Moira Rayner, Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in Victoria, thought her job was to let oppressed groups know about the Commission and encourage them to make complaints when they face discrimination. She had obviously been doing it well. But it seems the biggest perpetrator of discrimination is the state government.
The slash-and-burn policies of the Kennett government are affecting the entire working class. But those most sharply feeling the pinch are Aboriginal people, women, migrants, people with disabilities, gay men and lesbians. One’s possible recourse is to take a discrimination case to the Equal Opportunity Board. That is exactly what two Koori former students of Northland Secondary College did when the state government closed down their school, with its unique Koori education program. It is also what hundreds of other Victorians have been doing. The board has received a massive 64% increase in complaints in the last year. The Commissioner explains that many of the complaints are job-related and the direct result of the government’s system of individual employment contracts.
The Equal Opportunity Board held a 14-month enquiry into conditions for women in prison, and Rayner had no problem publicly stating that to move women from Fairlea to Barwon prison near Geelong would result in discrimination. When Rayner decided to apply for interim orders to prevent the government from closing Fairlea, the government decided on a payback.
On 27 October 1993, Attorney General Jan Wade announced a restructure of the Equal Opportunity Office. In keeping with the general Kennett policy, Wade simply announced the changes, including the abolition of Rayner’s position as Commissioner. Rayner was told she “could apply” for the downgraded chief conciliator position.
It seems Moira Rayner has led an Equal Opportunity Office which has been too efficient! Despite serious under-resourcing and a huge increase in workload, the EO Office has managed to be an irritant for the chief discriminators in Spring Street.
Wade claims her changes are making the EO Office and Board “more accountable,” but it is patently obvious that they are designed to nobble the equal opportunity process and make it even less accessible. One of the “reforms” is that those losing an action will have to pay costs, a sure disincentive to the poor ever lodging a complaint in the first place! This is especially true if the respondent is the government, which seems to think little of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal representation.
Pursuing an Equal Opportunity case has always been difficult. EO has only been halfway legislated and halfway implemented. The rules of evidence make it hard to prove discrimination. Enormous numbers of bodies are exempt from the act. Some types of discrimination, for example against ex-prisoners or lesbians and gay men, are not considered unlawful. The proposed changes will further reduce the chance of a successful outcome.
We know real equality will only be achieved when social and economic power rests in the hands of working people – those who create the wealth. But in the meantime, we must continue to defend and fight to extend reforms. The EO Act is not a panacea, but we should use it as often as we can in conjunction with other strategies. We should also push to expand the concept of Equal Opportunity law to shift it beyond its limited liberal framework. Real equality of opportunity requires affirmative action. We must demand laws that provide oppressed groups redress for historical discrimination.