Senate debates

Thursday, 18 March 2010


Economics References Committee; Reference

11:03 am

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the following matters be referred to the Economics References Committee for inquiry and report by 24 June 2010:
allegations of abuse, recently widely reported in the Australian media, against employees, volunteers and followers (including ex-employees, ex-volunteers and ex-followers) of the Church of Scientology and any associated entities, including:
coerced abortions,
unsafe occupational health and safety practices,
unconscionable, misleading and deceptive conduct in the context of goods and services provided and charged for by the Church of Scientology and any associated entities, and
the harassment of followers and ex-followers of the Church of Scientology and any associated entities;
the adequacy of the Model Criminal Code and its application in respect of the offence of psychological harm;
the adequacy of current consumer protection laws in respect of goods and services provided by the Church of Scientology and any associated entities, and its fundraising practices generally;
the adequacy of current occupational health and safety laws and workplace relations laws in respect of the allegations of conduct occurring within the Church of Scientology and any associated entities; and
any related matters.
That in undertaking this inquiry, the committee will not inquire into the validity or otherwise of the belief systems of the Church of Scientology and any associated entities.

This relates to matters that were in part dealt with last week. We are back again, dealing with the concerns that have been put to me by many Australians who are former members of the Church of Scientology. These individuals have told terrible stories of horrendous abuse. The intent of last week’s motion, as is the intent of this week’s motion, was to have an inquiry where people can have their say. The reason people need to have their say is that they need a voice. They need an opportunity to speak out safely in the context of a Senate committee where consideration can be given to whether we need to change the law so that people, such as those who have approached me, can get the protection they deserve as Australian citizens.

The issues are these. Initially, several months ago, when I spoke out about this organisation—which I see as a dangerous organisation that engages in criminal activity on a systematic basis—I put up a motion that there be a specific look at the Church of Scientology. It was put to me privately by a number of colleagues—and I will not name them because what they put to me was very much in good faith and with goodwill—that it would be more appropriate that there be a broader discussion about the tax-free status of charities and religious organisations as to whether a public benefit test should apply, as is the case in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has a test that has been in place for many of years, which has withstood rigorous examination and which looks at the public benefit an organisation does balanced by the harms of that organisation. It is interesting to note that in the United Kingdom the Church of Scientology has had difficulty in getting a tax-free status because of their activities, because of the harm caused and because of the nature of the organisation and the way it is structured. Secrecy has something to do with that to a considerable degree.

That motion for an inquiry was not successful because it was deemed to be too broad an inquiry. I accept fully that those senators who spoke to me privately, thinking this was a way forward, did so in good faith. I am back to square one in a sense in looking at a specific inquiry into this organisation that does not—and I emphasise does not and will not—inquire into the validity or otherwise of the belief systems of the Church of Scientology and any associated entities.

This is not about religious belief. This is not about belief systems, this is about behaviour. There is a fundamental difference. I do not want to stand in the way, and nor should this place stand in the way, of questioning a person’s belief systems, but when we have mounting evidence of cases of abuse, of cases where this organisation says it is above the law because of its own court system—a parallel court system, it seems, to the laws of this nation—then I think that is worth looking at. I think it is worth looking at because no-one should be above the law; no organisation should be above the law.

This motion follows extensive media reports—we saw one on Four Corners last week about this organisation; the Sunday Night program on Channel 7 looked at the Church of Scientology—and it is important that we look at these allegations of abuse made against employees, volunteers and followers, including by ex-employees, ex-volunteers and ex-followers of the Church of Scientology and all of its associated entities. A number of very disturbing practices have been alleged, including coerced abortions; unsafe occupational health and safety practices; unconscionable, misleading and deceptive conduct in the context of goods and services provided and charged for by the Church of Scientology and other associated entities; and the harassment of followers and ex-followers. These are matters that ought to be looked at in the context of a Senate inquiry because a Senate inquiry can hear the evidence and make recommendations. I emphasise and note that there will be ample opportunity for the organisation, for the Church of Scientology, to give its evidence fairly before any inquiry so that those former followers, the victims of the church, can give their evidence. They can be questioned, as can the Church of Scientology.

But we need to look at the adequacy of the Model Criminal Code. We need to look at whether there should be a definition of psychological harm in our laws and whether our current laws, for instance in relation to stalking and harassment, are adequate. I say they are not, because the evidence that has been put to me by many followers, ex-followers of the Church of Scientology, is that the modus operandi of this organisation is that they will have numerous operatives from this organisation harassing people, and our current anti-stalking and harassment laws are inadequate because they relate to one individual harassing someone on a continual, a repeated, basis. But where you have a situation where a number of individuals from the same organisation, on a daily basis on some occasions—day in, day out—harassing people, it is very hard to get a conviction under our current laws because there are different individuals involved in doing this, not one organisation. That is a flaw in the current law and that is something I believe a Senate inquiry could look at.

It also needs to look at the adequacy of current consumer protection laws in respect of the goods and services provided by this organisation and the tactics they employ, and I say they are unconscionable tactics. They are getting people to part with their money or to sign over their homes by using incredible high-pressure tactics and people lose their homes to this so-called ‘church’. These are matters that I think need to be the subject of scrutiny. Do we need stronger trade practices laws, laws that relate to this sort of unconscionable behaviour? It seems that our current laws are too narrow. And if somebody wants to take on the church, this is an organisation that has spent literally tens of millions of dollars in its annual budgets in years gone by to take on people, to sue them for defamation, to basically, in many cases, render people bankrupt because they cannot afford to take on the very deep pockets of the Church of Scientology in litigation. There is no access to justice for these individuals when you are talking about an organisation that can spend millions and millions of dollars on any one piece of litigation.

There is also an issue about the adequacy of current occupational health and safety laws as they apply to those followers, those who have worked, who have volunteered for this organisation. So many people have come forward and told me about their work, that they were working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and getting paid $30, $40, $50 a week, or less than that. I was told this morning outside the front of Parliament House that if you were really lucky you could get $50 a week. Here we have a government which has put up fair work legislation repealing Work Choices, and I commend the government for doing that. But here are some horrendous stories of occupational health and safety breaches, industrial relations breaches, which I believe our current laws do not adequately cover, and that concerns me deeply.

I just wanted to read a statement that was made to the media yesterday, and I want to read it onto the record because I think it is important to do so. It is from Janette Lang, who very courageously and bravely spoke out about her experiences in the Church of Scientology. I want to read in full what she said to the media, to the public yesterday, because it took a lot of courage on her part and I am very grateful that she has done so. Her statement goes as follows:

My name is Janette Lang and for 13 years I was a member of the Church of Scientology.

I cannot find the words to express the damage that has been done to me by this organisation, and the hardships that members are forced to endure.

I have never told this story publicly, in fact, I haven’t even told members of my family.

But I am speaking out today because the time has come for victims of Scientology to be heard.

When I was 20 years old I fell pregnant to my boyfriend.

At the time he had been recently recruited into the Church.

When his Scientology bosses found out about the pregnancy, they told him that I had to have an abortion or it would ruin his career as a Scientologist and destroy any chance of me being accepted by the organisation.

We fought for a week. I was devastated, I felt abused. I was lost ... and eventually I gave in.

On the day I had the abortion I asked not to be fully sedated just in case I got the courage to say ‘no’ and pull out of the operation.

But I was fully sedated, and the operation took place.

It was my baby, my body and my choice, and all that was taken away from me by Scientology.

After the abortion my partner did not even pick me up.

Scientology would not allow him to leave work.

In 2002 my husband and I were separated by the Church.

My husband was told to go to America to train as a spiritual counsellor and if I objected I was told I would be kicked out of the Church and never see him again.

While he was over there I was forbidden from contacting him.

After a year we agreed to divorce.

At the time I was a full member of Scientology. I worked full-time, making just $2000 a year.

At nights I would be forced to stay and work back until 2am, with my 5—


and 8 month old daughters sleeping on the couch in the office.

In 2003 I fell pregnant again to another man who was studying to be a Scientologist.

I was put through the Scientologist court system because of this relationship, and was ultimately ordered by an official of the Canberra church to have another abortion.

If I didn’t do this I would be cut off from the organisation. My children would not be able to see their father, I would not be able to see my sister and I was told I would get cancer and die.

I am speaking out today because I know I am not alone.

There are others that have gone through what I have gone through, and I am scared that more people will go through the same horrors unless there is an inquiry.

All we want is a chance to have our say to a Senate Inquiry.

And I say to Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, please don’t make us suffer in silence.

They are powerful words, from woman on whose part it took a lot of courage to speak out. I think it is important that we hear those words. I am very grateful also to Liz and James Anderson, who spoke out on Four Corners and met a number of my colleagues and senators yesterday. I am very grateful to all of my colleagues that had meetings with Liz and James and Janette. All of them gave them a sympathetic and fair hearing. I am very grateful for the decency of my colleagues for doing that. They saw as many people as they could yesterday, and I was very impressed at the decency of my colleagues on both sides who were prepared to see these people at short notice to hear their story. I am very grateful for that.

I believe having a Senate inquiry is the best way forward. This is about law reform, about the protections we need to give to individuals that are caught up in organisations which behave unconscionably, unfairly and in some cases absolutely brutally. It is important that we have this inquiry. To say that this goes to the police indicates, I think, a lack of knowledge in the way that the police operate and their constraints. It is not a criticism of the police forces in this nation. They are constrained by our current laws. Our harassment laws and our laws in respect to psychological harm are not adequate.

I refer honourable senators to the Model Criminal Code, which has not, as I understand it, been adopted fully in relation to psychological harm in the states. It states:

Harm to a person’s mental health includes significant psychological harm, but does not include mere ordinary emotional reactions such as those of only distress, grief, fear or anger.

That is fair enough. But it is interesting to note what was said by the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, the Model Criminal Code Officers Committee in relation to consideration of the psychological harm back in September 1998. They received a number of submissions. I think this extract is quite revealing in terms of the way this organisation operates to stifle debate, to stifle people having their human rights being respected. The committee report said, in relation to submissions made about psychological harm:

...the Church of Scientology produced a very lengthy submission which argued that the activities of religious groups should not be included but rather that the activities of “de-programmers” should be included. The manifesting inconsistency in such an approach did not appear to occur to them. There was also apparent a letter writing campaign to similar effect. Neither the Church of Scientology nor the letter writers addressed the undoubted fact that some groups employee such harmful and extreme techniques, whether or not a particular group does in fact do so. It is likely that some groups from both sides of the contest between religious groups and ‘deprogrammers’, employ harmful and extreme techniques.

I think that ‘manifest inconsistency’ of this organisation ought to be noted. It was noted by the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General and it indicates, I think, a need for law reform in terms of harassment laws and the issue of psychological harm.

There are also, broadly, the issues of protecting consumers in this country. Liz and James Anderson, for instance, spent something like $450,000 on courses for this church. It is the very different from other religions. But this is not about a person’s religious beliefs; it is about the high-pressure tactics that are employed for people to part with their money, to sign over their houses, to work for years and years and years for a pittance. At the end of that they have nothing. They have to restart their lives again in order to provide for their families, in order to get on with their lives to be able to even afford a down payment on a home. They are left with nothing. I spoke to people outside the front of Parliament House this morning and a number of our colleagues visited them. I was very grateful that Senator Christine Milne and Senator Ludlam from the Australian Greens spoke to them and very grateful for the support that Senator Milne gave to Janette yesterday at a media conference in relation to this. I am grateful that the member for Bass, Jodie Campbell, came out and spoke to these people. I am very grateful for Jodie Campbell’s support in terms of speaking to them and hearing their stories. I am also grateful for Senators Joyce and Scullion coming out and speaking to them.

I urge my colleagues to reconsider their position. If you say that this is not the way forward, then tell me what is the way forward. These are Australians who have been treated horrendously, without recourse to justice and without recourse even to telling their stories. The time has come for them to tell their stories safely and for us as legislators to look at some fundamental reforms so that people can be treated decently.

11:22 am

Photo of Chris EvansChris Evans (WA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Government in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I will say at the outset that I appreciate the sincerity and the passion that Senator Xenophon brings to this issue. I know it is genuine, and I know he seeks to represent people who have been damaged by their engagement with the Church of Scientology. I think, though, that we have had difficulty in responding to Senator Xenophon’s various motions on the subject, as he seeks with his normal persistence to get support for a proposition that effectively would have the Senate inquire into the Church of Scientology. He has packaged it in different ways. Today he stressed some of the legal issues and consumer issues and other things that he would like to have examined, but I think Senator Xenophon is honest enough to say that at the heart of this is an inquiry into the Church of Scientology and how they react and interact with their members.

I acknowledge that the concerns Senator Xenophon raises are serious. The evidence of persons he referred to who have been in parliament over the past day or two and others who have been in the media is quite disturbing. In response, though, we have seen this before. There were similar allegations about the operations of the Exclusive Brethren, into whose activities Senator Bob Brown sought to have a similar type of inquiry. I am happy that, for once, I can say with some confidence that the government has been totally consistent on this matter. I responded to the issues that Senator Brown raised in relation to the activities of the Exclusive Brethren in the same way that I do today to those Senator Xenophon raised in relation to the Church of Scientology.

I am no fan of sects or religions that look to control their members. In fact, I am passionately opposed to such activity. To be brutally frank, I am not a great supporter of what I have seen of the operations of either the Exclusive Brethren or the Church of Scientology, but that is a personal opinion and should be valued no more highly than anyone else’s personal opinion about these organisations. But what I am strongly against is any suggestion that Senate committee processes be used in a way that I do not think fits with the role of the Senate. It is tempting to address some of these concerns in that way, but the role of the Senate is to inquire into issues of public policy and public administration. We do have to use our powers and capacity wisely. It would be very easy for Senate committee processes to be brought into disrepute if people thought these processes were being used for purposes beyond the Senate’s role in public policy and public administration.

I have a fundamental concern about our saying that we are going to have an inquiry into a particular organisation, because at various times a majority in this chamber will have a view about a particular organisation. At times there might have been a majority in this chamber in favour of inquiring into the Wilderness Society or into the CFMEU and the way it operates. It is very appealing for some. I see Senator Abetz’s eyebrows being raised. He is thinking, ‘That has some merit,’ because of his particular concerns about that union, but I think on this issue Senator Abetz has fundamentally been consistent as well—and I am worried that we actually agree on this matter as it is very rare that we do agree. But think through what happens if you single out an organisation and say that the Senate is going to inquire into it because it wants to use that inquiry to air claims about that organisation, to allow people under parliamentary privilege to make claims about those organisations—not in a court but to make very serious claims of criminal behaviour as referred to by Senator Xenophon—and to have them tested by the Senate in a Senate hearing.

The Senate is not a court of law. We do not have the protection and the processes that a court of law has. We are a group of senators who come together to inquire into issues of public policy and public interest. I think it is a fundamentally dangerous step for us to say that we are going to inquire into particular organisations and allow people to make their claims in regard to those organisations—not claims about policies but claims about personal treatment and, very fundamentally to the issues Senator Xenophon raises, claims about criminal behaviour. I think this is a step that the Senate ought to consider very carefully, and the government takes the view that we should not take that step. As I said, we responded to the claims about the Exclusive Brethren the same way. I would respond to claims about the Menzies Research Institute, the CFMEU or the Wilderness Society in the same way. It is a very dangerous thing for us to have what could be seen as a witch-hunt against an individual organisation, be it a religion, a trade union, a community organisation or a company. I do not think that is a step we ought to take.

However, I do regard the allegations made by Senator Xenophon and the former members of the Church of Scientology very seriously. They are allegations, in large part, about criminal behaviour. We have always argued that those matters ought to be referred to the police: if people have issues of concern that involve alleged criminal behaviour, the police are the appropriate authority to go to. I understand that Senator Xenophon, when he received earlier advice regarding allegations of criminal behaviour, did take those allegations to the Australian Federal Police—I think at the end of last year. I understand that the AFP made a preliminary assessment of the allegations and advised Senator Xenophon that, unless there was further evidence of a Commonwealth offence, the allegations he raised would be best brought to the attention of state police, which has been done, and it is the appropriate thing to do. Senator Xenophon has sought today and in other debates to focus on some of the policy issues around these concerns, but I think fundamentally it is about having an inquiry into the Church of Scientology, bringing forward witnesses who are concerned about their treatment and airing those claims. As I said, that has some appeal, but I think there are some serious concerns that really need to be considered by the Senate before we go down that path.

I am personally open to trying to assist Senator Xenophon to find a way through on this. We have dealt with, over the years in Australia, real difficulties in tackling activities of sects or religions that have perhaps too much control over their members or are closed organisations. The claims about the Exclusive Brethren were not the first. The Church of Scientology will not be the last. There have been a range of sects over the years about which there have been concerns with the way that they have related to their members and the way that they have operated. That is of public concern. We need to work out how we deal with those more properly. Senator Xenophon referred to psychological issues of control and other things. These are not easily dealt with by state laws or by state police departments. That is a fair point. He identifies a serious public policy issue about how government authorities, police authorities and law enforcement authorities should respond to those problems.

But my view, and the government’s view, is that a Senate inquiry is not the way to go. A Senate inquiry into a particular organisation is not the way forward. We need to deal with these claims in way such that procedural fairness, respect for people’s rights in terms of claims made against them, people’s ability to defend themselves adequately and protection against capricious or badly motivated claims—all those sorts of issues that we have to take seriously—are maintained. Those things are not address properly in the Senate inquiry process. The government will not be supporting this particular proposal by Senator Xenophon. It is not the first and I am sure that it will not be the last. Persistence is one of his great traits, and he is dealing with a serious issue. But I do not think that this is the answer.

On a personal level, I am prepared to engage in how we might come up with a better answer. The issue of the Exclusive Brethren troubled me, this troubles me and claims about other sects have troubled me. I think that as political leaders and public policy makers we need to work through how we adequately respond to very serious allegations against these sorts of organisations but equally against other community based organisations.

As I said, we understand Senator Xenophon’s motives. I am sympathetic, obviously, to those who have provided their concerns to him and publicly. We need to be able to respond to those. But I do not think that this is the way forward. It is not an attempt to fob Senator Xenophon off, but I fundamentally think that the Senate ought to be very cautious about how it proceeds in inquiring into individual organisations.

I recall that the Howard government had a majority in this place only a little while ago. A precedent that said that one could inquire into individual organisations may look very attractive to someone who has a majority in this place. It may look very attractive to a coalition of interests in this place. I am not sure that we want to set a precedent like that, which would be set if Senator Xenophon’s motion is carried, so we will be opposing it, consistent with the position that we have taken on the other matters that Senator Xenophon has raised and consistent with our response to the matters that Senator Brown raised in relation to the Exclusive Brethren.

Maybe what our focus should be is how we actually organise public administration and law enforcement in this nation to allow such concerns and claims to be properly tested and responded to in a way that is not looking at any particular organisation. We need to establish a framework. I am happy to continue to look at that issue and take up any ideas that come forward from Senator Xenophon or others. But we will not be supporting the resolution.

11:34 am

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I thought that the coalition might wish to speak on this, but clearly not. I am also very aware that we have a number of Senate reports to discuss in a very short time, so I am not going to take all the time that is available. But I want to say how very disappointed that I am at the contribution from Senator Evans for the government. I have no doubt about his sincerity when he says that he is concerned about these organisations. But the excuse that the government uses every single time that the issue of cults is brought to this Senate is that they will not inquire into an organisation. The terms of reference of this particular inquiry are very clear. They are looking into the appropriateness of exemptions in regards to tax law, occupational health and safety practices—which is again the responsibility of the Commonwealth—and the adequacy of consumer protection. All of these things are responsibilities of this parliament. To stand here and say, ‘Oh, that’s code for a general look and therefore we’re not going there,’ is to suggest that Senate committees are incapable of framing an inquiry to its terms of reference. It is to suggest that Senate chairs and committees cannot ask witnesses to be relevant to the terms of reference. Of course they can. What we have here is a total copout.

We heard the government and the coalition when they were in government saying, ‘Oh, yes, we’re terribly concerned about this happening.’ But they never offer any solutions. How are you going to address it, then? We are going to have a tax law debate here very shortly and we are going to be looking at the tax benefits provided to those who invest in managed investment schemes. So it is okay to have a debate on the appropriateness of tax deductions upfront on managed investment schemes and changes to the tax law in relation to that. But when it comes to talking about tax laws as they pertain to religious or any other organisations, religious organisations are not allowed to be discussed in this Senate. Why not? Why shouldn’t we be able to apply the public benefit test?

You will find that most religious organisations would be able to come here and talk about that. The United Church would talk about Uniting Care. The Anglican Church would talk about Anglicare. The Catholic Church would talk about St Vincent de Paul, their education systems, their health systems and their welfare provisions. There are an endless number of things that those religious organisations could and would talk about in the event that they were ever asked.

In Britain, there is a public benefits test. We talk all the time about which organisations and initiatives should have tax deductibility. We talk all the time about accelerated depreciation for private sector business and so on. Why would we not ask about the appropriateness of tax deductibility or tax exemption for this particular group of people in our society? It seems to me that in this country if you want to get a huge tax benefit, if you want to completely abuse the health and safety laws of this country, if you want to have absolutely no scrutiny of how you extract money from the people in your organisation and how you spend it, then you need only declare yourself to be a religion and you will be immune. Can you imagine any other workplace where people are exploited, are expected to work long hours every single day of the year and are paid very poorly, but about which everybody says, ‘No, we wouldn’t go into that workplace’? Unions are trying to support people in workplaces yet we have non-unionised workplaces about which we say, ‘We don’t want to know. We don’t want to know if people are exploited. We don’t want to know how they raise their money or how they spend it.’ In fact, this is an ideal scenario for someone: all you have to do is declare yourself to be a religion and you can declare yourself exempt from scrutiny of the laws of Australia, whether they relate to raising money, occupational health and safety, wages, exploitation or brainwashing—the whole shebang.

I heard this morning, for example, that this organisation puts pressure on parents to sign over the guardianship of their children, as young as eight years old, to part of the organisation. Senator Bernardi said the other day, ‘Leave then, if you don’t like it.’ That suggests no understanding of the level of brainwashing that goes on in this particular cult, or in the Exclusive Brethren for that matter, because if you leave you leave behind contact with your children, parents, siblings and/or friends—all of the group that you have spent your time with. You are harassed. You are cut off. Everyone in this parliament knows what it is like when you fall out with friends, family or whomever for whatever reason and how difficult that is to manage. But imagine if you were being coerced. Imagine if you had this kind of pressure. Yesterday, Senator Xenophon read out a statement from an ex-member of the Scientology group. We heard about a situation where people were being pressured into doing things that they did not want to do. You cannot walk away from that. A belief system that is enforced through the levels of psychological coercion really bothers me and it should not be exempt from public scrutiny.

Having said that, what has the government or the coalition done since they both expressed concern about what is going on in the Exclusive Brethren cult? Nothing. When truth in advertising legislation was introduced to stop these kinds of cults putting out election advertising material that told blatant lies, what did they say? They said, ‘No, we don’t want truth in advertising.’ We even had the Liberal party lying, saying that they had nothing to do with Exclusive Brethren advertising and then being forced to admit after a state election that Damien Mantach, a former director of the Liberal party in Tasmania, was up to his neck in it, that they had written, authorised and placed ads with complete lies attacking the Greens. This is a problem we have—

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Special Minister of State and Scrutiny of Government Waste) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President, on a point of order. I think that expression has always been viewed as being unparliamentary and I think it is not unreasonable to view it as being directed at this side. I ask the Senator to withdraw.

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Milne, I am sure you will be careful with your choice of words in this instance.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. I believe the parliamentary expression is ‘a stranger to the truth’. I will use the parliamentary expression for the words I used—that is, the pamphlets were a stranger to the truth.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President, a point of order: I know it is always very difficult for a Green to say they got it wrong but the standing orders do require an unequivocal withdrawal and I seek such an unequivocal withdrawal.

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw the term ‘lie’, but I point out that Damien Mantach, a friend of Senator Abetz, had to admit in court that the Liberal party placed and wrote those advertisements for the Exclusive Brethren, having said previously that they had nothing to do with them and had no knowledge of them.

Returning to Senator Xenophon’s motion, it is inexcusable for this parliament to turn its back on group of people who are bringing forward allegations of not adhering to Commonwealth law. That is what I am asking about. I want to see occupational health and safety laws enforced in Australia. I want to see appropriate tax deductibility, tax exemptions and so on, because every time you have an organisation not paying tax there is a dollar less to be spent on health, welfare and all the things the community agrees we need to spend money on. If you say they should not pay tax then they should be able to demonstrate a public benefit. I think that is a reasonable expectation from the community.

I hear around this parliament that once again we are not going to have support for an investigation into the appropriateness of the tax law, we are not going to have an investigation into occupational health and safety practices, we are not going to have an investigation into not adhering to the laws in relation to fair remuneration in this country and we are not going to have an investigation into the adequacy of consumer protection. So I ask the government and the coalition to tell me how they are going to address these matters if we are not going to have a Senate inquiry. Saying, ‘Go to the police,’ is no good because if you go to the police you have to have evidence to get a conviction. But from where are you going to get people to come forward and give evidence, when clearly part of the allegation is that people are brainwashed and coerced and their families are harassed? If someone wants to give evidence, there is absolutely no doubt there will be other people inside the sect giving evidence against them—people reinforce all the fears and divisions that are going on in those communities. It is an unrealistic expectation and they know it, which is why we need to have a Senate inquiry into compliance with Australian law.

I think it is disgraceful and cowardly for the Senate not to support this motion, which seeks the law to be applied and which calls for an investigation into whether or not the law as it pertains to this matter is being applied in Australia and into the appropriateness of the law as it stands. I say to Senator Xenophon that I have been moving on every single tax law in relation to tax exemption for carbon sink forests. I suggest that he should join me on every single tax bill that comes through here from now on. He can join me. I will move mine on exemptions for carbon sink forests and he can move his on exemptions for this, and we will have this debate every time until the government or the coalition comes up with a suggestion about how they intend to deal with it if it is not going to be through a Senate inquiry.

11:45 am

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I indicate on behalf of the coalition that we will not be supporting the motion. To seek to curtail the time on this debate—I know it is not the usual thing to do—I would draw the attention of those who want to reflect on the reasons and rationale, to the speech I gave on Thursday, 11 March in the Senate Hansard, commencing on page 19, because that sets out a lot of the reasons. I once again put on the record that we accept that Senator Xenophon comes to this with sincerity and genuineness, but I would also ask him—and Senator Milne, without her getting too upset about these things—to understand that men and women of good will can approach a topic and come to different conclusions as to how a matter or an issue ought be dealt with. But we so often see the extreme nature of the Australian Greens in that it has to be their way or the highway. There is no shade of grey; it has to be completely their way.

I have been asked, in relation to a number of matters—I dare say rhetorically—that if this is not the way forward, what is? Interestingly enough, given that I have led the coalition in this debate, I have received a lot of emails for and against this inquiry. There is one former scientologist who has emailed me to say that they have reported a matter to the New South Wales Police and it is being investigated. I say to that person, ‘Well done. That’s the proper way to go.’

I thank Senator Xenophon for bringing three former scientologists to my office yesterday afternoon. I see them in the gallery and I thank them for the time that they spent with me. As a result of that discussion I simply say—and I will say this now publicly—that, in relation to the allegations made by Senator Xenophon about people working long hours and not being paid for them, I publicly call on the Fair Work Ombudsman to examine the records. We have a Fair Work Ombudsman in this country—formerly the Workplace Ombudsman, now with a different name—who has the power, on the basis of a complaint, to examine such things. Indeed, of his own volition the Ombudsman could undertake an examination. I make that public call today for the Fair Work Ombudsman to follow up, and I will also give him notice that at Senate estimates in May I will be asking the Fair Work Ombudsman what he has done in relation to this matter.

In relation to allegations of taxation I say they should be reported to the Australian Taxation Office. I remember on one occasion I had concerns about the way the Australian Greens were dealing with their situations financially in relation to the electoral laws. I did not seek a Senate inquiry into it. I reported the matter to the Australian Electoral Commission and they undoubtedly made a determination.

Similarly, I have very real problems and concerns about the way the Wilderness Society does business, which has now been highlighted. Let us remind ourselves that the Wilderness Society is the industrial arm of the Australian Greens. They have now descended into a fiasco, with court orders being issued against each other. An AGM was held here, which was declared illegal, and another AGM held. They are in absolute disarray. The temptation is sweet to have a Senate inquiry into the Wilderness Society. But would it be the right thing to do? I have to say that I think the answer is no. What I have done in the past in relation to the Wilderness Society is refer my concerns to the Australian Taxation Office. They have, I believe, according to law, dealt with those matters appropriately.

In this public debate about whether there should be such an inquiry I have heard raised all manner of arguments, including that we have had inquiries into Australia Post. Yes, we did; but, with respect, that is a government business enterprise, and I would say that that is different. Has the Senate had an inquiry into whether Tasmania ought to have an AFL team? Yes, we have. But, despite being a Tasmanian and passionately wanting a Tasmanian team in the ALF, I got some criticism in my home state of Tasmania for not supporting such a move—because I thought it was inappropriate.

I would like to think that I—and the coalition—come to this debate with absolutely clean hands and a consistency of purpose. I ask those in this place: do we have the power to have such an investigation? You betchya; absolutely. But the way individual freedoms are protected in this country is not by the government or the parliament using all the powers that are potentially available to it.

In relation to the motion dealing with unconscionable, misleading and deceptive conduct, I am reminded of a leader of a political party in this place, who claimed that if he had to pay his legal bills he would become bankrupt and would therefore have to forfeit his seat in the Senate. The bill was only about $200,000. He had assets and a capacity to mortgage and get a loan. Nevertheless, he put that out there—aided and abetted by a nearly compliant and sycophantic media in this country. He said, ‘I am opening an account or people can donate.’ And donate they did. He raised $200,000. But, when the required amount of money had been raised, did he put out a media release saying, ‘Stop donating please; that which I have called for has come in’? No. He allowed the fund to keep going—didn’t he, Senator Milne?—from $200,000 to $400,000 to $600,000 to $800,000 to $1 million and more. People were genuinely donating thinking they were saving Senator Bob Brown from bankruptcy and expulsion from the Senate when he already had more than $200,000—more than the money needed—in his own back pocket. I say ‘in his own back pocket’ because the money was paid into an account that only bore his signature—

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: I would ask Senator Abetz to withdraw that. As he well knows, Senator Brown has conformed to all of the disclosure provisions required in this parliament. All the details of that account are clearly there on the disclosure provisions of the parliament for everyone to see.

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Milne, this is a debating point, but I will draw Senator Abetz’s attention to the motion that we have before us of Senator Xenophon’s.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Which seeks an inquiry into unconscionable, misleading and deceptive conduct. I thought I was making the point so exceptionally well that it forced Senator Milne to seek to raise a spurious point of order. Those in the gallery listening and those reading the Hansard in the future will note that the allegation I made about the money going into his personal account only bearing his signature was not denied. It is a great sense of disclosure when you can put in $10,000 anonymously. That is disclosure, according to the Australian Greens. But enough of that. All I am saying is that people that want to come to this debate need to come with clean hands. Senator Xenophon does, and I accept that without doubt. I say to some of the others in this debate that their own conduct may not necessarily be in the same category as Senator Xenophon’s.

It is my very strong view that these matters that are complained about should be going to the appropriate authority. I met with a young group of Mormons just the other day. It was interesting. They put in a submission to the Henry tax review about tax deductibility for church organisations. I wonder whether other organisations have done so, because that could have and would have been a good and appropriate vehicle for some of these things to be canvassed. We still await the outcome of the Henry tax review. I will not be holding my breath that we will be seeing that any time soon, but let us hope that we do see it some time before the budget. Given that the Australian people paid for it, I dare say they are entitled to see it as well. Once again, it may be asserted that I digress, albeit slightly.

In relation to the email traffic that has come to my account in recent days, there is a lot of ‘He said’, ‘She said’. ‘My name is being used in public,’ according to one. ‘I categorically deny the allegations’ was the email that came back. Should we, as a Senate, try to set ourselves up as a judge and jury to decide between ‘He said’ and ‘She said’? I do not think so. Unfortunately, that is what we will be asked to do when we have to determine things such as whether people had coerced abortions. For somebody who is about as anti-abortion as one can be, this is a very painful and concerning topic. I do not like abortions full stop, let alone coercive ones. It is a very serious matter.

I recall my time as a lawyer dealing with people that believed they had been coerced into having an abortion by mums and dads who were of the view that if the pregnancy went ahead it would bring shame upon the family. The tears and the heartbreak were just as real, undoubtedly, as those that were coaxed and coerced whilst they were with Scientology. But are we going to have an inquiry into all those coerced abortions? I also know of examples where mainly menfolk—it does not reflect well on us—were coercing girlfriends to have abortions, with similar pain and similar trauma. Do we inquire into those coerced abortions as well or do we say that only when an organisation coerces somebody into an abortion is it worthy of inquiry? We have to be very careful as to the path we seek to go down in relation to these matters.

With these issues, to use terms such as Senator Milne did, that this is a total copout by Senator Chris Evans, does not really add any maturity, any intellectual rigour or, indeed, any compassion to the debate. What I would invite honourable senators to do is to consider the principles.

People are sometimes harassed when they leave organisations. I know it happens from time to time when someone ‘rats’ on their political party. I saw what happened to somebody who left the Greens. I saw what happened to somebody who was a sitting senator in this place when he decided to leave the Australian Labor Party and sit on the crossbenches. Do we have an inquiry into the Greens and the ALP for their harassment of these individuals? Let me say quite clearly that I am sure that that may well have been the case for people who left the Liberal Party as well—that people may well have reacted with a considerable degree of displeasure. I dare say that if former Senator Don Chipp were still alive he might be able to tell some stories about some of the harassment he may have suffered when he left the Liberal Party to form the Australian Democrats. Do we really want to have full-scale inquiries into these things?

The issue is whether the law is being abided by. That is the threshold test. If the tax law is being breached, the case should be taken to the tax office. If employment laws are being breached, the case should be taken to the Fair Work Ombudsman. If occupational health and safety laws are being breached, the case should be taken to Safe Work Australia. And so the list goes on. If there has been false imprisonment, the case should be raised with the police. We have the crime of false imprisonment on our statute books.

In relation to the capacity of people to air their concerns and grievances, I say to you, Senator Xenophon, that you have done a fantastic job. You have aired people’s concerns and grievances exceptionally well. The media have also aired those concerns. They have shown an orange traffic signal—if not a red one—to people, cautioning them that, before they get involved in the Church of Scientology, they may well want to think not once or twice but many times, given the very genuine and heartfelt stories of those who see and quite rightly describe themselves as victims of the Church of Scientology.

I leave my comments there simply to sum up as I began: we accept the sincerity with which Senator Xenophon approaches this matter, but I ask him to accept that men and women of goodwill can look at an issue and come to different conclusions.

12:03 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I will not go over old ground in summing up the debate on this motion, but I want to make this clear to my colleagues: mark my words that, if this vote goes down, I will be talking about it again in the first sitting week after the break. There will be another motion. This issue will not go away.

I thank my colleagues for their contributions. Senator Milne, thank you for your support and for the compassion that you showed to Janette Lang yesterday. I am very grateful for that. I am also grateful for the contribution of Senator Evans, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, who spoke on this motion today. He said a number of things that indicated to me that the language of the government on this issue has shifted in the last week. Last week the government was saying, ‘We’ve got the Henry tax review; we’re not going to look at this.’ That was it, basically. I do not take issue with that. The government is entitled to go down that path. But I think there has been a shift in the government’s language. There is genuine concern about what is going on in the Church of Scientology and about whether the laws of this nation are adequate to protect those people who are victims of the Church of Scientology, both those who have escaped from the Church of Scientology and those who are still in it.

I will refer to the contribution of Senator Abetz in more detail in a moment, but there is consistency between the government and Senator Abetz in that they both opposed a past motion on the Exclusive Brethren and now oppose a motion on the Church of Scientology. But sometimes consistency can be bad if you are consistent for the wrong reasons. Senator Evans says that we should use the Senate committee process wisely to look at issues of public policy, public administration and matters in the public interest. I think that fairly summarises the position of Senator Evans. Surely it is in the public interest to look at these allegations in the context of whether the laws of this nation are adequate to protect people in cases of horrendous abuses of their human rights and where they have become destitute because they have worked for an organisation for years and years for a pittance. Surely it is in the public interest to look at whether our consumer protection laws can afford protection in relation to serious allegations where people have lost everything.

We have had an inquiry into occupational health and safety matters at Australia Post. The fact that Australia Post is a statutory body does not mean that we should not have an inquiry into the Church of Scientology. The Church of Scientology is still a separate organisation. There were specific allegations relating to Australia Post, and the Senate thought that it should go down the path of an inquiry into occupational health and safety issues there. But the matters raised here in relation to the Church of Scientology are much more serious.

Regarding Senator Evans’s comment that we are not a court of law, that is true—it is axiomatic: we are not a court of law and we are not here to make judgments of guilt or innocence. But, if a Senate inquiry heard evidence about alleged criminal conduct, or conduct that may not be criminal under our current laws but begs the question of whether, firstly, laws are being adequately enforced or, secondly, there ought to be some fundamental law reform, surely they are matters in the public interest. It is not for us to make findings of guilt or innocence—that is not our job. But, if allegations are brought forward, it begs the question of whether our laws are adequate. If they are not adequate we ought to look at law reform. That is what we should be doing here.

This is about allegations not just of criminal behaviour but of unconscionable behaviour such as psychological harm that are not covered by our laws, and that should be an issue for this inquiry. This is a serious public policy issue. I know what the position of the government and the opposition is, but I implore my colleagues to think of it in these terms. If we have an inquiry we will hear from a number of victims of the Church of Scientology. That might take a day or two of hearings. No doubt we will hear from the Church of Scientology, because they have been outspoken and they had a right of reply, which they exercised, to the comments that I made about that organisation a number of months ago. That is a fair and right thing to do. If the Church of Scientology says, ‘We don’t do these sorts of things; we think it’s wrong and outrageous,’ then surely they will not have a problem with our laws being changed to protect people from the circumstances that have been alleged. I think that the language of the government has changed in relation to this and I undertake here and now to engage with Senator Evans and other members of the government to see if there is a way forward so that these legitimate grievances can be dealt with such that people can have a voice and actually get some justice.

At the meeting this morning it was interesting to see how the Church of Scientology treats this place and the laws of this nation. It has a separate court system which strikes terror into the heart of anyone who is a member of the Church of Scientology. I spoke to a woman recently who was dragged before a so-called court process for days and days and days—a kangaroo court set up under the rules of the Church of Scientology. It was interesting that today a couple of goons from the Church of Scientology were in attendance, as I understand it. They were busy taking photographs of people at the very peaceful, civil meeting of former members of the Church of Scientology. They were quite happy to take photos of members of parliament as well. These people think they are above the law and they are not.

I am grateful for Senator Abetz’s time yesterday and the genuine and sincere way that he met with and discussed the concerns of former members—Liz and James Anderson and Janette Lang. I am very appreciative of that. Senator Abetz is right: you can have goodwill on an issue and there are different ways of approaching it. I am glad he will call on the Fair Work Ombudsman to look at these matters and will take it up at estimates. But I suggest to Senator Abetz that current laws are not adequate when you deal with this organisation, because, if you speak out or make a complaint, you are cut off from your family—you are cut off from every support mechanism that you know. You are left completely alone, and that raises some big issues and big public policy questions. But, again, I am grateful to Senator Abetz for taking this up and seeking the intervention of the Fair Work Ombudsman also. I congratulate him for doing so.

Senator Abetz raised some tax issues. Again, I appreciate the context in which Senator Abetz raised these matters. They were raised in good faith and with goodwill and I do appreciate that. But, on the whole issue of our current taxation law, the decision of Justice Murphy—former Senator Murphy—in the High Court back in 1983 was quite transparent. It effectively indicated that you basically can get these tax benefits; we do not care what the norms are or what you believe in—that is it. I think that we need to look at the UK’s public benefit test. Senator Abetz raised the issue of ‘he said, she said’, particularly in relation to coerced abortions. I appreciate his genuine and passionate views in relation to this. My views are different: I believe that current abortion laws should stay as they are, particularly in my home state. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, but I also believe it should be a true choice and a free choice. And what we have heard about this organisation is that it is not. It was quite chilling to see the interview of Tommy Davis, spokesperson for the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, by Four Corners. He said that if you are in the Sea Organisation—the Sea Org, their elite organisation—you cannot have children. The way he said it was quite chilling: ‘You cannot have children.’ How do they effect that? They put incredible pressure on women and on their partners to have an abortion. If you are in the Sea Org or, indeed, in other parts of Scientology and you have a child, you lose everything. My plea to Senator Abetz is that, if he is concerned about a ‘he said, she said’ approach, and if genuine concerns are raised, let’s look at that whole issue of forced abortions against the adequacy or inadequacy of our current criminal law on psychological harm and related matters.

Regarding harassment, Senator Abetz made the point that if you leave a political party you can be harassed. I saw some of the treatment that two members in the Legislative Council of the South Australian parliament got when they left the Labor Party—and I am sure it happens when you leave other political parties on both sides of the fence. That harassment might be a bit of abuse or vilification. What we are dealing with here is people being followed around the clock. They have people directly in their face. They are photographed. This morning, outside the front of Parliament House, one man told me how his house was under siege for 10 days. There was either a car outside or he was followed. That is not an uncommon story. I do not think anyone can reasonably say that any major political party would do that to their former members. They might give them some stick and a bit of grief, but nothing like this systematic abuse of people’s rights.

I want to thank again the senators, MPs and staffers who have taken the time this week to talk to victims of Scientology. One of the main reasons so many victims tell me they want an inquiry into allegations of abuse within Scientology is that they believe there is some sort of therapeutic benefit in speaking out. As they emerge from an organisation whose very existence appears to rely on secrecy, they say they achieve real benefit from having someone publicly acknowledge their suffering. But it is much more than the therapeutic benefit, that cathartic benefit, of speaking out. It is because what is raised raises fundamental issues as to whether the laws of this nation need to be changed to protect individuals—whether we need to have that reform.

I expect that some senators have genuine reasons for wondering whether a Senate inquiry is the right way forward. One concern that has been raised with me is that a Senate inquiry could somehow be seen to be some kind of religious witch-hunt. Nothing could be further from the truth. I understand the fears, but I truly believe those fears are baseless. The terms of reference in this new motion specifically say that the inquiry is not to examine the beliefs of Scientology, only the behaviour of its members. It is there in black and white. I ask my fellow senators to consider what a slavish adherence to this stance might mean. If the Senate says we cannot inquire into the behaviour of any organisation if it claims to be a religion, haven’t we just given the green light to anyone who wants to be able to abuse others without scrutiny, without any accountability? Haven’t we just told those people, ‘Do what you like, abuse people, coerce abortion, commit fraud, exploit children, break up families, incarcerate followers, and as long as you call yourself a religion you can guarantee that we will look the other way’? That may not be what this parliament is saying, but I can tell you that is what some people are hearing. Is that what we were elected to do?

Other senators have argued that if there is evidence of criminal activity people should go to the police. The problem is that in a number of jurisdictions in this country some abuses are just not illegal; that the current Criminal Code, our laws, has not kept up with the behaviour of these organisations. I have said that Janette Lang bravely spoke yesterday, and I read her full statement into the Hansard. She spoke yesterday just a few metres from here in the Senate courtyard about how she was forced by Scientology bosses and by her Scientology boyfriend to have abortions. She was told that if she did not she would be cut off from her religion, her contacts, her support network and her husband and she would die of cancer. As she put it, it was her baby, her body, her choice, and Scientology took that all away from her.

Is this appalling? Of course. Is this illegal? In most places in Australia, the sad truth is probably not. What do you think would happen to Janette if she showed up at your average suburban police station with her story? Does anyone think seriously that there could be an investigation, let alone charges? The problem, as I see it, with being here in this place is that we can all be lulled into a false sense of security. There is a danger of thinking that just because we pass a law or another parliament passes a law it will be enforced. But, for most people, life does not happen in here; it happens out there. Out there, the victims of Scientology have suffered in silence for decades.

The criminal law safeguards that some are quoting in here have not protected anyone out there. There are defects and people fall through gaping cracks in the system. Others have suggested that critics pursued by Scientology should use stalking laws to protect themselves. But what happens if you are followed by a different person from the same organisation every day? There are no laws in this country to deal with institutional stalking like that. Yet critics of Scientology, ex-members and journalists say that is what happens. What are the victims to do then?

The truth is that most politicians will, if they really want to, be able to find an excuse not to act, but over time excuses wear thin especially with victims who continue to suffer. But I do want to acknowledge Senator Evans and Senator Abetz and the very considered way they have put forward their position. I think there is a shift, a shift in the major parties in dealing with this, because they know this issue will not go away. The victims of Scientology just want the opportunity to speak out safely. One suggestion was that the victims turn to the media. Some have, and some will continue to do so. I promise you all now that I will help them as much as I can. But let us not pretend that the media do not get worried about long and expensive, albeit groundless, law suits that could cost a network millions of dollars and years of litigation, even when the stories are 100 per cent true.

Remember: this is an organisation that has spent tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of dollars over the years silencing its critics in the courts. Ex-members say that Scientology sees the bankrupting of a critic as a victory. Ex-members and other critics have also claimed to have been followed, harassed, blackmailed and threatened after speaking out. Don’t we have an obligation to find a way to allow victims of Scientology to speak out safely? If we do not find a way to listen that will protect them, who will?

Let me be clear. If this motion goes down, I will come back in the next sitting week with another motion, and if that goes down I will come back with another and another. I will also continue to engage with my colleagues—with Senator Abetz, with Senator Evans—about a way forward. If there is another way forward to deal with these grievances, then I will be happy to hear it and work collaboratively with my colleagues on this. From what I am being told privately, I believe those stories of suffering are starting to cut through with many of my colleagues, and I understand why. My office and I have been listening to these heartbreaking stories for the last six months, so my challenge to my fellow politicians is simple: if you vote this down, if you say no today, please come back to me and talk to me about a way forward. The victims of Scientology want to be heard and I believe they deserve to be heard. It is time for all of us to stop thinking of new ways to say no and start thinking about better ways to say yes. It is time to stop talking about what we cannot do and start talking about what we can do for these people. I commend this motion.

Question put:

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