At the last election, we had ads authorised by people from the Exclusive Brethren community saying, ‘We are happy, John. John Howard provides.’ Then we had the anti-Green ads, ‘Why the grass won’t be greener.’ In my own case in Tasmania, a pamphlet was distributed everywhere and there was no upfront declaration to the electoral office, but now there will be a disclosure to the electoral office about the funding of that advertisement, entirely appropriately under the law. Now we have a situation where the government has changed the electoral disclosure laws so that it will be virtually impossible for people in the Australian community to find out who is writing the ads, placing the ads and paying for the ads.

As my colleague Damien Mantach admitted in the Tasmania election, the Liberal Party in New South Wales had met with the Exclusive Brethren and the advertisements in New South Wales were almost identical to the Liberal Party ads in South Australia—funny thing that. They had exactly the same wording and font as the Liberal Party ads, even though they were supposedly placed by individuals. What is the connection?

Photo of Amanda VanstoneAmanda Vanstone (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

If you want to run our ads, we’ll let you do it.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Vanstone has hit the nail absolutely on the head. The way the electoral laws are written allows it to happen and the Australian people have no idea that a religious sect is funding advertisements to support the Liberal Party or any other party for that matter. They deserve to know that it is happening and they deserve to know why. In a newspaper article about why, one of the Exclusive Brethren elders—I welcome them to the gallery today—said, in talking about these ads:

We do it as individuals. ... It’s got no church involvement. It’s got no school involvement. You’ve got to allow for spontaneity.

But it is quite clear that the principal reason they are engaged in politics in Australia is that they are antihomosexual. The real attack on minorities in this country is coming from this organisation, secretly funding political parties that oppose tolerance to homosexuality. That is the fact of the matter. That is where it is coming from. In this newspaper article, Mr Hales insists the brethren are not endorsing people or parties and says:

We don’t support the political party per se. We support a principle. If somebody is promoting the right principle—that homosexuality is a sin—we’ll support that person.

If you look at the Exclusive Brethren involvement in the US campaign, in the Canadian election, in the New Zealand election, in the Tasmanian election and in the federal election, you find that the absolute basis of it is an attack on tolerance of homosexuality. That is where all this is coming from. The real attack on minorities here is on those people who do not even see where the attack is coming from because the people mounting the attack are so cowardly that they hide. They are not prepared to be upfront about who they are. A statement made to the Standing Committee of Privileges and signed in part by Phillip McNaughton says:

The Exclusive Brethren Church has never at any time or for any reason involved itself in any political activity whatsoever, either by means of advertisements, media releases, leaflets, publications or any other propaganda.

Is that a fact? So you go to a company registered in the UK called Ratby Distribution Ltd and who are its three executives? Phillip Bruce McNaughton, the very same person, and two people from Surrey and Leicester in England. What is the purpose of this Exclusive Brethren company? It is ‘to make grants and loans to any person, association, company, local authority, administrative or government agency or public body, as may be thought fit, or towards charitable or other purposes in any way connected with or calculated to further the objects of the company; to make donations to any political party; to take and defend legal actions’. And there is more. What is the involvement of Australian Bruce Hales in this company? This company gives ‘the Minister of the Lord in the Recovery’—that is, Bruce Hales—‘absolute power of veto in all matters’.

Mr Hales has the capability of receiving automatic admission to the board should the existing board members become unavailable—and this is the head of the church in Australia. What we are seeing is that Mr Hales already seems to have ultimate authority in possibly hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of Exclusive Brethren companies, charities, trusts and enterprises on a worldwide basis. We now see a new initiative called National Office Assist, which seems to be a global fiscal structure that controls the finances of all Exclusive Brethren businesses.

I note the amusement of the Exclusive Brethren members in the gallery. I welcome that, because I think we should have an inquiry and see what the tax arrangements are and find out exactly what is going on with this funding that is distributed around the world. It went in to the US campaign and contravened US electoral law. It went in to New Zealand and was exposed at the last minute, but not fully, and we still have not got to the bottom of the connection between the Liberal Party and the Exclusive Brethren and their advertising during the last federal election. And we never will, because of the new disclosure laws regarding donations of $10,000 or more, and we will never know about in-kind support—the printing businesses that are involved in printing this material.

As I said during the debate on electoral donations—and it is why I opposed the change—it is my view that the Liberal Party writes the ads, places the ads, and that they are paid for by the Exclusive Brethren.

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Where’s the evidence?

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Scullion for his interjection. Have a look at what happened in South Australia at the time of the last federal election. Look at the ads placed by the Liberal Party. Side by side with them, day after day, the Exclusive Brethren was mentioned in the regional newspapers. Have a look at it. Look at the fact that Exclusive Brethren school addresses were used to authorise ads—and those schools get federal government funding. They get federal government funding because they supposedly comply with curriculum guidelines in each of the states, but they are not allowed to have computers, for a start; they are not allowed to have fax machines, TVs or anything like that. So I am not entirely sure how they comply with curriculum guidelines around the country.

I return to the other powers that Mr Bruce Hales, the head of the church, wields. He has the right to take over any corporation that contains the clauses already mentioned, with regard to National Office Assist. He has the right to take ownership of Exclusive Brethren meeting rooms in the event of a dispute. That gives him the power to take over a huge amount of real estate. I know that at the last election the address that was given by the person who authorised the Exclusive Brethren leaflet which attacked the Greens, in the election that I was involved in, gave the address as 11 Baden-Powell Court in Sydney. The person concerned did not live there at the time. All of these properties owned by the Exclusive Brethren have been taken from other Exclusive Brethren people over time—repossessed, virtually, from within their congregation—and that property forms the basis of a considerable amount of wealth in the church. They are entitled to wealth, the same as anybody else is. If they work hard and earn a living, they are entitled to the benefits and to the fruits of their labour. What they are not entitled to do is to use exemptions for churches in order to get out of obligations under the tax system. We know that they oppose unions, and that it is one of the reasons why they support the coalition. They are emphatic about opposing unions in the workplace, and they are emphatic about supporting the government’s new Work Choices legislation—because it leads to exploitation, effectively. That is the kind of thing we are dealing with here.

I believe that in a democracy people have a right to transparency, and that is my objection to what is going on: there is no transparency. We are dealing with a sect who defend their activities on the basis that they are individual people—and these individual people suddenly come up with $10,000 or whatever to put an ad in the paper, or wherever it is that they place the ads. Then somebody else will make a gift to them, so that it is not officially from the church. It is never officially from the church, because officially the church never gets involved. But if you go and have a look at Ratby Distribution Ltd, you will soon see the involvement in sending money around the world for political donations.

Whilst the coalition will continue to work with the Exclusive Brethren coming into next year’s federal election, we will see the same vilification of homosexuals, transgender people and intersex people. We will see that around the country because they believe it is a sin and that it must be wiped out, and they will support ‘right-thinking’ people who are prepared to wipe it out. That is a fact. That is where this is coming from. It is the most intolerant, mean-spirited, unChristian perspective that is being brought to bear here. And it is being dressed up as something else.

Australian people need to think very carefully about that. I think they would be horrified to know that ads that say, ‘We are happy, John. John Howard provides,’ are coming from people whose agenda is fundamentally to exhibit intolerance of homosexuals. That is what we are dealing with. As they have said themselves, ‘Homosexuality is a sin; we will support that person if somebody is promoting that right principle.’

This matter is a lot more complex than the cheap and thoroughly offensive remarks of Senator Abetz. I found his reference to yellow stars appalling and demeaning of the Senate. He might want to grandstand in here about what happened with the Nazis, but I am a student of history, and I know, as well as anyone in here who has read history, what happened with the Nazis and their vilification of minorities, academics, homosexuals and Jews. We know about vilification, and that is why we are asking for an investigation, because we would like to have any engagement by third parties in political campaigns to be open and accessible to the Australian people, so that they know who is putting what in their letterbox and what motivation they have. The motivation behind that material is sinister, and it is not honest.

I have never come across a more deceitful explanation of involvement in the political system than I have seen with the Exclusive Brethren. In years to come, as this becomes more and more exposed, people will look back and recognise the naivete that was engaged in when this house failed to investigate what was going on in the Australian community, and the fostering of that intolerance. And that is what it is—intolerance. That is why the Greens will always stand up for tolerance, transparency and openness. I regard it as disappointing that this motion is not seen in that light, because that is what it is about. (Time expired)

5:45 pm

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The first question that has to be asked is: why did the Greens bring this motion into the chamber today? It is taking the chamber down to another level—a level that I, as one of many senators, try to raise the chamber above. This motion is specifically directed to one religious group. It is an attempt at a vilification process. You can clothe it up any way you like, but that is what they are doing here today.

I am going to surprise everybody: there is a political party, of which I am not a member, and a religion, of which I am a member, and they have had a strong involvement with one another over a long period of time. They are called the Catholic Church and the Labor Party. I know that some people are going to find it a huge surprise that they have had a strong involvement with one another, but they have. It is just the way it is. So what are we going to look forward to from the Greens next? Are we going to have a motion to get rid of the Catholics or a motion to get rid of the Labor Party? It is blatantly ridiculous. If people have a strong view in certain aspects of life they will align themselves to the political party that they think best reflects that. That stands to reason. It has always been that way—Mannix, Pell and Santamaria all had strong political views and had an alliance with certain political parties. We have Jensen, Fred Nile and even now Keysar Trad—you would have to say that he is a political figure. What he wants to change is always political.

This is a bad day for Australian politics. But what is fleshed out is where the Greens are. The Greens always put themselves up as the holier than thou crowd: if you want true honesty you vote for the Greens; if you want something a bit different, if you want the people who are above politics, you vote for the Greens. I have noticed something since I have been here: they never break away from the group. They always vote together, all the time. They are just another political party, and this is a reflection of where they are at. As I said, it is just a vilification motion. Clause (f) says, ‘any related matters’ about a religious group. They want to bring that out; they want to drag that out.

I challenge the Greens: if they think there is something illegal they should take it to the police. That is what they are there for. But they have not done that. Do you know why? Because they have not got a case. So instead of taking it to the police like an honourable person and saying, ‘We’ll deal with this and we are prepared to stand by our allegations,’ they are going to creep and crawl in here, hide and have a shot from here because they know they are safe in here. They know they can get this sort of trash out there, all these spurious allegations and assertions about certain people’s characters. They can impugn whoever they like with all the protection they want. That is where the Greens have descended to. I hope the Australian people see that. Today the Greens are moving a religious vilification motion. They are vilifying a group, a minority in Australia. The Greens today are going to impugn the character of, cast aspersions on and run down a minority group. That is the Australian Greens, that is the fair dinkum Greens—that is what they are on about.

Do you know why they are doing it? Because the Exclusive Brethren do not agree with some of the things they believe in. That is it. They have a difference of views. The Greens cannot handle taking on the debate outside in a magnanimous form and rising above it and taking on the challenge. They do not want to take the sincere approach and deal with it out in the street and have a reliable debate out there. No, they have to sneak and creep in here and start impugning characters.

I thought it might just be us; I thought maybe we were wrong. But it is interesting to note that a former member of the Greens, a Mr Hanna, has left the Greens. Do you know why he left the Greens? It says in an article from the Australian:

Mr Hanna, who was the Greens’ only representative in the state parliament, said—

and this is why he left—

he believed in social justice, democracy and “giving people a say”.

And that is why he left—‘he believed in social justice, democracy and giving people a say.’ It stands to reason that Mr Hanna was awfully disappointed with where the Greens have got to these days. I thought that Mr Hanna might have been off the mark, I thought perhaps he was just a bit upset or perhaps he had a bit of a bee in his bonnet, but then the Greens drag this garbage into the Senate.

I will be frank: before I came here I would look at Bob and the Greens and think: ‘They are all right; they are having a go. Do not be too hard on them, because they are keeping the show honest’. But when you are up close they are not like that at all. When you are up close this is what they are like—they have a huge chip on their shoulder. If you do not believe it all you have to do is insert which religion you like into this motion. Pick a religion, and insert it in there. Pick Methodist and you have ‘the role of the Methodists in family breakdown’. Or you have ‘the role of Catholicism in family breakdown’ or ‘the role of the Uniting Church in family breakdown’, et cetera, et cetera.

What an absolutely bizarre motion and what a bizarre place to take the Australian parliament. It is going to be an interesting day for the Greens. What also astounds me is how tactically stupid it is. Tonight on TV everybody is going to see them for what they are. They have got a little bit too far ahead of themselves, a little bit too cute, and all of a sudden the corporate veil is going to be lifted on the Greens.

So it is going to be an interesting vote. I am going to watch this vote. I hope they call a division so we can see exactly who sits where on this one. In all the debate we have heard so far the Greens have not brought up one allegation that can be proved in a court of law or outside these doors. The main allegation is that the Exclusive Brethren do not believe in homosexuality and a few other issues. Those are their views; they are allowed to have them. It is a free country. If that is what they want to believe in, that is what they believe in. You have a different view; you are allowed to believe in that. That is the wonderful thing about Australia: it is free. If the Greens had their way in this world, what other institutions in our democratic process would they shut down? I imagine there would be a whole list of things that the Greens do not agree with and with regard to which they would take a destructive approach of impugning, defaming and shutting down. That would be the world under the Green revolution.

They bring up an analogy to try and hide it, saying, ‘We always stand up for minority groups’. I think everybody in this chamber stands up at times for minority groups; I do not think anybody in this chamber has a mortgage that they specifically are the holders and vestiges of the protection of minority groups. I think the Labor Party have had a good say on that; I think the Liberal Party have had a good say on that. The Nationals have certainly had a say on that. I think at times even the Democrats have done a fair bit about that. But for one group to have the hide to come in here and say, ‘We are the bastion of minority groups and we can prove that by coming up with a vilifying motion about one particular one,’ is blatantly and utterly ridiculous.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

They have got an interest in them for all the wrong reasons.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, it is blatantly and utterly ridiculous. It would be amazing to have been at the meeting when they were discussing this, to see the academic powerhouse that put up a motion like this saying, ‘We’re going to wheel it into the Australian Senate.’ But they have done it.

I acknowledge the views of all my Senate colleagues who have been here before. I think they have covered most of the issues. It is just that this is a sad day for the Senate, because this is the first vilification of a religious group that I have seen since I have been here in the Senate. This is the first time I have seen a specific group vilified in this Senate, and the people who brought that disgrace into this chamber were the Australian Greens.

5:55 pm

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I stand to speak in support of the rights of free speech and freedom of association. I stand to support my colleagues who have already spoken in opposition to what I would call nothing less than an outrageous motion, which is a dampener on free speech and on freedom of association. We live in a country that is a democracy. It is a free country, and the values underpinning that freedom are very important. The motion’s intent is quite clear. It is set out by Senator Brown in this motion to the Senate, and he really wants to attack a particular church group. He wants to make it clear, and he has put it on the record, that he disagrees vehemently with this church group to the extent that he wants to now call into question their veracity and ability to exist in this country. He said in a media release not so long ago that he wants to create a register of Exclusive Brethren workplaces. This would be a register, mind you, presumably open to the public—

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Appalling! On the basis of religion.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is right, Senator Abetz; he is targeting a particular group in the community based on their religion. That is discrimination of the worst order. That is vilification of the worst order. You can extend that principle: if you are going to have a register of Exclusive Brethren workplaces, why wouldn’t you have a register of Exclusive Brethren members and their families so you know exactly what address they live at and which schools they go to?

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And where you can pick them up from.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And where you can pick them up and where you can drop them off, as Senator Joyce says. Exactly; this is the long hand of the law, as long as ‘long’ could be in accordance with Senator Brown.

Unfortunately I do not have a lot of time today to respond to the allegations and the views of Senator Brown and the Australian Greens, but I am heartened to some degree by the strong opposition in the Senate to this vilification motion by Senator Brown. The Greens say this is all about transparency and if they have got nothing to hide then they have nothing to fear. What they are doing is setting up a register of Exclusive Brethren workplaces, and as I say that principle can be extended. This is an attack on free speech. It is an attack on the freedom of association; it is an attack on freedom. It is a limitation and restriction on freedom in this country.

Why is it only the Exclusive Brethren? What about another church group? What about the Roman Catholics? What about the Anglicans? What about the Baptists? I go to a Baptist Church; what happens if from time to time the Baptist Church expresses views that I or the government do not agree with? Why shouldn’t they be on some sort of register? It is not uncommon; in fact, a week would not go by without a particular church having a view different from that of the government of the day. Of course that occurs, so why shouldn’t they be on a register? Why shouldn’t there be a register of people in that church and their workplaces, their homes, their businesses and the schools their kids attend? I find it appalling.

This all relates to the difference of views. We live in Australia, where you have the opportunity to express a view contrary to another, and isn’t that fantastic? We can come in freedom to debate, disagree and fight to the end; we have that opportunity to disagree. That is what this is about. I happen to be a member of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, and Senator Brown wants to send this to the Community Affairs References Committee. I find that an appalling proposition. This Senate is the bastion of free speech. Here we are having a debate on such a matter, and there is the freedom of opportunity to pursue our views and to express them in disagreement with others.

I would call the Senator Brown motion a McCarthy style witch-hunt against whoever disagrees with the Greens. That is essentially what he is wanting to set up. It is about religious freedom. I want to bring out the evidence; I say to Senator Brown, ‘Where is it?’ If there is a religious group that does not like the Greens—let’s make it clear—I assume it then follows that the Greens will pursue that religious group and attempt to stifle them under the protection of parliament. Under the protection of parliamentary privilege you will have the opportunity to say whatever you will to disparage the good name and reputation of the people you wish.

I find that behaviour dishonourable and offensive to the Australian people and to the values we uphold in this country. I want to stand with people who are so disparaged and say, ‘I empathise with you and I am sorry that this has come to the point where you have been vilified and attacked in such an offensive way.’ In this country the Australian Greens have the right to campaign openly and publicly against the Exclusive Brethren or whoever opposes their point of view. Isn’t it wonderful that they have that opportunity? But to have this attack, this vilification, against the Exclusive Brethren I find is way over the top.

My final point is in respect to the establishing of a register of Exclusive Brethren workplaces. That is very similar to the anti-Jewish Nazi Germany situation. I make that clear; that is how I see it. That is what happened in and around that time—particular groups were targeted. There were scapegoats. That is exactly what happened in and around the time of Nazi Germany. I see this effort by the Australian Greens to go down this track as a very dishonourable approach. I hope that, when you look at the arguments that have been put towards you and have been put in this place, you will reflect on what happened in the time of Nazi Germany, you will reflect on the arguments that you have put and the arguments against, and you will, indeed, apologise to the people that you have showed such disrespect to. I hope that you will say, ‘I regret that I put forward this motion,’ and you will apologise for what you have done. I hope that the Senate, in a most resounding way, defeats this motion in no uncertain terms.

6:03 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

What an abrogation of the democratic principles that this Senate should stand up for. We have heard here today from all the other components except the Greens. On the opposite side, we have heard a tirade of mock offence at an inquiry being held and information coming forward which would lift the lid on a secretive organisation which has a lot to be inquired into. On this side, from both the Democrats and the Labor Party, there has been extraordinary weakness. They have simply not been able, on this occasion, to rise to the challenge to put the spotlight onto an organisation which is an invidious one in our community.

Let me dispense first with this idea about a register of workplaces. Let me read from the Financial Review what the Exclusive Brethren and other sects managed to get:

Call it the Exclusive Brethren clause. Buried in hundreds of pages of new federal workplace laws, that came into effect last week, is a change allowing employers who are members of the Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian sect, to keep trade union officials out of their workplaces. The amendments to the Workplace Relations Act provisions on rights of union organisers to enter workplaces will make it easier for Brethren employers to get a special certificate exempting them, on the grounds of their religious doctrine, from the right of entry regime regardless of the views of their employees.

Should workers not know, when they are going to a place, that it has a special exemption under this government’s regulations? The question here is: how come they are getting a special exemption? Did it just happen in the stilly night? Of course it did not. It happened because the Exclusive Brethren were in there lobbying this government and this government agreed to it—to ban union officials from their workplaces, to leave the employees of their workplaces open to an invidious, second-class situation of being denied the workplace protection that everybody else has. That is the sort of thing you see—the quid pro quo coming back from the support the Exclusive Brethren is giving to the government of the day.

Photo of Michael ForshawMichael Forshaw (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They want to ban us from every workplace.

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes. When the Exclusive Brethren came to see me to ask that I back off, that I not have this inquiry, I said to them: ‘Under your biblical adherence, and it is complete, how could you be supporting a government which locks little children up, behind razor wire in the desert in Australia, who are totally innocent? How could you do that?’

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

In air conditioned facilities.

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

‘Air-conditioned,’ says Senator Abetz. What we know is that these children have been forever psychologically traumatised by that experience. That is what the Exclusive Brethren have supported against the Greens, who stood up for the rights of children in those places. It is a very different set of circumstances when you analyse what they are up to. They just supported the election of a Labor government in Tasmania which rolled out poker machines throughout the community—nobody else was licensed to do so. The Exclusive Brethren supported Labor against the Greens, who campaigned against poker machines in the community. The point I am making is that here is an organisation which prohibits their members from voting but have got involved in a political support situation and in vilification of the Greens, and they do not like it. It is full of catches for them. They find themselves caught out. How do they get around that? They get around it by trying to be secretive and not to be seen, by flying beneath the radar, and that is the problem. They are pouring tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars into political campaigns in this country and elsewhere without saying: ‘We are the Exclusive Brethren. We’re involved in politics. We are backing this side of politics against that.’

The ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Lange, who had a bit more fibre than the Labor Party here today, said:

There are some things my electorate could do without. There is an airport and a sewage farm, but less appealing still is the presence among us of a large number of Exclusive Brethren.

He went on to say:

While most religions have elements of wackiness in them, the incongruity of the rules by which the Brethren live is unusually abnormal. Their sewer pipes must go straight to the mains. They eschew shared driveways and prohibit cross-lease property ownership. Their cars must not be turbo charged. The closest they come to sense is banning television. Computers are out, as are radiotelephones, cell phones, record players and bar coders. All this newfangled stuff is the work of Lucifer, although aircraft conveniently are accepted. To engage in swimming, team sport, entertainment or friendship outside the membership brings swift exclusion from the sect. It goes without saying that their views on the status and role of women make Saint Paul look like a feminist.

Add this from Mr Lange, to the laughter of the Exclusive Brethren gentlemen, in the gallery:

The callousness of the faith is mortifying. A constituent who belonged to the Brethren had a son who was somewhat retarded and he, perhaps unwittingly, breached one of their codes. He was driven from the home and sought refuge in an emergency shelter. His parents totally disowned him. He was killed riding his bike. His parents didn’t attend his funeral. A photograph was sent to the parents by a man who had befriended this 19-year-old outcast. It was returned with the observation that the son’s face showed that he had passed from God’s grace.

Mr Lange went on to say:

These people are bringing up children who have no concept of the alternatives to the rigidity of their dreadful dogma. Should our education system allow nutters to stop their children using computers?

They are changing that rule at the moment because they have to. Mr Lange went on to say:

Should the schools be helpless in the face of parents who refuse to allow their children any contact with other children outside the classroom? Why can’t these poor kids play netball? Should we tolerate the nurturing of tunnel-visioned children because of the absurd convictions of their parents? The answer, of course, is that we allow all this to happen in the name of fundamental liberties. The tragedy is that the rights of the children have been subsumed in the rights of the parents, obscuring the point that parents have rights over their children only in so far as they serve the interests of their children. The Brethren make tolerance seem wrongheaded.

Testimony about the Brethren—and support for this motion, might I add—comes not just from Mr Mark Humber, who I quoted earlier; it comes from Warren McAlpin, the son of a supreme family in the Victorian Brethren, who lost his wife and children; it comes from Mr Ron Fawkes, a former Australian leader and second in the world, who lost his wife and children; it comes from Mark Painter, the son of the leader from South Africa. The South African Brethren were removed from that country in the last decade, under the organisation of the Elect Vessel of the time. Mr Ron Fawkes, who was the second leader in the world, gave this testimony—

An incident having occurred in the gallery—

The gentlemen in the gallery are laughing again, as they would do to somebody with whom they have a great disagreement. This is from Background Briefing on ABC Radio National:

Until 1987, the world leader of the Exclusive Brethren was an American, James Symington. The man recognised as the most senior member of the Brethren in Australia was Ron Fawkes. But Fawkes fell out with Symington because, according to Fawkes, the leadership was straying from Christ.

In the sudden-death politics of the Brethren, Ron Fawkes was excommunicated. He says he was informed his wife would be divorcing him.

Ron’s six children stayed with their mother, and he hasn’t seen them for 22 years, but they wrote to him to tell him why, and at his home on the New South Wales Southern Highlands, Ron Fawkes pulled out his children’s letters from a ring folder and read them out in a monotone.

You get the feeling he’s done this many times before. The message from the kids was all the same.

Dad, you’re evil.

                 …         …         …

I don’t want to see you because you are not right, and withdrawn from and out of fellowship—

that is, excommunicated. And so it goes on. When you have little children writing letters like that to a loving father, you have to worry. I ask you, Acting Deputy President, the Labor Party, the Democrats, The Nationals and the government in here: is this chamber satisfied with an extreme religious sect in this country which takes millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money for its education system—$4,000 per student this year—

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Abetz interjecting

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

but—before you get too far into this, Senator Abetz; you have made a fool of yourself already—bans those children from getting a tertiary education? I submit this, ladies and gentlemen of the Senate: every child in this nation not only has a right but must be facilitated to go on to a tertiary education in this modern society. To not do so is to cut down that child’s life and strip away from that child a fundamental right in a modern Western democracy. And yet the Exclusive Brethren do that to every one of their children. Are we not to investigate that? Should we not investigate a system where, with political patrimony, the government of the day pours millions of dollars of funding into an Exclusive Brethren sect which alone—nobody else does it—says that its children cannot go on to our universities or any university? They may not have a tertiary education. I ask you, Acting Deputy President: is that something we should turn the light out on? Is that not something we should be investigating? What is it about this chamber that it will fail those children, thousands of them, year after year? I will tell you: the Greens will not. We will stand by their right to be heard and to not have that awful situation, which should be tolerated in no democracy, exist in this country. They are only one section of kids in this country—that is, the Exclusive Brethren kids.

What is more, I had a teacher come to me in this parliament and say: ‘I was brought in as a teacher for the kids at an Exclusive Brethren school funded by taxpayers. I was appalled that those kids took home homework but did not have time to do it because every night and on weekends, including all day Sunday, they go to a religious meeting.’ That is the right of parents, if they wish. I am not talking here about kids who have other outlets. They cannot watch TV, they cannot have mobile phones, they cannot watch DVDs and they cannot listen to radio. The Elect Vessel can, but the kids cannot. That is the difference.

Do we in our society fund that? I said to them: ‘You support policies which have children psychologically damaged for life behind razor wire.’ That is a government policy; people can vote on that, but who knows, when the Exclusive Brethren put hundreds of thousands of dollars into election campaigns in this country, that there are kids in our midst who are denied basic communication with wider society and the learning facilities that are part and parcel of a modern, advanced community?

Should we not look at that? Well, no. The blinkers are on. The government says: ‘Close it down. Don’t look.’ The Labor Party says, ‘Oh, we’re a bit worried about this,’ but will not look. The Democrats say, ‘We won’t look either.’ The Greens will look because we believe in the rights of children and we believe that none of them should be abandoned to a situation where ultimately they cannot even go to a university—and do you know why they cannot? Because people—

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have to say that the imputation there was that we do not care about the rights of children. I am seriously offended by that.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

That isn’t a point of order!

Photo of Ross LightfootRoss Lightfoot (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Heffernan, that is not a point of order.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I agree with you, but that is not a point of order.

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Of course it is not a point of order. That is a correct ruling. You cannot abandon kids in this country, Senator Heffernan—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—with no right to get a tertiary education. What would the general populus think if we were to bring in a law here which said that children are banned from getting a tertiary education? They might do it in Iran. You might hear the Taliban saying that about women. But you do not expect it to happen in this great democracy of ours.

And then we get to this bumptious, fatuous approach by the Exclusive Brethren, parroted here today by Senator Abetz, which says, ‘All the constitution is at stake.’ Let me read the whole of section 116 of the Constitution. It says:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

Of course not. You get into trouble when you have a secretive religious organisation which will not put its hand up and say that it is making massive donations to the political firmament and not declaring them.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) Share this | | Hansard source

Looks pretty secretive to me!

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Abetz looks at the gallery, and I do too. And I ask: where is the Elect Vessel, Mr Bruce Hale? And I say this: let him come out and debate this with me. Let the Elect Vessel—this St Paul of 2006, this hugely rich man who pulls the strings and organises the political input, the deprivation of children of education and the deprivation of the right of people to marry this way or that—debate that with me in public. The majority in the Senate is going to fail them, but I will not. I put that challenge to the Elect Vessel: come out and debate it.

Democrat Senator Bartlett said that he has criticised Archbishop Pell. I will tell you the difference between Archbishop Pell and the Elect Vessel Bruce Hales: Archbishop Pell comes out in public and talks about his beliefs, defends them and stands up for them. When he goes to see the Prime Minister, everybody knows about it. It is not the same with Bruce Hales. Nobody can find him. The press cannot get to him. He is enormously protected, but it is fundamental to the health of our society that we have a person as powerful as this in our midst—this multimillionaire controlling massive amounts of money moving around the planet—held accountable in a democracy. To not foster that, to not insist upon it, to not look at it and to put the blinkers on and say, ‘Well, we won’t investigate that at all,’ is to fail our responsibility in this Senate to always uphold the tenets of democracy by understanding that in our community there are people who would abolish democracy as we have it. They would abolish the right to vote for everybody—not just for their own members but for every Australian.

They have already abolished the right for children to go to tertiary education, and if they could they would extend that to everybody. They have abolished the rights of women, who cannot speak up in their community and who cannot have any job which would have men in their service in that community—very much like the mullahs of Iran. Is that something that we should not debate? Is that something that is not open to the light of scrutiny? By not having this Senate inquiry, the darkness in which this sort of attack on our democracy and fundamentals grows, expands, gets greater.

The Exclusive Brethren decided to tackle the Greens. We decided to look back and see who they are. What you find are closed doors everywhere. You find a lot to worry about, but you find closed doors everywhere. We think those doors should be opened. That is what this motion is about. Senator Abetz, fulminating with his objectionable, distasteful and abominable references to Nazism, says: ‘I won’t open that door. I don’t believe people should know about it.’ We do not accept that. We believe that, for the health of democracy, we should be involved here in opening it up to the gaze of public scrutiny. (Time expired)

Question put:

That the motion (That the motion (Senator Bob Brown’s) be agreed to.) be agreed to.