If you didn't see last night's Four Corners on the Exclusive Brethren, I highly recommend that you watch it online here on Four Corners' excellent website.
It exposed in the clearest way we've seen yet the shadowy and, in some cases, illegal role that this extremist cult has played in Australian and overseas elections in recent years. They have channelled cash from around the world, amassing election war chests for advertising campaigns attacking the Greens and supporting John Howard, George Bush, NZ's Don Brash and the Swedish conservatives. Now, of course, any citizen or group should be able to engage in election campaigning. That is everyone's basic democratic right.
Questions over the Exclusive Brethren's decision to do so even though they forbid their members to vote, believing governments are raised up by God, are neither here nor there. However, one of the fundamentals of democracy, as interviewee Peter Trainor said, is that "when we interpret a political message, part of interpreting that message is knowing who is presenting that message to us."
Now, the Brethren's modus operandi is to run ads that look like they are placed by concerned conservative individuals. They might suggest that they are from schools. Too often, they give false names and addresses as the official authorisation. They never explicitly state that they are from the Exclusive Brethren.
For our democracy to work effectively, we must have access to full information before we make our choices. And that includes information on how to assess and interpret what we are told. Australians will take a different message from the same ad on the pulp mill, for example, depending on whether it comes from its proponents, Gunns, or from a group indirectly funded by Gunns but calling itself "Timber Communities Australia". The Exclusive Brethren are entitled to participate in Australian elections and to support John Howard and attack the Greens. But it is vital that any pro Howard or anti Green attacks are clearly labelled as coming from them so that Australian voters know the message is not from concerned individuals but from an extreme and shadowy cult: A cult whose schools are federally funded even though they do not allow their students to go on to tertiary education and who disallow computers. A cult who Prime Minister Howard has rewarded by exempting them from legislation such that they can ban unions in their workplaces.