The Equal Opportunity Act WA: A short history

A short history

Western Australian women won the vote in 1899 after nearly a decade of campaigning  – the second state after South Australia (1895) to do so.  Women were then automatically able to vote in the referendum approving the new Commonwealth of Australia.

In 1920 WA women won right to stand for parliament and in 1921 the first woman was elected to the West Australian Parliament.  The first woman to sit in any Australian parliament Edith Dircksey Cowan, Nationalist, was elected to represent the electorate of West Perth.  She was defeated in the next election in 1924.

In her brief term in Parliament Edith Cowan raised many concerns relating to women’s rights, health and welfare.  

Notably she introduced, and saw passed a private member’s bill to eliminate discrimination against women in Western Australia. This became Women’s Legal Status Act 1923.

 When introducing an Act to ‘amend the Law with respect to Disqualifications on account of Sex’ on 28 August, Edith Dircksey Cowan O.B.E., Member for West Perth, said:

‘We are desirous of having women put on a reasonably fair footing in point of holding offices and positions now closed to them… In the first place I asked…[for]  a Bill that would make it possible for women to be admitted as barristers, but on going into the matter more thoroughly, I concluded it would be better to ask for the wider privileges set out in the Bill.’

Cowan concluded her second reading speech, saying: ‘The women are very desirous, as also are many married men, of their being placed on absolutely equal terms with the men, leaving it to be a matter of the survival of the fittest.  We ask no more or less than that.’

The Women’s Legal Status Act 1923 remained on the statutes of Western Australia until 2006.

Equal Opportunity Act 1984

Fifty-two years later the Equal Opportunity Act, 1984 (WA) came into effect on 8 July 1985. It was supported in Parliament by all parties and community organisations, after ten years of campaigning by women’s groups.

Earlier attempts had been made. As a member of Women’s Electoral Lobby in the early 1970s, Yvonne Henderson had worked with a group of women to develop early drafts of the Bill. Over two decades, two Private Member’s Bills were introduced. First by Dave Evans, ALP Member for Warren (1977) and then Bob Pearce (1981) ALP member for Gosnells.  These were unsuccessful due to Government opposition.

When the Equal Opportunity Bill was introduced into Parliament by the newly elected Labor Premier Brian Burke, on 16 September 1984, he took the unusual step of delegating the passage of the Bill through the Legislative Assembly to the back bench Member for Gosnells, Yvonne Henderson.

The Equal Opportunity Act 1984
 implements, at a State level, Australia’s commitments to international human rights instruments. It contained two objects - to promote equality of opportunity in Western Australia and to provide remedies in respect of discrimination on the grounds of sex, pregnancy, race, religious or political conviction, or involving sexual harassment. As community concerns changed, the initial grounds of the Act have been expanded to include impairment (1988), family responsibilities, family status, age (1992), racial harassment (1992) gender reassignment (2000) and sexual orientation (2002). The EOC also conciliates complaints on the grounds of spent convictions (1988).

The ground of 'breastfeeding or bottle feeding' was added in 2010, and another 'publication of details on the Fines Enforcement Registrar's website (2012).

The Equal Opportunity Commissioner implements community education and information programs to promote equal opportunity, as well as conciliating complaints of discrimination under the grounds and areas of public life set out in the Act.

The State Administrative Tribunal (until 2005, the Equal Opportunity Tribunal) is responsible for determining cases of discrimination which are not settled by conciliation.

The Office for Equal Employment Opportunity oversees the implementation of equal employment opportunity, in all State government authorities, including local government and tertiary institutions.

Commissioners for Equal Opportunity

The first Commissioner, June Williams, served until her retirement in 2002. Moira Rayner was appointed Acting Commissioner in 2002 and Yvonne Henderson, was appointed Commissioner in 2003.  Allanah Lucas was appointed Acting Commissioner in 2013 and her permanent appointment confirmed in 2014.

The Equal Opportunity Commission - 30 years on

In the 30 years of its operation the Equal Opportunity Commission has handled more than 141,000 enquiries from the public and investigated 14,400 complaints of alleged discrimination. It has conducted extensive community education and training in the public and private sectors and community organisations. It has also conducted investigations into discrimination in Aboriginal housing and is currently undertaking a substantive equality program to eliminate systemic discrimination in the provision of services in West Australian government departments.

 Western Australians are also entitled to seek remedy for discrimination under the laws of the Commonwealth, namely the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, Sex Discrimination Act 1984, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986, Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Age Discrimination Act 2004.

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Brown, M. Edith Dirksey Cowan (1861-1932). Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8 (MUP), 1981. URL:

Cowan, Mrs (1923), West Australian Parliamentary Debates, Hansard, Vol, 68, p 592.

Henderson, Yvonne, West Australian Parliamentary Debates, Hansard – 2nd reading Equal Opportunity Bill 1984, 20 September, 1984, p 1546.

Ronalds, C and Pepper, R, (2004) Discrimination law and practice, Federation Press, Leichhardt, NSW.

Tikka, (2009), Edith Cowan, MLA Western Australia 1921-24. Australian Women's History Forum. URL: Accessed 20 April 2015.

 State Law Publisher, Statutes in Force,

Western Australian Statutes, 1923 p 61

June Williams, Commissioner for Equal Opportunity 1985 - 2003
June Williams was appointed the first Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in April 1985, a position she held until her retirement in 2002. She was inducted in the WA Women's Hall of Fame in 2015.
Moira Rayner
Moira Rayner, Acting Commissioner, 2002.
Yvonne Henderson. WA Commissioner for Equal Opportunity 2003-2012
Yvonne Henderson. Commissioner for Equal Opportunity 2003-2013.  Yvonne was inducted into the WA Hall of Fame in 2011.
Allanah Lucas. WA Commissioner for Equal Opportunity 2013
Allanah Lucas, Commissioner for Equal Opportunity 2013 to current.

30 years of the Equal Opportunity Commission

This collection of posters and calendars spanning 30 years was prepared for the 30th anniversary of the Commission, celebrated on Human Rights Day 2015 at at Q&A Re-imagining Australia.

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