This week an important story was broken by the small Messenger suburban newspaper chain in Adelaide. The story sheds light on the role of the secretive religious sect the Exclusive Brethren in the lead-up to the last federal election, and includes information that the Australian Electoral Commission had apparently not found, or not considered relevant.

The Exclusive Brethren have always claimed not to be behind the bevy of political ads that appeared attacking the Greens and supporting John Howard in the lead-up to the last Federal election. Rather, they claim, individual members organised advertising off their own bat.

The AEC investigated at the request of Senator Bob Brown, and after nearly a year reported that all the ads were paid for by a company, Willmac Enterprises, which while controlled by a Brethren member did not appear to have received money as part of any widespread campaign.

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Willmac had properly declared its expenditure and: “There is no evidence that Willmac Enterprises received any gifts or donations from other sources that contributed to the costs of the advertisements and pamphlets.”

But that wasn’t all that was there to be found. Now Messenger newspaper reporters Jai Bednall and Michelle Etheridge have revealed that some of the ads were booked and organised by another Exclusive Brethren member, Warwick Joyce. Mr Joyce’s role was apparently unknown to the AEC.

When contacted by Messenger the Adelaide-based Mr Joyce claimed that he had been acting on his own. When asked why, if this was so, the advertisement had been authorised by yet another Brethren member living in Victoria, he replied “that’s a good question” then asked for further questions to be put to him in writing. They were, but he didn’t respond.

Messenger also found that there was at least one elementary error in the AEC’s report of its investigation, including referring to the Mount Barker Messenger when there is no such paper. The relevant newspaper is the Mount Barker Courier.

Now the AEC is refusing to comment on how it conducted its investigation or who it talked to, but Bob Brown is predictably critical, telling Messenger the AEC was too slow to take the matter seriously.

What we now know about the Adelaide versions of these ads is that they were booked by one Exclusive Brethren member, authorised by several others and apparently paid for by yet another Brethren member’s company. Claims that all these people were acting off their own bat and not as part of a campaign seem risible.

Meanwhile it was revealed in Senate Estimates last May that a matter concerning Willmac Enterprises has been referred by the AEC to the Australian Federal Police, who have yet to confirm whether or not they will investigate.

Who can doubt that with another federal election just months away, we should all be watching this space?

Declaration: Margaret Simons provides training services to Messenger Newspapers and advised during the investigation of the Exclusive Brethren story.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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