Charities work better with light-touch regulation – even Hillsong

Posted on 12 Apr 2023

By Denis Moriarty, group general manager, Our Community

Our Community group general manager Denis Moriarty says despite the claims about Hillsong, there's little to justify a heavy-handed approach by the charity regulator.

Speaking as a gay atheist, I’m normally able to bear with equanimity hearing people say nasty things about Hillsong church, especially when accusations are made under parliamentary privilege and don’t trigger any of the usual mines, traps and spring-guns of Australian defamation law.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has accused Hillsong of ‘fraud, money laundering and tax evasion ... Hillsong followers believe that the money they put in the poor box goes to the poor, but these documents show how that money is actually used to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian,’ Mr Wilkie said.

So what are we doing about it? While the Tax Office doesn’t comment on its investigations, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) has confirmed that it’s looking into the allegations. Before you turn off the news and slouch back satisfied in your recliner, though, I should go into a little more detail about the powers of the ACNC over Australian charities.

Firstly, of course, the ACNC doesn’t have a staff of investigators with badges who can make perps do their cute little perp walks. If the ATO or the feds or the local coppers do get convictions for any of these suggested breaches – and Hillsong, of course, hasn’t been charged, says it has an answer for everything, and should be heard in its own defence – then the ACNC will take that into account, but it’s not up to them to get those cases over the line. At this stage of the game, anything that was actually illegal is someone else’s business.

If you take the possibility of fraud, money laundering and tax evasion out of the equation, then, what’s left for the ACNC? What are not-for-profits (NFPs) allowed to do?

Denis CIC19
Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty

Essentially, NFPs are allowed to do anything that a commercial organisation can do, other than pay dividends. It’s here that the misunderstandings creep in. This is a church, the person in the street grumbles, it claims to be about virtue and the avoidance of sin. Why is it spending all this money on private jets? Can’t someone in authority bring it to heel? No, for perfectly good reasons.

Hypocrisy is not against the law. Thank god, or heaven, or whatever it is we atheists thank. If having its pastors living high on the hog put a religion outside the bounds of tolerance, there wouldn’t be many religions left. More significantly, speaking as someone who wouldn’t actually mind having a few cathedrals converted into homeless centres with unusually high ceilings, having a government that could decide which religions Australians were allowed to worship at would be a hair-raising expansion of the power of the state.

If there’s a group of people out there who genuinely believe in the godhead of a purple crayon, in the eyes of the law they’re a church and entitled to all the tax privileges that go with that. Naturally, this tends to attract bad actors who pretend to worship purple crayons for the purpose of tax minimisation, and every now and again the courts bat them back; but the test is whether they have a sincere congregation (the satanists, for example, fell at this hurdle), and nobody’s ever accused Hillsong of lacking disciples. Having sincere clerics has never been part of the deal.

Some ex-members of the church have demanded that its tax breaks be revoked. The ACNC will deregister something like Hillsong only if it finds it wasn’t really a charity – if it was being run, at all levels, only as a tax shelter. As long as there are still people shouting Hallelujah in the pews, that’s not going to happen.

If there are other abuses – and in this case Hillsong appears to admit that there were ‘past governance failures’ – then the ACNC will work with the organisation to revise its governance procedures till they’re strong enough to allow the voice of the members to be heard.

That’s all it can do, and all it should do. Standard ACNC procedures don’t result in the bad people being thrown into eternal fire and the good people being transported to eternal bliss. That’s too much to ask – and asking for it is what lands people in organisations like Hillsong that claim to be able to arrange it.

The Australian volunteer sector is a lot bigger (and better) than Hillsong, and it works best under light-touch regulation that leaves final sanctions to the volunteers themselves (this side of the criminal law, at least). We don’t want a regulator second-guessing the decisions of community boards, even when those include spending $23 million to buy Melbourne music venue Festival Hall. Be careful what you pray for.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of, a social enterprise helping the country's 600,000 not-for-profits.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian Community Media titles.

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