Members of the Exclusive Brethren, the ultra-conservative religious sect, have emerged as the interests behind companies that won contracts to import COVID-19 tests and supply them to federal and state governments for more than $30 million.
The well-connected evangelical church abides by a strict interpretation of the Bible and preaches the doctrine of separation, encouraging adherents to shun the use of technology other than for business.
Led by Bruce D Hales, who is known to followers as the ‘elect vessel’, the church has been branded an “extremist cult that breaks up families” by former prime minister Kevin Rudd, and has faced calls for public scrutiny over the nature of the teaching given through its large network of partly government-funded schools.
The church forbids voting but encourages entrepreneurship and directs followers to shop at church-linked businesses.
Mr Hales has reportedly encouraged his followers to extract as much money as possible from non-believers.
“You charge the highest possible price to the worldly,” he reportedly preached in 2004.
“It doesn’t belong to them anyhow, so we’ve just got to relieve them of it.”
Two of Mr Hales’ sons, Gareth and Charles, have been named as the suppliers of more than $1 billion worth of contracts to supply the UK with COVID-19 tests via the company Unispace Global Limited.
A related company has featured in a UK High Court case this month in a dispute over working conditions in a supplier’s lab.
It can now be revealed that another son, Dean, is linked to a network of Australian and UK companies that won more than $30 million in government contracts to supply COVID tests.
Other companies linked to Mr Hales were also awarded the right to import Rapid Antigen Tests at a time of severe shortage and potentially lucrative commercial opportunities.
One company, 2San Pty Ltd, lists Simon Whiley as a director, and a company owned by Dean Hales as a part-owner, was awarded $26 million by the Department of Health to provide medical equipment and accessories.
Mr Whiley was previously a director of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church Limited, a UK arm of the church.
Another UK company, 2San Global Limited, boasts on its websites of winning tenders to supply the NSW education and health departments and the ACT government with rapid tests.
The ACT government paid just under $5 million to 2san Pty Ltd for the supply of COVID tests but the value of its contract with the NSW government has not been published.
Dean Hales was a “person of significant control” for 2San Global until December, according to a UK government register.
The younger Mr Hales is also the director of another company, Medco Solutions Pty Ltd, which is listed by the Therapeutics Goods Administration as the import sponsor of a dozen products including a COVID nasal swab and disposable hospital masks and gowns.
The Australian 2san Pty Ltd was recently fined $66,000 by the TGA for allegedly refusing to provide evidence that its products worked.
“2San Pty Ltd has been issued multiple infringement notices for serial non-compliance in not meeting deadlines for providing information to the TGA,” the regulator said.
Other companies securing the lucrative import rights to RATs ranged from the newly established to the well-established Pantonic Health, which was run by Julie Bishop’s former partner, David Panton, and his daughters.
Dean Hales’ wife was listed as the buyer of a $7.5 million home that set a suburb record in Sydney’s Epping, and which was described as occupying a vast 4116-square-metre estate.
Gareth Hales, meanwhile, acquired a weekender in Dural for $9.5 million that came with a driving range, tennis court and swimming pool.
The church also has extensive business interests in New Zealand, where members have previously accused it of minimising taxes by transferring money earned from a network of businesses staffed and patronised by church members to a charitable foundation, exempt from taxes, the National Assistance Fund.
The NAF reported $54 million in gross income for 2021, according to the charities register, an increase from $31 million the previous financial year, almost all of which came via donations.
One church website says its businesses boast a combined income of $22 billion.
In court this month the UK government says it would not have followed through with contracts awarded to Unispace Global Limited had it known of its Chinese supplier’s “repeated and systemic” non-compliance with local labour laws.
The awarding of contracts to Unispace, via a network of small companies, was first exposed by the magazine Private Eye, which prompted a UK MP to last month blast a process “shrouded in secrecy” and call for the government to release all details of the contracts.
The church acted as a major force in international politics in 2004, when members began making donations to the Republican Party and to a group running a campaign for the Liberal Party during the time of former Prime Minister John Howard.
At a 2016 inquiry the NSW ICAC found church entities had made tens of thousands of dollars in donations to the New South Wales Liberal Party.
The church has denied accounts of harsh treatment towards gay members.
It reportedly lobbied former Victorian government roads minister Rob Maclellan for an exemption on paying tolls on a new road because “eTAGs or perhaps the toll gantries were instruments of the devil”.
“The fact is that our church does not own, operate or hold any commercial business interests. Not one,” a spokesman for the Plymouth Brethren Church said.
“That said, just as I am sure that there were plenty of Catholics, Anglicans, Jews, Muslims and atheists who ran companies involved in the global COVID response, there were people involved in the response who worship at our church.
“Like any other church, we would not comment on the personal or business matters of individual parishioners.”
Another director of 2san Pty Ltd, Raymond Lee, could not comment when reached by phone on Sunday evening because of poor mobile reception.
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