Article: Equality chief lashes mooted law changes
THE state's equal opportunity commissioner has raised concerns about the Baillieu government winding back her power to investigate serious allegations of discrimination at a time when complaints are "going through the roof".
Figures from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission show racial prejudice and sexual harassment complaints have risen sharply in the past 12 months.
But the proposed laws to be debated in Parliament this week would limit the ability of the commission to tackle systemic discrimination in the workplace.
"Discrimination is no different to occupational health or safety, or business regulation," Dr Szoke told The Sunday Age. "It's a law and you shouldn't breach it. As someone regulating that law, we'd prefer to have a suite of ways we could address it."
Under the changes, the commission would no longer have the power to conduct public inquiries when serious cases of discrimination occur and would be able to conduct general investigations only with approval of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
But in an equally contentious move, the same set of laws would give faith-based organisations the right to reject workers on the grounds of religion, sexuality, marital status and gender, and also enable some clubs to refuse staff on the grounds of politics or gender.
Attorney-General Robert Clark said the proposed laws were designed to "restore balance and common sense" to Victoria's equal opportunity laws.
But legal experts said the changes would allow abuses to flourish and go unchecked.
And Dr Szoke said now was not the time to be limiting the commission's powers and allowing serious cases of abuses to fall through the cracks.
The commission's figures show that in the past 12 months complaints of sexual discrimination have increased by 55per cent while racial complaints jumped by 42per cent. Sexual harassment complaints increased by about 22per cent, while cases involving pregnant women or people with a disability increased by almost a quarter.
Dr Szoke questioned why the commission's powers were being wound back, given that other regulators, such as WorkSafe and the Environment Protection Authority, had the ability to conduct investigations.
The changes introduced by the government would amend Victoria's Equal Opportunity Act, winding back some of the reforms initiated by the former Labor government. If passed, the laws would also mean:
Religious bodies would have the right to refuse to employ staff if they do not uphold the same values.
Sporting clubs would be allowed to hold single-sex competitions.
Political clubs and the Victorian Electoral Commission could refuse people based on their political views.
Human Rights Law Centre executive director Phil Lynch said restricting the powers of the Equal Opportunity Commission would enable discrimination to grow while weakening the commission's ability to promote equality and deal with abuses.
Law Institute of Victoria president Caroline Counsel agreed, saying the government had "muzzled" the powers of the Equal Opportunity Commissioner while "endorsing employment discrimination in religious schools".
But Mr Clark defended the laws, and said the government was "strongly committed" to equality. He said the changes would ensure the commission had the powers it needed to tackle discrimination "while also ensuring schools, sporting clubs and other organisations can continue to perform their legitimate roles".
In July 2011 the HRLC convened a conference to encourage and inform debate on the Commonwealth Government's consolidation of its anti-discrimination laws. Check out this page for a wrap-up of the conference, speakers presentations and materials and video footage and photos from the day.