As Prime Minister Julia Gillard continues to assure the public of her unyielding determination to return the budget to surplus by 2013 at all costs, she should revisit her first speech to parliament in 1998 in which she lamented the national obsession with ‘the health of our economy rather than the morals and goals of our society’. A healthy economy is vital, but will not single-handedly take care of us when we’re sick, give our kids a good education or create a safe and cohesive society. A healthy economy is even less reliable if we care about fairness, freedom and the humane treatment of the most vulnerable members of our community.
If we look past the dollar signs, there are few concepts that encapsulate the ‘morals and goals’ of Australian society better than equality. Equality is an important determinant of health, education and community outcomes, in addition to being an essential part of a fair and free Australia.
The cherry on top is that in more equitable societies the economy also wins, with diverse labour markets boasting better productivity.
Despite our long-held aspiration to provide ‘a fair go’ for all, Australia could do better when it comes to equality. Some of our most pervasive problems - violence against women, barriers to participation in public life for people with disability and Indigenous disadvantage, to name a few, are all mired in discriminatory frameworks, institutions and attitudes.
The Gillard Government is currently consolidating federal anti-discrimination laws into a single Equality Act. The process has been promoted as an exercise in addressing inconsistencies and reducing regulation. This approach prioritises the short-sighted wish lists of peak business organisations and is an inappropriate agenda for the reform of some of our most important human rights laws.
The Government should show that it is serious about achieving equality by ensuring that the draft Bill, due to be released later this year, also strengthens and modernises our laws.
A key problem with existing anti-discrimination laws is that they are reactive and complaints-based. The law is passive until discrimination occurs, at which point it requires individual victims to enforce compliance with complex legal standards through burdensome proceedings.
Imagine if this was Government’s response to systemic economic issues: if individual consumers were relied upon to identify and prosecute unfair market practices; if inflation rates were left to rise and fall unrestrained by monetary policy; if public corporations were under no obligation to record and report on their financial position.
The better approach is to establish a well-resourced, comprehensive system of prevention, regulation, enforcement and monitoring - just as the Government does in many other areas. Our current equality regime falls short in this respect and looks like the legal framework of a government ambivalent about equality.
Our new Equality Act should introduce positive duties to take proactive, outcome-oriented steps to promote equality. It should strengthen the Australian Human Rights Commission’s role in issuing guidelines and approving equality action plans and it should provide new powers for the Commission to conduct investigations, prosecutions and public inquiries into serious instances of systemic discrimination.
A new Equality Act should cover all grounds of discrimination, including sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and homelessness – discrimination on all of these grounds is currently lawful, widespread and detrimental to individual and community health and wellbeing.
A new Equality Act should also put an end to the ‘free passes’ that allow various groups, such as religious institutions and men’s clubs, to discriminate, regardless of whether the discrimination is fair and reasonable in the circumstances.
Serious efforts to address discrimination tend to be denounced with accusations of “social engineering”. That is how Senator Flo Bjelke-Petersen described the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 during parliamentary debates around its passage. It is also the basis upon which the coalition rejected some of the more critical and progressive recommendations in the most recent parliamentary report on the effectiveness of the Sex Discrimination Act.
The fact is that all societies are engineered and it just happens that ours is constructed in a way that favors the wealthy, white, able-bodied male with no caring responsibilities. Our anti-discrimination laws need to do more to break down the legal, social and institutional structures that perpetuate this status quo.
No one expects a piece of legislation to create a utopia entirely free from unfair discrimination. Nor do we expect trade practices laws to guarantee a perfectly functioning market or criminal laws to completely prevent crime. We should, however, expect laws that identify and address problems as effectively as possible.
Back in 1998, Julia Gillard claimed that ‘individuals are immeasurably strengthened by being members of a team, of a society, and that a strong community provides the best platform from which individuals can excel.’
The PM knows that there are many types of riches that Governments should pursue. It’s time for this Government to put its money on equality.
Rachel Ball is the Director of Policy and Campaigns at the Human Rights Law Resource Centre