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Thursday, 18 March 2010
Page: 2194

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Government in the Senate) (11:22 AM) —I will say at the outset that I appreciate the sincerity and the passion that Senator Xenophon brings to this issue. I know it is genuine, and I know he seeks to represent people who have been damaged by their engagement with the Church of Scientology. I think, though, that we have had difficulty in responding to Senator Xenophon’s various motions on the subject, as he seeks with his normal persistence to get support for a proposition that effectively would have the Senate inquire into the Church of Scientology. He has packaged it in different ways. Today he stressed some of the legal issues and consumer issues and other things that he would like to have examined, but I think Senator Xenophon is honest enough to say that at the heart of this is an inquiry into the Church of Scientology and how they react and interact with their members.

I acknowledge that the concerns Senator Xenophon raises are serious. The evidence of persons he referred to who have been in parliament over the past day or two and others who have been in the media is quite disturbing. In response, though, we have seen this before. There were similar allegations about the operations of the Exclusive Brethren, into whose activities Senator Bob Brown sought to have a similar type of inquiry. I am happy that, for once, I can say with some confidence that the government has been totally consistent on this matter. I responded to the issues that Senator Brown raised in relation to the activities of the Exclusive Brethren in the same way that I do today to those Senator Xenophon raised in relation to the Church of Scientology.

I am no fan of sects or religions that look to control their members. In fact, I am passionately opposed to such activity. To be brutally frank, I am not a great supporter of what I have seen of the operations of either the Exclusive Brethren or the Church of Scientology, but that is a personal opinion and should be valued no more highly than anyone else’s personal opinion about these organisations. But what I am strongly against is any suggestion that Senate committee processes be used in a way that I do not think fits with the role of the Senate. It is tempting to address some of these concerns in that way, but the role of the Senate is to inquire into issues of public policy and public administration. We do have to use our powers and capacity wisely. It would be very easy for Senate committee processes to be brought into disrepute if people thought these processes were being used for purposes beyond the Senate’s role in public policy and public administration.

I have a fundamental concern about our saying that we are going to have an inquiry into a particular organisation, because at various times a majority in this chamber will have a view about a particular organisation. At times there might have been a majority in this chamber in favour of inquiring into the Wilderness Society or into the CFMEU and the way it operates. It is very appealing for some. I see Senator Abetz’s eyebrows being raised. He is thinking, ‘That has some merit,’ because of his particular concerns about that union, but I think on this issue Senator Abetz has fundamentally been consistent as well—and I am worried that we actually agree on this matter as it is very rare that we do agree. But think through what happens if you single out an organisation and say that the Senate is going to inquire into it because it wants to use that inquiry to air claims about that organisation, to allow people under parliamentary privilege to make claims about those organisations—not in a court but to make very serious claims of criminal behaviour as referred to by Senator Xenophon—and to have them tested by the Senate in a Senate hearing.

The Senate is not a court of law. We do not have the protection and the processes that a court of law has. We are a group of senators who come together to inquire into issues of public policy and public interest. I think it is a fundamentally dangerous step for us to say that we are going to inquire into particular organisations and allow people to make their claims in regard to those organisations—not claims about policies but claims about personal treatment and, very fundamentally to the issues Senator Xenophon raises, claims about criminal behaviour. I think this is a step that the Senate ought to consider very carefully, and the government takes the view that we should not take that step. As I said, we responded to the claims about the Exclusive Brethren the same way. I would respond to claims about the Menzies Research Institute, the CFMEU or the Wilderness Society in the same way. It is a very dangerous thing for us to have what could be seen as a witch-hunt against an individual organisation, be it a religion, a trade union, a community organisation or a company. I do not think that is a step we ought to take.

However, I do regard the allegations made by Senator Xenophon and the former members of the Church of Scientology very seriously. They are allegations, in large part, about criminal behaviour. We have always argued that those matters ought to be referred to the police: if people have issues of concern that involve alleged criminal behaviour, the police are the appropriate authority to go to. I understand that Senator Xenophon, when he received earlier advice regarding allegations of criminal behaviour, did take those allegations to the Australian Federal Police—I think at the end of last year. I understand that the AFP made a preliminary assessment of the allegations and advised Senator Xenophon that, unless there was further evidence of a Commonwealth offence, the allegations he raised would be best brought to the attention of state police, which has been done, and it is the appropriate thing to do. Senator Xenophon has sought today and in other debates to focus on some of the policy issues around these concerns, but I think fundamentally it is about having an inquiry into the Church of Scientology, bringing forward witnesses who are concerned about their treatment and airing those claims. As I said, that has some appeal, but I think there are some serious concerns that really need to be considered by the Senate before we go down that path.

I am personally open to trying to assist Senator Xenophon to find a way through on this. We have dealt with, over the years in Australia, real difficulties in tackling activities of sects or religions that have perhaps too much control over their members or are closed organisations. The claims about the Exclusive Brethren were not the first. The Church of Scientology will not be the last. There have been a range of sects over the years about which there have been concerns with the way that they have related to their members and the way that they have operated. That is of public concern. We need to work out how we deal with those more properly. Senator Xenophon referred to psychological issues of control and other things. These are not easily dealt with by state laws or by state police departments. That is a fair point. He identifies a serious public policy issue about how government authorities, police authorities and law enforcement authorities should respond to those problems.

But my view, and the government’s view, is that a Senate inquiry is not the way to go. A Senate inquiry into a particular organisation is not the way forward. We need to deal with these claims in way such that procedural fairness, respect for people’s rights in terms of claims made against them, people’s ability to defend themselves adequately and protection against capricious or badly motivated claims—all those sorts of issues that we have to take seriously—are maintained. Those things are not address properly in the Senate inquiry process. The government will not be supporting this particular proposal by Senator Xenophon. It is not the first and I am sure that it will not be the last. Persistence is one of his great traits, and he is dealing with a serious issue. But I do not think that this is the answer.

On a personal level, I am prepared to engage in how we might come up with a better answer. The issue of the Exclusive Brethren troubled me, this troubles me and claims about other sects have troubled me. I think that as political leaders and public policy makers we need to work through how we adequately respond to very serious allegations against these sorts of organisations but equally against other community based organisations.

As I said, we understand Senator Xenophon’s motives. I am sympathetic, obviously, to those who have provided their concerns to him and publicly. We need to be able to respond to those. But I do not think that this is the way forward. It is not an attempt to fob Senator Xenophon off, but I fundamentally think that the Senate ought to be very cautious about how it proceeds in inquiring into individual organisations.

I recall that the Howard government had a majority in this place only a little while ago. A precedent that said that one could inquire into individual organisations may look very attractive to someone who has a majority in this place. It may look very attractive to a coalition of interests in this place. I am not sure that we want to set a precedent like that, which would be set if Senator Xenophon’s motion is carried, so we will be opposing it, consistent with the position that we have taken on the other matters that Senator Xenophon has raised and consistent with our response to the matters that Senator Brown raised in relation to the Exclusive Brethren.

Maybe what our focus should be is how we actually organise public administration and law enforcement in this nation to allow such concerns and claims to be properly tested and responded to in a way that is not looking at any particular organisation. We need to establish a framework. I am happy to continue to look at that issue and take up any ideas that come forward from Senator Xenophon or others. But we will not be supporting the resolution.