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Thursday, 18 March 2010
Page: 2190

Senator XENOPHON (11:03 AM) —I move:

(1)   That the following matters be referred to the Economics References Committee for inquiry and report by 24 June 2010:

(a)   allegations of abuse, recently widely reported in the Australian media, against employees, volunteers and followers (including ex-employees, ex-volunteers and ex-followers) of the Church of Scientology and any associated entities, including:

(i)   coerced abortions,

(ii)   unsafe occupational health and safety practices,

(iii)   unconscionable, misleading and deceptive conduct in the context of goods and services provided and charged for by the Church of Scientology and any associated entities, and

(iv)   the harassment of followers and ex-followers of the Church of Scientology and any associated entities;

(b)   the adequacy of the Model Criminal Code and its application in respect of the offence of psychological harm;

(c)   the adequacy of current consumer protection laws in respect of goods and services provided by the Church of Scientology and any associated entities, and its fundraising practices generally;

(d)   the adequacy of current occupational health and safety laws and workplace relations laws in respect of the allegations of conduct occurring within the Church of Scientology and any associated entities; and

(e)   any related matters.

(2)   That in undertaking this inquiry, the committee will not inquire into the validity or otherwise of the belief systems of the Church of Scientology and any associated entities.

This relates to matters that were in part dealt with last week. We are back again, dealing with the concerns that have been put to me by many Australians who are former members of the Church of Scientology. These individuals have told terrible stories of horrendous abuse. The intent of last week’s motion, as is the intent of this week’s motion, was to have an inquiry where people can have their say. The reason people need to have their say is that they need a voice. They need an opportunity to speak out safely in the context of a Senate committee where consideration can be given to whether we need to change the law so that people, such as those who have approached me, can get the protection they deserve as Australian citizens.

The issues are these. Initially, several months ago, when I spoke out about this organisation—which I see as a dangerous organisation that engages in criminal activity on a systematic basis—I put up a motion that there be a specific look at the Church of Scientology. It was put to me privately by a number of colleagues—and I will not name them because what they put to me was very much in good faith and with goodwill—that it would be more appropriate that there be a broader discussion about the tax-free status of charities and religious organisations as to whether a public benefit test should apply, as is the case in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has a test that has been in place for many of years, which has withstood rigorous examination and which looks at the public benefit an organisation does balanced by the harms of that organisation. It is interesting to note that in the United Kingdom the Church of Scientology has had difficulty in getting a tax-free status because of their activities, because of the harm caused and because of the nature of the organisation and the way it is structured. Secrecy has something to do with that to a considerable degree.

That motion for an inquiry was not successful because it was deemed to be too broad an inquiry. I accept fully that those senators who spoke to me privately, thinking this was a way forward, did so in good faith. I am back to square one in a sense in looking at a specific inquiry into this organisation that does not—and I emphasise does not and will not—inquire into the validity or otherwise of the belief systems of the Church of Scientology and any associated entities.

This is not about religious belief. This is not about belief systems, this is about behaviour. There is a fundamental difference. I do not want to stand in the way, and nor should this place stand in the way, of questioning a person’s belief systems, but when we have mounting evidence of cases of abuse, of cases where this organisation says it is above the law because of its own court system—a parallel court system, it seems, to the laws of this nation—then I think that is worth looking at. I think it is worth looking at because no-one should be above the law; no organisation should be above the law.

This motion follows extensive media reports—we saw one on Four Corners last week about this organisation; the Sunday Night program on Channel 7 looked at the Church of Scientology—and it is important that we look at these allegations of abuse made against employees, volunteers and followers, including by ex-employees, ex-volunteers and ex-followers of the Church of Scientology and all of its associated entities. A number of very disturbing practices have been alleged, including coerced abortions; unsafe occupational health and safety practices; unconscionable, misleading and deceptive conduct in the context of goods and services provided and charged for by the Church of Scientology and other associated entities; and the harassment of followers and ex-followers. These are matters that ought to be looked at in the context of a Senate inquiry because a Senate inquiry can hear the evidence and make recommendations. I emphasise and note that there will be ample opportunity for the organisation, for the Church of Scientology, to give its evidence fairly before any inquiry so that those former followers, the victims of the church, can give their evidence. They can be questioned, as can the Church of Scientology.

But we need to look at the adequacy of the Model Criminal Code. We need to look at whether there should be a definition of psychological harm in our laws and whether our current laws, for instance in relation to stalking and harassment, are adequate. I say they are not, because the evidence that has been put to me by many followers, ex-followers of the Church of Scientology, is that the modus operandi of this organisation is that they will have numerous operatives from this organisation harassing people, and our current anti-stalking and harassment laws are inadequate because they relate to one individual harassing someone on a continual, a repeated, basis. But where you have a situation where a number of individuals from the same organisation, on a daily basis on some occasions—day in, day out—harassing people, it is very hard to get a conviction under our current laws because there are different individuals involved in doing this, not one organisation. That is a flaw in the current law and that is something I believe a Senate inquiry could look at.

It also needs to look at the adequacy of current consumer protection laws in respect of the goods and services provided by this organisation and the tactics they employ, and I say they are unconscionable tactics. They are getting people to part with their money or to sign over their homes by using incredible high-pressure tactics and people lose their homes to this so-called ‘church’. These are matters that I think need to be the subject of scrutiny. Do we need stronger trade practices laws, laws that relate to this sort of unconscionable behaviour? It seems that our current laws are too narrow. And if somebody wants to take on the church, this is an organisation that has spent literally tens of millions of dollars in its annual budgets in years gone by to take on people, to sue them for defamation, to basically, in many cases, render people bankrupt because they cannot afford to take on the very deep pockets of the Church of Scientology in litigation. There is no access to justice for these individuals when you are talking about an organisation that can spend millions and millions of dollars on any one piece of litigation.

There is also an issue about the adequacy of current occupational health and safety laws as they apply to those followers, those who have worked, who have volunteered for this organisation. So many people have come forward and told me about their work, that they were working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and getting paid $30, $40, $50 a week, or less than that. I was told this morning outside the front of Parliament House that if you were really lucky you could get $50 a week. Here we have a government which has put up fair work legislation repealing Work Choices, and I commend the government for doing that. But here are some horrendous stories of occupational health and safety breaches, industrial relations breaches, which I believe our current laws do not adequately cover, and that concerns me deeply.

I just wanted to read a statement that was made to the media yesterday, and I want to read it onto the record because I think it is important to do so. It is from Janette Lang, who very courageously and bravely spoke out about her experiences in the Church of Scientology. I want to read in full what she said to the media, to the public yesterday, because it took a lot of courage on her part and I am very grateful that she has done so. Her statement goes as follows:

My name is Janette Lang and for 13 years I was a member of the Church of Scientology.

I cannot find the words to express the damage that has been done to me by this organisation, and the hardships that members are forced to endure.

I have never told this story publicly, in fact, I haven’t even told members of my family.

But I am speaking out today because the time has come for victims of Scientology to be heard.

When I was 20 years old I fell pregnant to my boyfriend.

At the time he had been recently recruited into the Church.

When his Scientology bosses found out about the pregnancy, they told him that I had to have an abortion or it would ruin his career as a Scientologist and destroy any chance of me being accepted by the organisation.

We fought for a week. I was devastated, I felt abused. I was lost ... and eventually I gave in.

On the day I had the abortion I asked not to be fully sedated just in case I got the courage to say ‘no’ and pull out of the operation.

But I was fully sedated, and the operation took place.

It was my baby, my body and my choice, and all that was taken away from me by Scientology.

After the abortion my partner did not even pick me up.

Scientology would not allow him to leave work.

In 2002 my husband and I were separated by the Church.

My husband was told to go to America to train as a spiritual counsellor and if I objected I was told I would be kicked out of the Church and never see him again.

While he was over there I was forbidden from contacting him.

After a year we agreed to divorce.

At the time I was a full member of Scientology. I worked full-time, making just $2000 a year.

At nights I would be forced to stay and work back until 2am, with my five-year-old and eight-month-old daughters sleeping on the couch in the office.

In 2003 I fell pregnant again to another man who was studying to be a Scientologist.

I was put through the Scientologist court system because of this relationship, and was ultimately ordered by an official of the Canberra church to have another abortion.

If I didn’t do this I would be cut off from the organisation. My children would not be able to see their father, I would not be able to see my sister and I was told I would get cancer and die.

I am speaking out today because I know I am not alone.

There are others that have gone through what I have gone through, and I am scared that more people will go through the same horrors unless there is an inquiry.

All we want is a chance to have our say to a Senate Inquiry.

And I say to Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, please don’t make us suffer in silence.

They are powerful words, from a woman on whose part it took a lot of courage to speak out. I think it is important that we hear those words. I am very grateful also to Liz and James Anderson, who spoke out on Four Corners and met a number of my colleagues and senators yesterday. I am very grateful to all of my colleagues that had meetings with Liz and James and Janette. All of them gave them a sympathetic and fair hearing. I am very grateful for the decency of my colleagues for doing that. They saw as many people as they could yesterday, and I was very impressed at the decency of my colleagues on both sides who were prepared to see these people at short notice to hear their story. I am very grateful for that.

I believe having a Senate inquiry is the best way forward. This is about law reform, about the protections we need to give to individuals that are caught up in organisations which behave unconscionably, unfairly and in some cases absolutely brutally. It is important that we have this inquiry. To say that this goes to the police indicates, I think, a lack of knowledge in the way that the police operate and their constraints. It is not a criticism of the police forces in this nation. They are constrained by our current laws. Our harassment laws and our laws in respect to psychological harm are not adequate.

I refer honourable senators to the Model Criminal Code, which has not, as I understand it, been adopted fully in relation to psychological harm in the states. It states:

Harm to a person’s mental health includes significant psychological harm, but does not include mere ordinary emotional reactions such as those of only distress, grief, fear or anger.

That is fair enough. But it is interesting to note what was said by the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, the Model Criminal Code Officers Committee in relation to consideration of the psychological harm back in September 1998. They received a number of submissions. I think this extract is quite revealing in terms of the way this organisation operates to stifle debate, to stifle people having their human rights being respected. The committee report said, in relation to submissions made about psychological harm:

...the Church of Scientology produced a very lengthy submission which argued that the activities of religious groups should not be included but rather that the activities of “de-programmers” should be included. The manifesting inconsistency in such an approach did not appear to occur to them. There was also apparent a letter writing campaign to similar effect. Neither the Church of Scientology nor the letter writers addressed the undoubted fact that some groups employee such harmful and extreme techniques, whether or not a particular group does in fact do so. It is likely that some groups from both sides of the contest between religious groups and ‘deprogrammers’, employ harmful and extreme techniques.

I think that ‘manifest inconsistency’ of this organisation ought to be noted. It was noted by the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General and it indicates, I think, a need for law reform in terms of harassment laws and the issue of psychological harm.

There are also, broadly, the issues of protecting consumers in this country. Liz and James Anderson, for instance, spent something like $450,000 on courses for this church. It is the very different from other religions. But this is not about a person’s religious beliefs; it is about the high-pressure tactics that are employed for people to part with their money, to sign over their houses, to work for years and years and years for a pittance. At the end of that they have nothing. They have to restart their lives again in order to provide for their families, in order to get on with their lives to be able to even afford a down payment on a home. They are left with nothing. I spoke to people outside the front of Parliament House this morning and a number of our colleagues visited them. I was very grateful that Senator Christine Milne and Senator Ludlam from the Australian Greens spoke to them and very grateful for the support that Senator Milne gave to Janette yesterday at a media conference in relation to this. I am grateful that the member for Bass, Jodie Campbell, came out and spoke to these people. I am very grateful for Jodie Campbell’s support in terms of speaking to them and hearing their stories. I am also grateful for Senators Joyce and Scullion coming out and speaking to them.

I urge my colleagues to reconsider their position. If you say that this is not the way forward, then tell me what is the way forward. These are Australians who have been treated horrendously, without recourse to justice and without recourse even to telling their stories. The time has come for them to tell their stories safely and for us as legislators to look at some fundamental reforms so that people can be treated decently.