ACL Chief of Staff Lyle Shelton and Research Officer Ben Williams gave evidence to the Senate Economics Committee’s hearings into Senator Nick Xenophon’s Tax Laws Amendment (Public Benefit Test) Bill 2010.

This Private Senator’s Bill was originally motivated by concerns about shocking alleged abuses in the Church of Scientology cult but the Senate Inquiry, despite its relatively narrow terms of reference, seems to have broadened in to a full-scale probe into the accountability of the religious charitable sector.

The Bill does not have support from the major parties and is unlikely to succeed.

However, Committee members were this week playing down the Bill’s original intent and were using the committee to make a case for the establishment of a charities’ commission.

Although the UK Charities Commission administers a legislated public benefit test in that country, the bill under examination at the inquiry only creates the test, and makes only a small reference to a Charities Commission in its supplementary material. The Committee’s departure from its stated terms of reference signalled a clear intent by Senator Xenophon and Labor Senator Doug Cameron to tighten regulations surrounding the charitable sector.

This may have merit but as ACL told the inquiry, proper consultation with the sector was needed and that a Private Senator’s Bill motivated by legitimate concerns about tax breaks given to a cult was not the way to do this.

ACL was concerned by the tone of some of the questioning which focussed on the cost of tax concessions granted to the sector without adequate consideration of how much the sector saved the taxpayer through its work amongst those most vulnerable.

ACL is now turning its attention to answering questions it took on notice from members of the committee at the public hearing.

It is clear that the Senators are keen to progress this debate after the election and it will be an important one for the church to engage.