Senate debates

Wednesday, 27 August 2008


Community Affairs Committee; Reference

Debate resumed from 26 August, on motion by Senator Bob Brown:

That the following matters be referred to the Community Affairs Committee for inquiry and report by 26 November 2008:

exemptions for the Exclusive Brethren and its members from Australian laws or administrative decisions;

6:14 pm

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

I rise in continuance of the debate on Senator Brown’s motion. Last night, in beginning my remarks, I was commenting on the fact that when I was teaching on the north-west coast of Tasmania many years ago I had a very bright and capable young woman in my class who was not allowed to go on to further education because the Exclusive Brethren prohibited it. They prohibit their young people from being able to go to university at all. As a former Meadowbank school principal, David Stewart, an Exclusive Brethren principal said:

We do not go in for higher learning. We gave up universities in the 1960s as the hotbed of atheism. They prove that everything is nothing to their own satisfaction. We have suffered no loss to our knowledge. We particularly recoil from novels and cinemas.

That is why those young people cannot go to university: because the brethren say so. They also make sure that they have arranged marriages and that once women are married they cannot work. It is the most repressive culture. But even if you were to accept that, by far and away the worst they do is break up families. If anybody tries to leave the Exclusive Brethren, that is the point at which they are cut off. They are cut off from children, parents, families, whatever. A person leaves and it is as if they have died from that point on. No matter how much the person on the outside tries to make contact with their family, they are cut off and denied. How is it that we are allowing this in Australia? We have already had evidence, and we have seen, that they have tried to interfere, for example, in matters before the Family Court.

But I want to concentrate for a minute on schools, because the Exclusive Brethren gets Commonwealth government funding for its private schools. Why is taxpayers’ money going to fund schools which actively prohibit people from going on to further education? My understanding is that you get federal funding if you meet the curriculum requirements of the states. How can these schools meet the curriculum requirements of the states when the Brethren have said that they are not allowed to have computers? Until recently they could not even have fax machines. We understand that some computers have been bought and left in boxes in the foyer of the school. However, we have also heard recently that the Elect Vessel has decided that Exclusive Brethren can now have access to some computers but that they will be ordered through him and through his businesses. He will provide whatever is needed under these arrangements, and we do not even know whether that is in Australia or New Zealand.

I have seen a report from the Exclusive Brethren today arguing that they are being vilified. In fact they say they obey the law scrupulously. That is not so. We have had before the parliament in the last few years the discrepancies under the Electoral Act, where they did not obey the law scrupulously, and they set up front companies in order to fund the Howard government’s election campaign. To this day we still do not know who gave the donations to Willmac so that Willmac could then make a single donation to the Liberal Party during the 2004 election—and that is ongoing. Another way in which they do not obey the law scrupulously was demonstrated on a current affairs program. An Exclusive Brethren woman said that she had transferred money, large sums of cash, in and out of Australia. In Ngaire Thomas’s book she said that it is quite common for them to bring bound paper parcels of cash in and out of the country. There are all sorts of things that we need to look at in terms of these tax arrangements in the transporting money arrangements and the deductions that are granted for being members of a so-called religion when the businesses are being run on a for-profit basis.

I want to go to the schools argument for a moment. In his contribution Senator Brown talked about letters that he had had from people who have left the Exclusive Brethren. They told absolutely heart-wrenching stories of what it has meant to them to lose their families, and they are actually supporting and wanting an inquiry into the behaviour of this cult. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that it is a cult and yet we understand that the government is not going to support this inquiry. I simply do not understand why the government is not going to support an inquiry into this sect, and I give notice now that I will be seeking to have incorporated into the Hansard these particular letters. I will quote from one of them in relation to schools, and this is of particular interest to me because I understand how the Exclusive Brethren get around the current funding arrangements. In order to qualify for federal government funding for non-government schools you have to have a certain number of students, so what they do is register one school and declare that it has up to 20 campuses all around the state, sometimes as far away as 600 kilometres or whatever from the school. So they set up a whole range of small schools and then claim it to be one school for the purposes of federal government funding.

I would like to know how the Howard government justified a 36 per cent increase in federal government funding for Brethren schools during the Howard years. It went from $10 million over three years to an estimated $50 million over four years for a national student population in total of about 2,000. How is that possible? Earlier today the coalition was talking about wanting transparency and openness in government processes. I want transparency and openness as to how it is that taxpayers’ money is being used to fund the schools of a cult which do not allow the same access to information technology that, under the curriculum, other students are required to have. I want to know how it is that we are using federal government taxpayers’ funding in schools which actively prevent kids from going on to further education and which actively prevent girls from doing subjects in the manual arts. I find that quite interesting.

Also quite interesting is the relationship between Brethren schools and Brethren businesses and politics. We know that the Liberal Party used the names and addresses of Brethren schools to authorise political advertisements during the 2004 election campaign. For example, there have been reports that when government funds are received at the Victorian Glenvale School the money is channelled into the Brethren marketing company, ProVision, putting at risk funds needed to pay for teachers. That is an allegation that I would like to see investigated in the course of an inquiry.

There are so many issues in relation to the Exclusive Brethren. One that is really of concern is about a website that was set up— It was set up by people who have left the Brethren and it is their main support network. These people have been in effectively closed societies for a long time and when they come out into the broader society it is the equivalent of coming out of jail because they have not had to interact with the broader society in their whole lives. This website has been particularly important in supporting them. If you go and have a look at the website you will see all their stories. They also have a suicide support watch on that website for people who are not coping with losing access to their families: children, parents and siblings. That website is critical and yet we now know that the Brethren in the USA are trying to force the closure of that website in spite of the fact that it has saved the lives of desperate people who have used it for emergency contact. We now know that there is litigation, as I said, in the United States to try to shut down this website.

That is the kind of power these people have. They have enough power to gain entry to the Prime Minister’s office. In spite of the fact that they do not vote, they feel comfortable intervening in elections in extremely dubious ways and, as I said, not transparent ways—particularly in relation to that Willmac incident in the 2004 election, because you cannot get behind the front company that they used to channel their donations to the Liberal Party. Of course, we will never forget the Tasmanian election where the same strategy was used and where advertisements—

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Abetz interjecting

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

I am very glad that Senator Abetz is here to answer this because I have always wanted to know how it was that the Liberal Party wrote the ad, placed the ad and paid for the ad from the Exclusive Brethren during that campaign.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

We didn’t.

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

That came out in the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal in Tasmania when Damien Mantach was forced to admit that that was the case. He then argued that some kind of mix-up occurred as to why the Liberal Party’s cheques were paying for ads that were placed as part of the Exclusive Brethren campaign in the Tasmanian 2006 election.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

That’s just wrong.

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

I would like to hear from Senator Abetz whether Damien Mantach was not telling the truth in the tribunal, whether the tribunal had false information or what was going on. There is a very clear and close relationship between the coalition and the Exclusive Brethren and there is a paper trail through that Anti-Discrimination Tribunal which demonstrates it.

It is no coincidence, in my view, that Damien Mantach worked in Prime Minister Howard’s office at the time that the Liberal Party ran the campaign with the Brethren against the Greens in the 2004 federal election and then moved to Tasmania to run the Liberal Party campaign in the 2006 state election where—surprise, surprise—exactly the same tactics were used. We were then able to prove through the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal that those ads were written, placed and paid for—

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

We proved—

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Abetz!

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

as I indicated, by the Liberal Party. When I say ‘we’ I am referring to the people who took action in the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal. It was proved there. I do not mean ‘we’ in terms of the Greens.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

A quick recovery now!

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

It is on the record that the Greens did not appear in the tribunal, so I am not alleging that I was in the tribunal.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Abetz interjecting

The Acting Deputy President:

Senator Abetz!

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

However, I am not going to be distracted by this because the fact of the matter is that the Liberal Party and the Exclusive Brethren were as one in the community campaigning and it was not until the matter became very hot in the lead-up to the last federal election that the Prime Minister gave a directive to the Liberal Party not to associate as closely with the Exclusive Brethren.

I find it extraordinary that the Labor Party are not interested in actually examining the relationship between the Exclusive Brethren and the coalition. They ought to be interested in how Commonwealth money is spent. I think that, at the very least, we deserve to have an inquiry into the funding of Brethren schools and the basis on which that funding occurs and whether Brethren schools actually fulfil the state curriculum guidelines as required by state governments in order to qualify for federal government funding.

I also want to quote from another letter from an ex-Brethren member in Tasmania which says:

Since we made our decision to leave the cult, which was based on what was the best for our family, including our children, we believed it was in their best interests for us to give them the freedom of choice as they matured. This freedom of choice is to be able to partake in the activities of our community which the cult totally and absolutely forbids. Our daughter went to the Melbourne conservatory of music and is now doing a doctorate, our elder son was in the Air Force as a pilot officer and has a degree in aeronautical engineering, and our younger son is now a plasterer. He is also in the process of going to Uganda to work with the orphans there. I give you this background because, if we had stayed with the cult, our children would not have had these opportunities. Since we have left, which would be about 20 years ago now, my wife’s parents have not contacted her—not once. They have not even contacted their grandchildren. They did not advise her on the deaths of her grandparents. They disowned her and she may as well have been dead and buried simply because she chose to pursue a different lifestyle. When we made our decision the cult offered to look after our children whilst we reconsidered our decision. If we had allowed this, we would never have seen them again.

How can this be going on in Australia in 2008? How can we be allowing this cult to lead to the break-up of families and to this misery? And then they try to close down the only capacity those people have to contact each other and to talk to each other. How is that possible and how is it that the Senate could possibly deny an inquiry into the way this cult operates? I urge senators to reconsider this particular motion. We are asking for an inquiry into the industrial relations exemptions that they have had, their public funding, tax and other arrangements, and the activities which threaten families and the best interests of children. What is wrong with having an inquiry into this cult? Perhaps somebody can enlighten me as to what is wrong with inquiring into those activities when it is clear they are not in the best interests of our community.

We have the coalition prepared to go with interventions all over the country for whatever else it likes but apparently a parliament not interested in intervening in the best interests of a transparent, open, compassionate, decent Australian society. I do not believe that the activities of this cult contribute to that when they do not allow parents to contact their children and vice versa, and when they keep people from their parents, grandparents and the like. It is cruel, it is harmful and it should not be tolerated in our society today. Before I conclude I seek leave to incorporate into the Hansard the letter to the Prime Minister circulated yesterday by Senator Brown.

Leave not granted.

6:31 pm

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

I note that it was Senator Abetz who did not give leave.

6:32 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Here we go again—a third attempt by Senator Bob Brown to get an inquiry into the Exclusive Brethren. An attempt was made by Senator Brown two years and 12 days ago on 15 August 2006. Nothing has changed except that Senator Brown is two years older but, unfortunately, none the wiser. The same hyperbole and vilification of yesterday’s speech by Senator Brown is contained in the Hansard of 15 August 2006. Many words, but no evidence. Senator Brown makes the same old points with a now decidedly worn out record playing the same old tune.

The coalition’s position on this is straightforward and principled. If there are allegations of wrongdoing, report them to the appropriate authorities. Other than that, within the laws of this country people are entitled to live their lives as they deem appropriate. And they are entitled to do so even if we disagree with them. As I have said before in this place, I doubt if anyone in this chamber would subscribe to the Exclusive Brethren approach to life. But no-one has shown any illegality by them and, if there is, report it to the authorities. Other than that, let them be.

It is instructive to learn that allegations have been made to the authorities and the Australian Federal Police, and dismissed. There is still one allegation being considered although no allegation of wrongdoing so far has been determined. My view is, and the coalition’s view is, let the cards fall where they will. If wrongdoing is found, let the law deal with those involved. But to suggest that the behaviour of one or two members of a group requires a full inquiry into the whole group is, I must say, stretching credulity.

But we do have a bizarre conspiracy theory in Senator Brown’s speech yesterday. He told the Senate:

I think the Senate has every right to ask why ... the Australian Federal Police have not completed that inquiry and reported publicly.

Hello? Are the Australian Federal Police now involved in this huge conspiracy as well? You know what? The Senate does not have to ask that question. Senator Brown of his own volition can ask that question by—and this might be a unique experience for him—turning up to Senate estimates and asking the Australian Federal Police about this inquiry, how it is going, et cetera. That is open to every single individual senator in this place if they have a concern that the Australian Federal Police are being tardy. I would invite Senator Brown to take that course of action if he actually believes that the Australian Federal Police are somehow conspiring on the side of the Exclusive Brethren. But Senators Brown and Milne provide no evidence for their assertions that would support an inquiry.

One of their interesting allegations is that the Exclusive Brethren do not allow computers in their schools and actively discourage children from learning how to use computers. I do not know if that is the case but if that is the case I would say, as would the coalition, that is a matter of great regret. But ultimately the standards, curriculum and other requirements for all schools, and their registration, which of course is the precursor to funding, are vetted and administered by the eight state and territory Labor governments and their education departments. So now we have the eight Labor states and territories also involved in this conspiracy in providing funding to the Exclusive Brethren—no longer just Mr Howard’s former office, no longer the Australian Federal Police; now the eight Labor state and territory governments are apparently involved as well.

From the coalition point of view there are simply standards that apply to every single school and, if any Exclusive Brethren school falls within the categories, if they qualify for funding, then they should get funding. If they do not qualify according to the standards then they should not get funding. At the end of the day this is an issue of whether the standards are appropriate for the various schools but there is no specific category that says that only Exclusive Brethren schools will get this sort of funding. They are not mentioned by name. There is a broader category in each of the states and territories which determines whether or not a school is to receive funding.

But back to the computers, because Senator Brown relied on that in his speech yesterday—and, very interestingly, I note that Mr Rudd seems to have relied on it when just before the election he tried to jump on the bandwagon. Senator Brown quoted:

The Exclusive Brethren ... actively discourages children from using information technology, from learning how to use computers—

As I said before, if that is the case that is to be regretted and I do not think that they do their children any favours by such a policy.

I think that a number of senators would have received a copy of this letter today. It is by the federal member for Griffith who also happens to rejoice in the title of Prime Minister of this country. It is a letter dated 31 May 2007 addressed to a Mr Greg Thomas, principal of Agnew School, which I understand is in fact an Exclusive Brethren school. In it—and his familiarity with the principal is quite clear because it starts ‘Dear Greg’; it does not say ‘Dear Principal’ or ‘Dear Mr Thomas’—he says:

I am pleased to inform you that—

under the Investing in our Schools program—

the application tendered by Agnew School ... has been successful.

And guess what it was for: the provision of wordex machines and computers. Mr Rudd goes on:

I would like to extend my warmest congratulations ...

So here we have proof positive that Exclusive Brethren schools do seem to take computers on board. If this is all fictitious, then could I suggest that Senator Brown go to the education Senate estimates and asks the department whether there is verification that those computers have been delivered et cetera.

Some of these allegations on closer examination clearly do not stand up to scrutiny. Indeed the federal minister for education, Julia Gillard, has written to the Independent member for New England, Mr Tony Windsor—and undoubtedly he is now part of the conspiracy as well, as is Ms Gillard of course by this. She says in a letter to Mr Windsor, dated 16 April 2008:

I can confirm that the Meadowbank Education Trust School—

which I understand is an Exclusive Brethren school—

and its subsidiary campuses are being funded in accordance with the Act and that it continues to meet the conditions associated with the current funding agreement and its legal obligations.

If the Greens senators have information that can contradict that which Ms Gillard has written to the Independent member for New England, let them bring it forward, let them mention it at Senate estimates, and let us have a proper analysis of these matters.

I move on to the other matters that have been raised, and that is Senator Brown’s request for a 15-page document to be put into Hansard. I say to Senator Brown and the Greens: if the information in that document is to be incorporated into Hansard, there is nothing stopping the Australian Greens from actually reading the information contained in that document and putting that onto the Hansard. But by giving leave, every individual senator in this place would be vouching for that information and allowing it to have privilege. There is nothing stopping Senator Brown from reading it into the Hansard and, if he so wants, he can do so. But the coalition does not want to be part of a process which would say, and allow Senator Brown to say, ‘I tried to put it into Hansard and, guess what: nobody objected so therefore it has the imprimatur of the totality of the Senate.’ In relation to that 15-page document, there was a letter written to the Prime Minister—

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

Madam Acting Deputy President Hurley, I rise on a point of order. I seek a ruling from the President whether giving leave for incorporation indeed puts the imprimatur of all senators on a document.

The Acting Deputy President:

I will take that question on notice and refer it to the President.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

That of course would be the claim that would be made by the Australian Greens. But in relation to this letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, quite rightly said that all the allegations should be referred to the appropriate authorities. Nobody has suggested to us that all those allegations have in fact been brought to the appropriate authorities and that somehow the great conspiracy has gone further to ensure that those allegations have not been investigated. Until people follow the proper course of action of referring these matters to the appropriate authorities, I on this rare occasion happen to agree with the Prime Minister that these matters should be aired with the appropriate authority.

Can I say in response to Senator Milne’s contribution that it is disappointing when a former teacher refers to a pupil and quite clearly—because, although the name was not mentioned, Devonport in Tasmania is a small community—identifies an Exclusive Brethren girl student. There ain’t that many of them! So anybody who would have been at the school at the time would know and be able to identify who that girl is. I think it is a matter of regret that Senator Milne has stooped to that.

Having said that, I will say that the Exclusive Brethren have some beliefs—I suppose a lot of beliefs—that we on the coalition side clearly do not agree with. But the test is: are they illegal? Encouraging young people not to continue with education I think is a matter of great regret, if that is what they do. But, in this society, by the time people turn 18 they actually have a choice: they can decide whether or not they want to go on with education.

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

They can’t; they will be thrown out.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Milne says they will be thrown out—and, chances are, that may well be right. But in a free society people will continue to join the Exclusive Brethren. They will also continue to leave the Exclusive Brethren—we had a story, through Senator Milne, of a family that left the Exclusive Brethren and did all sorts of wonderful things, including pursuing careers. And, whether we like it or not, some people will stop talking to each other in this society. Exclusive Brethren have a particular view with which I, respectfully, very strongly disagree. But how on earth can a Senate inquiry force somebody to talk to somebody else if their religious belief, for whatever reason, is that they will not talk to such a person? People actually do have free will, and if that is the decision they make, regrettable though it is, then that is unfortunately the way it will turn out.

I simply say in conclusion: what is all this about? Very simply, what all this is about was shown and exposed by Senator Brown’s own words in the Sunday Tasmanian of 13 August 2006. He said:

... my beef with the Exclusive Brethren is not about religious belief.

So all this talk about cult and religious belief is not Senator Brown’s concern; he has admitted that himself. He went on to say:

“It’s about them venturing into politics ...

That is the beef that Senator Brown has. It is not their religious beliefs, that they do not allow people to talk to each other or allegedly allow computers to be used. That is not his concern. If they had not have ventured into politics, as he alleges, he would have been happy for them to continue with all the practices that he now claims he abhors. That shows the double standard with which Senator Brown comes to this debate. Even more so, under a heading of ‘Exclusive Brethren payback’ Senator Brown called for a public register of all Exclusive Brethren business premises. Can I say: that is very distasteful. Why would you have a public register of Exclusive Brethren businesses? Why not green businesses or Roman Catholic businesses or Protestant businesses or Muslim businesses? Very, very distasteful, might I suggest. And when the leader and deputy leader of an Australian political party start descending into this sort of behaviour on a personal vendetta because people dared to venture into politics, then I think we have come to a very, very sad state of affairs in this country.

In relation to the Exclusive Brethren not voting, I think it is an unfortunate decision, a regrettable decision. I encourage everybody to vote. But the Commonwealth Electoral Act has an exclusion based on religious belief. It applies to everybody. I do not know how many Exclusive Brethren there are in this country. I would think 10,000 would be tops—by a long, long way.

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

You’re wrong again.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Oh, Senator Brown says ‘wrong again’. Well, I would be interested to know what his figure is. Can I tell you this: it would not be 62,000—and that is how many people claimed the religious exemption, under the legislation Senator Milne complains about, at the 2004 election. Why have an inquiry only into the Exclusive Brethren exercising that right and not into the 52,000 other Australians who exercised that same exclusion for religious beliefs? That is why we as a coalition oppose this proposal.

Debate interrupted.