Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission Board member must take a stand for equality, not perpetuate discrimination and harmful stereotypes

The Human Rights Law Centre has called on Professor Kuruvilla George to reconsider his position on the Board of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission in light of the conflict of interest between his position on gay and lesbian rights and his duties and functions under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. As a signatory to a submission to a Senate committee inquiry into same-sex marriage equality, Professor George has asserted that the recognition of same-sex marriage would damage “the health of our nation”. He also linked marriage equality with a likely rise in the spread of disease by “normalising” same-sex sexual activity.

According to Phil Lynch of the Human Rights Law Centre, however, the prejudice and homophobia that underpin such views is the real threat to public health and well-being. “It is well established that discrimination is damaging to the health of individuals, families and communities,” said Mr Lynch. “At its worst, discrimination and homophobia can lead to mental illness and suicide.” A major VicHealth report in 2007 found that discrimination can have “a devastating impact on health”, as well as high social and economic costs.

Mr Lynch said that it is difficult to reconcile Professor George’s views on marriage equality and lawful same-sex conduct with his duties as a Board member of the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Under the Equal Opportunity Act, the Commission is mandated to eliminate discrimination and harassment, including on the grounds of “sexual orientation” or “lawful sexual activity”. The Commission is also required to exercise all of its functions compatibly with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, which enshrines the principles of equality and non-discrimination.

According to Mr Lynch, the Equal Opportunity Act explicitly recognises that discrimination causes social harm and disadvantage. “All Board members of the Commission must take a stand for equality and against discrimination. The perpetuation of harmful stereotypes is incongruous with the Board’s duties and functions.”

Mr Lynch also said that the conflict between Professor George’s public statements and his statutory responsibilities highlights the need for greater transparency and public consultation in the appointment of Commission Board members. “It is imperative that appointees to the Board have a strong commitment to the principles and practice of human rights and non-discrimination. Their duty is to promote the right to equality, not to undermine it.”

Mr Lynch said that, “As a private citizen, Professor George has a fundamental human right to freedom of religious belief and expression. If, however, those beliefs are fundamentally incompatible with his duties as a Board member, he should resign that public office.”