Older people need no longer fear discrimination as they did in the past, as the Commonwealth now moves to strengthen all discrimination legislation and strengthen protections to guard all Australians against bouts of racism, sexism ageism and more.
By Keryn Curtis
The federal Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, and Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Penny Wong, have released the ‘exposure draft’ for new consolidated anti-discrimination legislation which aims to simplify and streamline Australia’s current anti-discrimination laws.
The new draft Act aims to replace the five different anti-discrimination Acts [Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth); Age Discrimination Act 2004; Disability Discrimination Act 1992; Sex Discrimination Act 1984; and the Racial Discrimination Act 1975] currently in use, consolidating them into a single Act that will tackle all forms of discrimination on the same basis.
In releasing the exposure draft, Ministers Roxon and Wong explained that Australia’s current anti-discrimination laws spanning the five different acts all have different standards, definitions and rules which make the system unnecessarily complex and difficult to navigate.
They said the new act would provide better protections with a clearer and simpler regime for business, organisations and individuals.
“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,” said Senator Wong.
“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.”
Senator Wong said the consolidated legislation will make it easier for individuals to seek redress when they’ve been discriminated against, and will provide the Commission with the ability to dismiss unmeritorious complaints, providing business with certainty.
“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,” Senator Wong said.
She 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.
“The complaints process will be streamlined with the adoption of a cost free jurisdiction and shifting burden of proof where the respondent is required to justify the conduct once the complainant has established a prima facie case,” Ms Roxon said.
A key change for faith based aged and community care providers is that, while religious exemptions will generally continue as under the current scheme, Commonwealth-funded aged care providers will no longer be permitted to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
This change is consistent with the introduction of protection against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination and in recognition that aged care services become a person’s home.
The changes have been generally welcomed by consumer groups representing older people.
COTA Australia’s CEO, Ian Yates, said that consolidating and streamlining Australia’s multiple anti-discrimination laws was a significant step forward in advancing the rights of older Australians and that COTA would support it in the forthcoming Senate Inquiry.
“This decision will have the positive affect of strengthening action against age discrimination,” said Mr Yates. “For far too long the federal Age Discrimination Act has been the weakest link in the anti-discrimination chain and that has made it hard to make complaints and win cases.
“The government’s decision means all forms of discrimination will be dealt with under the same Act, based on the best features and highest standards of the current laws, and further strengthening the basis for a complaint.
“For older Australians, this higher benchmark will mean that protections against age discrimination will be tougher and more easily tackled. This is positive step forward that will help create a better Australia for people of all ages,” Mr Yates said.
National Seniors’ chief executive, Michael O’Neill, also welcomed the proposed changes but said further information was needed.
He said National Seniors hoped that the draft legislative changes announced today will strengthen Australia’s weak age discrimination laws, making it easier for older Australians to prove discriminatory treatment in the courts.
“Recent National Seniors research reveals that workplace age discrimination amongst the over 50s is alive and well but notoriously difficult to prove,” O’Neill said.
“Many employers associate older age with disability, illness or limited capacity, and youth with health, energy and vitality,’’ he said.
“Stronger anti-discrimination laws will allow older Australians who have been unfairly treated in job search or the workplace, some recourse.”
Under changes to the complaints system once the complainant has established a prima facie case, the onus will be on the respondent to justify unfavourable treatment.
“At this stage we have some questions around the parameters within which a complainant must initially establish a prima facie case.
“National Seniors is looking forward to contributing to the Senate Inquiry.”
The changes also propose that aged care providers will no longer be permitted to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity when delivering care for same-sex couples.
National Seniors research shows a person in their 50s who becomes unemployed will remain unemployed three times longer than someone of a younger age.
Australia has the lowest workforce participation rate for the over-55s of all English-speaking OECD countries.