Outdated equality laws must be strengthened to meet Australia’s human rights obligations under international law

Australia's anti-discrimination laws must be amended to comply with international human rights standards and contribute to a fairer, healthier, more inclusive and prosperous community. In a major submission to the Commonwealth Attorney-General, who is reviewing the laws, the Human Rights Law Centre has called for the Government to use this critical opportunity to address gaps in the laws and strengthen existing protections.

The HRLC’s Director of Policy and Campaigns, Rachel Ball, said there are a number of federal anti-discrimination laws in Australia and the Government’s decision to consolidate them into a single Act should be welcomed. However, Ms Ball warned that without updating the substance of the laws being consolidated, existing flaws would continue to hamper Australia’s efforts to eliminate discrimination and continue to put Australia in breach of international law.

“There’s not much point if the process is simply going to result in all the old outdated laws being rolled into a ‘new’ Act. This opportunity to weed out existing problems should be used to also modernise and strengthen Australia’s equality laws to ensure they meet our international human rights obligations,” Ms Ball said.

The HRLC urges the Government to make certain the new Act includes a positive duty to eliminate discrimination and promote equality, similar to the current laws in Victoria and the United Kingdom.

“To create a society free from discrimination, you need your equality laws to be proactive. So as well as providing more accessible and user-friendly remedies for individual cases of discrimination, laws needs to adress structural inequalities if they are to bring about substantive equality,” Ms Ball said.

Specifically, the HRLC recommends equipping the Australian Human Rights Commission with investigative and compliance powers allowing the commission to issue compliance notices to organizations and enter binding agreements with them.

The HRLC’s submission builds a case for expanding protections to cover all areas of public life and additional attributes, including a person’s status as homeless or a victim of domestic violence.

“Research has shown that discrimination is a major causal factor of homelessness and can systematically exclude people from access to goods, services, the justice system, health care, employment and housing. This is something that improved equality laws could help to address,” Ms Ball said.

The HRLC also calls on the Federal Government to reconsider its position regarding permanent exemptions for specific areas of public life – including the exemption for religious organisations which the Government has indicated it will not be altering.

“Current exemptions for religious bodies are arbitrary and outdated. Religious bodies should not be above the law, yet current laws effectively give them a free license to discriminate. This needs to be overhauled,” Ms Ball said.

The submission provides an overview of how existing technical and legal barriers to the elimination of discrimination could be removed. For example, sharing the burden of proof between a person making a complaint and the respondent along with reforming the problematic comparative tests for discrimination, would make equality law more accessible and therefore tangible for general members of the public.

The Government is due to release an exposure draft of the legislation soon.