Changes to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010

DATE: 6 MAY 2011

Yesterday, the Victorian Government introduced amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 in parliament.  These changes reduce the ability of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to  “respond effectively to systematic discrimination.”

The amendments maintain the Commission’s key functions on identifying and addressing discrimination including through education and dispute resolution services but strips the Commission’s power to conduct public inquiries and investigations.

Measures that are designed to promote equality have been removed whilst ‘permanent exceptions’ have been expanded to allow religious groups to discriminate against gay, lesbian, de facto couples, single parents and people who practice a different faith or have no religious belief.  This means that private religious schools can expel gay or lesbian students, sack single parent teachers and ban others who don’t uphold their values.

The Ballieu Government has stated that it has made the exception changes to the Act to further protect religious freedom as the legislation introduced by Labor in 2010 presents “a far-reaching attack on the freedom of faith based organisations” The changes have been welcomed by Independent Schools Victoria who believe that religious schools  “ought to be able to choose staff they believe are the most appropriate for their school.”

Rachel Ball from the Human Rights Law Centre has argued that freedom of religion is not absolute and that when there is conflict with other rights like the right to equality, ‘religion is not an automatic trump.’ According to Ball, these amendments represent a regressive move in efforts to promote equality and tolerance.

Equal Rights Victoria has set up a petition against the exceptions, which can be found here.

The Bill and Explanatory Memorandum can be viewed here.