By Brian Morris
How the Budget ultimately plays out may not be known until election night. Does the electorate believe Scott Morrison has pulled all the essential levers — and will Malcolm Turnbull finally scramble free of Tony Abbott’s shadow?
Turnbull had swept many budget options off the table — both revenue and expenditure — in tortuous Treasury turmoil. But glaring opportunities for bold new revenue measures were never considered.
Religion is a mega-billion-dollar entrepreneurial colossus that pays virtually no tax. And we review shortly the extent of this tax-free bonanza that creates such a budgetary black hole.
A new national poll in April shows that 64 per cent of the community think religions should now be taxed. People are fully aware of the wealth owned by big churches — not the hard-pressed charities — but the large religious institutions and the corporate enterprises they run.
While two-thirds of the nation supported the notion of taxing religious businesses, only 7 per cent thought they should remain tax-exempt, and 13 per cent just didn’t know.
Much has contributed to the public’s view that the big churches now operate well beyond the traditional parish precinct. There’s disquiet with revelations from the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, to the Vatican Bank scandals, and to the rank politicisation of religion across a raft of contemporary social issues.
Community concern also extends to churches that operate essentially as entertainment businesses. These include many of the charismatic evangelical churches like Paradise, the Church of Scientology and Hillsong — described by the Sydney Morning Herald last year as a “money-making machine“.
Religions are not required to lodge any financial records.
There is no transparency. Where does the multi-billion-dollar revenue of religious organisations come from — the business profits and huge state and federal grants — and exactly where does the money go?
Church operations are tax-free — based on the escape clause of “advancing religion” — a statue dating back from Queen Elizabeth the First, and inherited from England when Australia was colonised.
There are now four Heads of Charity under which religions operate, through the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission, but they are all tax-exempt. ACNC registers over 60,000 charities, of which only 40 per cent are religious. The majority are secular charities that do equally good work.
With high-profile scandals and frequent media coverage from alarmist church hierarchies on issues such as same-sex marriage — abetted by a variety of Christian lobbies — the community sees a more politicised religion dominating the public square.
Perhaps a critical mass is developing. It has become self-evident that churches are now highly prominent with their privates schools, which are now attended by almost 40 per cent of Aussie kids. They are corporate enterprises, together with their private hospitals, aged care facilities, and a raft of commercial businesses from wineries to insurance companies and to turf-laying firms.
Sanitarium is the best know religious corporation — wholly owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, with a 2010 turnover of $550 million and a staff of more than 1,500. All tax-exempt.
None of these profitable religious companies pay more than a modicum of tax — if at all.
Tax-free enterprises don’t enjoy every available concession but they all benefit in some way. Church exemptions include: income tax, GST, FBT, payroll tax, council rates, state government taxes, land tax, and local government taxes. In addition religions have exemptions from anti-discriminations laws and other statues.
What is most remarkable is the sheer magnitude of taxation that escapes the federal government coffers. In 2004 the Rationalist Society of Australia commissioned the Victoria University Graduate School of Business to investigate religious tax privileges.
It found the Catholic Church in Australia (alone) owned an estimated $100 billion in property and assess, and based on conservative figures it escaped annual taxes of around $2.6 billion — and that was twelve years ago.
In 2008 the Secular Party of Australia made a submission to the federal government’s Review of Australia’s Future Tax System, in October of that year. They found that over $20 billion in taxes remained uncollected from the nation’s religious organisations, by state and federal governments.
Even the Parliamentary Budget Office, prior to this budget, found savings of $500 million annually — simply by scrapping fringe benefits tax for religious employees, and dumping the Chaplaincy Program.
But it’s no surprise that Treasurer Morrison would even consider taxing entrepreneurial religion. As an evangelical Christian himself, Morrison worships at a Hillsong-style Pentecostal church in Sydney.
Indeed, LNP parliamentarians are heavily Christianised — at a rate far greater than the general public, which is now majority religion-neutral. And only 8 per cent attend church on a regular basis.
The budget is in deficit, with massive shortfalls in revenue that means less money for public schools, hospitals and the sort of national infrastructure that’s urgently needed to help grow the economy.
The argument is not focused on bona fide church charities but exclusively on corporate religion.
What is necessary now is for all religious organisation to submit annual financial reports and for the government and Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission to review their tax-exempt status.
Financial transparency is essential and it’s well past time for religions to pay tax on their profits. And with 64 per cent of the public backing religious taxation, governments need to show fortitude and resist the inevitable Christian backlash from the small but highly vocal church hierarchies.
It’s also time for new and in-depth research into the degree to which religious corporations are creating this massive shortfall in government revenue, through their avoidance of various taxes.
If religions wish to become highly politicised — under the guise of ‘religious freedom’ — then it’s high time they became financially transparent, factually honest, and started to pay their fair share of tax.
About Brian Morris: World travel shaped Brian’s interest in social justice — wealth, poverty and religion in many countries. His book Sacred to Secular is critically acclaimed, including from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. It’s an analysis of Christianity, its origins and the harm it does. It’s a call for Australia to become fully secular. More information about Brian can be found on his website, Plain Reason.