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Wednesday, 24 September 2008
Page: 5538

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (5:08 PM) —I thank the Senate Standing Committee of Privileges for bringing this report down. I will be supporting the suggested incorporation into Hansard of the submission from the four elders of the Exclusive Brethren sect. I have not had an opportunity to read what they have had to say, so I and my colleague Senator Milne will take that opportunity and we will no doubt have a contribution to make about the matters canvassed by the Exclusive Brethren in that report.

At this juncture, I wish to seek leave to table the book Behind the Exclusive Brethren by Michael Bachelard. It has just been released and is now available. It has on the front cover an attribution from David Marr which states:

Shocking and compelling ... an eye-opening account of power and cruelty in a tiny Christian sect that enjoys a privileged existence in Australia.

I seek leave to table the book.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hutchins)—You are talking about the full book, Senator Brown?

Senator BOB BROWN —Yes. It is publicly available and has been widely canvassed.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted.

Senator Ellison —Mr Acting Deputy President, normally when leave is sought to table we are given an opportunity to have a look at the document sought to be tabled. We have not had an opportunity to have a look at the book. It might be publicly available, but perhaps we could have a chance to have a look at the book first.

Senator Brandis —Mr Acting Deputy President, to contribute to the discussion, given that the purpose of this report is to enable members of the Exclusive Brethren who were mentioned by Senator Milne and Senator Bob Brown to put their rejoinder on the public record, it occurs to me that it perhaps is not very helpful, by the tabling of a book about the Exclusive Brethren which is evidently very critical of them, to continue to escalate the charge and countercharge about this particular sect or organisation through the process of documents tabled in the Senate. I wonder if I might, through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, suggest to Senator Brown that he consider the position that he withdraw his request to table this manuscript. He has indicated that he is going to contribute to debate on the report at some time in the future after he has had an opportunity to read it. In the meantime, he might enable other senators to have a look at this book he wants to table and might also reconsider his position.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Brandis, the leave has been granted. It is up to Senator Brown if he wishes to withdraw that application for leave to be granted.

Opposition senators interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —No-one said it was not granted.

Senator Ellison —I said, ‘No, I deny leave’.

The ACTING PRESIDENT —Leave is not granted, Senator Brown. I might say, Senator Ellison, that you were not in your seat when this was being discussed. Go on, Senator Brown.

Senator Ellison —Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order. I was in my seat when I—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —When you got up you were in your seat, Senator Ellison, but when leave was being sought, you were not.

Opposition senators interjecting—


Senator BOB BROWN —I will again seek leave to have the book tabled. It is, after all, available in all good Australian bookshops at the moment and had some extensive extracts from it and commentary on it in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend. This situation is similar to having a request to table the book by the honourable former Treasurer, if there were one, being denied. I think it is a mistake to deny the tabling of a book under these circumstances.

In their submission to the Senate—and I now have a copy of the submission—Messrs Burgess, Hales, Pridham and Stewart said, amongst other things:

Senators Bob Brown and Milne are relying solely on misinformation about the Brethren gathered from disaffected, bitter ex-brethren who have had no direct contact with the church for up to forty years. This is confirmed by Senator Milne in her Senate speech on 27 August 2008 quoting from someone who left the church about 20 years ago. Senator Bob Brown is very ill-informed about the Brethren, and has not replied to a written offer of 8 March 2007 to meet the Brethren and have discussions relating to his proposed Senate enquiry.

If members of the Brethren are listening—and I know that radios are not permitted in this sect so, if they are not listening, I will write to them—I say that I would be very pleased to have discussions about the proposal for a Senate inquiry. However, I guess that proposal has passed by because the matter was voted down in the Senate after that date.

They go on to say:

The gratuitous and hostile attacks by Senators Bob Brown and Christine Milne go further than just the Brethren. In maligning Brethren schools, they also denigrate the more than 350 non Brethren teachers and staff employed across Australia who are personally committed to providing a high standard of education for these students.

Et cetera. On those points, let me say this: I am not relying on misinformation about the Brethren at all; I am relying on, and have relied on, and have been very touched by, the submissions of an appreciable number of honourable citizens of this country who remained Christians but who have left the Brethren because they could not tolerate the overbearing and restrictive nature of the sect and its leadership under the Elect Vessel Mr Bruce Hales, who lives in Sydney. There are some 15,000 Brethren in Australia and 43,000 worldwide, and they live under extraordinarily repressive conditions.

The book by Michael Bachelard to which I referred, Behind the Exclusive Brethren, which has been published by Scribe Press, outlines many of the harrowing cases that are now part of the sad folklore of the way in which the Brethren treat those who would dare to question the doctrine of the head of the sect, who claims to be a spiritual descendant of St Paul. The book is committed, and I quote this because it is in a way a summary of the reason that we believe the spotlight should be kept on those leaders.

The book is dedicated to those people both within and outside the Exclusive Brethren who have suffered and who suffer now under their doctrine of separation.

It is that doctrine of separation which ultimately is the thing that causes such heartache for the mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers who for 20 or 40 years have been separated from their children or their brothers and sisters or their friends. Once they have decided—and it takes a very courageous person—to leave the sect they are sent into Coventry. They are effectively excommunicated. That means they cannot have any conversation with, or any knowledge of, their loved ones who remain within the sect. The heartache that comes from that is terrible, and it is unnecessary.

Who are these elders that now address the Senate and want justice? And they will get it. Their side is being put into the Senate record now. But, consider this: the stories of the ex-Brethren get no such hearing from these elders. Once a person is excommunicated, that is it. There is no appeal court. There is no way of publishing their side of what they think is an action which wrongs them. They get none of the justice that these four elders are getting here in the Senate this afternoon. They are outside—they are cut off. I have spoken to fathers and mothers of children who remain in the sect when they have left and they cannot communicate with their children. This is not just something that passes in the night. This is day after day, year after year, decade after decade. Who are these men that say, in the doctrine of separation, it is evil—they teach children that it is evil—to communicate with their parents because the parents have had the wit, wisdom and courage to decide they did not want to stay within the sect, they wanted to move outside. And these gentlemen say, ‘You should not speak to your parents because they have become evil’ because they have separated.

The time is not with me to take this further, and this parliament has many things to do. But my spirit cannot rest where we have a sect within our midst which does that to families, which denies all their children the right of access to a university because they believe that their children’s heads will be turned if they go to university. In this day and age their children are banned from that, women from having a place of authority over men in the workplace, workplaces where unions are banned and so on and on. It is wrong and one of these days it will be righted. But it will not be righted by the submission from these gentlemen here this afternoon.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hutchins)—Just to make it clear, Senator Brown, you sought leave to table that book.

Leave not granted.