A shadowy religious sect
has entered the Tasmanian election campaign, spending thousands of
dollars on half-page ads in newspapers decrying the Greens’ policies in
the lead-up to the March 18 state election. The ads were authorised by
a farmer from a small town in north east Tasmania, Roger Unwin.

Contacted
by Crikey this morning, Unwin confirmed he was a member of the
Exclusive Brethren. He placed the ads because of concern about “moral
degradation in the world today” and concern that the Greens’ policies
“undermined Tasmanian families”. The ads zero in on Greens policies on
sex issues, like sex change operations to be funded by Medicare, and on
drugs, such as the trial of prescribed heroin to registered users. “As
a family man, I am seeking to alert every unsuspecting voter of these
policies that will ruin our families and society in the future,” Unwin
says in the ad.

The Exclusive Brethren reportedly spent $500,000
in the last New Zealand election, campaigning against both the Greens
and Labor, and more than $US 500,000 in the last US election, shoring
up support for George W Bush. The world head of the sect, who rejoices
in the title Elect Vessel of God, is wealthy Sydney businessman Bruce
Hales. Hales lives in Prime Minister John Howard’s electorate of
Bennelong and reportedly prophesied the end of the world if Bush and
Howard were not re-elected.

Australian Greens leader Bob Brown
told Crikey this morning the Exclusive Brethren had pumped money into
anti-Greens ads and pamphlets in the last federal election, and in
particular, targeted Greens Tasmanian Senate candidate Christine Milne.

“There
is an international link-up,” Brown says. “They have supported the far
Right with huge amounts of money, nationally, in the US, the UK, Canada
and New Zealand, without saying who they are, and are now secretly
intervening in Tasmania and supporting the Liberals, some of whose
pamplets are very similar. As a church group they are deliberately
misleading the electorate by publicising Greens drugs policies which
changed months ago, and are now very similar to both Liberal and Labor
policies.”

The Exclusive Brethren – so-called because of a
desire to keep away from evil – is a breakaway sect of the conservative
Plymouth Brethren, or Open Assembly. The group has a rigid code of
conduct based on a strict reading of The Bible. There are thought to be
70,000 members in English-speaking countries, tightly controlled by a
few individuals. Curiously, given their foray into politics under
Hales, who became world leader in 2002, the Exclusive Brethren code
prohibits members from watching TV, reading newspapers, accessing the
internet, joining the armed forces, standing for elected office or
voting in elections.

The editor of Tasmanian Times,
Lindsay Tuffin, grew up in a Plymouth Brethren family in a small town
in north west Tasmania. He left as a teenager but remained a Christian.
Tuffin told Crikey he was alarmed by the Exclusive Brethren’s move into
the political arena: “It’s very dangerous. They’re a sect which rails
against the evils of modern society and exercises extreme, control
freak style moral and social authority over members, who are made to
feel unsafe outside the sect. It’s the height of hypocrisy for a group
which excludes itself from the mainstream to insidiously try to
influence how people vote.”

Peter Fray

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