HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [9.52 pm]: I rise tonight because I want to make a few comments about the state Equal Opportunity Act. It has been the subject of quite a bit of discussion over the last week. I will say that I welcome the announcement by the Premier that the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia is going to undertake a comprehensive review of the act. The act was enacted 34 years ago but it has been reviewed only once, and that was back in 2007. We are talking about over a decade ago. The findings from that review are now completely outdated. Importantly, the vast majority of those recommendations were never enacted. It is imperative that this much-needed review is broad and comprehensive.
The Greens are particularly concerned about section 73 of the act, which provides an exemption for religious schools that, amongst other attributes, allows them to discriminate on the basis of sexuality and/or gender history. We know that some schools in WA discriminate against staff who are unmarried parents or who are living together out of wedlock, or who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer. Members are aware that in June I introduced a private member’s bill, the Equal Opportunity (LGBTIQ Anti-Discrimination) Amendment Bill 2018, to remove that outdated and discriminatory provision. The bill serves to remove the ability of religious schools to lawfully discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality and/or their gender identity. I note that it also has the additional positive effect of preventing discrimination by religious schools on the basis of other attributes listed in the act, such as marital status or pregnancy, thereby upholding the human rights of many other members of our community as well and providing them with a remedy if discrimination occurs.
It has been very interesting to hear the general outrage about this in the community over the past week. It would appear that the community is very clear about this. It wants less discrimination against LGBTIQ people, not more. They especially do not want to see taxpayer funds spent in religious schools that discriminate in this fashion, particularly when they are providing a public service. I have been particularly heartened at the outpouring coming from a whole range of churches saying that they do not want these provisions either, including the Catholic Church as well as a whole of range of other churches and individual religious schools. I think it is very heartening that there has been a very big shift in attitude around this.
I asked a question today about the government’s recent announcement of the review of the Equal Opportunity Act. I note that it was said that there is no intended time frame for the review. I am going to point out that we, as a Parliament, have the opportunity to remove these particularly discriminatory exemptions now. We know that review processes are long and drawn out. As we have seen over the last week, even the federal Liberal Party is looking to take immediate steps to limit some of these exemptions. Aside from the very clear and immediate need to remove these exemptions, the review of the act is required to examine the broader framework of the act. I am not one of the people who gets to be consulted about the terms of reference, so I am going to give my two cents worth here. Despite its name, the current act focuses on anti-discrimination rather than promoting equal opportunities. It prescribes certain actions but it does not actually address inequities. The review should look at how to put an onus on the provision of reasonable accommodation of people’s circumstances, whether it be employment accommodation or the provision of goods and services. Another significant failing of the current act is that there is no recognition of the fact that discrimination is exacerbated for certain groups because of the intersectionality of grounds, such as an Aboriginal person with a disability. Currently, the act only allows for each ground to be considered separately.
The review should also look at ways of making the act more accessible, including being written in plain English. It was always intended to be a jurisdiction by which people could bring matters potentially without having to pay for legal costs. As well as that, a consideration of whether new grounds should be introduced, such as a relevant criminal record and medical history, should be included within the scope. However, I am going to ask members what good changing the act will do if the government fails to appropriately resource the very body that is charged with promoting the act and also addressing and conciliating discrimination and harassment complaints. I have read the Equal Opportunity Commission’s most recent annual report. It details some very concerning trends. Staff numbers have reduced by 12 since 2014, leaving the commission with a very modest staff of 20. These reductions are impacting the ability of staff to undertake outreach activity. The reductions in staff in 2018 also resulted in reductions in the service that is being delivered. For example, no-one is being rostered on to take inquiries on two mornings a week. The length of time taken to resolve complaints, which is supposed to be within six to 12 months, has increased compared with the same time last year due to the complexity of the issues as well as the reduction in the number of conciliation officers who are available within the commission. Budgetary constraints have meant that managers have not undertaken important formal training this year—for example, in occupational health and safety and injury management. At the same time as we have seen these reductions in service, the number of complaints made to the commission was up 10 per cent, from 430 in 2016–17 to 472 in 2017–18. Notably, these figures include a doubling in the number of sexual harassment complaints. In 2017–18, 27 per cent of complaints related to impairment, 18 per cent to race and 10 per cent to sexual harassment. We know, of course, that only a small number of incidents of discrimination are formally complained about, so these figures do not even reflect the true scale of the prevalence of discrimination occurring in our community.
I am very concerned that the commission’s core tasks of preventing and providing redress for unlawful discrimination across Western Australia’s very diverse and widely dispersed population are monumental, yet we seem to be expecting more and more of it from an ever-decreasing pool of resources. It is simply not sustainable. I am pleased that the government is going to review the act, and I call on it to take the opportunity to also examine the broader framework of the act. However, undertaking a review does not detract from the need to pass immediate reforms now because people’s lives are being impacted upon now; neither does it detract from the need for sufficient resourcing of the commission to undertake its fundamentally important work. Put simply, these issues cannot wait. From the answer given to my question earlier today, it is quite clear that no clear time frame is in place, so I call upon the government to ensure that it does as much as it can in the short term, as well as taking a longer-term view.