Victorian Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill Passes Upper House

By Rebecca Devitt

DATE: 15 June 2011

The Victorian Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill passed the Upper House of the Victorian Parliament earlier this morning, following five hours of debate.

The changes to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act introduced by the Bailleu Government was defeated in parliament when Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge missed the vote, the first time in more than 30 years that a government has lost in the legislative assembly. But the State Government reintroduced the bill by successfully suspending the standing orders of Parliament last week.

The amendments to the Act weaken anti-discrimination laws by providing exceptions, which allow faith-based groups and schools to discriminate on grounds such as race, sexuality or disability and limit the ability of the Victorian Human Rights Commission to investigate complaints.

Attorney-General Robert Clark argued that the government is “restoring balance” to the laws and that reforms made under the previous Labor government undermined the freedoms of religion, association and choice. However community groups and the opposition have argued that the amendments are a step back in the push for equality in Victoria.

Writing in The Age, state politics editor Farrah Tomazin stated that “the government’s new laws are a step backwards: faith based bodies will once again have unlimited rights to refuse staff because they are gay, single, or don’t uphold their spiritual beliefs and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission will lose the power to hold public inquiries.”

Figures released by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission show an increase in racial prejudice and sexual harassment complaints within the last 12 months, suggesting that the Act should be strengthened rather then limited in order to tackle discrimination.

During the debate in the Upper House last night, the Hon. Martin Pakula, member for Western Metropolitan stated that Victoria  “historically, has been the trailblazer for promoting diversity and equal rights, and every change we have made in the last 30 years has been about enhancing those rights, not removing those rights. This bill changes that, for the first time.”

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