Reforming Australia’s Equality Laws

A Conference about best-practice models and frameworks for the promotion of equality.

- Conference Program and a message from the Attorney-General
On 26 July 2011, a sell out crowd of 100 advocates, lawyers, academics, community leaders and policy makers came together to discuss the consolidation of existing federal anti-discrimination laws into a single Act (the Consolidation Project). Much of the discussion focussed on the scope of this consolidation exercise, with many speakers and attendees urging the Consolidation Project to address gaps in the law, strengthen existing protections and, ultimately, promote substantive equality. It remains to be seen whether the draft legislation, due later in 2011, will fulfil these expectations.

Overview of conference

After the Honourable Catherine Branson QC (Australian Human Rights Commission) contextualised the development and promise of the Consolidation Project, the conference heard from Dr Dimitrina Petrova (Executive Director, Equal Rights Trust) about global trends and international best practice in legal frameworks for the promotion of equality, including examples drawn from the various ‘generations’ of reform in the United Kingdom. Dr Helen Szoke (Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission) spoke on Victoria’s recently reformed equal opportunity legislation and the features which enable the VEOHRC to proactively tackle systemic discrimination. Leading epidemiologists, Emeritus Professor Richard Wilkinson and Professor Kate Pickett, with the help of a temperamental video-link, presented their groundbreaking social research on the societal effects of income inequality. Dr Belinda Smith (University of Sydney) drew together the themes raised by previous presentations to examine the historical divergence between labour law and anti-discrimination law and present some significant questions and options to consider in this reform process.

In a session entitled “Access to Justice”, Associate Professor Simon Rice, consultant Carol Andrades and community lawyer Natalie Ross, provided expert analysis on the flaws of the current system and powerful insight into the gaps between the objects of Australia’s current anti-discrimination law and the frustratingly confusing, protracted, and prohibitively expensive experience of the law in practice, an experience which puts justice out of reach for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable within society.

The second half of the day provided an opportunity to hear from those at the front of the pack in corporate Australia. Andrew Demetriou (CEO, Australian Football League) and Troy Roderick (Telstra) spoke of the commitment of their respective organisations to promoting diversity and presented the ‘business case’ for promoting equality. Helen Conway (Director, EOWWA) spoke of the gains that had been made in the area of gender equality in the workforce and explained how a new regulatory framework will assist in achieving better outcomes and improved reporting by employers. Matt Hall (Attorney-General’s Department) provided a perspective from within Government on the way in which the Commonwealth Government tackles the issue of promoting equality.

Advocates representing communities protected under the current legal framework (Les Malezer, Phillip French, Professor Margaret Thornton, Sue Hendy) and also those seeking protection for the first time under the new consolidated Act (James Farrell, Corey Irlam) spoke of the way in which the a new consolidated Act could better prevent discrimination and promote equality for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities, women, LGBTI communities, older people, people with disabilities, and people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Bill Shorten MP wrapped up the conference with remarks which addressed a number of intersecting issues under the banner of equality, underlining the current Labor Government’s commitment to making a ‘fair go’ a reality for all Australians.

Photos of the event

The Human Rights Law Centre's Anna Brown welcomes guests and provides an overview of the day's programDr Belinda Smith, Senior Lecturer, Sydney Law School, University of Sydney: 'Ensure work rules are challengeable & ensure collective preventative remedies for discrimination'The Hon. Bill Shorten, MP, Assistant Treasurer, Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation: 'There’s never a case for discrimination – no matter what your invisible friend in the sky says'Sue Hendy, CEO, Council on the Ageing Victoria and Corey Irlam, Campaign Coordinator, Australian Coalition for Equality answer questions from the audienceAndrew Demetriou, CEO, Australian Football League: 'How does the AFL make our game appeal to a ten year old Muslim girl?'
Helen Conway, Director, Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency: 'Businesses need clear action plans for equality. If we don’t, we are letting down women'Dr Helen Szoke, Commissioner, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, speaking about the potential of Victoria's new Equal Opportunity Act 2010 to address systemic discriminationLes Malezer, Co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and James Farrell, Manager and Senior Lawyer, Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic answer some questionsNatalie Ross, community lawyer, equality advocate and former conciliator: 'A broader view of remedies is required and more resources are needed for complainants'Troy Roderick, Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Telstra: 'Some are cynical, but there is strong commitment (at Telstra). We don’t get it right every single time but we do our best.'

Videos of the events

Parts 1 to 8
(Catherine Branson QC, Dr Dimitrina Petrova)
Parts 9 to 17
(Dr Helen Szoke, Emeritus Professor Richard Wilkinson and Professor Kate Pickett, Dr Belinda Smith, Associate Professor Simon Rice, and Natalie Ross)
Parts 18 to 27
(Panel session with Professor Simon Rice, Carol Andrades and Natalie Ross, Andrew Demetriou, Troy Roderick, Helen Conway, Matt Hall, and second panel session)
Parts 28 to 42
(Les Malezer, Phillip French, Professor Margaret Thornton, Sue Hendy, James Farrell, Corey Irlam. Bill Shorten)

Speakers' presentations and notes from the event

Enhancing Equality: Reforming Anti-Discrimination Laws to Make Australia Fairer

- The Hon Catherine Branson QC, President, Australian Human Rights Commission, and Human Rights Commissioner

International Trends and Best Practice Models of Promoting Equality

- Dr Dimitrina Petrova,  Executive Director, Equal Rights Trust

The How and Why of Tackling Systemic Discrimination

- Emeritus Professor Richard Wilkinson & Professor Kate Pickett, The Equality Trust (UK)

- Dr Helen Szoke, Commissioner, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission

- Dr Belinda Smith, Senior Lecturer, Sydney Law School, University of Sydney

Promoting Equality in Australia - Perspectives from Public, Private & Community sectors

- Andrew Demetriou CEO, Australian Football League

- Helen Conway, Director, Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency

Grounds of Discrimination: Could We Do better?

- Philip French, Director, Disability Law Centre, NSW (no notes available)

- Les Malezer, Co-Chair, National Congress of Australia's First Peoples (no notes available)

- Corey Irlam,Campaign Co-ordinator, Australian Coalition for Equality (no notes available)

- James Farrell, Co-ordinator and Principal Solicitor, Homeless Persons Legal Clinic (no notes available)

- Sue Hendy, CEO, Council on the Ageing, Victoria (no notes available)

- Professor Margaret Thornton, Australian National University (no notes available)

Equality and the Gillard Labor Government: The Reform Agenda

- The Hon Bill Shorten MP, Assistant Treasurer, Minister for Finnancial Services and Superannuation


As well as the Attorney-General’s Department, the HRLC would like to thank and acknowledge RMIT and Qantas for their generous support and assistance which made the conference possible.


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