Mark Edmonds writes: Re. “Xenophon didn’t go far enough, no religion should be tax free” (yesterday, item 12). Jane Shaw’s article is yet another of those not very subtle appeals to prejudice that is common from anti-religionists (not genuine secularists, who are content to let people believe what they will). Knowing full well that knowledge rarely disperses prejudice, I will reluctantly engage.

Yes, there are some religious organisations that look a lot like businesses. I can make no claim in defence of the Seventh Day Adventists, Hillsong, or others. I would merely observe that the Anglican Diocese of Sydney directs its parishes (one of which I am a warden) to ensure that ministers “salary sacrifice” no more than 30% of their stipends. The rest they are to pay tax on. GST is to be collected and paid to the ATO on all events which are not designed to support specifically ministry activities, or upkeep of community property.

All giving by Christians in our parish is after-tax — it’s not deductible, it’s a demonstration of their commitment to ensure staff are adequately remunerated for their work serving the Parish, the community, and of course, the God we believe in. And for this, our staff get paid the princely sum of between 40K and 50K p.a. — six days a week, on call, vesting the sick, the elderly, teaching people about Jesus, supporting the local schools, helping collect for Anglicare. And so on. There is no profit in this, Ms Shaw, I can assure you of that.

The truth is that some people do become religious to make money. Some people become bankers to make money — some of whom, dare I say, may break the law to avoid paying taxes. I think even the odd member of parliament has been charged with tax evasion. This proves nothing other than that people are fallible, even greedy, wherever you go.

Ms Shaw is correct when she says “taxing business activities is not going to interfere with any religious activities”, which is why many religious organisations, including my much maligned brothers and sisters in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, happily pay taxes on activities which are not specifically religious, and happily contribute to the work of the church from what remains of our wealth after taxes have been paid.

Justin Templer writes: Jane Shaw writes of Nick Xenophon’s attack on the tax-free status of the church of Scientology that “Scientologists really are fish in a barrel though: they owe their beginnings to a not-terribly-good science fiction writer, they believe in aliens and they have couch-jumping Tom Cruise as their mascot.”

This implies a difference between the “craziness” of Scientology and the “craziness” of the more formalised religions. Why is Tom Cruise necessarily more crazy a mascot than the Pope? At least the Scientologists don’t follow a book that suggests stoning our sons to death for being stubborn and rebellious. Or treat women as second-class citizens.

Jane also suggests that Australia is blessedly secular. How can this be so when taxpayer funds underpinned the Pope’s visit to Australia and NSW passed special legislation to outlaw insult to pilgrims? There are votes in the mainstream churches but not in Scientology — but if they sign up enough members in marginal electorates they’ll be safe as houses, science fiction and couch jumping notwithstanding.

Gil Elliot writes: My understanding is that religions are not only exempt from “income tax”, but are able to rort the system by paying their salesmen — oops, sorry, clergy — a small “stipend”, and providing them with “free” housing, transport etc. Neither the religion nor the clergy pay either income or fringe benefits tax. Keeps the cost of the sales force low, courtesy of the taxpayer.

And — secular society? Check the history of the Biran Harradine amendments on RU486 and funding for overseas aid organisations to see how “secular” we really are. One man, a follower of an ultra-conservative religious institution, was able to abuse his position to impose his beliefs on millions of others in Australia and overseas.

Tanya Smith writes: Jane Shaw is absolutely right — it is time to remove tax concessions and exemptions from religion. All of us who pay taxes are indirectly supporting a wide variety of organisations, none of which are required to have any basis in logic, sense or fact. The only common theme of the various religions is that they believe in something for which there is no credible evidence!

Since they all claim to be the “one true religion” clearly a whole lot of people out there are wrong. People can believe whatever they like but there’s no grounds for their current special treatment.


John Taylor writes: Re. “Olympic establishment mobilises to shout down Crawford Report” (yesterday, item 3. I agree with your general thrust that the Crawford Report is pointing in the right direction, regardless of the bleating by John Coates (and for those who aren’t blessed with Sydney talkback radio, Ray Hadley). So, as this report was commissioned by the Federal Government, why haven’t any of your commentators told Kate Ellis to “shut up, you’re making a fool of yourself”.

Gabriel McGrath writes: Re. “Richard Farmer’s chunky bits” (yesterday, item 11). I’m with you Richard. How dare the government give grants of $14-25k to events aimed at getting people involved in performance arts… or preserving indigenous traditions?

Sure, it’s a tiny amount, but that’s not the point. Taxpayers money should only be allocated, in much larger quantities, to carbon polluters so they can keep screwing our children’s future.

A sports lover writes: I am heartily in support of the idea that huge subsidies for Olympic sports which are largely elitist is totally wrong. However could we all bear to go through that cycle again? Remember 1976? That was the year Australia tied with the Virgin Islands (I blame Raelene Boyle). At that point Australia went into deep angst and we got the Institute of Sport.

Peter Hartcher:

Peter Hartcher writes: Re. “Israel lobby funds another media tour. Read all about it” (yesterday, item 16). Antony Loewenstein, thanks for putting the questions to me and for giving me a chance to respond.

I don’t intend to debate the minutiae of how I do my job. Please allow me to make five points:

  1. I have accepted paid travel to a number of countries over the years. I have always disclosed the fact when I have written anything as a result. It is routine for journalists to take paid travel. The question is not so much whether journalists take paid trips; it’s whether they disclose the fact. This allows readers to take this into account in forming a view.
  2. I am not a partisan in any war. Indeed, a Crikey survey of the Australian political “punditocracy” found that there was no more balanced commentator in Australia.
  3. Every paid trip always has an inbuilt viewpoint. The journalist’s job is to take information from a trip, assess it in the usual way, and to draw on it as one input among many, as we do with every subject, every day.
  4. My column, on the Opinion page, does not purport to be an encyclopaedic treatment of the history of the conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians. It presents, as it says in its opening, a view from within Israel, with an explanation of the Australian Government’s position, and a comment from the Palestinian delegation. I should have thought that to be self-evident. There is no hidden agenda.
  5. You, by contrast, are a declared partisan in the conflict. You are not in any position to act as a neutral analyst or objective commentator. If you critique my piece, you should disclose your interest, as I have mine.

Video games:

Randolph Ramsay, Site manager and Editor, GameSpot AU, writes: Re. “Why we need an R18+ classification for video games” (yesterday, item 15).While Joel Vaughan makes plenty of valid statements in Why we need an R18+ classification for video games, in singling out SA Attorney General Michael Atkinson as the sole reason why we don’t have an adult rating for games he makes the unfortunate (and common) mistake of playing the man rather than the ball.

While it’s true Mr Atkinson has been the only AG to publically voice his opposition to the introduction of an R18+ rating (and thus predictably focusing all of the gamer rage in this nation on himself), there’s been a general lack of political will from both the State and Federal level to get this debate moving forward.

In April this year, then Federal Minister for Home Affairs Bob Debus boldly announced that a national consultation process would be undertaken to gauge public views on this. The original deadline for this process was 31 July 2009, but we’ve heard no word at all of when — and even if — the public consultation will begin.

If we as gamers are serious about the introduction of an R18+ rating, then we need to get beyond finger pointing at one individual and ask our political representatives at both the State and Federal level exactly why they’re not listening to the majority public view on this issue.

Sam Spackman writes: Joel Vaughan is looking at this whole debate the wrong way ’round. If unsuitable titles are sneaking into the M and MA15+ classifications, then the obvious solution is to get rid of those classifications altogether. Then the only classifications left will be G and PG13 and we will never have to worry about kids playing violent games and there will be no more violent crime ever.

Climate change:

Mark Byrne writes: Re. “The science of climate change is only a small part of the discussion” (Wednesday, item 4). Sinclair Davidson rightfully points out how bad the NAZI holocaust was, “an industrial scale slaughter”. Davidson recognised that this was an intentional massacre, but fails to recognised that as bad as that was, the deaths from climate change are anticipated to be two orders of magnitude higher. It is hard to top this comment from Davidson: “…it is previous generations that caused the problem and future generations that will benefit, so why should current generations bear all the costs?”

The minor problem with this statement is that it is pretty sloppy accounting from a professor of economics. Previous generations have pushed our atmospheric CO2 concentrations 75 ppm (from 280 ppm to 355 ppm in 1992, the year of the Rio Earth Summit). We’ve carried it through to 390ppm and the science warns of calamity if we don’t take concentrations back to 350ppm.

We’ve basically got to take concentrations back to the levels of the time at which we discovered the serious risks of the problem. I think Davidson better reallocate some part of the responsibility from his current position where he thinks “it is previous generations that caused the problem”.

However, the major problem with Davidson’s statement is this part: “[it is the] future generations that will benefit, so why should current generations bear all the costs?”

This is the moral equivalent of saying that if we don’t dump all our toxic waste in Africa its Africans that will benefit, so why should rich Western nations bear all the costs of the waste they create?

Sinclair, the solution is a system to reward genuinely good behaviour and putting a cost on bad. Currently with our externalised cost accounting you often get the opposite feedback, a chilling effect with the promise of being pushed out of business if you internalise costs by those who externalise costs, under cut competition and foist cost on the commons. We now need better accounting and systems of internalising costs for further progress, improvement, and advancement.

Simon Mansfield’s double strawman attack (Tuesday, comments) on Clive Hamilton was ridiculous. Mansfield accuses Hamilton of wanting to bring down civilisation, then attacks Hamilton for not giving up the benefits of civilisation. Simon, ever stop and wonder if Hamilton and his fellow travellers are trying to preserve civilisation?

Perhaps Mansfield could sit down with Sinclair Davidson and read the IPCC reports by Working Groups Two (on Impact) and Three (on Mitigation), from Davidson’s comments I don’t think he is aware of these either.

Melbourne Uni:

Christina Buckridge, Corporate Affairs Manager, University of Melbourne, writes: Re. “The Melbourne Model” (yesterday, comments). At the risk of boring Crikey readers such as Ray Quigley (10 November, comments) who must really wonder at the obsession with the University of Melbourne, may I ask Adam Schwab whatever happened to evidence-based reporting? While Mr Schwab has confided that he was not successful at getting in to Law at Melbourne and it is exemplary that his loyalties lie with his alma mater Monash, that is no reason to make unsubstantiated claims about the study of Law at Melbourne and the Melbourne Model.

For instance, on what does he base his claim that Melbourne is allowing wealthier, but less elite students to undertake a Melbourne University law degree when the Melbourne JD offers CSPs, just as the former undergraduate program did, and the entry to the JD is not just based on an ENTER score but on a rigorous selection process including exceptional undergraduate results in non-Law courses and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) used by most leading North American law schools.

Your readers might be interested to know that students who have not done well at VCE because of disadvantage can perform outstandingly on the level playing field of undergraduate studies. Would Mr Schwab deny these people a place in graduate Law at Melbourne?

He talks alarmingly of fees. All places in Melbourne Model undergraduate programs are Commonwealth-supported places (CSPs) and Melbourne is no different from other universities in offering CSPs in all graduate programs and, in some, also full-fee places.

If Mr Schwab bothered to investigate he would find that the drivers for the Melbourne Model were not financial but the desire to offer students an outstanding education. It is being followed — albeit, in their own style –– by other universities within Australia and overseas. e.g., the University of Western Australia and the University of Aberdeen, and widely-admired internationally — The Guardian and The Independent. It is a model that has drawn approval from Professor James Wilkinson of Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and Lord Broers, the former Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University.

As to quality of students — with a median ENTER of around 94 for undergraduate courses there are still plenty of high-achieving 17 and 18-year-olds choosing to study at Melbourne.

And on another two points Mr Schwab is ill-informed. The Melbourne Model was developed by a 25-member Curriculum Commission led by the then Provost Professor Peter McPhee with many other academic staff across the University contributing to course and subject content. And not one senior executive salary at the University has risen in the past year where senior executives have collectively agreed to forego any salary increases, including one enjoyed by all other staff in April this year.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey