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Human Rights Commission Plans To Amend Discrimination Law

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August 15 2019

By Leigh Johnston

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is taking final submissions, ahead of a conference in October 2019, on its recommendations to amend federal discrimination laws to insert new protected attributes, review coverage and exemptions and increase their powers.

Among reform priorities set out in the paper, the AHRC recommends improving consistency between the state and federal discrimination laws and IR legislation, and expanding protections for state government employees, carers, home-based workers, interns and volunteers.

Pointing out that the legislation “reflects the legal understanding and legislative drafting techniques that were in place at the time of their introduction”, the AHRC asserts there is a ‘gap’ under current discrimination laws for volunteers and interns, who are not covered within the definition of employment, adding: “As modern work practices have changed, these exclusions have become less justifiable.”

The AHRC observes in their paper that “complaints brought under the AHRC Act in relation to discrimination in employment are treated differently from complaints brought under the four federal discrimination laws.”

This relates primarily to complaints in relation to discrimination in employment or occupation on the grounds of: religion, irrelevant criminal record, trade union activity, and political opinion.

“While complaints can be investigated and conciliated, a complainant does not have a right to go to court if this process is unsuccessful,” it says, adding that there is “no justifiable reason for this more limited process to exist.”

The AHRC paper recommends amending the “complaint handling processes of the Commission to ensure access to justice, especially for vulnerable people, and to improve efficiency of the process.”

“Federal discrimination laws deal with a particularly wide spectrum of situations presenting different compliance challenges. For example, employment discrimination and harassment issues may arise in the course of many millions of human interactions occurring every day in Australian businesses. Support for compliance in this context needs to be accessible to a broad range of stakeholders.”

It also highlights concerns regarding a “lack of a standalone provision protecting against discrimination on the basis of religious belief,” with only a limited subset of religious groups covered as ethnic groups under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Submissions close on 30 August 2019 on the preliminary views published in the AHRC paper, before it releases a draft reform agenda at its Free and Equal conference on October 8 in Sydney; followed by a “finalised roadmap” expected mid-2020.