A new Bill proposed by the Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, and Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Penny Wong, will strengthen protections against unfair treatment and make anti-discrimination laws more effective, accessible and cost-efficient. “Discrimination harms individuals, families, businesses and communities. The Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 will ensure that the law is more effective in preventing and remedying these harms,” said Rachel Ball of the Human Rights Law Centre.
The Bill consolidates Commonwealth laws covering discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability and age. It adds new protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It also strengthens protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of other attributes, including religion and political opinion.
“These additional protections are welcome and fill gaps in the existing laws,” Ms Ball said.
However, Ms Ball said the Bill could do more to actively promote equality.
“In addition to responding to individual cases of discrimination, anti-discrimination laws should also promote equality, especially for disadvantaged communities. More equal communities are more cohesive, productive and healthy,” said Ms Ball.
The Bill simplifies the law and removes some of the unnecessary complexities that prevent individuals from accessing justice when they have experienced unfair discrimination. These same amendments will also make it easier for business and service-providers to understand and comply with their legal obligations. For example, simplifying the definition of discrimination, introducing a shifting burden of proof and requiring parties to pay their own legal costs constitute substantial improvements on the current regime.
“It has long been recognised that some of the technical aspects of proving discrimination pose significant, and often insurmountable, obstacles for victims who are, in most cases, the more vulnerable party in a discrimination complaint. It is important that the Bill recognises and addresses many of these issues,” Ms Ball said.
“Although the Bill is a substantial improvement on the current laws, the proposed legislation does maintain what is essentially a reactive, complaints-based system, with only a few mechanisms to address systemic discrimination. The Bill would be significantly improved through the addition of new mechanisms to respond to systemic discrimination, such as provision for representative complaints and the inclusion of a right to equality before the law,” Ms Ball said.
Systemic discrimination creates and perpetuates disadvantage for whole groups of people and is not effectively addressed through individual complaints.
“Overall, the draft Bill constitutes a long-awaited simplification and modernisation of our anti-discrimination laws, which will benefit employees and employers alike,” Ms Ball said.