Australia has obligations under a number of international human rights treaties to take measures to eliminate discrimination including on the basis of age, race, sex, pregnancy, marital status and disability.
The Commonwealth Government has implemented some of these obligations through legislation such as the:
- Age Discrimination Act 2004
- Disability Discrimination Act 1992
- Racial Discrimination Act 1975
- Sex Discrimination Act 1984
- Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986
The Law Council monitors the implementation of Australia's human rights obligations through these Acts and responds to legislative reviews or related matters.
The current Commonwealth anti-discrimination regime provides an important legislative framework for promoting equality in Australia and contains many positive features that operate to protect against certain forms of discrimination in certain circumstances. Despite these features, many individuals and groups within the Australian community experience discrimination, and the notion of substantive equality remains, at least for some, still out of reach. Substantive equality allows different groups to be treated differently so that they can enjoy their human rights equally. It differs from formal equality, which is achieved if the law treats all people the same way. Formal equality may not address discrimination as it does not take into account disadvantage experienced by different groups.
The current Commonwealth regime also deals with different grounds of discrimination in different ways. Four grounds of discrimination - sex, age, disability and race - are dealt with under the specific Acts listed above while other more limited protections are provided under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth). This results in a confused and fragmented scheme, which is difficult to use.
For these reasons the Law Council supports reforms to the current Commonwealth anti-discrimination regime that make it easier to access and understand, improve its capacity to address all forms of discrimination, promote substantive equality, and that implement Australia's international obligations in this area.
The Law Council supported the previous Government’s attempts to consolidate the existing Commonwealth discrimination laws in to a single Act, provided that the process would preserve or enhance existing protections against discrimination and improve the ability of the regime to promote substantive equality, as well as removing the regulatory burden on business. The Law Council notes with regret that consolidation anti-discrimination legislation was not progressed as a Bill and was not introduced before the House of Representatives was dissolved on 5 August 2013, followed by the Federal election on 7 September 2013.
The Law Council also closely monitors proposed reforms to Commonwealth racial vilification laws. Information about these laws can be found here.