Australia should introduce anti-cult legislation similar to laws operating in France, Independent Senator Nick Xenophon says.
The South Australian senator has written to the federal and SA attorneys-general asking them to put the issue of cult law reform on the agenda of the next standing committee of the nation’s law officers.
The French laws, which have been in operation for nearly 10 years, allow judges to dissolve cults if their leaders are involved in criminal activity.
They also can ban cults from advertising, and from recruiting near schools, hospitals and retirement homes.
The laws also include an new offence called “mental manipulation” defined as exercising, within a group whose activities are aimed at creating or exploiting psychological dependence, heavy and repeated pressure on a person, or using techniques likely to alter an individuals judgement so as to induce them to behave in a way that is prejudicial to their interests.
The offence carries a fine of more than $100,000.
The French laws attracted criticism when they were introduced with many opponents calling them undemocratic.
Senator Xenophon does not agree, saying there was nothing democratic about people being caught up in cults.
Senator Xenophon says current laws are little safeguard against brainwashing.
“The current laws that we have just don’t deal with issues of psychological manipulation, effectively brainwashing, the way that people are deceived into handing over their money to these cults,” he said.
Senator Xenophon says details emerging about Agape have been frightening.
“The fear, the manipulation and the coercion they were put under was just enormous. That’s why we actually need to have laws that can deal with an issue like this which wouldn’t impact in any way on the freedom of religion,” he said.
SA Opposition MP Stephen Wade has asked whether the state’s anti-association laws aimed at bikies could be applied to the cult.
“The Government told us that the serious and organised crime legislation wasn’t about bikies, it was about criminal organisations,” he said.
“If a criminal organisation happens to have a religious facade that’s no better than an organisation [which] has a bikie facade.”
Mr Xenophon said such cults hid their illegal activities behind a “freedom of religion” argument and argued that mainstream religions would have nothing to fear from the introduction of mind control laws.
“Groups like the Church of Scientology loudly protested these laws in France, perhaps because they had so much to lose from them,” he said.