The Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA) (“the Act”) marked its 30-year milestone on 8 July 2015. Ahead of its time when it commenced operation in 1985, the Act today is rightly regarded as a normal part of the legal and social fabric of this state. It now seems unthinkable that there was a time before the Act when discrimination was not against the law in Western Australia. A generation later, the rights and protections afforded by the Act are the norm.
One of the objects of the Act is to “eliminate, so far as is possible” discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, impairment, and age, to name just a few of the grounds covered under the Act. There is still much work to be done to achieve the Act’s objects. However, in a year of significant challenges, the Commission has not been diverted from delivering its core services to the community, in line with its stated mission – “to lead in the elimination of discrimination and build a community that reflects and promotes equality of opportunity and human rights.” The Commission is still the lead organisation in Western Australia for investigating and resolving complaints of unlawful discrimination, and providing information, education, and training about discrimination and equal opportunity.
In September 2015, Commissioner Allanah Lucas took medical leave for the duration of the financial year. In her absence the role of Acting Commissioner was filled by the Commission’s Senior Legal Officer, Allan Macdonald until December 2015, and by Jenni Perkins from January 2016. Mr Macdonald resumed the role after Ms Perkins took up another position in government in June 2016.
During this period, in response to the budgetary requirements set out in the mid-year review, a new organisational structure was developed, in consultation with staff. Implementation of the new structure commenced in April and was operational by 14 June 2016.
Provision of information and education
The Community Education team continue to develop working partnerships with a diverse range of organisations to increase community awareness of human rights and the Act. This included working with the Ethnic Disability Advocacy Centre, the Western Australian Sports Federation, Curtin University’s Centre for Human Rights Education, the University of Western Australia and the Public Sector Commission.
Work with the Ethnic Disability Advocacy Centre saw a Commission officer taking a lead role in a self-advocacy project in the Kimberley and metropolitan areas. Collaboration with the Western Australian Sports Federation provided an opportunity to reach the WA sports community through delivering the Member Protection Information Officer program.
There was also a concerted effort to visit more regional centres, which was made possible after the Commission completed its contract with the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission to provide training in the Territory.
A reduction in the number of fee for service courses allowed for a 69% increase in free ‘rights-based’ training to non-government and community groups in the metropolitan and regional areas. The number of these courses increased from 51 in 2014-15, to 86 in 2015-16.
The Community Education team continued to deliver training with high levels of satisfaction, with 97.7% of participants stating they would recommend the courses to colleagues.
Provision of redress
The Commission received 439 new complaints of discrimination this financial year. The complaints were dealt with in timely manner, with 97.5% being finalised in less than six months, and the remainder resolved in under 12 months.
There was a relatively even distribution of complaints received from across the state, however an increase in the number of complaints was received from the Kimberley, an increase from 6.7% in 2014-15 to 14.8% this financial year. This increase has coincided with outreach work conducted in this region during the year.
This year, 23.2% of complaints lodged related to impairment discrimination, 16.9% were to do with race, and, surprisingly, sexual harassment complaints accounted for 12.3%, replacing age (5.9%) as the third most common ground of alleged discrimination. A further noteworthy change was a significant increase in sexual orientation complaints, from zero complaints in the last financial year, to 12 complaints lodged in 2015-16.
The Legal Section worked closely in 2015-16 with the Department of the Attorney General, examining WA legislation to identify any areas of non-compliance with the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (SDA) which was amended in 2013 to make gender identity and intersex discrimination unlawful throughout Australia. Under those amendments, states and territories were given until 1 August 2016 to address any potential legislative non-compliance with the SDA, and to make submissions as to legislation they considered should be exempted from the application of the SDA for a further period of time, so as to enable a more detailed review. The process was largely completed by 30 June 2016 and proved to be a productive and useful gap analysis of the state’s legislation.
Although it is unlawful under the Act to discriminate against a person who has been issued with a gender recognition certificate by the Gender Reassignment Board, the Act’s coverage does not go as far as the SDA in protecting persons who have a gender identity different to that assigned to them at birth, but who have not been issued with a gender recognition certificate. The Commission supports amending the Act to include the ground of gender identity discrimination to address this gap in its coverage.
New Organisational Structure
A new organisational structure for the Commission was developed during early 2016. The number of staff was reduced from 25 to 20 FTE through voluntary redundancy, while the number of business units was consolidated from five sections down to three, simplifying internal lines of reporting. The Conciliation and Community Education sections were combined into a single unit, as were the Legal and Policy sections. The revised structure commenced operation on 14 June 2016 and although it is still early days, is off to a good start. The Commission extends its thanks to Jenni Perkins for her stewardship in guiding the agency through the transition process to the new structure.
Priorities for the year ahead
With the new structure in place, the Commission is looking forward to finding its feet and getting on with some long overdue systems and asset upgrades. This will be done in conjunction with the imminent move to new premises elsewhere in the Perth CBD in early 2017. These two initiatives, combined with the restructure, represent the greatest operational change the Commission has undertaken since its commencement in 1985.
The Corporate Executive team is also keen to implement a new strategic plan in 2017, aimed at enhancing the Commission’s public profile and educational role, through a combination of targeted events, partnerships with government and non-government organisations, and greater online media exposure.
Thank you to all Commission staff and volunteers for their commitment, hard work, and patience during the past year, and to all of our government and community partners for their support. .
Allanah Lucas Allan Macdonald
Commissioner for Equal Opportunity Acting Commissioner for Equal Opportunity
23 September 2016 23 September 2016