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The end of equal opportunity in Victoria

  • 28 June 2012

Equal opportunity commissions were set up in the 1970s because governments accepted that people who lacked equality before the law, or who were marginalised or persecuted because of their race or sex (and later, disability), were  not in a position to sue. As a resource for those who could afford to use them, courts were going way beyond their reach, and their confidence. 

The new commissions gave the disadvantaged the right to make a complaint to an independent authority which could help the respondents understand the clearly established human right to equal opportunity. It would also establish the facts, and then facilitate confidential conciliation. 

That way, attitudes could and did change, because the new Commissioners and their Boards had real powers. They could investigate, as well as protect people against victimisation, and insist on dispute resolution.

The Commission also had authority. The Commissioners could dismiss frivolous or misconceived complaints because they were the gatekeepers to the tribunals. 

In 1978, airline boss Reg Ansett didn’t fancy employing the best qualified pilot because she was a woman (and he as a businessman didn’t want a girl flying him about). Deborah Wardley (pictured left) took him on through the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board. Ultimately she won in the Victorian Supreme Court, and the significance of well-toothed watchdogs became nationally and internationally appreciated. 

Victoria was a leader in those days.

However the state's current Attorney General Robert Clark is no defender of the rights of the weak. Yesterday came the news that the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) members had resigned en masse, because he refused – after a three month delay – to accept their unanimous recommendation for their new Commissioner. He wants somebody else. 

So much for the credibility of the new Commission.

In 2011 Clark gutted the Equal Opportunity Act by removing the autonomy of the Commissioner, who is now a public servant reporting to the Commission. This is the Board whose decisions he has now also dismissed. He also amended the Act so that the Commission must not only be answerable to the executive instead of the parliament, but also cannot instigate the investigation of complaints of systemic discrimination without the approval of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

The Commission’s only ‘power’ is to ‘educate’ the public (Reg Ansett didn’t learn anything until his defence was dismissed). Those who submit ‘issues’ may enjoy the feeble opportunity of voluntary, hands-off mediation. 

No longer does the Commissioner have