Push to give equal opportunity watchdog more power to fight discrimination

Victoria's equal opportunity watchdog would get expanded powers to investigate discrimination – including unfair treatment by police – under a proposal being considered by the Andrews government.

Four years after the state's anti-discrimination laws were wound back, a coalition of lawyers, community groups, unions and academics have written to Attorney-General Martin Pakula​ asking him to strengthen the legislation to ensure vulnerable people were properly protected.

The groups urged the government to give the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission the power to instigate  discrimination investigations, rather than rely on people bringing forward complaints.

Human Rights Law Centre director Anna Brown said giving the watchdog greater powers would ensure issues could be prevented or tackled as they arose "rather than just treating the symptoms after they occur".

"For example, if the authorities know there is a problem across a particular area or industry – such as African young people being turned away from night clubs, or female doctors facing sexual harassment – rather than waiting for an individual to come forward and carry the burden of legal action, the commission would be able to proactively investigate and work with businesses to resolve and prevent discrimination," Ms Brown said.

The letter, sent to the government last week, was signed by 25 groups and individuals, including the Human Rights Law Centre, the Law Institute of Victoria​, Transgender Victoria, JobWatch​ and Trades Hall.

Others suggestions include:

▪ Broadening the circumstances in which a discrimination complaint can be made against police. The law currently prohibits discrimination by police only when it occurs during the provision of a "service" - for instance, when they are protecting or assisting members of the public. It does not cover discrimination that may take place during an investigation or arrest

▪ Prohibiting discrimination by public authorities "in any area of public activity".

▪ Changes to the exemptions granted to religious organisations, which currently give them licence to discriminate on grounds such as gender and sexuality.

▪ Greater protection for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, and victims of family violence and stalking.

The letter suggests that if discrimination was still permitted, faith-based organisations should have to publish their intention to discriminate so that individuals could "make an informed choice about whether to subject themselves or their children to discrimination".

Mr Pakula did not comment on the specific proposals, but said he appreciated the recommendations.

He said they would be considered "as part of the government's broader commitment to put equality back on the agenda in Victoria".

"The Andrews Labor government's first priority is to undo the damage caused by the Baillieu government's changes in 2011," he said.