Australia has a net foreign debt of about $950B. It is growing steadily month after month as we borrow to pay for expenditures that are not covered by taxation. While it is relatively low by international standards its continuous upward spiral is a serious concern.
The tax avoidance of corporations, the many distortions of our tax system to favour the wealthy, the developing demographics and inequalities of Australian society requiring increased welfare expenditures, the folly of having so much capital tied up in unproductive property bubbles, are by far the most serious aspects of the budget deficit problem.
This deficit is thrown into relief, as it is now, when the terms of trade, especially the price Australia receives for its major exports, iron and coal, declines.
At this point in time, the income received from agriculture, tourism, services and manufacturing is not enough to compensate for the decline in the price of iron and coal. Hence the ongoing sale of major pastoral properties, and other high-value assets, to foreign, mainly Chinese investors, by a nation always gasping for revenue.
It is in the context of this slowly worsening situation that religious organisations continue to get a free, tax-exempt ride. So, how much does religion cost Australia? To what extent would it help if religion, and other alternative life-stances to religion, were taxed?
On 28 and 29 June 2010 a Senate Economics Legislation Committee inquiry, encouraged by Senator Xenophon, took related evidence on these matters. The purpose of the inquiry was to introduce legislation for a 'public benefit' test, used in the UK to deny Scientology tax-exempt status. Senator Xenophon, understandably, wanted to nail Scientology in Australia and saw this test as a way to get at them.
The evidence given to the inquiry by officers of the Productivity Commission, the Treasury, the Australian Tax Office (ATO) and the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) on 29 June 2010 was more broadly revealing. Here are some edited highlights from Hansard:
About the cost of religious charities of all kinds:
Senator Cameron: Do you have any idea how much public funding, through tax breaks, goes to those mainstream religions for charity work?
Mr Shelton (ACL): I would not know off the top of my head, but it would be a great deal …
Senator Cameron: Is it the case that you don't know off the top of your head or you just plain don't know.
Mr Shelton (ACL): I do not know.
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Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.