Today Tonight reports…
“Australians are among the most generous donors in the world but for decades charities have been collecting money and spending it how they like – all the while, claiming tax exemptions worth billions of dollars a year.
Now, for the first time, all ‘not-for-profit’ groups are being called to account.
Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston has never had to divulge what percentage he takes because the old system allowed churches and charities to regulate themselves.
“If the Salvos can publish audited financial returns, why can’t other organisations such as Hillsong do the same?” asked Senator Nick Xenophon.
Now Hillsong will have to submit full, audited financial accounts that will be published and freely available on the website of the new Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).
That means we will be able to go online and click on Hillsong Church and see their audited financial accounts, confirmed said Susan Pascoe, the ACNC Commissioner, to Today Tonight.
“If people are abusing the charitable status, then that’s a matter for, firstly, the members and the supporters of that charity and there should be transparency in relation to the way in which funds are used, I agree with that, but, what I don’t agree with is putting this whole new bureaucracy in place,” Social Services Minister Andrews said.
Charities Commissioner Susan Pascoe has spent this year building a register of 58,000 charities. Now she is ready to examine the few that for too long have operated behind a veil of secrecy.
“Any well-functioning organisation should always keep its financial records, that goes without saying,” Commissioner Pascoe said
Consider the outstanding charities who publish their financial accounts, including Surf Life Saving Australia, which raised $23 million dollars in 2011 – and they accounted for every cent in detail.
Likewise, the Make-A-Wish Foundation made nearly $12 million in the same year, The National Heart Foundation raised almost $46 million and the Australian Conservation Foundation just over $19 million.
All good charities, up-front and transparent.
That same year Hillsong church thrashed them all, banking over $50 million, and we do not know exactly how they spend it.
With a turnover of $100 billion and one million jobs the not-for-profit sector is the fastest growing after the mining industry.
A recent Senate Committee estimated the new ACNC will save taxpayers at least one billion dollars a year.
“It’s a known unknown, we just don’t know how much could potentially be wasted,” Senator Xenophon said. “The figures vary widely, it could be in the billions of dollars.”
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon championed the creation of a regulator to oversee groups, like the Church of Scientology – another group that refuses to divulge its finances – to ensure the taxes they are excused from paying translate into help for the needy.
“The process of the Charities Commission is going through is entirely reasonable, it is fair and for the Government wanting to throw out the baby with the bath water, to remove that level of accountability just doesn’t make any sense. This is a backwards step, it’s bad for the members of those organisations, it’s bad for the taxpayers and it’s bad for the community overall,” Senator Xenophon said.
Despite surveys showing 81 per cent of charities support the new regulator. The new Liberal National government wants to abolish the commission and go back to letting massive charities and religions regulate themselves.
“We believe we can do this in a much more efficient way and not just more efficient for the taxpayer but more efficient for the charities themselves,” Minister Andrews said.
Federal Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews says the sector does not need a regulator, claiming the old system of self-regulation worked well and those charities he’s spoken to don’t like the new body.
Head of Pro Bono Australia, Karen Mahlab, surveyed the sector and found 81 per cent of charities want the new Charities Commission to stay, contradicting the minister’s anecdotal feedback.
“I’ll be interested to see his evidence base all I can put forward is the evidence base that we’ve generated from July this year so I will be interested to see and hear his arguments,” said MS Mahlab.
“I’ve consulted widely, I’ve talked about it with people, I’ve thought about it, we’ve talked about it as a political party and indeed this was a policy that we announced a long way before the last election, probably 12 months before the last election,” said Minister Andrews.
“I think it’s clearly a step backwards,” said journalist Adam Shand, who for years investigated not for profit groups, including Hillsong church.
“This would have been terrifying to them after all these years of no scrutiny whatsoever, after telling people exactly what they wanted to tell them, they claimed that members could come in at any time and examine the financial records. That is simply not true,” Shand said.
“It’s really about an effective charities sector where more of the money that people put in actually gets to the recipient, that’s the real question,” he added.
For his part, Minister Andrews says he’ll try to abolish the charities commission with legislation due to hit the senate early next year. But he’ll also keep talking to Commissioner Susan Pascoe.
“If there are good things out of what you’ve done so far, then we’re prepared to look at how we can keep them,” Minister Andrews said.
“Until such time as the Act is amended or appealed I’m legally required to implement the Act, so that’s what I’m doing,” said Commissioner Pascoe.
“I’ll be opposing this in the senate and I’m hoping the new senate post July the 1st, 2014 will do the same,” Senator Xenophon said.
RIGHT TO REPLY
– Questions to Hillsong Church and their statement in reply
Can I please have a complete copy of the Audited Financial Accounts for all of the following for the most recent financial year?
ABN: 21050286210 Legal name: Hillsong Aid And Development Status: Registered
ABN: 37002745879 Legal name: Hillsong Church Ltd Status: Registered
ABN: 13003698726 Legal name: Hillsong Citycare Status: Registered
ABN: 99479865648 Legal name: Hillsong Macarthur Incorporated Status: Registered
ABN: 45454866057 Legal name: Hillsong Media & Performing Arts Status: Registered
ABN: 98060671646 Legal name: The Trustee For Hillsong Foundation Status: Registered
All State, postcodes: Baulkham Hills, NSW 2153
– Why do you not publicly publish fully audited accounts for every Hillsong entity?
– How much money, (in revenue, donations and any other sources), did Hillsong record in Australia, and overseas, in the 2011/2012 financial year?
– How much money, directly and indirectly, in total did Brian Houston (and, separately, Bobbie Houston) receive in monies, goods, expenses and other means in the last financial year?
– What is the position of Hillsong in regard to the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission and the new Federal Government’s plans to abolish it?
– How much money did Hillsong, here and overseas, donate to people in need and charitable causes and bodies in 2011/2012 (please include full and detailed breakdowns)?
Statement from Hillsong Church
“It is clear that Today Tonight has already made its position clear by unfairly portraying Hillsong in their promotions. We do not intend to cooperate except to say that we have consistently and vocally supported a charities commission and this continues to be our position. In addition, our annual audited financial statements are lodged with ASIC and are publicly available.”
Lyall Mercer, Media Coordinator, Hillsong Church”