A New Equality Law: Victoria Moves in the Right Direction

On 9 March, the Equal Opportunity Bill 2010 was introduced into Victorian Parliament.  The proposed legislative reforms include the establishment of new mechanisms designed to respond to systemic discrimination and promote substantive equality. The reforms respond to a major review of the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 conducted by Julian Gardner in 2007-2008 which found that Victoria’s anti-discrimination legislation is ineffective in addressing the systemic discrimination that is entrenched in our institutions and social structures.  As the Attorney-General recognised in the Bill’s second reading speech, ‘Victorians are competing on uneven ground… we need to level the playing field’.

In order to respond to this problem, the Bill introduces an express positive duty to eliminate discrimination, strengthens the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission’s role in issuing guidelines and action plans and provides new powers for the Commission to conduct investigations and public inquiries into serious instances of systemic discrimination.

Disappointingly – and contrary to the recommendations contained in the Gardner Report – the Bill fails to provide protection from discrimination on the basis of homelessness and irrelevant criminal record.

The Bill also retains many of the permanent exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 1995, (including those for religious groups and same sex clubs).  The HRLRC has consistently argued that permanent, blanket exceptions to the operation of equal opportunity legislation perpetuate harmful discriminatory practices and are inconsistent with the Charter and international human rights law.

The HRLRC’s submission on the Bill to the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee is available here.