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A power struggle has erupted over control of Humanist House in Shepherd Street, Chippendale with its Secretary claiming the meeting place for progressives has been “infiltrated” by an extreme right-wing group.

The right wing Public Information Forum (PIF) secured a majority of committee members at the end of 2009, and group leader Mark Pavic was elected vice-president on February 14.

John August, President of the Humanist Association, a sub-branch of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, said they had not properly understood what the ‘Public Information Forum’ was.

“We were doing our best to conduct our fight privately, and did not really want to air our troubles in public,” he said. August has also publicly named several Humanist members whom he claims are members of extreme right organisations associated with a white supremacist website.

Humanist House is well known as an inexpensive meeting place for progressive groups, but there have been cancellations as news of the infiltration has leaked out.

The infiltration is even more ironic considering the humanists’ declared values: free expression, separation of church and state and non-discrimination on the grounds of race, class, disability, gender, age, nationality or sexual orientation.

The Humanists own the central Sydney building, and since 1971 have run Wednesday open forum meetings on a wide variety of topics, with the proviso that “views expressed by speakers and audience cannot be taken as a reflection of Humanist views”.

But over time the forums have attracted more extreme fringe elements and far right activists have taken advantage of the open forum to present talks such as those in defence of the White Australia policy.

For the past eight years the Public Information Forum met at Humanist House under a variety of names. They recruited by word of mouth, attracting a dozen or so people to their meetings. It was during one of these all-male meetings that about 70 protested outside Humanist House in October, leading the PIF to cancel the meeting. After another protest, Humanist House cancelled the arrangement.

But in the meantime, members of PIF had joined Humanist House and they now have an estimated 30 members – enough to threaten the internal workings of Humanist House.

Pavic, the PIF leader, used his position to demand access to the Humanist membership list.

Turning up to an emergency meeting to discuss the situation, members found the front door of the building super glued shut. Police ejected Pavic for disruptive behaviour and the meeting voted for his expulsion. But he was nonetheless elected vice president of the Humanists after mobilising his supporters.

The protest outside Humanist House by a group associated with an anti-fascist website brought the ‘infiltration’ to public attention for the first time.

The humanists have helped a ‘who’s who’ of progressive organisations, including the Council for Civil Liberties, the Abortion Law Repeal Association, the Gay Counselling Service and Amnesty International.

The Humanist Association has also been instrumental in nominating past winners of the Australian Humanist of the Year awards. The list of winners includes Phillip Adams, Gareth Evans, Bill Hayden, Eva Cox, Henry Reynolds and Peter Cundall.

Although a majority of Humanist members are traditional humanists with a commitment to secular and progressive values, its aged and inactive membership may be unable to stop a victory for a very different form of politics.

By Dale Mills