Equal opportunity amendments to restore the balance

The Victorian Coalition Government has introduced legislation into Parliament to restore balance and common sense to Victoria’s equal opportunity laws.

The legislation will deliver the Coalition’s election commitments to:

  • remove unchecked coercive powers that were to have been given to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
  • restore an independent chair of the Commission separate from the position of Commissioner
  • remove the “inherent requirement” test that would have forced faith-based schools to hire staff fundamentally opposed to the school’s values.

The legislation will also make a range of other amendments that will restore common sense to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 passed under Labor last year, including:

  • restoring an exemption to allow employers to pay youth wages where permitted under Commonwealth law
  • removing restrictions on the ability of school communities to set standards of appearance and behaviour for students
  • amending the Electoral Act 2002 to allow the Victorian Electoral Commission to decline to employ electoral staff who are members of political parties or have been actively involved in politics
  • allowing sporting clubs to run single-sex sporting competitions where that will improve participation in the sport.

The amendments will confirm the Commission’s power to conduct investigations where there is evidence of systemic discrimination that is unlikely to be remedied through the normal complaints processes. However, the Commission will need to obtain VCAT authorisation before being able to compel a person to hand over documents or attend and give evidence.

Instead of the provision for public inquiries, the Commission will be given the power to make public reports on its investigations directly to Parliament.

“The Coalition Government is strongly committed to effective equal opportunity laws that fairly balance competing rights and obligations, proactively promote the right to equality of opportunity and provide fair, effective and accessible remedies,” Attorney-General Robert Clark, said.

“Labor’s legislation last year, which is set to come into operation on 1 August this year, did not achieve a fair balance between preventing discrimination while also respecting freedom of association.

“This Bill will restore that balance, ensuring the Commission has the powers it needs to promote equality of opportunity and tackle abuses, while also ensuring schools, sporting clubs and other organisations can continue to perform their legitimate roles.

“The removal of Labor’s ‘inherent requirement’ restriction on employment by faith-based organisations will largely preserve the status quo as it applies at present and which has generally worked well to date under the Equal Opportunity Act 1995.

“The changes will apply the same rules to employment by faith-based organisations as the legislation already applies to all other aspects of the organisation’s activities, such as provision of services or engagement of contractors, where the organisation can take various attributes into account if done in conformity with the organisation’s beliefs or to avoid offence to adherents of the faith.

“The amendment will also ensure that Victorian law will remain in line with Commonwealth employment legislation, such as Julia Gillard’s Fair Work Act 2009, which provides a similar exemption to that which will apply under Victorian law,” Mr Clark said.