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Issue #1506      22 June 2011

Libs roll back anti-discrimination in Victoria

Like its counterparts in NSW and WA, the recently elected Liberal-led Coalition government in Victoria has wasted no time in rolling back past gains and rights of workers. In NSW and WA the Coalition governments have launched vicious attacks on public sector workers. In Victoria it has set about winding back anti-discrimination laws. Amendments to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act went through on June 14, gutting the powers of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and allowing religious bodies and schools to discriminate on such grounds such as religion, sexuality and marital status.

“The government has muzzled the powers of our Equal Opportunity Commissioner to investigate serious systemic workplace discrimination as well as endorsing employment discrimination in religious schools,” Caroline Counsel, president of the Law Institute of Victoria said.

“This is a backward step for equal opportunity and fair employment practices,” Ms Counsel said.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill 2011 initially failed to gain a majority in the Lower House when Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge caused the government considerable embarrassment by missing the vote. With the vote at 43-43 Liberal speaker Ken Smith, followed convention and voted the bill down to maintain the current legislation. The government later resubmitted the defeated Bill when it had the numbers, this time ignoring convention.

The Baillieu government’s Victorian Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill 2011 will exempt religious schools and religious bodies from sections of the Act. This will give religious bodies the right to deny employment to someone on the basis of their religion, values, marital status or sexuality.

Religious bodies include schools, churches, charitable bodies that are conducted in accordance with religious doctrines, beliefs or principles.

The “inherent requirements test” enabled religious bodies to discriminate where necessary to fulfil the requirements of the job. The bill repeals this provision.

Religious schools which are in receipt of huge funds from government sources will now be able to refuse employment to a teacher, cleaner, gardener, office worker on the basis of their faith (or lack of religious adherence), values, their marital status (eg de facto, divorced), parental status (eg single parent), sexuality or other grounds.

Charitable organisations with links to a church, administering millions of dollars of government funds in employment and other services, will likewise be able to discriminate in employment. This applies to large corporate enterprises like the Wesley Mission, Anglicare and the Salvation Army as well as to smaller outfits.

The bill undermines the ability of the Commission to investigate discrimination claims by removing its powers to compel attendance or provision of documents for the purpose of an investigation.

The bill overturns legislation passed last year by the previous Labor government, which was to have come into effect in August this year. Labor’s legislation sought to take the Commission from being a complaints handling body to one that could investigate serious, systematic discrimination; arrive at enforceable undertakings; issue compliance notices; and conduct public inquiries.

Labor’s legislation gave the Commission the power to address serious discrimination affecting organisations as a whole, and not just individuals. The Commission could of its own motion carry out investigations, an important power when vulnerable individuals might have difficulty in bringing a complaint. It had the power to investigate where trends or systemic discrimination was occurring, and to work with organisations towards overcoming discriminatory practices. As of August these powers will be removed.

Apart from opening the doors to discriminatory employment practices the bill undermines the secular nature of Australian society and is in conflict with the constitutional separation of church and state.

The lack of consultation and speed with which the bill went through parliament seems indicative of other state Coalition governments. The trend seems to be to rush the bills through before any public awareness or opposition can be built. The bill also is indicative of a concerted and very dangerous right-wing push taking place across Australia on social issues.  

Next article – Perth rally to celebrate World Refugee Day

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