The independent MP Andrew Wilkie has used parliamentary privilege to level extraordinary claims of money laundering and tax evasion against Hillsong, producing what he claims are leaked documents from the mega-church that he says reveal it earned $80m more than what it has publicly declared.
Wilkie alleged the leaked financial records and documents were provided to the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and was critical they had not been acted on.
“That is a failure of regulatory oversight every bit as alarming as Hillsong’s criminality,” the MP said in parliament on Thursday.
But Hillsong has disputed the allegations, claiming many of Wilkie’s representations were false or out of context, and that it was engaging with regulators as part of an ongoing legal case.
“Hillsong Church has been open and transparent with our congregation about past governance failures, and over the past twelve months we have engaged independent, professional assistance to overhaul our governance and accountability procedures,” it said in a statement.
Wilkie, the member for Clark, spoke in the Federation Chamber to claim a whistleblower had last year provided him with financial records and board papers related to Hillsong. He alleged they showed evidence of fraud, money laundering and tax evasion at the church, founded by pastor Brian Houston.
Hillsong was contacted for comment.
Among the allegations aired by Wilkie – contained in two large stacks of folders filled with papers that he tabled in parliament – were claims that four members of the Houston family spent $150,000 of church money on a luxury retreat in Cancun, Mexico. He also alleged lavish spending on luxury watches, luggage sets, designer clothes, skateboards, and cash gifts to board members for birthdays or anniversaries.
Wilkie claimed Brian Houston, who stepped down from the church’s leadership in 2022, used “private jets like Ubers”, alleging the church founder undertook trips costing $55,000, $52,000, $30,000, $22,000 and $20,000 in one three-month period.
He also alleged that Hillsong’s senior global pastor, Phil Dooley, who took over leadership of the church after Houston, had spent tens of thousands on business class flights for himself and his daughter.
“Hillsong followers believe 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,” Wilkie said.
The politician claimed church money was used to pay more than $1m annually in royalties to Hillsong musicians including Houston’s son.
He also alleged that Hillsong made a $15.7m loan to its community venues company, which he claimed was used to purchase Melbourne’s Festival Hall venue.
“At face value this appears unremarkable, except that this is a commercial venture run by Hillsong’s community venues company and is ineligible to benefit from tax-deductible church donations,” he said.
“All of this, in the context of documents also revealing Hillsong earns $80m more in Australian annual income than it reports publicly.”
Wilkie also raised concerns about honorariums and air fares offered to visiting overseas pastors.
“Sending millions of dollars in Australian charitable donations overseas is illegal in some circumstances,” he said.
In a statement to Guardian Australia, Hillsong said it was “a different church now than we were twelve months ago” and pushed back on many of Wilkie’s claims.
“The claims made in Federal Parliament by Mr Andrew Wilkie are out of context and relate to untested allegations made by an employee in an ongoing legal case,” the statement, distributed by a public relations company, read.
“These allegations, made under parliamentary privilege, are in many respects wrong and it is disappointing he made no effort to contact us first.”
Specifically it stated figures for Dooley’s flights were “misrepresented”, claiming the pastor paid for part of the flights himself and another “large portion” was reimbursed by another church he visited.
The statement said the church was updating structures to be more accountable and transparent.
“Hillsong has sought independent legal and accounting advice on these matters since the employee involved in the legal case made these claims, and we believe that we have complied with all legal and compliance requirements. We have filed our defence and will provide evidence at the appropriate time,” it said.
“We cannot do so at this stage due to the ongoing legal case. Mr Wilkie would be aware that we are unable to speak publicly about matters before a court. We are fully cooperating with regulatory authorities as part of their enquiries.”
Wilkie claimed in parliament that the ATO and Asic did not act when the documents were provided to them under whistleblower protections.
“That is a failure of regulatory oversight every bit as alarming as Hillsong’s criminality,” he said.
An Asic spokesperson noted Hillsong was a registered charity, and that “as such is regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), not by Asic.”
An ATO spokesperson said it could not comment on tax affairs of any individual or entity, citing legal obligations of confidentiality.
“It is critical that we do not comment on whistleblower-related matters. Any comment may prejudice either an actual whistleblower or discourage other whistleblowers from coming forward,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
“We can assure the community that we take whistleblowers and their tip-offs very seriously, and analyse every tip-off. As above, due to taxpayer secrecy, we cannot inform a whistleblower about any action that is being taken or has been taken as a result of a tip-off.”
Wilkie’s office declined to comment further.