© The Advertiser / Kym Smith Nick Xenophon in pensive mood at Parliament House in Canberra
It's all too easy in Australia set up a religion, get tax-free status, a bunch of followers willing to donate, and you're set.

Maybe predict the end of the world to get things moving along with a sense of urgency.

Senator Nick Xenophon suggests that Australia needs a "cult-busting agency", similar to those already operating overseas.

Mr Xenophon - who has previously tackled Scientology and questioned its tax-exempt status - says he wants a dedicated government agency to "monitor and control the activities of cults in Australia". The issue's come to the fore again with the arrest in Fiji of Rocco "Brother Rock" Leo for breaching his visa. Leo is the leader of the Agape Ministries of God group. Agape has previously run into trouble over fraud, illegal weapons, assaults and tax debts.

Comment: From Call for agency watch on cults:
Mr Xenophon said the "cult watchdog" would be based on French agency MIVILUDES, which was established a decade ago.
"MIVILUDES has received bipartisan support, and has provided assistance and support to those affected by cults," Mr Xenophon said. "There is evidence that cult-like behaviour in France has been significantly curtailed by the existence of such a watchdog."
Fortunately, according to the article, "The Government has expressed doubts over its constitutional powers to introduce a watchdog body."

According to the Sunday Mail, the group is the subject of a Major Fraud Investigation Section inquiry, and an arrest warrant has been taken out on Leo in relation to 126 fraud charges. The ATO alleges it is owed millions by Leo and the church.

Some groups estimate there are thousands of Australian cults, but concrete statistics are hard to come by.

Cults often use religion as a shield behind which they commit human rights abuses, limiting the freedom of members or subjecting them to physical, sexual or psychological attacks. A suggestion that cults be more closely monitored is a sensible one. Now they just need to decide what a cult is, and that's the hard part.

Most people would think of cults as a discrete group of people with long hair and purple sneakers drinking Kool Aid and discussing the relative merits of sarin gas while harvesting vegetables on their isolated farm and indulging in prolific sex, often with minors.

If it was that easy, CultBusters wouldn't have too hard a time of it.

But the truth is most cults and cult members are much harder to identify, because it's impossible to clearly define where religion ends and cults begin. Pick any defining feature of cults, and there's a mainstream religion with the same feature.

Cults have charismatic, dogmatic leaders.

Many would consider the Pope would fit that description. Not to mention Jesus. Or Buddha. Or Mohammed. Charismatic leaders have been at the centre of most religious movements throughout the ages. When it comes to religious movements, people become leaders precisely because they are charming, and exert a pull over their members. They inspire people to follow them.

Cults have bizarre beliefs.

Is believing that a UFO is going to land and take you to a magical faraway planet any more bizarre than believing that if you follow a set of rules you will end up in a delightful place populated with virgins? Or that God created Earth in a week's work? Or that you might be reincarnated as a cockroach?

Cult leaders and members believe they are the only ones with the true faith.

The core idea of any religion is that it is the true one. Thou shalt have no other God. While people may preach and practice religious tolerance, the individuals must believe that others are practicing a misinterpreted or a false religion. Unless somehow their brains allow them to believe all religions are equally true, which is enough to make my brain explode.

Cults won't let you leave when you want to, and isolate you from the outside world.

Again, this is true for mainstream religions in some cases. Apostasy is punished in many religions - most notably Islam. There are mega churches in Australia that exert immense pressure to keep people within them, and may also prevent people from associating with non believers.

There are many religious movements in Australia with leaders or members that exploit other members financially, emotionally, physically and sexually, and religion must not be used as a shield for criminal behaviour.

But if the Government's going to set up CultBusters, they need to be prepared to look at a far broader church than most people would imagine.