Brethren plot to rule the roost

By Paula Oliver

Members of the Exclusive Brethren lobbied as many as three political parties apart from National in an attempt to bring about a coalition that would make Don Brash prime minister.

In fresh revelations that highlight the extent of the Brethren's involvement in the political scene, New Zealand First, United Future and the Maori Party yesterday all confirmed they had been lobbied by members of the church in the election aftermath.

United Future's Gordon Copeland said the Brethren members who approached him tried to persuade the party to join a coalition with National.

They told him they had been talking with NZ First and the Maori Party, and that "they're keen to put together a deal with Don and we hope you'll be part of it".

At the time, the formation of a new government was delicately poised, with both Labour and National talking to several parties about coalitions.

Mr Copeland said the Brethren members appeared to see themselves as "kingmakers", when in reality their position was far different to that.

"I would say that from their point of view, they were prepared to move heaven and earth to try to get Don into the premiership."

The Exclusive Brethren's strong backing for National was exposed just before last year's election and has been the subject of attacks from Labour ever since.

The religious group's involvement in lobbying during crucial coalition talks is a new twist in the saga, and one which doesn't help National's attempts to distance itself.

National leader Don Brash yesterday said that the Brethren were acting with "absolutely no authority" from his party.

He reiterated a statement from earlier this week that National wanted nothing to do with the group.

NZ First, the Maori Party and United Future were all crucial to National's chances of stitching together a coalition government after last year's election. Several NZ First MPs have confirmed that they were approached by members of the Brethren before the election, and Ron Mark and Peter Brown both said they were also lobbied afterwards during coalition talks.

"After the election, they did telephone, some of them, on a reasonably regular basis," Mr Brown said.

"I actually enjoyed the discussions."

Mr Mark said that he was repeatedly phoned after the election and the Brethren members involved "seemed well informed".

"They talked about the 57-57 [seat] situation, where it was locked up and NZ First could make a difference," Mr Mark said.

He said he was not offered donations by the Brethren members, but he was concerned they seemed to know exactly what National was doing.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia last night confirmed that members of her party also met Brethren members at the Green Parrot restaurant in Wellington after the election.

She pointed out that members of her party met a range of religious organisations and groups before and after the election.

United Future's Mr Copeland said he became the contact point for his party in relation to the Brethren, because leader Peter Dunne deliberately kept himself at arm's length from them.

He said it appeared the Brethren were working "very hard" lobbying the smaller parties. The lobbying was described as "normal", although he thought it was unusual because the church members do not vote.

"I believe they sincerely thought they were doing National a great service in these contacts with other parties," he said. "In all honesty, that wasn't the case."

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