Monday, 14 May 2018 23:53

The Equal Opportunity Act: 40 years of real-life equality

by Kristen Hilton, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner

Last year, five year-old Sidhak Singh Arora was excitedly preparing for his first day of school, but he was excluded from nearby Melton Christian College because its uniform policy would not let him wear his patka (Sikh headwear). The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission intervened in the case and the court found that the College had discriminated against Sidhak based on his religion. The College changed its uniform policy, and Sidhak enrolled. 

The Equal Opportunity Act is about real-life equality for Victorians like Sidhak and his family. As we kick off Law Week we should take a moment to celebrate its 40-year legacy and the incredible impact it has on people’s daily lives. Many of our laws are about fairness, but few have as wide a reach as the Equal Opportunity Act.

Created to uphold the rights of women, the Act stands today as a bulwark against all kinds of discrimination in Victoria. It has expanded over the years to reflect our values and community and, with new generations of issues and advocates, it will continue to evolve.

Our state’s first Equal Opportunity Act was passed by the Victorian Parliament in 1977 – and came fully into law in 1978 – making it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis of sex and marital status.

The Act was part of a rising tide of gender equality. It followed steps taken to reduce discrimination against women in the Victorian public service: equal pay for equal work, maternity leave, and the elimination of discrimination in advertisements for public service jobs. The Act was the product of significant lobbying and determination, and its remarkable bipartisan support reflected a changing world. 

In 1976 Deborah Lawrie applied to become a trainee pilot with Ansett, then one of Australia's largest airlines. As a flight instructor with extensive flight experience, she was better qualified than many of her male students who had already been accepted as trainee pilots. Her application was rejected by the General Manager of Ansett with the explanation that: "We have a good record of employing females in a wide range of positions within our organisation but have an adopted policy of only employing men as pilots."

Lawrie challenged the rejection under the new law. In 1978 she brought a sex discrimination claim with the Commission (then the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board), and won. The Board ruled in 1979 that women's childbearing potential could not be used to limit their role in society. It also ordered Ansett to employ Lawrie in its next pilot intake. 

In the wake of this landmark decision, discrimination protections were extended to Victorians with disabilities, race, religion, political belief and de facto status. And over the years, the Act's scope has evolved to reflect the diversity of our community. In 1995 protection from discrimination was extended to carer status, age and pregnancy. In 2000 breastfeeding, sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination were included. And in 2008 the Act was amended to protect employees who requested flexible working arrangements to accommodate family responsibilities.

In 2010 a new Equal Opportunity Act was born in Victoria – with a new approach. After decades of relying on individual complaints to reduce discrimination, the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 introduced new powers to tackle systemic discrimination. The new Act expanded the Commission from a complaints-handling body to one that educates and facilitates dispute complaint resolution, best practice and compliance. It also provided the Commission with power to intervene in legal proceedings involving issues of equal opportunity or discrimination, and to conduct investigations on systemic issues.

The Equal Opportunity Act crucially recognises that access to opportunities are not necessarily equitably distributed throughout society, and that legal protections are required to help create a level playing field for families like Sidhak’s. The Act puts pressure on powerful institutions to prevent discrimination, and to evolve alongside our community. And it empowers all of us to take responsibility for eliminating discrimination together.

This Law Week is a great time for lawyers of all stripes to reflect on the 40-year legacy of our Equal Opportunity Act, and to consider how this historic and still very contemporary law can help us build a better and fairer Victoria in the years ahead.

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