ABC RN DRIVE
MONDAY, 5 APRIL 2021
SUBJECTS: The Church of Scientology’s tax-free status; the health and economic costs of the Morrison Government’s slow vaccine rollout.
ELIZABETH KULAS, HOST: The Greens are calling for an investigation into the Church of Scientology's charitable status after media reports raised questions about its finances. An investigation by The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald found that the church has shifted tens of millions of dollars from offshore into its Australian operations, where it has tax-free status. Under Australian law, profits made by charities must be used for charitable purposes. Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities. Andrew, welcome.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: G’day, Elizabeth. Great to be with you.
KULAS: So Andrew, do you support the Greens’ push to have the charities and not for profits commission investigate the Church of Scientology?
LEIGH: I certainly think it'd be appropriate for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission to put some energy into making sure that the Church of Scientology is delivering public benefit in Australia. We know that prima facie someone who's operating a religion is assumed to be delivering public benefit to Australia. But the Church of Scientology is quite unusual now in that it has less than 1700 adherents, according to the last census, and more than $170 million in assets. So that means that for every adherent, they've got more than $100,000 in assets. And they also seem to have attracted significant amounts of assets from offshore towards Australia, as other countries have cracked down on the tax status of the Church of Scientology. The tax concessions that are provided here in Australia aren't provided on the assumption that they're going to be for the benefit of overseas parts of religious organisations.
KULAS: So what do you want to see happen next?
LEIGH: I'd like to see the charities commission look into this. I think it would also be useful for the Australian public if the Church of Scientology was to make very clear to Australians what broad public benefits they gain from providing as a community this tax concessional status to the Church of Scientology. We know for example, some of the criticisms that have been made of the Church of Scientology - for example, of their practice of pushing back on mainstream psychiatry and the risks that that may have at a time when we have many Australians facing mental health issues. So it'd be useful for the Church of Scientology to be a little clearer as to what Australians are getting in return for the considerable tax deductions that we're providing.
KULAS: You also said that the church needs to provide greater clarity about its structure and about its finances. What kind of information specifically do you think that they need to provide now?
LEIGH: Being clear about where their assets are located and why there’s been this large flow of money into Australia. In the corporate tax space, we’ve been doing a lot of work over recent years on multinational tax avoidance and the practice that multinationals have engaged in, in moving resources into lower tax jurisdictions. I think it'd be useful for Australians to be assured that the Church of Scientology isn't practising something similar. Australia doesn't want to be a tax haven for charities. We need to make sure that our charities are operating in a way that's benefiting the broader public, as the vast majority of Australian charities do.
KULAS: What about the conditions for a religious organisation, though? What kind of conditions do they need to meet to qualify for that tax-free status and what would justify revoking it?
LEIGH: This goes back to a 1983 decision of the High Court, which made very clear that if you're a religion, you're assumed to be providing a public benefit. And the High Court said that that's, even if you're operating a form of what they call charlatanism. So following that Scientology case, it's been clear that Australia will provide a tax-deductible status to the Church of Scientology, absent any sort of separate legislation. That's quite different from where we were in the 1960s, where various states passed legislation curtailing the activities of the Church of Scientology.
KULAS: So was that a bad precedent? Does that need to be reviewed?
LEIGH: Well, it is the law of the land. We're now in a stage where the Church of Scientology has unprecedented levels of assets per adherent, and appears to be using Australia to hold resources for other parts of the church. So I think it is appropriate that the charities watchdog looks very carefully into those activities, and if the information isn't forthcoming from the Church of Scientology that satisfies people, then you know we may well go down the path to an inquiry.
KULAS: Senator Nick Xenophon, former senator Xenophon, pushed for a Senate inquiry into the Church of Scientology as far back as 2009. Should Labor have backed that call?
LEIGH: Much of this information has come to light relatively recently. I think we've given the Church of Scientology the benefit of the doubt in the past, and increasingly now that the more their assets go up and the less transparent they are, the more concerns are being raised. Those who've seen the documentary Going Clear I think have been concerned by the way in which the church has operated in the United States. The pressure now ought to be on the Church of Scientology really to be clear with Australians as to what they're getting. The investigative reporting that’s been done by Ben Schneiders I think is really important work, and ought to enliven a serious public debate about the status of the Church of Scientology.
KULAS: And if the Charities Commissioner decided not to investigate further, would Labor support a Senate inquiry into this?
LEIGH: Let's see what information comes out. Certainly, it's something we're open to, but at the moment I would like to see what the charities watchdog is able to do and see what the Church of Scientology is able to produce.
KULAS: And while I've got you, Andrew Leigh, finally to the end of JobKeeper. Venues around the country, they're saying capacity restrictions need to be lifted now that JobKeeper has ended or they won't survive. Is that a fair enough call, do you think?
LEIGH: Lifting capacity restrictions is difficult at the time when so many Australians aren't vaccinated. Now the real problem in Australia is the tardy rollout of the vaccination, which has us not even in the top 100 in the world. Scott Morrison was telling us last year we'd be ‘at the front of the queue’, but we're way towards the back of the queue. He says it's not a race, but that's only because Australia is losing to a bunch of other countries. It absolutely is a race. The Brisbane lockdown was caused in part by two unvaccinated healthcare workers. And this was foreseeable last year, when Australia wasn't signing up to those vaccine deals while other advanced countries were. But even now with the vaccine doses that are coming to Australia, we've got hundreds of thousands of doses of vaccine not being rolled out to GPs. This is a terrible health problem, but it's also got massive economic consequences. The government were saying last year that state government lockdowns were costing $4 billion a week. It's got to be the case that their bungled vaccine rollout is costing the economy billions.
KULAS: Andrew Leigh, thank you for being here tonight.
LEIGH: Thanks so much, Elizabeth.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.