Sect's special treatment puts unions out of business

The Age (Australia)/September 21, 2006
By Michael Bachelard and Michelle Grattan

The secretive Exclusive Brethren sect appears to have won special dispensation from the Howard Government to exclude union officials from its members' businesses without consulting their staff.

A Government spokesman claimed yesterday a clause in this year's WorkChoices legislation that made it easier to bar union officials was not designed to please the conservative religious organisation.

But the Industrial Relations Commission confirmed that, since 2002, every one of the more than 30 employers who claimed a "conscientious objection" exemption belonged to the Exclusive Brethren church.

In 2001, amendments to the Workplace Relations Act substantially expanded the right of some businesses to exclude unions, banning not just closed shops but preventing any union official entry to a workplace, if staff agreed. The staff consultation clause was removed under WorkChoices this year.

The closed and strict Exclusive Brethren sect does not allow its members to vote, read newspapers, watch television or listen to radio, but it has run expensive advertising campaigns in Australia and overseas on behalf of conservative politicians and attacking the Greens.

Greens senator Christine Milne told The Age yesterday that their political influence must be linked to their funding.

"That a sect with such a relatively small number of members gets this kind of treatment from the Government, there must be a considerable amount of money spent to make these outcomes possible," Senator Milne said.

The Greens' governance and accountability spokesman, Greg Barber, said Victoria should adopt the United Kingdom's model of continuous disclosure, where political parties are required to disclose political donations over a certain amount quarterly and then weekly during an election campaign.

He said legislation should be introduced forcing continuous disclosure and the limit for donations without disclosure reduced to $1500. Under the policy, the public would know what influence, if any, the Exclusive Brethren had.

"(Nationals leader) Peter Ryan said he would not accept donations from the Exclusive Brethren but the reality is that 15 of them could get together and donate $10,000 each. Not only is that permissible but we would not even know because the new federal laws ... raise the disclosure limit from $1500 up to $10,000," he said.

The sect is very active in lobbying federal politicians when its interests are threatened or at issue.

Queensland Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce, who entered the Senate just over a year ago, recalls at least half a dozen visits to his office from Exclusive Brethren members, and also noticing them in a Parliament House cafeteria.

They were busy this year working to head off the Greens' proposal for a Senate inquiry into them, including their role in "family breakdown" and Australian politics, and what tax and other special arrangements and exemptions applied to their businesses, schools, military service and voting.

The middle-aged men who visited him came in groups, he said. The two issues they raised in the various meetings with him, he said, were industrial relations and their battle with Greens leader Bob Brown.

"To me, they are neither friend nor foe - they are people who lobby. But if they are a minority religious group, you try to give them a bit of support."

In early June Senator Brown, who had flagged his motion after complaining strongly about the Exclusive Brethren's activities against the Greens in the Tasmanian state election, had a meeting in his Canberra office with three elders, Richard Garrett, David Thomas and David McAlpin.

In a 90-minute discussion, they accused him of religious vilification. He said they broke up families, to which Mr Garrett replied: "It's sin that breaks up families."

A spokesman for Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz said the senator had met many individuals "who happen to be members of the Exclusive Brethren" and he had officiated in a flag-raising ceremony at their Hobart school late last year.

But the allegation that the sect had been given any special treatment was false, he said.

"There is no special dealing ... the Greens vilification of this group because they don't like these people is just sad," the spokesman said.

He said the conscientious objection principle could not be linked to the Exclusive Brethren, had been in industrial relations law "since Menzies", and nothing had changed. But research by the parliamentary library shows that a conscientious objection provision was first introduced in Queensland in 1948 after lobbying by the Exclusive Brethren.

Those provisions attacked the notion of a union closed shop. In 1996, the Democrats insisted the provision be kept despite then minister Peter Reith's attempt to repeal it because the closed shop had been outlawed.

Veteran Liberal Alan Cadman, from the Sydney seat of Mitchell where the Christian community generally is active, has a Exclusive Brethren church and school in his seat.

He has had half a dozen representations from them back to the days of Malcolm Fraser's government - always, he says, on industrial relations. "They are not joiners of any organisation except their church," he said.

"They're very decent, ordinary folk, with a very literal interpretation of the Bible. Some people might find it old-fashioned in its moral code."

NSW Labor senator George Campbell was not approached about Senator Brown's motion - which no party except the Greens supported - although he remembers the Exclusive Brethren in the parliamentary gallery during the debate.

He also recalls them putting in a submission to a Senate industrial relations inquiry some years ago.

"They're a group that wants everything their own way. They want us to butt out of all their activities - but when it suits them, they want the community to bend its rules for them".

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