Nick Evers

One of the principal issues in Senator Milne’s speech to the Senate related to the matter of political advertising. For my own part, I consider it entirely reasonable that Australian voters should know who is funding political advertising. This should be so because the political parties and politicians — the recipients — like money so they can advertise widely and win as many votes as possible. And the donors? They are after influence. No one gives politicians money unless they want something. According to Senator Milne, disclosure is a cloudy issue at present and will be worse as a result of recent or impending changes to the electoral disclosure laws.

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I HAVE known Senator Christine Milne for some three decades but have had only minimal contact with her in recent years. Even so, I would still count her as a friend and I believe that sentiment would be reciprocated notwithstanding that there are doubtless a few issues upon which we would differ — but not without robust but amiable debate.

However, I doubt that we would be at odds to any significant extent over the recent exchanges between Senator Milne and Senator Eric Abetz on the matter of the Exclusive Brethren. In his letter to the Mercury of Saturday 19 August, Senator Abetz does not seem to me to address the substance of what Senator Milne said in the Senate on 15 August, 2006. Rather, he engages in a vacuous ramble inferring limp support of the Exclusive Brethren, some postured piety and a bit of cumbersome head-kicking of Senator Milne and the Greens.

(Brethren: What Eric said in the Senate)

It is against this background that I would like to look at Senator Milne’s comments, The deceitful Brethren, the position of government and politicians in relation to the Exclusive Brethren and the compatibility of the Exclusive Brethren’s view of the world with the kind of laws, lifestyle and ethical norms that underlie the way we live and manage our affairs in Australia. By way of useful background, I would also draw attention to what seems to me to be a dispassionate summary of the Brethren’s rules and views, prepared by the Religion and Ethics Department of the BBC and available on the internet.

One of the principal issues in Senator Milne’s speech to the Senate related to the matter of political advertising. For my own part, I consider it entirely reasonable that Australian voters should know who is funding political advertising. This should be so because the political parties and politicians — the recipients — like money so they can advertise widely and win as many votes as possible. And the donors? They are after influence. No one gives politicians money unless they want something. According to Senator Milne, disclosure is a cloudy issue at present and will be worse as a result of recent or impending changes to the electoral disclosure laws.

If it is true that the Exclusive Brethren funds election advertising by political parties, or plan on doing so, then why should it not be public? It is the Australian taxpayers who are paying for the salaries and associated benefits enjoyed by the politicians. Do I have absolutely no right to ask a member or senator where his or her campaign funding came from and to get an honest answer, either directly from the candidate or by way of reference to a publicly accessible record held by the Electoral Office? If not, why not? We should remind ourselves that when politicians make their own rules and make them secretly then democracy itself is at risk.

Senator Milne also quite properly makes much of the Brethren’s distaste for homosexuality and this is apparent from my own reading in the recent past. According to her, the “absolute basis” of the Brethren’s position is that “homosexuality is a sin” For my own part, I am enthusiastically heterosexual or at least I was until, with the passage of time, my eyes glazed over and I went all loose and various bits and pieces started to fall off or become operationally irrelevant. However, the Exclusive Brethren are not interested in me or even in heterosexuals generally. No, it is apparently the homosexuals they don’t like and their dislike seems to be very strong indeed. Well, someone has to tell Mr. Bruce Hales — “the Minister of the Lord in the Recovery”, would you believe — that homosexuality is legal in Australia. Not only that but those political parties he may wish to duchess and influence and give money to include these homosexuals he and the Brethren so dislike. Indeed, at the risk of evoking a pained expression from Mr. Hales, I have to tell him that he may in fact have unknowingly shaken a few homosexual hands in talking with politicians in Australia. Some of them may even be ministers in governments at state or federal level.

There are a number of other positions important to the Exclusive Brethren that may also give rise to some embarrassment in Australia. For example, the notion of separation — involving both keeping away from evil and getting closer to God — is seen by the Brethren as being supported by various biblical texts including 1 Corinthians 5:11 which reads as follows: “I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one, no, not to eat.” I have to say that, in having dealings with Australian politicians, there is a better than even chance of shaking hands with politicians for whom fornication and drunkenness are by no means alien habits. Politics can be a very lonely business in which ministers, members and senators may often find long sittings lead to frustration and consequential indulgence in activities that would not be endorsed by the Brethren. At a very rough guess I would venture that 25% of parliamentarians are teetotallers, 55% are moderate drinkers, 10% are solid drinkers, 8% need a stiff one late morning and 2% can usually be found flat on their backs outside the dunnies at midnight. And some of these people are the very people with whom the Brethren may be meeting and discussing matters of importance. You can tell the bad cases from the colour of their faces, the steadiness or otherwise of their bearing and the pervasive stench of peppermint on their breath. How, I wonder, do Brethren personnel rationalise their contact with these people?

Then there are the fornicators who are also very much in the bad books of the Exclusive Brethren. I am afraid to say that, again, I have unhappy news for the Brethren. In most Australian parliaments fornication is much more common than good speeches. But you have to feel for them. There you have dear old Fred Nurque who farms somewhere near where South Australia meets Queensland, the drought hasn’t broken, his missus gets a lot of tactical headaches and he’s stranded in Canberra for six weeks because if he goes home for a weekend it takes so long to get there that he has to return before he arrives. So he fastens on to a bouncy lass in a Manuka coffee shop who makes his weekends and many of his evenings much more pleasurable than might otherwise have been the case. That is a polite way of saying that Australian parliaments — whatever the members may tell the Brethren — are real bonkatoria and virtually all that bonking would be extra-marital.

Other things that the Exclusive Brethren are not permitted to do — because they are regarded as “too worldly” — include watching television, listening to the radio, reading newspapers, reading fiction, using computers and the internet, using mobile phones, remarrying after divorce, taking out life insurance, standing for political office, voting in elections and bearing arms of one kind or another. Some of these constraints may be incompatible with Australian law and/or common and widely accepted practice. It is true that there is an awful lot of rubbish on radio and television as well as in newspapers and there is fiction that ranges from awful to brilliant; mobile phones have become appendages and computers are everywhere; but all these items may also include immense good or be of great pragmatic value, like in saving lives. They may help our children to enjoy and better understand the world around them or expose us to great works of art or merely show us that between the cradle and the grave there are things of great wonder and excitement and enrichment that are all around us — in libraries, homes, galleries, forests, waterways, friendships, sport and so much more.

I don’t think I’m greatly different from my fellow Australians in that I love my family, my friends, where I live and what I do — a bit of writing and a lot of reading and some gardening and travel and walking the dogs. I also enjoy a scotch before dinner and a glass of wine with dinner. So I would not be persona grata with the Brethren. I have to say that when I read about groups like the Exclusive Brethren I become more than a little irritated. Such groups remind me of the landscapes of Drysdale and Nolan and especially of that great American landscape painter Andrew Wyeth. The landscape is mostly stark, parched, remote and moon-like; and forbidding too, with its ochres and reds and broken down ploughs and animal skeletons; and the obligatory figure, usually a woman at bottom right, a thin, angular, sunken-eyed woman in a tired dress and otherwise clad in a pervasive melancholy, a hopelessness that suggests nothing is getting better. And never will. There are people like that woman — men and women and children who are past hope — and they are out there in the tougher parts of our cities and in regional areas and they are going backwards. And that is without even thinking of the appalling state of many in the socalled Third World, especially in Africa.

It is against that background that I have a message for the Exclusive Brethren. Don’t bother doing the rounds of the politicians. If you want to do something for Australia start working at the dirty end of the business and if you are disinclined to let your hands get grubby then there are plenty of fine charity organisations that would take your money and spend it well.

Should the Exclusive Brethren choose not to take this pragmatic but worthy option then they will remain entrapped between the reality of awesome piety and the threat of rank hypocrisy.