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Thursday, 11 March 2010
Page: 1604

Senator ABETZ (10:57 AM) —I indicate on behalf of the coalition that we fully accept the sincere and genuine nature in which Senator Xenophon has presented this motion to the Senate. We also indicate that we have some great degree of sympathy for those former members of the so-called Church of Scientology to which he refers. It is unfortunate when people do get involved in these types of organisations. But the issue I suppose that has been agitating the collective mind of the coalition is: how much can you in fact prevent people from voluntarily allowing themselves to be brainwashed on a particular issue in a particular area? That is the issue that we have confronted.

Whilst the motion on the face of it looks relatively innocuous—it talks about a general inquiry into matters of tax and charitable status generally—there is no doubt from the speeches of Senator Xenophon and Senator Bob Brown, who support this motion, that it would not just be a general discussion of matters of taxation; it would in fact be wider. A number of times Senator Xenophon and Senator Bob Brown have indicated—or at least Senator Xenophon indicated—the need for these victims, as he described them, and I have no reason to describe them otherwise, to be allowed to tell their story. They should be allowed to tell their story. In fact they have told their story. It is one of the great things about the freedom of the press in this country that they have been able to tell their story and expose some of those elements which, I think, make the overwhelming majority of Australians decide not to get involved in the Church of Scientology.

Let us be clear: there are very real issues with the Church of Scientology. But what I say when people seek to point to particular cults, minority religions or whatever, as I have said in previous debates, is that if there is illegality let that illegality be referred to the appropriate authority. Take, for example, a forced abortion, as opposed to somebody, for whatever foolish reason, being convinced that they should have an abortion. I think we have to be careful in relation to that. I think everybody knows what my view on abortion full stop is, so I do not raise this issue lightly. But, if somebody has been physically forced to have an abortion, that is clearly a crime in this country. If that is the case, I would encourage the victim of such an activity to go to the appropriate authority to have that matter prosecuted by the full force of the law, as it should be.

We have also heard that they engage in false imprisonment. If that is the case, then, with respect, rather than floating it before a Senate inquiry, it should be floated before the authorities, to be prosecuted. If there are allegations of child labour, in breach of our industrial laws, let that be reported to the appropriate authority and prosecuted. There is a claim that families are being split apart. I am not sure that there is a law against that necessarily, but I know that as a result of political views families are sometimes split apart. I know that as a result of business deals going wrong families are sometimes split apart. We can think of a whole range of reasons why families are split apart. Religious beliefs also cause some families to be split apart.

Senator Xenophon expressed very well his view on the dangerous belief of the Church of Scientology in relation to mental health. It is a dangerous view that they express, but can I say with great respect that Jehovah’s Witnesses—I hope I do not do them an injustice here—have a very strong view that blood transfusions should not be allowed. Some people would argue that that is just as dangerous a view as counselling people against—

Senator Bob Brown —We have legislated against that, though. We have legislated to prevent people from being harmed by that view.

Senator ABETZ —Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot be forced to have a blood transfusion, Senator Brown, because that would be an assault on their body. People do have the right to refuse medical treatment, should they want to. I think it is a dangerous view. I think it is an inappropriate view. But in Australia we allow people to hold such views. In relation to not wanting the help of mental health specialists—those who would be able to assist in the provision of mental health support—similarly, I think that is a dangerous and inappropriate view to hold. But in our free society we allow people to hold silly, bizarre and even dangerous views. That is why we do allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to refuse blood transfusions. That is why we do allow people, should they want to, to refuse the help of mental health professionals.

I just want to place those matters on the record and remind the mover of the motion and Senator Bob Brown that what seems to be a very innocuous motion is clearly part and parcel of a bigger issue. Senator Xenophon was quite upfront about it, and that is why I accept the sincerity and genuineness with which this motion has come forward. There is an underlying agenda here which is that those who see themselves as victims of cults should be able to air their concerns. It would be interesting to see, given that certain other religions are given tax deductibility status in this nation, whether we would bring them into it as well, especially those who might teach jihad, for example. Would we want to bring those organisations into this?

Would we also want to, potentially, bring in the Wilderness Society? It has an activist who is now running for the Greens in Tasmania. He was captured on TV by Channel 9 trying to organise for a parliamentarian to be forcibly handcuffed to a demonstrator. Would that be a harm, as opposed to a benefit? Given the general terms of this inquiry, anybody with a beef or a concern—some a lot more serious, such as those about the Church of Scientology, and some potentially less serious—could come along to air their grievances about a particular organisation. I could see, with respect, the Privileges Committee of the Senate working overtime to vet the statements of rebuttal in relation to all the allegations that are made. In fact, we had that situation with the Greens allegations against the Exclusive Brethren. I understand that in recent times, following Senator Xenophon’s allegations against the Church of Scientology, the Church of Scientology has sought to respond, to put things on the Senate record rebutting that which has been alleged.

So the real issue then is: is this simply an opportunity for people to air their grievances? I think that is what it is designed to do. I say in fairness that the freedom of the press in this country has allowed that to occur exceptionally well. The question then is: are there illegalities, and is the Senate the right vehicle to pursue those illegalities or is it the Australian Taxation Office, the children’s commissioner, the occupational health and safety authorities et cetera? It seems to me that they are the appropriate authorities to prosecute these matters, rather than having a Senate committee running around as a de facto criminal investigation bureau or police force.

In relation to the tax deductability issue, which is one way of getting at these organisations, are we really saying that people only get involved in the Church of Scientology because that organisation has a certain tax-deductible status? I do not think so. Taking up Senator Brown’s point, do people get involved in the Exclusive Brethren only because of the tax deductibility status?

Senator Bob Brown —I didn’t say that.

Senator ABETZ —I know you did not say that, Senator Brown, but the motion only deals with tax deductibility, and you are trying to use it as a vehicle to attack these organisations. Do people only get involved in the Wilderness Society, for example, because of tax deductibility status? Do people get involved in some of the more extreme Muslim organisations for that reason? I confess that I am not fully aware of whether these organisations do or do not get tax deductibility status. But I think the answer would be that people get involved because, rightly or wrongly, they believe in the framework of beliefs put forward by those various organisations. In a free country, people are, unfortunately, free to make the wrong decisions. But this parliament needs to ensure that no illegality occurs, and that is why I once again say that, if there are allegations of illegality, rather than airing them in front of the Senate, take them to the appropriate authorities to be investigated and prosecuted.

Having gone through the notes I took on the comments made by honourable senators during the debate, I do not think there is much more to add, other than to repeat that we accept the sincerity and genuine nature of Senator Xenophon’s contribution and desire to provide a vehicle for people to air their concerns. But what we say is that an inquiry would not be only for the Church of Scientology; it would be for those who believe they have good reason to be disaffected by a whole range of organisations to come before this committee. Rather than the Senate take on that role, if there are issues of illegality or organisations clearly not conducting themselves as charities, then let the Australian Taxation Office, in this case, deal with the matter.

Interestingly, the Henry tax review, I understand, has considered the status of charitable organisations on top of all those reports that Senator Ludwig referred to in his contribution. I will not go through all of those other than to say that the Henry tax review has looked at this as well. So I say somewhat tongue in cheek to the minister across the table that we look forward to the quick release of the Henry tax review to see what it might say about this particular area, but we will not be holding our breath. Having said that, we have reluctantly come to the position of not being able to support Senator Xenophon’s motion.