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Thursday, 11 March 2010
Page: 1611

Senator XENOPHON (11:31 AM) —I thank honourable senators for their contributions and senators Brown and Milne for their indication of support. I want to address up front what Senator Bernardi said—that this inquiry somehow is an attack on the freedom of religion. I need to repudiate that absolutely. This is not about what people can believe in; it is about how people behave. I have had many allegations put to me about the behaviour of this organisation, the so-called ‘Church of Scientology’. I invite Senator Bernardi to read the judgment which gave the Church of Scientology its tax-free status in the early 1980s, in particular the judgment of Justice Murphy. There is a flaw in the logic of what Senator Bernardi is saying, which surprises me. He can be a logical man on some things but when it comes to this there is a fundamental flaw in his logic. He is saying that we cannot look behind an organisation which purports to be a religion to see whether it should get the benefit of a tax-free status from Australian taxpayers.

I am grateful for the contribution by Senator Abetz, who says people do not join these organisations for their tax-free status, but the fact is these organisations thrive because of their tax-free status and their behaviour ought to be brought to account. For more than four months I have been talking to the government and the opposition about this issue and I have been talking publicly about the tax-exempt status for the so-called ‘Church of Scientology’. This morning my office was advised by an adviser from the government that they could not support this inquiry because they thought it might pre-empt the Henry tax review—and that is something the opposition are saying as well—a report, I note, which the government have but will not release. I was also told by the opposition that they would not support this very simple inquiry.

This is a straightforward inquiry into the need for a public benefit test for organisations that receive tax exemptions from the Australian government, exemptions which we all, as taxpayers, pay for. The United Kingdom already has this test in place. It has been tried and tested there. It is fair, robust and just. In the United Kingdom they need to assess public good and public harm before they can say to an organisation, ‘Our nation will support you with our tax breaks.’ It is not a big deal. It is nothing to be scared of.

To date I have not personalised this debate, despite the fact that many moving and disturbing personal stories about many Australian victims of Scientology have been shared with me and my office. I refer to the courageous people who have come forward: to Aaron Saxton, Carmel Underwood and her family, Paul Schofield, Liz and James Anderson and also to the family of Edward McBride, who so tragically took his life after being involved with the Church of Scientology. That was the subject of a coronial inquest in Queensland, an inquest which was fettered, which was impeded, because this so-called ‘church’ took away files relating to the late Mr McBride and shipped them off to the United States. This organisation has a tax-free status and, given the allegations put forward, this beggars belief. If honourable senators have not seen it, I invite them to watch Four Corners from Monday night, to see some very disturbing allegations in terms of the way this so-called ‘church’ operates.

I have not personalised this debate but it is important that we put into context what this is about. We are not just politicians; we are people. There is a certain cowardice in turning your back on people who ask for help or ask just to be heard. In effect, Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, says he wants to wait for the Henry tax review, despite the fact that he expressed his concerns when these allegations were made public a few months ago.

As excuses for inaction go, that is pathetic. How dare he make this about reviews, processes and procedure? Here and now, on this issue, this is a government that hides behind process as an excuse for doing nothing. The opposition has done the same. The shameful thing is that, when you make it about process, you ignore and damage real people. The opposition had a chance to do the right thing here also, but it has chosen to do nothing. I am asking for an inquiry. I am not asking for new laws. I am just asking for the opportunity to find out more. I ask Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott: what is it about forced abortions you do not want to know about? What is it about false imprisonment you do not want to know about? What is it about a policy of breaking up families that you do not want to know about? What is it about a dangerous campaign against mental health services that you do not want to know about? What is it about the physical and psychological abuse of Australians that you do not want to know about? What is it about child labour law abuses that you do not want to know about? What is it about high suicide rates amongst followers and ex-followers that you do not want to know about?

Every senator in this place worked hard to get here because they wanted to lead. But leading does not mean just doing the easy things. Leading is about doing the hard things because they are the right things. I cannot accept that Australian lives have been destroyed, that more Australian lives may be destroyed and that this parliament says, ‘No, it’s not our problem.’ I know a lot of people in this parliament want to pretend this is not happening, but I will not turn my back on the victims of scientology and I am gravely disappointed that both the Prime Minister and the opposition leader are willing to do so. The hardest thing for a victim to do is to speak out. Today, it seems that this place—the Senate, in the Australian parliament—will make it even harder. I can assure my colleagues that I will not let this lie. This issue will not go away. It might be more convenient for some politicians to pretend they can slide out of this, that they can dodge their responsibilities to the Australian community, but guess what? You will not get away with it. My message to the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, is simple: trying to look away will not make this issue go away.

Question put:

That the motion (Senator Xenophon’s) be agreed to.