Earlier this year, the Victorian Government passed the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, becoming the first state to enact comprehensive legislative protection of civil and political human rights. The right to freedom and protection from discrimination, an integral component of the international human rights framework, is enshrined in s 8 of the Charter. Regrettably, however, the right is limited to protection from those forms of discrimination that are already prohibited by Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act. This calls for urgent reform because Victoria’s current anti-discrimination laws fail to protect some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, including people who are homeless, unemployed or who have an irrelevant criminal record. Discrimination against these groups contributes to poverty, has adverse health consequences and can lead to social isolation.
In Victoria, it is still lawful to discriminate against someone merely because they are unemployed, poor or homeless. This is in spite of the fact that research shows that people who are homeless – and in Victoria over 23,000 people experience homelessness on any given night – are frequently treated unjustly and unfairly by police, employers, and providers of goods, services and accommodation. Discrimination in these areas is a major impediment to homeless people obtaining or maintaining secure accommodation or employment. Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act must be amended to give people who are poor, homeless or unemployed a ‘fair go’.
Similarly, and in contrast to most Australian jurisdictions, there is no prohibition in Victoria against discrimination on the basis of an irrelevant criminal record. This is a major problem, as admitted by the present government some time ago. In fact, Victorian Department of Justice research in 2004 confirmed that a criminal record has enduring consequences for an offender and creates a range of obstacles to rehabilitation and reintegration, including securing lawful employment and accommodation, acquiring certain licences, obtaining credit or insurance, participating in public life, and admittance to particular professions. The next government must take the initiative, and responsibility, to protect the rights of Victorians that are discriminated against on the basis of an irrelevant criminal record. A government should be judged not only on the health of its budget or the size of its police force. It should also be measured by the laws and policies it has in place to protect and promote the rights of its most vulnerable and its real endeavors to create, in the words of the current government, ‘a fairer Victoria’.
Kristen Hilton is the Coordinator and Principal Solicitor of the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic. Peter Noble is the Principal Solicitor of the Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre.