Greater LGBT protections under new federal anti-discrimination law
Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity will become unlawful under a major overhaul of Australia’s federal anti-discrimination laws.
The changes, detailed today in an exposure draft, will consolidate five acts into one and will include the new protected grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Gay rights group have welcomed the reforms saying they are long overdue but expressed concerns over the retention of exemptions for religious organisations, and the lack of protections for intersex people.
“For the first time a national law will outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, protecting our fundamental right to be free from discrimination and harassment,” said Anna Brown, convener of the Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby.
“The reforms will help address the high levels of prejudice, stigma, and discrimination that cause significant harm to LGBTI people and contribute to higher rates of depression, self-harm and suicide.”
The introduction of the new protections fulfils an election commitment made by the Labor Government.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and Minister for Finance and Deregulation Penny Wong said consolidating five different statutes – which contained varying standards, definitions, and rules – into one single act, will provide better protections for Australians.
“Making protections and obligations clearer for individuals and organisations will help everyone understand what behaviour is expected and will provide certainty for all users of the system,” Roxon said.
“There will be no reduction in existing protections and the highest current standards will be consistently applied and enforced across the full range of discriminatory practices.
“It’s ridiculous that at the moment an African woman for example, who has been discriminated against needs to separately make complaints of sex and race discrimination – now she can make a single complaint recognising the discrimination was because she was both a woman and African."
Justin Koonin, co-convenor of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, said such protections against ‘intersectional discrimination’ – that is, discrimination experienced through a combination of factors such as race, gender and sexual orientation – finally recognises discrimination does not have to relate to one single factor only.
“This Bill enables individuals who have been discriminated against through a combination of factors to lodge a complaint that reflects the reality of their situation.”
The new laws will also make it easier the system clearer for businesses.
“Consolidating anti-discrimination laws will make compliance easier, reduce costs and shift the focus from redressing wrongs to preventing discrimination from occurring in the first place – this is particularly good news for small business,” Wong said.
“Business will also benefit from the ability of the Australian Human Rights Commission to certify codes or standards that will act as a full defence to claims of discrimination.”
However, there remains concerns over some areas of the reform, including the lack of specific protections for intersex people on the basis of their biological sex characteristics.
Exemptions for religious organisations will also remain under the new law with the exception of Commonwealth-funded aged care providers.
“We welcome the Government’s decision to limit discrimination by faith based organisations in aged care, particularly given the vulnerability of LGBTI people in these settings,” Koonin said.
“We look forward to further investigating how this principle of protecting vulnerable LGBTI populations should be applied to other areas of Government funded services.
“Additionally, where exemptions are used by organisations we feel principles of transparency and openness should be applied.”
The release of the exposure draft legislation of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill follows a public consultation process that commenced in 2011.
It will now be the subject of an inquiry conducted by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee allowing community feedback prior to legislation being introduced into the Parliament.
“We will be working closely with LGBTI groups and the broader community to communicate our views on where the Government got it right and where improvements could be made to better recognise and protect the rights of LGBTIQ communities,” Koonin said.
[Image] Nicola Roxon. File photo/Getty Images