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Thursday, 27 June 2013
Page: 4368

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (19:36): Because of the limited time available for this bill because of the guillotine I will truncate my remarks significantly. I indicate my support for this bill. I believe it is overdue, and, as Senator Stephens has pointed out, there have been multiple past inquiries in relation to this. I see this bill as helping the charities sector. I take into account what Senator Boyce has said about having unnecessary red tape for smaller charities, and I believe this bill does have a tiered approach in respect of that.

I think we need to define 'charitable purposes' and therefore a 'benefit for the public'. At the moment, we go back to England's Charitable Uses Act of 1601. It has been around for more than 400 years, and we actually need to have some sensible, codified reform in relation to this. We have seen in New Zealand recently and, for a number of years, in the UK that they have had charities commissions in place. I believe these have worked effectively to support organisations and to hold the very few rogue organisations to account. I direct members of the Senate to some of the decisions of the charities commissions in respect of that.

I draw senators' attention to the excellent work done by Professor Gino Dal Pont of the University of Tasmania and to his paper on the uniqueness of charity through the prism of public benefit. I was lucky enough to hear his presentation earlier this year. I cannot, because of time, discuss what Professor Dal Pont said, but, basically, he gives a very good explanation of the history of this. I believe it strengthens the need for legislation such as this. It is important to note that a similar test of public benefit exists in other countries—UK, New Zealand, Singapore and a whole range of jurisdictions around the world.

Why do we need it? Because, occasionally, there are organisations that abuse that tax-free status. This is not about belief. This is not about advocacy. This is not about impinging on anything like that, but it is about making sure that an organisation that abuses the privilege is held to some measure of reasonable account. Having a public benefit test is important in relation to that. Let us make it very clear, the benefits that we give to charities are between $1 billion and $8 billion a year, according to a Senate economics inquiry that I instigated and was part of in relation to looking at the tax act and the public benefit test.

Imagine where we would be, as a nation, without the benefit of charities? I dread to think how many bureaucrats it would take—no disrespect to bureaucrats or those from large corporations—to set up a soup kitchen. The work that charities do is invaluable. The cohesiveness of our society—our social fabric—would be torn without it.

I believe that this bill is an evolving measure. Let us see how effective it is. Let us see if it needs to be fine-tuned in years to come, but I believe the principles are sound and I believe that what we see here is a useful piece of legislation that will hold organisations to account. It would be remiss of me not to say, in the remaining 20 seconds, that I became interested in this field because I was approached by a number of victims from the Church of Scientology. I believe that all organisations, if they are behaving in an abusive manner, ought to be held to some measure of account. A public benefit test is a useful measure of that.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that the bills be now read a second time.