Major political parties unlikely to act on religious charity loopholes, RSA Webinar told

Si Gladman / 13 April 2024

The major political parties appear unlikely to pursue much-needed reform in the charities sector due to their desire not to upset religious lobbyists and religious organisations, the latest RSA Webinar has heard.

At Wednesday’s webinar, David Hardaker, investigative journalist and author of the new book, Mine is the Kingdom, spoke about how charities had been central to Hillsong’s business model under the leadership of pastor Brian Houston, and had fuelled the church’s growth.

He described the federal government’s establishment in 2012 of ‘Basic Religious Charities’ – a type of charity exempted from meeting financial reporting and governance standards that apply to other charities – as having created a “black box” in which religious charities could operate in near-total secrecy. 

With the Productivity Commission having called for removal of the Basic Religious Charities category late last year, Hardaker said it would be a case of “watch this space”, but noted that previous governments had ignored similar recommendations.

“In 2018, there was a review of how the charities act was functioning, and this independent review recommended that the Basic Religious Charities be, I think, abolished – certainly much better regulated than it is,” he said.

“Those recommendations happened to land in the government’s lap just when Scott Morrison became prime minister. The idea that Morrison might help abolish the engine room of Hillsong was fanciful, really.

“But I think, more broadly speaking, both the major parties have problems in closing loopholes in charities laws that religions – not just Hillsong – benefit from. They just don’t want to offend the religious lobby or religious groups.”

Hardaker spoke about how, while reporting for Crikey, his interest developed in Hillsong and Houston, and their connections with the rising influence of Pentecostal Christianity in Australian politics and with Houston’s mentee and friend Morrison.

In the book, he argued that the model of Pentecostal Christianity promoted by Houston and Hillsong had influenced Morrison’s prime ministership, with his time in power “littered with examples” of “Hillsong-style practice” – such as believing he was anointed by God and avoiding secular accountability.

At the webinar, Hardaker said the Press Gallery in Canberra had missed the story of the importance of Morrison’s Christianity to him because of a “taboo” about questioning prime ministers’ religious beliefs.

“Morrison is a different kettle of fish. He behaved very differently and almost invited, I think, scrutiny of his religious beliefs and his influence on him,” said Hardaker.

“What I think really was the final proof to me was the Scott Morrison grab for power of the five ministries – which he did secretly, by and large. When that emerged, the entire political class was shocked, aghast and couldn’t comprehend what had happened. 

“So this, to me, is a group of people whose entire reason for being and living in Canberra, and being in proximity to power, is to actually know what’s going on. But they were as dumbfounded as anybody as to what Morrison had done. So they missed the story…  And, even since, they’ve refused really to entertain the idea that Scott Morrison’s beliefs influenced his politics.”

Read the latest in our campaign for reform of the charities sector.

Si Gladman is the Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

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