Equal opportunity laws should proactively tackle discrimination and promote equality, according to a large coalition of community organisations and legal experts.
Twenty-eight community organisations, legal experts, unions and front line service providers have delivered a report to the Victorian Government outlining 25 areas where the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) should be amended to strengthen and improve the functioning of Victoria’s discrimination laws.
Anna Brown, Director of Advocacy and Litigation at the Human Rights Law Centre, who coordinated the joint letter and report, said there needs to be a greater focus on preventing discrimination.
“No one should be treated unfairly simply because of who they are,” Ms Brown said.
“It’s vital that our equal opportunity laws enable the system to proactively tackle and prevent discrimination, rather than just treating the symptoms after they occur," added Ms Brown.
Powers to respond to systemic discrimination
While current laws deal with individual complaints of discrimination after they take place, the group has called for a more proactive approach, where the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission is equipped with powers to investigate and address systemic discrimination.
“For example, if the authorities know there is a problem across a particular area or industry – such as African young people being turned away from nightclubs or female doctors facing sexual harassment – rather than waiting for an individual to come forward and carry the burden of legal action, the Commission would be able to proactively investigate and work with businesses to resolve and prevent discrimination,” Ms Brown said.
The push for reform has received the support of the legal profession, with the Law Institute of Victoria among the organisations that contributed to the joint letter and report.
“Currently, if VEOHRC notices a pattern in discrimination complaints, it has to turn a blind eye because it has no power to investigate systemic issues,” LIV President Katie Miller said.
“We can't turn a blind eye to discrimination - it's hurting us all.”
The submission has called for further action on the permanent exceptions granted to religious organisations – including those that provide services using public funds – that provide a free licence to discriminate against de facto couples, same-sex attracted people, transgender people and single mums among others.
“We welcome the Government’s commitment to protect people employed by religious organisations but we need to ensure that vulnerable people can’t continue to be turned away from critical services simply because of who they love or who they are,” Co-Convener of the Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, Sean Mulcahy said.
Improvements for LGBTI Victorians
As well as amendments to the religious exceptions in the Act, the letter proposed a number of updates to better protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Victorians from discrimination.
Sally Goldner, Executive Director of Transgender Victoria said the Act should include a stand-alone protection for intersex people that mirrors the landmark reforms introduced at a federal level in 2013.
“We want to see the definitions in our equal opportunity laws updated to better capture the discrimination faced by transgender and intersex people, and remove outdated exceptions that limit participation in sport as well as access to basic services from religious service providers,” Ms Goldner said.
Advocates, including Tamar Hopkins from Flemington Kensington Legal Centre, have also pointed to an easy solution to improve access to justice for complainants, by ensuring that all police conduct can be subject to a complaint of discrimination rather than merely conduct that can be characterised as a ‘service’ under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
“It’s important that individuals can bring a complaints against police any time they face unfair treatment or abuse rather than the anomalous situation where justice depends on whether the police were providing a ‘service’ to the individual in question,” Ms Hopkins said.
Benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
The proposed reforms to provide more recourse against police and protect against discrimination based on criminal histories would be of particular benefit to Aboriginal Victorians, who are over-policed and over-represented in the criminal justice system.
“Comprehensively covering discrimination in policing and correctional services will protect some of the most vulnerable members of the Aboriginal community from race-based policing and racism in custody,” Deputy CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, Annette Vickery said.
“The proposal to protect people from discrimination on the basis of irrelevant criminal record will improve the prospects of members of the Aboriginal community who are trying to rehabilitate their lives and move on.”
Benefits for workers
The group has also proposed a number of technical changes to improve the functioning of Victoria’s equal opportunity laws, based on the learnings of lawyers who have been working with legislation over a number of years.
"More than 60 per cent of all complaints to our equal opportunity regulator were in the area of employment – this means that it is vitally important to have adequate protections against unlawful discrimination especially with an ageing workforce and increased workforce participation by people with disabilities and working mothers,” Zana Bytheway, Executive Director at Jobwatch said.
Unions have also backed the proposals.
“We need to remove all forms of workplace discrimination, whether it be against LGBTI workers, women experiencing family violence or workers with a disability,” Luke Hilakari, Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council said.
“We need to remove all barriers currently preventing their full participation in the Victorian workforce.”
Improvements for women
The group has also made a number of recommendations to improve protections for women, given the prevalence of discrimination faced by working mothers and the emerging issue of legal protections for victims of family violence.
"Women who are fleeing an abusive relationship may be denied leave or lose their jobs because they are in crisis and need time-off to go to court for an intervention order or to move into a refuge,” Pasanna Matha-Merenne, policy manager at the Women’s Legal Service said.
“A new ground of discrimination would support women who experience family violence in the workplace so that they can prioritise their safety and the safety of their kids."
A copy of the letter is available here.
A copy of the table of proposed reforms is available here.
For further comment of queries please contact:
Anna Brown, Director of Advocacy & Strategic Litigation, Human Rights Law Centre, 0422 235 522.
Katie Miller, President, Law Institute of Victoria (Patrick Mitchell, Media Officer), 0439 039 752.
Zana Bytheway, Executive Director, JobWatch, 0412 325 300.
Sally Goldner, Executive Director, Transgender Victoria, 0407 946 242.
Edwina Byrne, Media Adviser, Victorian Trades Hall Council, 0409 017 140.
Tamar Hopkins, Principal Lawyer, Flemington Kensington Legal Centre, 0400 990 663.
Sean Mulcahy, Co-Convener, Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby, 0400 566 844.
Pasanna Mutha-Merenne, Policy Manager, Women’s Legal Service Victoria, 03 8622 0600.
Annette Vickery, Deputy CEO, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, 1800 064 865.