Failure to Launch Rather Than Clear Sailing

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 10, 2019, 53-71

Failure to Launch Rather Than Clear Sailing: The Media-Focused Trials, Triumphs, and Tribulations of the Church of Scientology in Australia

Stephen B. Mutch

Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia


This paper examines the short history of the Church of Scientology in Australia and the high profile efforts of the Church to achieve legal recognition and social acceptance, against considerable resistance. While the organization succeeded in obtaining legal recognition before the courts, the persistent failure to translate this recognition into membership growth is noted. Possible reasons for this failure are canvassed, including initial governmental suppression, alleged discrimination, community resistance to a new, transplanted religion, and allegedly unfair media reporting. In addition, the paper examines complaints of persistent anti-social and harmful behaviour associated with the organization, and speculates on consumer resistance to the core spiritual beliefs and the reputation of the founder. It is noted that partially quantitative assessments of unfair or even biased media treatment should be treated with caution. It is concluded that probable cause for any media focus on the organization is due to the persistence of complaints from former members and critics, and the publicity seeking behaviour of the Church.

Keywords: Church of Scientology, Australia, legal recognition, the media

Introduction: Failure to Launch

The story of Scientology’s early years in Australia reveals a group popularly described as a cult, yet determined to overcome community resistance, and achieve social acceptance, along with organizational success. A major component of its strategic plan was a campaign to gain the legal status of a religion; in order to access the financial and other benefits this status might entail, and to counter political opposition. In most of its endeavours, including its failures, Scientology attracted the sometimes harsh light of media scrutiny. But like a moth to the flame, the organization continued to seek publicity, despite the controversy this sometimes aroused, and the possibly detrimental impact upon its growth.

In its goal to achieve political and legal legitimacy the organization achieved some notable victories. In 1973, Scientology secured a ministerial fiat authorizing the Church to conduct official marriage celebrations. Wins in court included an earlier decision in 1970 recognizing the exempt status of a Church minister from national service, a 1979 defamation decision in the Supreme Court of Western Australia, where Scientology was deemed, on the evidence of clergymen, to have a “‘religious’ reputation,” and an appellate decision of the High Court in 1983, allowing the Church religious institutional exemption from payroll tax in the state of Victoria. Scientology was able to leverage its early victories into later successes. These successes included the repeal (between 1973 and 1982) of legislation passed earlier in three Australian states (between 1965 and 1968) aimed at suppressing the group, and access to other privileges generally available to the religious sector, including charitable status for the advancement of religion.

However, Scientology’s inability to sustain significant numbers of adherents, reflected in official government figures, seems a realistic indication of its failure to translate these hard-won successes into genuine organizational flourishing. Nearly twenty years after finally prevailing, in 1982, over attempted state government suppression, and Scientology’s 1983 victory in the High Court, membership figures had stalled in Australia. In response to the optional census question on religious affiliation in the 2001 census, a mere 2,032 Scientologists indicated their religious allegiance. This figure increased marginally to 2,513 in the 2006 census. But in the Australian census held in 2011, the figure had dropped back to 2,163—statistically a still birth and well below what might once have been anticipated. The latest figures for the 2016 Australian Census reveals a further decline to 1,685.

In an organization where growth is important, some possible explanations for poor census figures have been offered. Scientology has suggested that the official census figures are not reflective of its true membership base, and some disparity between the membership claims of the organization and official government numbers can be noted. In 2007, in an article on building extensions to Scientology headquarters in Sydney, it was reported that: “Mr [James] Packer, Australia’s richest man, was introduced to the church by [celebrity Tom] Cruise and will soon be married in a Scientology service in France. Scientology publicists say he is just one of many people joining the church founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The church claims to have 250,000 followers in Australia, even though in the 2001 census only 2,000 gave their religion as Scientology. ‘Many people come in and do Scientology courses and still think of themselves as Christians’, Mrs Dunstan [president of Scientology Australia] said. ‘We are expanding rapidly and want to bring the building up to the standard it needs to be to present Scientology in its proper light.’”

This deflection, to celebrity gossip and dual faith adherence, and counterpoint that the organization was in fact rapidly expanding, is the type of coverage that Scientology could only welcome. The article is certainly reflective of skilful public relations interaction with the media. However, Scientology’s membership claims in Australia, as elsewhere, can be taken with a grain of salt.

Other explanations seeking to explain the poor census figures, which might inculcate some sympathy for Scientology, include: the possibly damaging effects of government suppression, discrimination against members of the group, resistance common to transplanted religion, and some allegedly unfair, damaging media reports. Other plausible explanations, but detrimental to the standing and ambitions of Scientology, include complaints of persistent anti-social and internally harmful behaviour, and the possibility of genuine consumer resistance to the Scientology brand. The latter might be due to aspects pertaining to its core beliefs, the marketing of its spiritual products, and the controversial reputation of its founder.

Government Suppression

For an historical perspective, we can note the record of governmental opposition to Scientology in its formative years, which arguably may have stunted its growth. In 1965 and 1968, three Australian state governments enacted draconian legislation aimed at suppressing the nascent organization.

In Victoria, the Psychological Practices Act 1965 contained provisions aimed indirectly at Scientology through the regulation of psychology. The act also attacked the organization directly, banning the E-meter or galvanometer, banning the practice or application of Scientology for a fee or reward and banning all advertising relating to the teaching of Scientology (whether for reward or not). It provided for confiscation of Scientology records by the Attorney General and for the imposition of substantial fines (and even imprisonment for two years) for teaching Scientology for reward. As soon as the legislation was proclaimed, Scientology headquarters was raided, and 4,000 personal files on clients were seized, and signs advertising free introductory lectures were reportedly removed.

The governments of South Australia and Western Australia followed suit, enacting the Scientology (Prohibition) Act 1968 (SA) and the Scientology Act 1968 (WA). The purpose of the South Australian legislation was to “prohibit the teaching, practice or application of the system of study known as Scientology”. Its provisions closely reflected the anti-Scientology provisions of the Victorian act, except that it de-coupled the provisions relating to psychology, opting to deal with that aspect separately. The Western Australian legislation was similar, except that it also provided penalties for the “practice” of Scientology, including fines and imprisonment for one year. At the beginning of 1969, raids were conducted by police in both states and material seized. In addition, arrests were made in Western Australia under the “practice” provisions. However, in 1969, after a failed prosecution of the Hubbard Association of Scientologists International for want of evidence, prosecutions against fifteen individual Scientologists were withdrawn.

Efforts were also made at the Commonwealth level to stifle the dissemination of Scientology material and to deny the entry of known adherents to Australia, which was a tangible disadvantage for anyone concerned. However, it seems feasible to suggest that rather than curbing the potential growth of Scientology, governmental attempts at suppression might have had an enervating, galvanizing effect. This unintended consequence was mooted by a critic who said the original ban in Victoria: “Probably did Scientology more good than harm. It provided free publicity, and because it had the trappings of a witch-hunt, made Scientology the underdog, gaining Hubbard much needed support … [I]t was impossible to ban Scientology. The followers in Victoria simply changed their name to the ‘Church of the New Faith’ and carried on where they had left off.”

Governmental crackdowns certainly provided the Church with campaigning opportunities, including demonstrations and petitions, which were duly reported. Campaigns to repeal anti-Scientology legislation also resulted in the production of some classic polemics, if not personally written by L. Ron Hubbard, then certainly true to an injunction attributed to the founder to attack rather than defend, making a unique contribution to the primary literature on lobbying campaigns.

Mistrust of Government and Discrimination

Another explanation for low census numbers is that due to an apprehension of political and public hostility, a proportion of Scientologists might be reluctant to disclose their faith to a government survey. This idea can be linked to the effects of political opposition to the group, as the history of attempted suppression could have generated mistrust of governmental intentions. Apprehension might be particularly acute when it relates to the potential government misuse of private, confidential information contained in a census.

In addition, political opposition could have found some resonance in the wider community, possibly resulting in an increase in discrimination alleged against individual Scientologists. Researchers note with unstinting approval a 1984 report of the New South Wales (NSW) Anti-Discrimination Board, which “reports, in an unprejudiced way … the Church of Scientology as a case study of Australian intolerance and prejudice toward minority religions.” The researchers also note a 1998 report of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), which explored “the large group of submissions received from members of the Church who complained of vilification and harassment,” and cited claims by a Scientologist that “despite the gradual recognition and tolerance of the group in Australia over the last thirty years, many still experience intolerance and discrimination.”

Judging by the large number of submissions from Scientologists, it seems that any apprehension Scientologists might then have had in divulging personal details to the Australian Bureau of Statistics did not necessarily apply to other government agencies. Perhaps some Scientologists can make a nice distinction between those agencies that are, more or less, independent from government direction. Perhaps in these instances the Church actively encouraged its members to make their complaints known, particularly if they were hopeful of a sympathetic hearing from agencies with a professional interest in seeking out instances of discrimination and other breaches of human rights. However, it should be observed that the HREOC report notes receipt of “numerous accounts, articles and affidavits from ex-members of the Church of Scientology, who allege mistreatment, malnutrition and forced imprisonment at the hands of that organization.” This is indicative of an even-handed acknowledgement of complaints by and against Scientology, albeit without offering any resolution. In addition, the Commission’s recommendation for government to convene an inter-faith dialogue to examine ways of dealing with coercion in religious belief and practice (so as to formulate minimum standards for religious practice) seems sensible and prescient, although a minimal step. Even so, it can be contrasted with the political advocacy of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board for a laissez faire approach to the “controversial activities of unpopular minority religious groups,” which apparently “belong rather in the province of public discussion than in that of governmental regulation.”

Transplanted New Religions

Concerns are sometimes expressed that members of transplanted new religions suffer from a disproportionate level of discrimination compared to established traditions (although Australia is at the very tolerant end of the scale). So another suggestion for poor census numbers might lie in the alleged difficulties shared by emergent religions attempting to establish an identity in a foreign culture. In common with all new religious groups, Scientology lacks a substantial, accumulated base of support which may take many generations to acquire. It does not have the advantage of some breakaway sects which can take with them part of the membership base of the parent religion.

Problems can arise for any transplanted religion, and it is suggested that these might be exacerbated in the case of new (or quasi) religions. However, Scientology originated in the United States, a country with close cultural, economic, political and security links with Australia. In addition, it is said to comprise a relatively advantaged membership demographic. So it might be hypothesised that Scientology should enjoy relatively less opprobrium and consequently less social disadvantage than other new and unorthodox religions. This point has been underlined by two writers who note that: “Scientology, even if it is a transnational movement, is well established among the Australian population. Even though this religion is an American import, it is far from being a religion for American migrants. … Scientologists tend to be baby boomers and Generation Xers with high-income jobs. They represent a much higher percentage than average in active employment, and although Scientology is a NRM imported from the United States, it is nevertheless attractive to those born within Australia.”

Needless to say, this apparent attractiveness has not translated into impressive membership numbers, and the conclusion that “it is fair to expect Scientologists to be more educated than the average population” might be queried. Certainly, the researchers’ upbeat assessment that “this chapter has demonstrated that Scientology has come a long way” with “more people claiming so be Scientologists in official censuses.” seems overly effusive.

Media Coverage: Fair or Foul?

Another possibility is that critical media coverage might have impacted adversely upon the growth of the organization. Indeed, there is academic interest in determining the extent to which Scientology might have been unfairly treated; even to the degree of alleged bias against the group. Some scholars of new religions conclude that Scientology has been “damaged” by unfair media coverage.

In one book chapter, two authors claim that the satirical style found in a selected proportion of newspaper reports (those deemed to be “somewhat negative”), rendered those reports biased and damaging to Scientology. The authors conclude that: “This style of reporting and its impact on its readership should … not be devalued, as there is a clear bias represented. Although the media is not informing its readers to fear Scientology, it is stigmatizing the group into a ‘joke’ and presenting its central doctrine as a ‘comic story.’”

Another academic paper looks at tabloid television coverage of Scientology between 2007 and 2012. Again, while focusing perhaps more on the style of the reports (Sensational Scientology! is the title) than the substance of the allegations, it is claimed that: “These journalistic forays have been as damaging to public opinion of Scientology as any media scrutiny of a new religion in Australian media history. … Few stories feature content about the beliefs or practices of Scientology, except to reinforce their reputation for unorthodoxy in wider society, and instead feature hyperbolized themes that ‘serve to legitimate and reinforce negative stereotypes.’”

Despite these conclusions, the extent of any alleged damage and impact on membership numbers (if that is what is meant by damage) can only be inferred. Another researcher has pointed out an alleged nexus between negative media coverage and public perception, but again does not link the inference of negative public perception with stalled membership growth. Indeed, yet another researcher in the field of new religions has suggested that the presumption of a negative impact from critical reports might be counterintuitive.

Some scholars focus on media campaigns critical of Scientology, lamenting the fact that the organization seems to receive more than its fair share of unwelcome attention. However, the organization may also attract more attention than other unconventional groups because it has courted publicity. From its earliest days, the history of the movement in Australia can be readily tracked through newspaper and electronic media coverage, at a level that seems unique to Scientology among unconventional groups; but very much fed by the organization itself as well as its critics.

While no doubt many media exposés have been sourced from the accounts of former adherents, parliamentary debates and official inquiries have also been prompted by material supplied in part by former Scientologists. But media coverage has often focused on court proceedings and public campaigns initiated by Scientology. The media may well be attracted to stories surrounding Scientology celebrities, but often as a result of a celebrity focused media strategy adopted by the organization. These strategies and forays are calculated to attract media attention. At the very least they are guaranteed to do so, and the result can be a public relations success, even if this success is sometimes qualified by underlying motives and methods used.

The Chelmsford Campaign

For example, the Church gained some credence for the fruition of its decade-long campaign against damaging psychiatric procedures conducted at the Chelmsford Private Hospital in Sydney, which involved numerous deaths and other serious medical consequences. Scientology sees its opposition to psychiatry and related professions as an article of faith, claiming in its guidebook that: “The fact of the matter is that these self-appointed experts [referring to psychiatrists and psychologists] have never discovered and do not know to this day that the mind is composed of mental image pictures, that the brain is simply a conduit, and that man is a spiritual being.”

In this respect its Chelmsford campaign might be viewed as a case of blind faith versus pioneering (or dangerously experimental) medicine. Nevertheless, the campaign, conducted by the Australian Office of Scientology’s official sounding Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) (along with media exposés on the Channel Nine network’s 60 Minutes program and detailed investigation by “The Sydney Morning Herald”), resulted in the establishment of a genuinely official royal commission in 1988 to investigate deep-sleep therapy and other psychiatric practices in the state of New South Wales.

The royal commission eventually led to some redress for patients who had been found to be seriously injured by psychiatric medical procedures conducted at Chelmsford and elsewhere. So even if it is argued that its motivation was misguided or self-serving (fuelled by over-zealous antagonism against the mental health professions and helping to proselytize the Scientology brand), some credit, albeit sometimes qualified, accrued to Scientology from this public policy victory. Scientology certainly parades its “remorseless work to uncover the truth” about Chelmsford, and uses the campaign as a handy rebuttal to media reports critical of the organization’s unorthodox views on mental health.

The “Melbourne Truth” Capitulation

In another example, illustrative of the broader social and political importance of its campaign for legal recognition, Scientology was able to leverage its new found legal status as a religion to extract a volte face from a newspaper which had once been critical of the organization, and had shown great verve in its use of ridicule. In the early 1960s, with Scientology attempting to establish a foothold in the state of Victoria, it had come under attack from the Australian Medical Association which was concerned about its allegedly psychological services, and from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne who expressed concern about its overtures to students. In the media, the “Melbourne Truth” enlivened the controversy with articles exposing the “crank cult to end all cults,” and coined the memorable word “bunkumology.” The “Truth” alleged that Scientology used IQ tests to encourage susceptible young people to pay for expensive courses to cure alleged homosexual tendencies or to pass matriculation (a high school graduation qualification). It was claimed that one student had been persuaded to discontinue asthma treatment and that Scientology used aggressive tactics to intimidate its critics.

But by 1980, things had changed with respect to the status of Scientology, if not its behaviour. The change in status from “cult” to “religion” led to a demeaning public retraction from the editor of the “Truth.” It read: “The publishers of the Truth wish to apologise to past and present affiliates of the religion of Scientology if any embarrassment has been caused to them. [‘The Truth’] now accepts the integrity, and the religious nature of Scientology [which was] finally recognized as a religion by the Australian Government in 1973.”

So the 1973 ministerial proclamation authorizing Scientology to conduct official marriage ceremonies had paid dividends for the organization. Indeed, Scientology had always been fully cognizant of the advantage bestowed by the 1973 fiat, which at the time was greeted with jubilation by Scientologists. L. Ron Hubbard himself was moved to declare, “there’s no reason not to create a wildfire expansion in Australia now. Disseminate more, train more, audit more.” A number of “Liberal members of Parliament in WA” (Western Australia) reportedly “said that they would never have banned Scientology if it had been a religion” to which one might now add, particularly a religion endorsed by Hollywood celebrities.

Movie Stars and Gaming Tsars

Scientology has long sought to be associated with celebrity mates with media benefits, particularly movie and popular music stars. The organization has also cultivated the mega-rich and therefore famous. In Australia, an adornment for Scientology for a period was James Packer (former media mogul turned gaming Tsar). In the Australian vernacular Packer is widely regarded as a “good bloke,” whose life story and emergence from the shadow of his legendary father has somewhat endeared him to a population usually averse to tall poppies. In 2007, Packer married his second wife, Erica Baxter, in a Scientology ceremony, and one scholar notes that he converted to the Church in 2002. The wedding ceremony on the French Riviera was attended by “premier celebrity Scientologists Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.” The conclusion to this scholar’s piece was that: “Australian women’s magazines consistently present Baxter’s rise to fame and success as desirable and positive. … The profession of faith in Scientology by celebrities must have a normalizing and familiarizing effect, rendering the Church of Scientology mainstream rather than fringe, attractive rather than unattractive, associated with wealth and success, and thus desirable rather than otherwise.”

With such influential friends in high places and its share of favourable coverage (which might be further quantified for those who feel the need to achieve a fulsome assessment), it does seem a stretch to paint Scientology as a media underdog. There is always recourse to the normal complaints procedures against media outlets, and Scientology has used this avenue, albeit with little success. Even sometimes salacious gossip, which constitutes the bread and butter of society magazines, provides to the group the lifeblood of continuing publicity.

Scientology is nevertheless characterized by some scholars as a convenient whipping dog, particularly for television journalists anxious to fulfil the demands of the unremitting news cycle. The concern is that television journalism has a disproportionate voice in framing negative narratives; although an alternative view is that print journalism continues to play the key role in setting the agenda followed by other journalists. In any event, there is a difference between the pressing need for stories and conclusions that these stories are biased or insubstantial, particularly when criticisms and conclusions are arguably based more on journalistic style than the substance of the allegations.

So despite some tribulations at the hands of the media, overall one would have expected Scientology to bask in the reflected glory of celebrity and reap a handsome dividend in membership growth. Yet this growth dividend does not seem to have occurred in Australia. It is therefore worth pondering whether complaints about unfair coverage of Scientology are a convenient excuse, a case of protesting too much.

Allegations of Antisocial and Internally Harmful Behaviour

This leads us to further examine reasons for apparently low membership, and to heretical thoughts. Might a perceived level of community aversion to the group be well-founded? Might the fault lie with Scientology, discoverable in the litany of complaint and controversy that has swirled around the organization from inception? Despite attempts to blame the media and the messengers, is there substance to the allegations made against the organization? To re-phrase a popular maxim, we might ask: “where there is smoke, is there fire?”

The types of allegation made against Scientology include two general categories: aggressive behaviour by the Church against critics (including apostates) and other harmful behaviour occurring internally to the group. The then apparently ongoing nature of anti-social behaviour of the first category was noted by Roy Wallis in his seminal study on Scientology, published in the mid 1970s. Wallis concluded, after looking at the effects of the deviance amplification model applied to Scientology from the 1960s, that “despite a considerable drop in moral panic and the severity of societal reaction, the movement continues to react to criticism and commentary in a manner which suggests a persisting alienation from conventional norms of behaviour in this area.”

My own research into public policy responses to Scientology focused on the period from the early 1960s (Scientology came to Australia in 1957) to the mid-1980s. This research revealed that allegations concerning the behavioural trait noted by Wallis, along with complaints of harmful misconduct internal to the group, have regularly dogged the organization in Australia and abroad. In subsequent years complaints have persisted, attracting intermittent media coverage and official attention.

Bookends to the period under examination in my research not only illustrate the ongoing nature of complaints about Scientology, but also the way in which the “religion” question was crucial, if problematic, to policy outcomes. Prior to taking legislative action against Scientology in 1965, the Victorian government had commissioned Kevin Victor Anderson, “a distinguished leader of the Melbourne bar,” to undertake a commission of inquiry into the organization. After nearly two years of exhaustive inquiry, Anderson reported that Scientology “propagated falsehoods and deceptions; was a money making business; made false scientific claims; utilized potentially harmful hypnotic techniques; made unjustified claims for the E-meter, used techniques for domination and enslavement; was harmful to mental health; misused sincere but vulnerable people (causing them to shun proper medical and other treatment); negligently used untrained personnel; made unjustified healing claims; targeted the vulnerable in advertising; contained scope for internal coercion; promoted family discord (disconnect policy); was hostile to the medical profession and critics (fair game policy); was morally undesirable; and was not a religion as claimed.”

While Anderson canvassed the religious claims of Scientology, and dismissed them, he felt the issue was irrelevant to his adverse findings. It is ironic that the legislative response that followed his report might have been better crafted if the possibility of Scientology being characterized as a religion had been anticipated from the outset, and more care taken to define “religious institution” for the purposes of state law.

The Achilles’ heel in the Victorian legislation was that it contained an exemption for groups identified as religious under the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961. This exemption became a fatal flaw after Scientology was listed as a religion in the 1973 federal proclamation, and led to the slow, reluctant unravelling of the state’s legislation. The view that Anderson’s findings should be disregarded, particularly because he felt that Scientology was not a religion, has also found traction among those who think that religions (however loosely defined) are in a special category, by definition deserving of privileges and exemptions not always available to other entities. Behaviour which might be considered harmful or exploitative in some contexts becomes cleansed in a religious environment.

At the other end of the period under examination, in 1985, the Burdett Select Committee in South Australia (appointed to look into Scientology methods of recruiting and obtaining service payments) considered that there were three major areas of consumer complaint. Firstly, recruits purchasing services from Scientology were insufficiently informed, with a number being in “a state of depression or anxiety”. Secondly, it was difficult for unhappy consumers to obtain refunds. Thirdly, recruits who were promised staff positions were not warned about the essentially voluntary nature of these positions, such that they would receive little or no payment. Both the Department of Public and Consumer Affairs and the Department of Labour were asked to maintain a watching brief, so that if necessary generic legislation could be introduced. The Select Committee helpfully produced a draft model agreement dealing with the provision of psychological or spiritual services for fee or reward (over certain amounts to be prescribed), including a cooling-off period of seven days before payment.

This inquiry and recommendations would be unexceptional if applied to any other area of consumer activity, but the presumption that religious groups occupy a privileged category meant that the Select Committee had stepped gingerly. Its members were aware of the religious claims of Scientology and of the 1983 High Court ruling, although it is unclear whether they had been advised that section 116 of the Australian Constitution does not apply to state legislation. Nevertheless, they felt some constraint due to the religion question, and proceeded with abundant caution, noting that: “The Committee has no intention of making any recommendations which might infringe Section 116 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act which relates to legislation in respect of religion, even if the case above cited [the 1983 case] is authority that the Church of Scientology is a religion for the purposes of the Constitution Act.”

Despite the mild, credible recommendations of the Committee (designed for general application rather than targeting any particular group), for its part Scientology used the opportunity after the tabling of the report to showcase its innovative approach to public demonstration. Scientology mourners marched two by two in a procession from Victoria Square to Parliament House. Pallbearers dressed in funereal garb carried a coffin emblazoned with the words: “death of religious freedom”. A petition was presented to the President of the Legislative Council demanding that the report be rescinded. The bizarre stunt resulted in the type of media coverage (including pictures) it was no doubt calculated to attract.

In this theatrical demonstration, pallbearers wore hatbands displaying the names of targeted politicians, which could be described as a robust assertion of democratic free speech. However, in an earlier instance, alleged tactics seemed menacing. In the 1985, debate repealing the Western Australian anti-Scientology legislation, the Hon. Graham C. MacKinnon (who was instrumental in the 1968 act) related in parliament the fear that had been engendered at the time of its passing. He had received a wreath (which shocked his mother who opened the package) and was apprehensive of being investigated and followed, actions he attributed to the “organization of Scientology,” not to its sometimes sincere adherents. MacKinnon felt that the original legislation had been effective but had been undercut by federal recognition of Scientology as a religion. He was in no doubt that purported reforms by the Church in 1968 (presumably including cancellation of fair game and disconnection) were not genuine.

It has been noted earlier that complaints about Scientology were made to the inquiry of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission in 1998. More recently, in 2009, complaints by former Scientologists were made to Senator Nick Xenophon who dutifully raised these matters to public attention and tabled in parliament numerous letters of complaint he had received. These complaints, “written by former followers in Australia,” raised an extraordinary number of serious abuses allegedly perpetrated within Scientology including: false imprisonment, coerced abortions, embezzlement of Church funds for the personal use of executives, physical violence including sexual assaults, intimidation, blackmail, harmful dietary punishments and other punishments including illegal confinement and torture, bans on medication and seeking medical attention, forcing adherents to cut ties with family members and friends, and cover-ups of illegal activities by the Church.

Media coverage of Senator Xenophon’s parliamentary speech was extensive, accurately reporting on the claims that Scientology was a “criminal organization hiding behind religion” and the allegations of torture and other claims made against the organization. At the same time, media outlets allowed ample opportunity for Scientology to respond to the allegations, which it did with vigour, alleging that the senator had abused parliamentary privilege and had relied upon unreliable witnesses, being “disgruntled former members who use hate speech and distorted accounts of their experiences in the church.” If the allegations were alleged to be somewhat sensationalist, the Australian media can hardly be faulted for reporting on newsworthy material raised in parliament by a media savvy, successful politician.

This litany of alleged abuses, the extensive media coverage and the number of Australian complainants involved, particularly relative to the small size of the local membership, would surely lead to urgent official action if the organization was something other than one categorized as a “religion.” Yet initial attempts by Xenophon to convince his parliamentary colleagues to investigate the allegations were rebuffed by the major political parties, with the senator reportedly being “warned informally that they would be wary about anything smacking of intruding upon religious freedom,”, which might be characterized as a witchhunt aimed at one group. Nevertheless, with persistence, and possibly due to his crucial crossbench position (with the government lacking a senatorial majority), the senator was able to persuade his colleagues to establish an inquiry into the need for a more sufficient public benefit test for tax exempt entities in general, incidentally including religious groups (for which public benefit was long presumed under the common law of charity). So while the major parties were reluctant (as general policy rather than constitutional imperative) to target a specific entity that might claim religious status, the generic inquiry was understood by all to have been prompted by the allegations raised about Scientology.

In due course, on the basis of evidence received about Scientology and some other groups, the Senate Committee noted, with respect to cults, that “[i]t is a matter of concern that allegations of grossly inappropriate behaviour continue to be made, and arouse concern, yet there is no systematic means of dealing with these allegations, especially where no specific criminal offence has been committed … [S]ufficient evidence was put before it to suggest that the behaviour of cults should be reviewed with a view to developing and implementing a policy on this issue that goes beyond taxation law.”

It recommended, unanimously, that the government respond to “unacceptable behaviour by cult like organizations” by developing an “international best practice approach.” While this recommendation was sidestepped with tepid excuses by a timid government, another recommendation to proceed with the establishment of a national commission to deal with the not-for-profit sector was arguably the final catalyst leading to the establishment of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission in December 2012.

The Senate Committee was also very much alive to the dilemma presented by the High Court’s 1983 Scientology decision, which it noted is sometimes interpreted as meaning that the Court provided a one size fits all definition of religion for all occasions. .Examining the reasoning of the Court, it does seem that the Court was sensitive to the various contexts in which a definition of religion might be applied. As it was an appellate decision, it might have been predicted that the Court would easily determine that the Victorian government did not intend to benefit Scientology as a religious institution at the relevant time under the Pay-roll Tax Act 1971. This possible prediction would have accorded with the views of the Victorian Supreme Court, particularly as Scientology was outlawed in the 1965 Psychological Practices Act (the fact that those aspects of the Act dealing with Scientology were repealed in 1982 being irrelevant to the legislative intent at the time). But the High Court took the view that pay-roll tax exemptions were applicable to religious institutions rather than being applicable in the context of charity law, and so: “The privileges afforded to religious institutions … can be seen as an endeavour by the Victorian legislature to promote religious freedom generally through the support of religious institutions, rather than an effort to promote charitable activities specifically.”

Therefore the expansive definition applicable to constitutional protection of religious exercise might also be relevant in the context of promoting religious freedom through taxation relief. It can be observed that the lack of vigorous pleadings to the contrary might have aided this outcome, and Wilson & Deane JJ invited the Victorian legislature to rectify the position if it disagreed (notwithstanding changes in government in the interim), noting that while they had determined Scientology to be a religion in Victoria for relevant purposes, “[t]hat does not, of course, mean either that the practices of the applicant or its rules are beyond the control of the law of the State or that the applicant or its members are beyond its taxing powers.” These nuances mostly go unnoticed, and by default a one size fits all definition of religion seems to have been given wide administrative applicability in Australia. In a timely clarification, the Senate Economics Legislation Committee pointed out that: “This ruling by the Court is sometimes put forward as implying that any organization claiming a belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle should unquestionably receive a tax benefit. But while there is probably a consensus that a broad definition of religion is perfectly appropriate in determining the right to express religious views, it does not follow that there are always sound public policy grounds for other taxpayers to subsidise such an organization.”

With the establishment of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (despite an initial desire by the newly elected government to close it down the Commission survived due to the government’s lack of numbers in the Senate), it is possible that over time some genuine attempt will be made to separate the wheat from the chaff, at least with respect to the required nexus between public benefit and taxpayer supported financial concessions for religious charities.

While a wide definition of religion might be applicable for free exercise purposes, such as performing rites over baptism, marriage, and death, it is still open for legislatures to determine the extent to which financial privileges are granted to religious institutions. It might be that financial privileges should only be applied to those groups that operate in the public interest or, in the case of religious institutions (as opposed to religious charities where a wider public interest test can already be applied), at least operate for the benefit and not to the detriment of adherents.

Notwithstanding the confusion surrounding the 1983 Scientology decision, it is still open for these distinctions to be made by definitional disqualification (particularly at the level of state governments but possibly also at the federal level ), by requiring a positive ethic (either externally, or internally, or both) in the definition of religion for those groups seeking privileges. Alternatively, if an ethically neutral definition of religion is initially applied in every context involving “religion” (along with its ever expanding definitional dynamic), then this ethically neutral definition might be subjected to subsequent tests allowing benefits or disqualifying groups from them.

Consumer Resistance to the Scientology Brand

Finally, along with the baggage of alleged anti-social and harmful behaviour, there might be resistance to the supernatural product itself and associated merchandise. There might be reservations about the character of the founder of the movement, and scepticism to claims made for him by the organization. So for various reasons associated with its beliefs, and practices of worship associated with these beliefs, Scientology might not be a particularly attractive proposition for spiritual seekers in the religious marketplace. This resistance might be particularly pronounced in a socially secular society such as Australia, which can be distinguished in this respect from the birthplace of Scientology, the United States. The pool of genuine spiritual seekers may be comparatively small, in real and percentage terms, in Australia.

Established traditions can rely on generational habit and family expectations of participation in rituals to de-emphasize the core supernatural beliefs that define any religion, thereby retaining tribal support from large numbers of disbelievers or fellow-travellers. This broad, somewhat secular support base is not so generally available to emergent new religions. In addition, Scientology faces the dilemma of the modern age of globalization and instant access to information. Although it has tried to screen the core elements of its belief system from general view, the intrusive nature of the Internet has largely negated this strategy, exposing its eclectic mix of supernatural beliefs to anyone who persists with a detailed search (or views the latest documentary). With more established religious traditions, myths are able to be generated about the founding prophet without much fear of contradiction from reliable evidence. In this respect, earlier prophets have many advantages over L. Ron Hubbard who has been subjected to some detailed, often scathing contemporaneous critiques.

It should also be noted that Scientology charges significant fees for the various courses on offer to advance the spiritual progress of its members. It has been widely criticized for this practice, with some questioning the religious status of the organization on this basis alone, particularly when monies received were said to be siphoned off for the personal benefit of the founder. But in the long run, particularly after the death of the founder in 1986, its focus on commercialism can hardly be used to differentiate Scientology from other religious groups. However, in terms of consumer choice, perhaps Scientology is overpriced in the limited religious marketplace in Australia.


When Scientology opened its new regional base in West Chatswood, Sydney, in September 2016, effectively for a relaunch of the brand, it was hardly an “A-list” affair. While 2,500 reportedly attended the opening ceremony conducted by David Miscavige, it was also reported that “some claimed the church struggled to fill the event, and was forced to fly in members from Taiwan.” Interestingly, while Scientology has been accused at times of playing down the religious dimension when convenient, the speakers at the event included some religious scholars of religion, who endorse the religious status of the organisation and in one case dismissed concerns about Scientology as “a lot of press beat-up.”

Despite these supporters, media reports of the opening were generally sceptical and critical. Probable cause for this media scepticism is the persistence of complaints about the organization and controversy surrounding its activities. Indeed, it seems that Scientology will continue to invite negative media scrutiny while it attracts substantive complaints from former members and while it is perceived to behave in an unacceptably aggressive manner towards critics. In addition, while associations in the media with celebrity and the reporting of sometimes successful lobbying campaigns might provide some superficial attraction, it would seem that after consideration, and before commitment, many potential recruits probably come to the conclusion that there is something “not quite right” about the organization.

While there are suggestions by some scholars of religion that on balance, the stream of information emanating from media sources is unfavourable and unfair to Scientology, these suggestions are questionable, and any links to recruitment are speculative at best. Nevertheless, some scholars would like to limit media criticism of what they tend to see as another persecuted new religious movement, through the implementation of religious vilification laws, or by “educating” reporters, but these attempts to impose restraints on free speech and to monopolize narratives should be viewed with great caution.

Caution is warranted not only because of the divided, contested nature of scholarly opinion but because of the disparity in power between the organization and many complainants, the litigious propensity of Scientology, and the inadequacy of official avenues for complaint about controversial religious or quasi-religious organizations (and other purveyors of spiritual services). A free, unintimidated questioning media remains a vital conduit for the airing of grievances and a vital medium for crucial debate about the governance of religious diversity in Australia.


2 clerics back Scientology. The West Australian. 21 December 1978, p. 2.

15 charged in Wa’s first Scientology hearing. The Sun. 28 March 1969.

50 books of cult seized. The Advertiser. 18 September 1968, p. 10.

Atack J. A piece of blue sky: Scientology, dianetics, and L. Ron Hubbard exposed. New York, 1990: Carol Publishing Group.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2016 census of population and housing.

login.xhtml (12 August 2017).

Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission. ACNC Register.

QuickSearch/ACNC/OnlineProcessors/Online_register/Search_the_Register.aspx?noleft=1 (19 June 2015).

Australian Government. Australian Business Register. (19 June 2015).

Bachelard M. Scientology says “cult” tag defames the church. The Sydney Morning Herald. 10 July 2011.

Barker E. Stepping out of the ivory tower: A sociological engagement in “the cult wars.” Methodological Innovations Online. 2011, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 18–39.

Barrett D.V. The new believers: A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions. London, 2001: Cassell.

Bita N. Scientology criminal, says Senator Nick Xenophon. The Australian. 18 November 2009.


Blunden V. Scientology a religion, High Court says. The Sydney Morning Herald. 28 October 1983, p. 3.

Bouma G., Cahill D., Dellal H., & Zwartz A. Freedom of religion and belief in 21st century Australia. Australian Human Rights Commission. Sydney, 2011.

Burdett J. C. Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council on the Church of Scientology Incorporated. South Australian Parliament. Adelaide, 1985.

Cannane S. Fair game: The incredible untold story of Scientology in Australia. Sydney, 2016: HarperCollins.

Cannane S. Xenophon disappointed by Scientology report. (16 September 2011).

Cannon J. Australia, land of intolerance. The Herald. 16 November 1972, p. 5.

Centrepoint Community Growth Trust V Commissioner of Inland Revenue. 1 NZLR 673, High Court, Wellington, 1985.

Chandler J., Macdonald J., Scientology’s “degraded beings.” The Sydney Morning Herald. 22 April 1991, p. 3.

Church of Scientology. Whatever happened to Adelaide: A report on the Select Committee on the Scientology (Prohibition) Act to the government and people of South Australia. Perth, 1972: The Church of the New Faith].

Church of Scientology Inc. v. Anderson. WAR 71, Supreme Court of Western Australia. Perth, 1980.

Church of Scientology International. Scientology: Theology & practice of a contemporary religion. Los Angeles, 1998: Bridge Publications.

Church of Scientology International. What is Scientology? The comprehensive reference on the world’s fastest growing religion Los Angeles, 1993: Bridge Publications.

Church of Scientology of California. Kangaroo court: An investigation into the conduct of the Board of Inquiry into Scientology: Melbourne, Australia. East Grinstead, 1967: Hubbard College of Scientology .

Church of the New Faith v. Commissioner of Pay-Roll Tax. VR 97, Supreme Court of Victoria. Melbourne, 1983.

Church of the New Faith v. Commissioner of Pay-Roll Tax (Victoria). CLR 120, High Court of Australia. Canberra,

27 October 1983.

Commonwealth of Australia Senate. Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). Canberra, 2009: Australian Parliament.

Conley J. Scientology: The other side. Weekend Australian. 16–17 January 1988, p. 22.

Cottee L. Letters—No religious agenda. The Big Issue.

20 September 1999.

Cowan D. E., & Hadden J. K. Gods, guns, and grist for the media’s mill. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. November 2004, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 64–82.

Cusack C.M. Celebrity, the popular media, and scientology: making familiar the unfamiliar. In J. R. Lewis (ed.), Scientology, pp. 389–409. Oxford, 2009: Oxford University Press.

Dal Pont G. Charity law in Australia and New Zealand, Melbourne, 2000: Oxford University Press.

Davis M. Not all grievances are created equal in politics. The Sydney Morning Herald. 19 March 2010.

Did cult march on wrong hospital? The Big Issue. 6 September 1999.

Doherty B. Is there room for Scientology amid Australia’s religious diversity?

2012/03/20/3459702.htm (20 March 2012).

Doherty B. Sensational Scientology! The Church of Scientology and Australian tabloid television. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. February 2014, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 38–63.

Fernando G. Steve Cannane’s book reveals disturbing new claims about the Church of Scientology,


dfe8c28a7153e5c96360b29b2b70adfe (28 September 2016).

Foster J. G. Enquiry into the practice and effects of Scientology, London, December 1971: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Gillman I. Many faiths, one nation: A guide to the major faiths and denominations in Australia. Sydney, 1988: William Collins Pty Ltd.

Hanna M. Scientology on psychiatry (29 September 2010).

Hornery A. See ya, Tom: Packer quits Cruise’s church. The Sydney Morning Herald. 10 May 2008.

Hubbard Group’s Conviction Quashed. The West Australian. 4 December 1969, p. 1.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Article 18. Freedom of religion and belief. Sydney, 1998: Commonwealth of Australia.

Hunt for Hidden Scientology Files. The Australian. 23 December 1965, p. 3.

Idato M. HBO’s Scientology documentary Going Clear turns into ratings magnet. The Sydney Morning Herald. 1 April 2015.

Johnston M., & White A. Scientology-inspired drug rehabilitation clinic under fire over cure claims. Herald Sun. 11 May 2015.

Kent S. A. Hollywood’s celebrity lobbyists and the Clinton administration’s American foreign policy towards German Scientology. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. 2002, vol. 1, no. 1, doi:10.3138/jrpc.1.1.002

Kent S. A., & Manca T. A. A war over mental health professionalism: scientology versus psychiatry. Mental Health, Religion and Culture. 2014, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 1–23.

Klan A. Scientologists fight falling numbers with Asian HQ. The Australian. 10 September 2016.

Knight F. New York ignores protest against “Hitler in Australia.” The Australian. 30 July 1969, p. 7.

Knox M. Only itself to blame: The Church of Scientology. The Monthly. September 2009, pp. 34–43.

Lewis J. R. The growth of Scientology and the Stark model of religious “success.” In J. R. Lewis (ed.), Scientology, pp. 117–140. Oxford, 2009: Oxford University Press.

Maddox M. Religion, state and politics in Australia. In J. Jupp (ed.), The encyclopedia of religion in Australia, pp. 608–620. Cambridge, 2009: Cambridge University Press.

Man Took Secret File by Fraud. The Sydney Morning Herald. 11 April 1975, p. 1.

Manca T. Book review: Scientology. International Journal of Cultic Studies. 2010, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 83–88.

May J. Scientology’s new reverence. Nation Review. 28 April–

3 May 1973, p. 845.

Medhora S. Coalition set to abandon plans to scrap charities regulator. The Guardian. 9 September 2015.


Miller R. Bare-faced Mmessiah: The true story of L. Ron Hubbard. London, 1987: Michael Joseph.

Mutch S. Cultism, terrorism and homeland security. Cultic Studies Review. 2006, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 171–199.

Mutch S. Cults and public policy: Protecting the victims of cultic abuse in Australia. The paper presented at the CIFS conference Cults in Australia: Facing the Realities, hosted by Senators Sue Boyce & Nick Xenophon. Cult Information & Family Support, Old Parliament House & Parliament House, Canberra, 2 November 2011.

Mutch S. Cults and religious privileges in England and Australia: Can the wheat be separated from the chaff.? Cultic Studies Review. 2004, vol. 3, no. 2/3, pp. 135–151.

Mutch S. Cults, religion and public policy: A comparison of official responses to Scientology in Australia and the United Kingdom. PhD thesis, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2004.

Mutch S. From “cult” to “religion”: Claims for religious freedom enabled the “cult” of Scientology to overcome government suppression, win legal recognition and gain tax exempt status as a religious institution in Australia. Graduate Diploma in Arts, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2000.

Mutch S. Scientologists in Australia. In J. Jupp (ed.), The encyclopedia of religion in Australia, pp. 561–563. Cambridge, 2009: Cambridge University Press.

Nazi-Uniformed Protesters Get Kohl Shoulder. The Courier-Mail. 7 May 1997, p. 9.

“New Faith” Minister Granted Exemption. Daily News. 10 December 1970, p. 2.

NewsComAu. Church of Scientology response to Nick Xenophon. The Daily Telegraph. 17 November 2009.


Police Seize Scientology Material. The West Australian.

29 January 1969, p. 15.

Possamai A., & Possamai-Inesedy A. Scientology down under. In J. R. Lewis (ed.), Scientology, pp. 34 –364. Oxford, 2009: Oxford University Press.

Religious status for Scientology. The West Australian. 13 February 1973, p. 3.

Reynolds E. Sucked in by Scientology: Church’s relentless contact. The New Zealand Herald. 7 September 2016.

Richardson J. T. Scientology in court: A look at some major cases from various nations. In J. R. Lewis (ed.), Scientology, pp. 283–294. Oxford, 2009: Oxford University Press.

Scientology Files Seized in Raid. The Sydney Morning Herald.

22 December 1965, p. 1.

Scientology Plans a Big Comeback. The Melbourne Observer.

15 April 1973, p. 3.

Seccombe M. Andrews leads fight to abolish charities commission. The Saturday Paper. 29 March–4 April 2014, no. 5.

Senate Economics Legislation Committee. Report on the Tax Laws Amendment (Public Benefit Test) Bill 2010. Canberra, September 2010: Senate.

Senate Economics Reference Committee. Senate Economics Reference Committee inquiry into augmented tax assessments: Commonwealth Government response. Canberra, 2011: Australian Government.

Sharp A., & Walker I. The Church of Scientology buys land in West Chatswood for $37 million to build new Australasian headquarters. The Sunday Telegraph. 1 November 2014.

Sheppard I. F. et al. Report of the inquiry into the definition of charities and related organisations, Canberra, June 2001: The Treasury.

Sommer P. Scientologists rally against Council report. The Advertiser. 17 October 1985, p. 12.

The Charity Commission. Decision of the Charity Commission on the Church of Scientology (England and Wales). London,

17 November 1999.

WA Legislative Assembly. Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), WA Parliament, Perth, 10 May 1973.

WA Legislative Council. Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). Perth, 16 May 1973: WA Parliament.

Walker F. Scientologists want to raise the roof. The Sydney Morning Herald. 6 May 2007.

news/national/scientology-on-the up/2007/05/05/1177788468


Wallis R. Societal reaction to Scientology: a study in the sociology of deviant religion. In idem (ed.), Sectarianism: Analyses of religion and non-religious sects, pp. 86–116. New York, 1975: John Wiley & Sons.

Wallis R. The road to total freedom: A sociological analysis of Scientology. London, 1976: Heinemann.

Wright L. Going clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the prison of belief. New York, 2013: Knopf.

About the Author

Stephen B. Mutch, PhD, LLB (UNSW), is Honorary Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Macquarie University, Sydney (now retired). He is a lawyer and a former member of both the NSW Legislative Council (State Senate) and the Australian House of Representatives, serving in parliament from 1988 to 1998. He is a member of the editorial boards of the International Journal of Cultic Studies and the Polish quarterly Society and Family.