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Thursday, 11 March 2010
Page: 1607

Senator MILNE (11:12 AM) —I have heard hypocrisy in this place before and I have heard weasel words before, but I have to congratulate Senator Abetz’s exemplary performance on both hypocrisy and weasel words in commenting on Senator Xenophon’s motion. From listening to Senator Abetz, you would not know what the motion calls for an inquiry into. It calls for an inquiry into the taxation status of the Church of Scientology and the application of a public interest and benefit test in terms of whether the church should get the benefits of having charitable status. Why should the public interest test not be applied to this cult? The Church of Scientology is a cult, and there are demonstrated cases of people who have suffered because of it.

Senator Abetz said let us look at the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the fact that they choose not to have blood transfusions. Senator Abetz is wrong. When it comes to minors, it is now the law in Australia that a doctor can give a blood transfusion to a child, regardless of the beliefs of the child’s family, if the child is in danger of dying. The doctor has an obligation to keep that person alive.

Let us go to the issue that Senator Xenophon has raised. The coalition, of all people in this chamber, are saying there is no need to have an inquiry so that people can air their views because we have a free press in this country and that is the mechanism for people to air their views. Well, perhaps they can explain why they run so many select committees from one end of the country to the other, giving anybody who is disaffected with anything the government has to say an opportunity to air their views. Well, if the Senate committee process is not for the purpose of allowing the community to air their views, let people air their views in the paper, not through Senate committees.

That is what we do. That is why we have Senate inquiries, so that people can air their views on a particular matter, and in this case the particular matter is the detrimental impacts of the Church of Scientology and the question of whether there is a public benefit in providing that organisation with the tax status it has so that it benefits from not having to pay the same tax as other organisations. I say: why isn’t that an appropriate thing for this parliament to look at? The taxpayers, the community of Australia, are extending to this organisation preferential status and saying, ‘You are exempt from paying tax.’ That means the rest of us pay more taxes for everything else so that some organisations are tax-free, and that is entirely appropriate. But the parliament of Australia makes the laws. The parliament of Australia makes judgments about particular acts and so on. The idea of applying, as they do in Britain, the public benefit test to this seems entirely appropriate to me.

Like everyone in this chamber, I have had emails from people talking about the adverse impacts. But what is even more startling here is when you get the Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry, coming out and saying that this should be supported because this particular cult actually engages in potentially harmful interventions for people with serious mental health problems. Come on, mental health is a really big issue in this country, and I think a lot of people were very pleased when Professor McGorry was made Australian of the Year because it gives some profile to issues around mental health, which a lot of us have been trying to get more assistance for in the community for a long time. He has come out and said that not only does this cult make harmful interventions with its own followers but it actively goes out and undermines public confidence in many of the practices of mental health practitioners around Australia. If the coalition is happy for that to continue then let the coalition hear what people have to say. Why not get Professor McGorry and the mental health specialists to the committee and let them talk about the mental health issues they deal with with people involved in this. Senator Abetz says that the victims can go and get help, but the victims of Scientology and the Exclusive Brethren and many of these other cults have mental health issues as a result of what has happened to them. They have had inculcated into them in terms of the Church of Scientology that getting help for mental illness is wrong and cannot be allowed, that the only help for problems you have is within these so-called boot camps that they run. So the issue here is that people who have now got serious mental illness, at the very least depression, will not access health professionals because they have been told for years that these people are not offering a valid service and are not offering serious medical help.

I would like to know from the coalition and from the government what they propose to do about the fact that the taxpayers of Australia are giving a financial benefit to an organisation which actively undermines public confidence in our mental health facilities and processes. What do we propose to do about that? I would like somebody in the coalition to tell me precisely what you think you are going to do about that, because it is nothing. If we get to the truth about why you are opposing this inquiry, it is because you are afraid that the inquiry might go to the community asking questions about which organisations should have charitable status, which is a legitimate concern that the community might have, and that could be the subject of a broader inquiry. But the issue here is the Church of Scientology, and if they have nothing to hide, if they are not actively undermining public confidence in Australia’s mental health services, then let them come to the committee and say that. Let them come and say why they should have tax-exempt status. I am keen to know. Let them answer the questions that the community has and that this parliament has. Let them justify their position. There is an invitation and always a fairness test in Senate committees where we give both sides of the argument the opportunity to appear, to make submissions, to respond and so on. There is no suggestion they will be excluded; they can come along. But they do not want to be investigated, they do not want to have their tax status questioned, and so they are trying to shut down the idea that the Australian parliament should look into what is a cult.

I do not support cults. I have seen the impact on families and communities because of the activities of cults. I do support a lot more funding to mental health services around Australia and I am one of those people who are delighted that Professor McGorry is the Australian of the Year and that mental health will have a higher profile in the Australian community because of that. And I take notice when someone with his standing in the field of mental health comes out and backs a Senate inquiry into Scientology because he says that, quite clearly, the organisation has promoted untested and potentially harmful interventions for people with serious mental health problems. Is that a concern? Should the parliament be concerned about that? I am. I am very concerned when you have a leading expert in the field of mental health saying that a cult engages in practices which have potentially harmful interventions for people with serious mental health problems. If you are not going to support this inquiry that sensibly has been brought forward by Senator Xenophon, what are you going to do about it? Sweep it under the carpet? Tell people, ‘There is the media out there; I suggest you go to one of those programs and air your concerns on the media, but don’t bring it near the parliament’?

How would we respond if they came in here and said the same thing on a range of issues that we have referred to Senate committees? It is legitimate for the parliament of Australia to ask, ‘Isn’t it time that we applied a public interest and benefits test to organisations which are getting tax-exempt status when the rest of the community pays more in tax to enable that to occur?’ Therefore, why shouldn’t we be reassured that they have some beneficial qualities or influence in the community? If they cannot prove that, why would we want to give them tax exempt status? It is not good enough for either the government or the coalition to vote down this inquiry, sweep it under the carpet, let this cult continue, let lives be destroyed, let families be destroyed, let the taxpayers of Australia pay more to enable that to happen and to do nothing else. Meanwhile they rush about shaking Professor McGorry’s hand at every opportunity saying, ‘Marvellous, marvellous; look at me; reflected glory; I’m standing next to the Australian of the Year; I really support mental health,’ except when he says something that they do not agree with like, ‘A cult is operating in Australia undermining confidence in mental health and engaging in potentially harmful practices.’

I am really disgusted that the whole of the Senate is not supporting an inquiry into whether or not we provide tax-exempt status to this organisation and whether the public benefit test ought not to apply. I look forward to hearing from the government and the coalition on what they intend to do about the abuses that are going on in relation to mental health and what they intend to do about the victims suffering from the mental health consequences of their involvement in cults. If you say nothing, then please do Professor McGorry the courtesy of not pretending you support action on mental health.