Exclusive Brethren: Hidden prophets
Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
July 1, 2006
You don't know these three Sydney suburban businessmen, but their sect has
influenced politics in four countries. David Marr reports.
With an iron hand, West Ryde businessman Bruce D. Hales rules his world church.
To his 40,000 followers in the Exclusive Brethren, this prosperous supplier of
office equipment in the Sydney suburbs is known as the Elect Vessel, the Lord's
Representative on Earth, the Great Man, the Paul of Our Day, Minister of the
Lord in Recovery and Mr Bruce.
For 175 years the sect has counted among its strange proscriptions - no public
entertainment, no novels, no eating with outsiders, no university, no membership
of other organisations of any kind, no shorts ("God has no pleasure in the legs
of a man"), no party walls shared with non-Brethren, no films, no radio, no
television and no mobile phones - an absolute ban on worldly politics.
Brethren members have never voted. Since they came together in Dublin in 1829 to
live their pure life, they have believed it is God's prerogative and His alone
to choose governments, as laid down in Romans chapter 13 verse 1: "The powers
that be are ordained of God." That rule held until the 2004 re-election campaign
of John Howard where Brethren - never acknowledging their sect - advertised,
leafleted and campaigned on behalf of the Prime Minister.
The Brethren fear God, honour the Elect Vessel and love Howard. "I am very
thankful for the current Government we have in Australia," Brethren
representative Richard Garrett told the Greens' leader Bob Brown a few weeks ago
in Canberra. "I mean, in my lifetime we haven't had a better government. We
haven't had a better government economically. Whatever way you look at it we
have an excellent government in Australia."
Within weeks of campaigning for Howard, Brethren were offering covert but
well-funded support for George Bush. Intervention in Canada and New Zealand
followed. Earlier this year, Brethren campaigned hard against the Greens in
Tasmania. The strategy involved billboards attacking the Greens, towed through
Hobart's streets by men wearing party masks of freaks and ghouls. The message on
the billboards was: "Dangerous Extreme."
They cover their tracks. The name of the sect is never mentioned. Their
political demands are a seamless mix of business breaks and hard-line Christian
morality. Under Hales, the Exclusive Brethren have become a new player in the
right-wing politics of the world. And they have lots and lots and lots of money.
A feisty night of heckling in the 2004 Australian elections was the first - but
neglected - clue that the sect had plunged into politics. Greens candidate and
intelligence whistleblower Andrew Wilkie was at the Gladesville RSL campaigning
when a dull night turned nasty. "They had such a threatening presence about
them," Wilkie recalled. "They weren't violent but they were very aggressive."
Voices from the back taunted the candidate about his own marriage and about
party leader Bob Brown's homosexuality. "I completely enraged them by endorsing
Bob and his sexuality. It got them really wound up." All in all, it was an ugly
experience. "I'm pretty streetwise," said Wilkie. "But I was rattled."
Brethren are scattered all over NSW - Windsor, Tamworth, Molong, Ermington - but
Howard's electorate of Bennelong on Sydney's lower North Shore is the home
ground of Brethren leaders. Mat Henderson-Hau, one of Wilkie's support team that
night, knew the hecklers. "I recognised them all as Brethrens. I went to school
with a dozen of the guys who came up to cause trouble. I picked Gareth Hales
straight off as he used to be in my roll call at Marsden High."
Gareth is the son of Bruce Hales, who lives in nearby Eastwood. Henderson-Hau
says Gareth had come with several of his brothers and his Uncle Stephen. He
counted seven or eight Hales plus some Kennards and Chesterfields. "They're
heavy Brethren families."
Their presence meant nothing to Wilkie or Brown. They didn't connect this rough
night in Bennelong with mysterious Liberal Party look-alike ads popping up in
newspapers in Sydney and South Australia, nor with leaflets distributed across
Tasmania attacking the Greens. Wilkie said: "The Greens weren't aware of a
broader campaign being waged." There was no time in the last days of the
campaign to track down the names and addresses. The scale of the Brethren
operation in Australia went undetected for nearly a year.
THE UNITED STATES 2004
A fortnight after Howard's re-election, a group called the "Thanksgiving 2004
Committee" registered with the US Internal Revenue Service and placed ads in
Florida newspapers supporting the Senate campaign of Cuban-American Mel
Martinez, a passionate campaigner against gay marriage. Newspapers reported the
committee had registered too late for voters to be able to determine the source
of the money. Press inquiries got nowhere.
A Knoxville map-store owner told the St Petersburg Times his committee was
"working with a larger group" but refused to identify it. "We like to fly
beneath the radar," he said. On election day, the committee placed a hugely
expensive full-page ad supporting Bush in The New York Times under the banner
headline: "America Is In Safe Hands."
The US has tougher rules than Australia for tracking campaign donations. When
the financial returns of the Thanksgiving 2004 Committee were published by the
Federal Elections Commission in January last year, they revealed that $US377,262
(almost $517,000) of more than $US600,000 raised by the committee came from a
Londoner called Bruce Hazell. Press calls to Hazell established little except
that he was Exclusive Brethren.
That the Brethren were last-minute, large-scale backers of Bush interested the
Federal Elections Commission. A spokesman told the St Petersburg Times that "any
money contributed by a foreign national and used to purchase advertising so
close to an election violates a 1966 law designed to limit foreign intervention
in US elections". The commission now tells the Herald it cannot comment on
whether it is investigating the sect's role.
A political conflagration was soon blazing as the Canadian Parliament debated
same-sex marriage. In March last year, households in the electorate of every
member supporting the bill received a greeting card raging against the
legislation: "The suicidal rush to fundamentally change a 6000-year-old
institution is the canker that will destroy the roots of Canada's 'living
The card was carefully worded to avoid contravening Canada's hate propaganda law
and - there being no election campaign then - it was no offence against Canadian
electoral law that the card was signed by "Concerned Canadian parents" who gave
as their address a post-office box in a 7-Eleven store in Toronto. Some time in
April or May, the concerned Canadians stopped paying for the post box and after
that all letters were returned to sender.
"What I do not respect is tens of thousands of dollars being spent anonymously
with absolutely no way to contact this organisation," said a Canadian Liberal
MP, Mark Holland. "My office has been contacted by hundreds of residents who are
extremely upset. Maybe this is acceptable to the Opposition but I would like to
know who is behind it. We do not know who is behind it. Is there foreign money?
Is there a political party behind it?"
His questions were answered by advertising agent Ron Heggie a few days before
the Civil Marriage Act was passed last July. Questioned by journalists after
placing a newspaper ad attacking the legislation, Heggie said he and the
"Concerned Canadian parents" were Exclusive Brethren. He told the Vancouver Sun:
"Those who think the Brethren are being unethical and deceptive don't understand
their approach to the outside world. It's not that we're hiding anything. It's
just that we're not interested in grandstanding."
NEW ZEALAND 2005
The polite world of New Zealand politics had never seen attack advertising on
the scale of the anti-Greens campaign in the elections of September last year.
Every letter box seemed to receive a mysterious pamphlet denouncing "The Green
Delusion." But as the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, said: "New Zealand is a small
country - sooner or later the truth comes out."
Someone recognised the name on the pamphlet - Stephen Win, of Favona Road,
Mangere - and called the Greens to say he was Brethren. The media co-ordinator
of the Greens, Fran Tyler, had an ace: she knew a party member who had brought
with him a directory of members when he fled the sect. She checked with him the
names on the ads - there were half a dozen or more attacking Labour and the
Greens - and he confirmed they were all Brethren.
When news of the Brethren's role broke 10 days before polling day, the leader of
the Opposition National Party, Don Brash - who seemed to be heading for victory
- claimed not to know who was behind the pamphlets: "We were not aware they were
coming out and had nothing to do with it." But a few days later he had to make
the humiliating admission that he'd known all along. "The Exclusive Brethren
have told me some time back that they were thoroughly fed up with the Government
and they would be distributing some pamphlets."
More was at stake than the embarrassing sight of a politician contradicting
himself. Under New Zealand law there are strict caps on campaign spending. If
National had endorsed or approved the pamphlets, their considerable cost would
count under the party's cap. Brash also had to admit Brethren were canvassing
for the party and helping place party ads in the streets.
With political disaster facing National, seven members of the Brethren held a
press conference to claim the church had no role in the campaign. The ads and
pamphlets were the work of individual believers only. "It is not an Exclusive
Brethren initiative," said Neville Simmons, an office equipment supplier from
Auckland. The claim was dismissed by ex-Brethren member Doug Field, who told the
Sunday Star Times: "Nothing happens in the Brethren without Hales's say-so."
Brash lost his chance, but Labour and the Greens lost a swag of seats. The
police investigated the role of the Brethren in the campaign - there were also
questions about dodgy or incomplete addresses on pamphlets and ads - but no
prosecutions were laid. The investigation revealed the Brethren's budget for the
campaign was $NZ1.2 million ($900,000).
LIGHT DAWNS IN AUSTRALIA
While the New Zealand elections were being fought, the Greens sent Brown a copy
of the "Green Delusion" pamphlet. It seemed terribly familiar. The Tasmanian
senator Christine Milne took one look and thought, "That's exactly the same
pamphlet used against me." A few details were different but "the layout was the
same, the language was the same".
Nearly a year after the 2004 elections, the Greens began methodically checking
the names and addresses on ads and pamphlets - some attacking the party, some
mimicking Liberal Party ads - that had appeared in NSW, South Australia and
Tasmania. Several addresses were bodgie. A few were for Brethren schools. All
the people involved turned out to be Brethren. Milne said: "We found there was a
systematic exercise all over Australia."
If true, that would require the Exclusive Brethren to reveal what they spent to
mount their attack the Greens. Under the Commonwealth Electoral Act, the church
or its leader would have to file an electoral return "setting out details of all
electoral expenditure in relation to the election incurred by or with the
authority of members of the group". The Brethren have never done this.
When the story of the sect's involvement in the 2004 elections broke in the
Herald in September last year, the church issued the same denials issued when
the Brethren were sprung in New Zealand, Canada and the US. A spokesman, Warwick
John, claimed the ads and pamphlets were the work of individual businessmen.
"The Brethren church has had no involvement whatsoever with the advertisements
in New Zealand or any other country."
For ex-Brethren around the world, this claim makes no sense. Here is a church
where authority over the tiniest details of believers' lives is maintained by
brutal expulsion. For challenging the authority of the Elect Vessel, for
watching television, for having a beer with a non-believer, members are expelled
from their faith and their family. The emotional carnage is appalling. For these
people, the idea that individual Brethren could of their own accord take the
revolutionary step of entering worldly politics doesn't compute.
A recent - and fearful - refugee from the sect told the Herald: "No one would
have countenanced doing this without the complete sanction of the leader
AN HOUR WITH THE ELDERS
In the absence of the Elect Vessel - all but invisible to the outside world -
the Brethren delegation sitting in the splendour of Sydney's Observatory Hotel
was as heavy as it gets. Accountant Phillip McNaughton arranged the meeting. He
had grown up in the sect after his father's expulsion.
The oldest of the elders present was Athol Greene, father-in-law and spiritual
adviser to the Elect Vessel. Regarded as a decent man even by critics of the
church, Greene was expelled for a while and lived in his garage. Both deferred
to quick-tongued, tubby Daniel Hales, the leader's brother.
The Hales excite strong passion among the ex-Brethren. The exiles say the shift
into politics - plus a fresh emphasis on business prosperity and greater demands
for cash contributions to the church - began in 2002 when Bruce Hales inherited
the leadership from his father.
Daniel blamed changing times for Brethren intervening in politics. "I think what
you've got to see is that there's been a tremendous shift in the whole world. Go
back 50 years when I was a boy, homosexuals went to jail. The Judeo-Christian
principles, that are biblical, were taken for granted, weren't they? Sacrosanct.
Everybody saluted the flag. Everybody said the Lord's Prayer. In the world that
we are now finding ourselves, those things are all up for debate."
But he assured the Herald Brethren plunging into that public debate are not
doing so with the endorsement of the church. "We do it as individuals." He
conceded his brother has never disciplined anyone for campaigning and denies
similar ads with similar messages placed by members of a tightly knit
organisation in countries all round the world are evidence of a corporate
effort. "It isn't. It's got no church involvement. It's got no school
involvement." He added: "You've got to allow for spontaneity."
Despite Brethren putting their names to ads with messages like "Keep Howard in
Bennelong" and "Thank You, President Bush!", Hales insists Brethren are not
endorsing people or parties: "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."
Homosexuality is hot topic No.1 with the Brethren, but respect for the US is
also high on the list. In 2004 Brethren ran an ad campaign in New Zealand
supporting the US alliance and nuclear ships. Greene explained: "We believe
America is for the general good. They get slandered and God knows what. But if
Indonesia gets busy, or Iran or North Korea - then I think they might be glad of
a couple of nuclear powered ships."
The tricky part of this meeting - conducted with gusto by these elders - was
following the logic that says Brethren are forbidden by God to vote but it's
fine for them to urge others to vote. How so? "For exactly this reason," said
Hales. "I see it as a sin and you don't. So I'm very happy for you to vote
because to you it's your obligation to the community. But to me, it's my
conscience that doesn't allow me to vote."
They said the church insists on total honesty and lawfulness. But did it show
candour to fight Canada's Civil Marriage Act via a post box in a 7-Eleven?
"That's just a sensible move to avoid persecution and anything unfair," said
Hales. "It avoids the Mad Hatter attack, isn't that fair?"
These men are all businessmen. They apologised for being strapped for time at
the end of the financial year. The source of the sect's great prosperity are
little businesses - office fit-outs, carpets, roofing, small manufacturing,
farming - that succeed for the best reason: the work is good and they're known
to be honest. Brethren families are forbidden to buy boats and holiday houses,
go skiing, or spend anything on public entertainment. Booze is allowed but the
stern obligation to lead simple lives leaves lots of cash to spare.
Hales gives God credit for this material success. "We don't have a lot of other
business interests. We tend to take one small business and just run with it. Our
efforts are very much governed by biblical principles." Greene added the text -
or the "touch" as they say in the sect: "Whatever you do, labour at it
And business has brought a certain relaxation to the rules: emails and computers
are allowed where necessary for business. "We won't alter a divinely held
Biblical principle we believe in," said Hales. "But we're not Luddites."
Bob Brown admits his party was "almost culpably naive" going into the Tasmanian
elections earlier this year. Mysterious pamphlets appeared smearing the Greens'
lax attitudes to drugs and attacking the party's tax policies. But the focus was
on sex: homosexuals, gay marriage, sex-change operations funded by Medicare and
the foul idea that "persons [may] choose their own gender regardless of their
sex at birth".
Late in the campaign, the Greens candidate Peter Cover noticed this material was
authorised by men in the island's north-east Bible belt. Someone in the party
knew someone living down the road from them in Scottsdale. Calls were made. The
pig farmer and the carpet merchant on the pamphlets turned out to be Brethren.
Brown called for a Senate inquiry into the sect - into its tax breaks,
government funding for its schools, the impact on families of excommunications
and the role the church was playing in "Australian politics and political
The Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz flew to the Brethren's defence,
comparing Brown's action to Nazi persecution of the Jews: "When a leader of a
political party in Australia starts scapegoating a lawful religious minority the
warning bells of history should be ringing loud … once you remove the Green
overcoat, there is a Brown shirt lurking underneath."
Brown's call for an inquiry will be debated in August. The Australian Electoral
Commission has confirmed it is still "considering whether the Exclusive Brethren
have a disclosure obligation related to the 2004 federal election". And from the
ranks of the Brethren comes the faintest, faintest whisper that some brave souls
are thinking of moving against the Hales.
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