On Monday I got to inspect a couple of extraordinary documents. They were minutes of meetings between Labour Cabinet Ministers David Benson-Pope and Pete Hodgson, and Exclusive Brethren members.
The Brethren were so proud of these meetings that typed up notes of them. And I mean typed up. I presume they are banned from using computers so the minutes looked like they had been lovingly prepared on a manual typewriter – complete with uneven lettering, smudges and all.
Now it transpires that not only did the Brethren meet the PM twice (she claims they were not planned meetings, but the Brethren say there were) but they also met no less than five of her Ministers. And there is no doubt from those minutes these were planned, prepared meetings.
Now Clark would have you believe these scary Brethren were so bad she needed extra Police security to protect her from them. I’m surprised she hasn’t ordered the Police to taser any Brethren member on sight the way she goes on about them. The minutes tell quite another story with the meetings with her Ministers. The Ministers went out of their way to be receptive to the Brethren’s messages, agreeing with them on many issues such as Defence (pointing out the money they have spent on the Army) while disagreeing with them on others like civil unions and nuclear ships. No improper behaviour, it was a typical try and convince a group of NZers that they should support you. And the Brethren went out of their way to thank Ministers for previous policy concessions such as their exemption under the ERA.
Now it is interesting to contrast the helpful friendly Hodgson and Benson-Pope when they were trying to win Brethren support with what they now say (Hat Tip: Clint Heine):
Pete Hodgson (20 June 2006) “… a very strange group of white men who don’t even vote, who put a million dollars on the table to help the National Party…that is a very strange group of people”
DBP (22 Nov 2005) ” …they (National) tried to buy the election with its tax cuts and its underhand campaigns, financed by strange sects and shady deals with industry in return for favours that the voters were never supposed to know about”
So what do we take from all this? Well it destroys the myth that the Exclusive Brethren were somehow controlled by National and operating as a secret front for them. They were doing what groups interested in politics do – meet with MPs to advocate for policies they wanted.
Upon getting the go ahead from on high to start taking an interest in politics, they undertook a series of meetings to learn about the parties and politics. They met not just with MPs and political parties, but also with other people (Owen McShane has commented here on how they approached him) as part of their shall we say steep learning curve. Their wish list of desired policies is almost laughably naive. Former Brash Chief of Staff Richard Long has written about how appalled National was that the Brethren were trying to campaign on the nuclear ships issue, when that was the last thing National wanted in the public arena. All very clear that any influence National had was minor.
The Brethren did two major things wrong, IMO.
1) They should have called a press conference before the pamphlets went out explaining who they were, and what they were doing. If they had done that, the pamphlets would have been a big yawn.
2) Their hiring a private detective to spy on the PM was an appalling lack of judgement, which has rightly led to widespread condemnation.
But those two mistakes don’t change the underlying reality that there was no grand conspiracy. They advocated for a set of policies they believed in, met with MPs from almost all parties, and then advocated against the parties whose policies they most oppossed.
And it is a good sign of the tolerance of NZers that most NZers (see CB poll) are rejecting Clark’s attempts to muzzle the Brethren, even though very few would personally approve of what they advocate. It’s called freedom of speech, not just speech we agree with.