One of Victoria’s most picturesque hideaways in the Upper Yarra Valley is the stunning hamlet of Warburton. From the 1930’s to the late 1990’s, Warburton was home to the Sanatarium Health Food Company and where they made Australia’s iconic breakfast cereal Weet-bix.
Today, Australians consume more than 1.4 billion Weet-bix each year.
As a Weet-bix kid myself, I had no idea that the dozens of supermarket items manufactured by the Sanitarium Health & Wellbeing Company, deliver tax-free profits directly to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. That Church has acknowledged investing millions of dollars generated by its “group one” entities including Sanitarium, into US-based companies.
Meanwhile, Sanitarium’s competitors like Kellogg’s, Kraft and Nestle and so on, have paid the taxes we expect companies to pay, while also returning profits to shareholders.
Tax exemptions for religions have a long history founded in the Statute of Charitable Uses 1601 (UK) preamble, which although long repealed, has informed the meaning of charity for centuries.
Over the course of those four hundred years, the charitable head of ‘advancement of religion’ has come to allow religious run business to claim charitable status. This head remains part of Victorian law today, despite being abolished in the United Kingdom in 2011.
I use Sanitarium as an example, but many large and highly profitable commercial enterprises owned by religious institutions take advantage of this charitable head to avoid certain taxes, despite operating as for-profit businesses, and despite not carrying out objectively charitable works.
Genuine charitable work, including the charitable work performed by religious institutions, should be tax exempt and will remain tax exempt if my bill is successful. However, the current construction of ‘advancement of religion’ as a charitable head permits something else.
The recent investigative report by Fairfax Media revealed the wealth of the Catholic Church in Victoria, estimated at more than $9 billion, making it the largest non-government landholder in the state. The Catholic Church’s holdings include banks, a superannuation fund, an insurance company, a news service and telecommunications provider. Properties include offices, residences, car parks, conference centres, tennis courts, mobile phone towers and a restaurant.
I do not believe that any of these activities pass the “pub test” for what a charitable purpose should be. As the recent national census indicates, the number of Australians who align themselves with a religion continues to fall.
If the “promotion of religion” is why these institutions receive tax exemption, then they are failing dramatically.
My Charities Amendment (Charitable Purpose) Bill 2017 modernises Victoria’s laws to fairly represent the concept of charity in the 21st century, aligning societal values and community expectations.
Personally, I think paying tax is the purest, fairest form of charity as all taxes collected by the state government can only be spent for the benefit of all Victorians.
Congregations, constituents and communities around the country are demanding the centuries of silence come to an end. The recent Royal Commission, the Betrayal of Trust Inquiry and Fairfax’s investigation have all highlighted a need for greater transparency and accountability from religious institutions. My bill forms an important part of that puzzle.
Go to faircharity.org.au for more information on my bill.
Fiona Patten MLC
Leader: Reason Party