Australian Senate Committee recommends formation of Charities Commission

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Economics Legislation Committee of the Australian Senate reported Tuesday on their investigation into the matter of investigating the benefits of religious charities in Australia, and recommended the formation of a Charities Commission. The recommendation has received bipartisan support. The inquiry began as the result of legislation initially introduced in the Senate by Senator Nick Xenophon after he had received complaints from former members of the Scientology organization in Australia.

The Charities Commission recommended by the Australian Senate Committee would have responsibilities including investigating charitable organizations in order to make sure that their business dealings were forthright. Such organizations would be required to prove they were worthy of maintaining charitable status from the government.

Cquote1.svg it was as a direct result of being approached by many victims of the Church of Scientology. Their evidence, their complaints played a key role in triggering this inquiry. Cquote2.svg

—Senator Nick Xenophon

Senator Xenophon commented that the recommendation would begin a process towards increasing accountability of these organizations, "I believe reform is now inevitable. We can't continue to have business as usual when it comes to organisations that have been beyond any reasonable level of accountability."

He emphasized such inquiry came about due to controversial revelations from former members of the Church of Scientology, "This inquiry came about because of legislation I introduced for a public benefit test for religions and charities, and it was as a direct result of being approached by many victims of the Church of Scientology. Their evidence, their complaints played a key role in triggering this inquiry."

Senator Xenophon said that recommendations included in the Report served as a warning to cult-like organizations such as the Church of Scientology. The Report requested that the Attorney-General of Australia investigate laws relating to cults in the country. The "Tax Laws Amendment (Public Benefit Test) Bill 2010" was introduced into the Senate by Senator Xenophon in May 2010; the Economics Legislation Committee investigated this proposed legislation and completed a report on the matter in the form of a series of recommendations for the new government in Australia to consider.

A member of the inquiry committee itself, Senator Xenophon pointed out that the recommendations of the Report went beyond the scope of his initial proposed legislation through a recommendation that a Charities Commission use a "Public Benefit Test" in order to assess non-profit organizations active in the country. Senator Xenophon provided an addendum to the Report in the form of a special notes section, wherein he wrote that due to the nature of the disturbing accounts told before the committee regarding controversial activities of organizations in the country, legislation to set up a Charities Commission should be completed before June 30, 2011.

Cquote1.svg It is ... important that [religions and charities] are transparent and appropriately accountable. Cquote2.svg

—Report, Economics Legislation Committee, Australian Senate

The Committee's Report included recommendations regarding concerns about controversial activities of cult-like organizations. The Report stated there was sufficient evidence heard before the Committee such that the activities of cults should be investigated in the country with the goal of forming policy broader than simply with respect to taxation laws. For the purposes of the Committee's investigation, the Macquarie Dictionary was cited to define the term cult as, "A religious or pseudo-religious movement, characterised by the extreme devotion of its members, who usually form a relatively small, tightly controlled group under an authoritarian and charismatic leader."

With regard to behaviour of cults in the country, the Committee recommended the Attorney-General report on operations of governmental organization which investigate these groups such as the French government organization, MIVILUDES. The recommendation to the Attorney-General stated, "The Committee recommends that the Attorney-General's Department provide a report to the Committee on the operation of Miviludes and other law enforcement agencies overseas tasked with monitoring and controlling the unacceptable and/or illegal activities of cult-like organisations who use psychological pressure and breaches of general and industrial law to maintain control over individuals."

In the summary and recommendations section of the Report, the Committee concluded, "Religions and charities, and other not-for-profit organisations ... play an important role in the community and in the economy. They receive significant tax concessions. It is therefore important that they are transparent and appropriately accountable."


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