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Zed Seselja: Report sees religion as having little value

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Sydney’s Annual Street Feast brought together charitable organisations and the people they serve for a relaxed afternoon of good food and live music at St Mary’s Cathedral forecourt. Fr Peter Smith, inset at left, hopes the event will spread further afield. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Sydney’s Annual Street Feast brought together charitable organisations and the people they serve for a relaxed afternoon of good food and live music at St Mary’s Cathedral forecourt. Fr Peter Smith, inset at left, hopes the event will spread further afield. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

The Productivity Commission’s draft report on philanthropy represents a major attack on Catholic and other faith-based schools, religious charities and—ultimately—on religion itself.

Coming on the back of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s draft report a year earlier which Jacinta Collins, executive director of National Catholic Education Commission, said would “make it impossible for Catholic schools to be Catholic”, it appears to be part of a pattern of attacks on faith-based institutions by different arms of the Australian Government.

The report recommends removing tax deductibility for donations to school building funds so that donations to other areas “with greater social benefits” could be prioritised.

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Apart from the offensive suggestion that there is limited relative social benefit in the facilities which enable Catholic education to occur, this recommendation would have real world impacts—either facilities won’t be built, or Catholic school parents will be forced to pay more for their kids’ education.

Given that these parents already directly contribute around 90 per cent towards these capital projects (over and above the taxes they pay), this seems particularly punitive.

It is reminiscent of the conditions which lead to the famous Goulburn school strike more than 60 years ago—governments imposing obligations on Catholic schools without properly assisting them to meet these obligations.

This strike eventually led to a bi-partisan political consensus that faith-based schools should get their fair share of funding. This consensus would be undermined if the recommendation were adopted by the Federal Government.

In addition to its attack on faith-based schools, the report also recommends the abolition of Basic Religious Charities (BRC).

BRCs (which can include parishes and archdioceses) are a category of charity which have lower reporting and governance requirements than other charities, but also have less access to government grants and do not attract tax deductibility for the donations they receive.

BRCs were legislated by the former Labor Government in part as a recognition of the separation of church and state and the inappropriateness of a government authority having the power to remove religious leaders (including bishops) from their positions.

For these and other reasons, when I was Minister for Charities the Australian Government on my recommendation rejected a push to abolish BRCs.

A third recommendation of the draft report would (among other things) take away tax deductibility for donations to organisations providing religious education in government schools. This would be a blow to those thousands of families, including Catholic families who greatly value having this option for their kids.

As authorised workers during the Greater Sydney lockdown, Maronites on Mission volunteers continue to provide care and services to some of the city’s most vulnerable people. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
As authorised workers during the Greater Sydney lockdown, Maronites on Mission volunteers continue to provide care and services to some of the city’s most vulnerable people. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Finally, and perhaps most concerning, the draft report, having recommended the abolition of tax deductibility for school building funds and religious education, recommends expanding tax deductibility for donations to most charity types, while specifically excluding charities registered under the subtype advancing religion.

This sends an unmistakeable message that, in the view of the Productivity Commission, religion and religious practice has little or no societal value.

This is a shocking misunderstanding of the nature of faith and of Australian history.

The Christian faith has inspired some of our greatest institutions—St Vincent De Paul Society, Salvation Army, Wesley Mission, Anglicare, Mater Hospital and countless others.

While those who support such a move may well argue that these institutions which carry out these charitable works will still attract DGR status, this misses the point that the good works which these institutions undertake are a direct result of the faith of those who founded them.

The charitable services produced by ‘Vinnies’ or ‘the Salvos’ are a fruit of Christian faith.

A system which says the faith which underpins the works is of no societal benefit undermines the foundation of such organisations and will ultimately lead to less of these institutions being formed and less of these charitable works occurring.

This assertion is backed up by multiple studies which link religiosity to more volunteering and charitable giving. Broader society, and most particularly our most vulnerable citizens will be the ultimate losers out of such an approach.

The draft report represents a multi-pronged and aggressive attack on the practice of religious faith in Australia.

The fact that it is the second government report in a year to do so is additional cause for concern.

The Australian Government would be wise to demonstrate its support for religious practice and people of faith by rejecting each of these misguided recommendations.

Zed Seselja served as a Minister in the Australian Government from 2016-2022 and now leads a specialist advisory business serving education, corporate and not for profit clients.

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