Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2012



8:11 pm

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak on equality, the important notion that people are of equal value and worthy of equal respect and are entitled to be treated as such. I want to explore what it means to me and why I believe we must work towards eliminating discrimination and promoting equality in all aspects of Australian society. I am going to discuss how we need to strengthen our laws, our policies and programs so that they embody principles of equality and other important human rights standards.

Enhancing equality will increase people's participation in society, heighten their productivity and lead to improved education and health. Achieving equality and equity should be a central goal, then, of any government, as it will benefit all Australians. Put simply, equality is for everyone.

But what is equality and what does it mean? Equality is about ensuring that individuals and groups are treated fairly and equally. In this way everyone, regardless of their background or their personal characteristics, can have access to opportunities and essential standards of living that will enable them to reach their potential and live a fulfilling life. It is a simple, commonsense concept about treating people with courtesy and decency. It is just how we all expect to be treated by our friends, peers, colleagues, employers or strangers.

Equality means that men and women receive equal wages for work of equal or comparable value or nature. It means that people can marry the person they love without experiencing discrimination because of their gender or sexual orientation. It means that people will not have their application for a rental property rejected because their bond is supplied by the department of housing, for instance. It means that a five-year-old girl cannot be refused admission to a government funded kindergarten on the basis of her parents' same-sex relationship.

Growing up in Australia in the 1970s, equality was a developing principle. As a young woman I often experienced a lack of choice is due to my gender. I knew it was unfair and I knew it was wrong. I always challenged those incidents and, as time passed and as our community developed a better understanding of how equality was important, I was able to imagine a world where many of those petty and large instances of discrimination would cease to occur. They would come to be considered unacceptable and then in some cases totally absurd.

A landmark decision for me and one that brought the idea of equality into strong relief for Australian society was the celebrated case of Deborah Jane Wardley, who took on Ansett Airlines in 1976 when I was 15 years old. For those of my vintage her name is still legendary, but younger Australians may need to know that she was a gutsy woman who just would not take no for an answer. She obtained her pilot's licence at 18 and logged 2,600 flying hours by the time she was 23. At 24 she then applied to train as a pilot with Ansett Airlines, Australia's second-biggest airline at the time. The founder of the airline, Reg Ansett, was determined not to have a female pilot and repeatedly rejected her applications for a position in the pilot training program over a period of two years. Deborah Wardley challenged Ansett at law and the case was heard by the newly formed Victorian Equal Opportunity Board.

Ansett argued that it was not excluding women pilots based on their gender but for reasons that now seem laughable, although they were seriously put at the time—among them, that women were unsuitable to be pilots because of their menstrual cycle and because pregnancy or childbirth would disrupt a woman's career to the point where it would endanger safety and incur extra costs for the company. These were the legal arguments of a leading Australian company in the late 1970s. It was not really all that long ago.

Wardley won her case but her fight was not over. It was not until Ansett had appealed unsuccessfully to the Victorian Supreme Court and then to the High Court and attempts by Reg Ansett to sack her and then not assign her to training that she finally made her first commercial flight for Ansett in 1980. She went on to fly jet aircraft and, as of 2007, she was a senior airbus captain with KLM.

As a young woman who was contemplating studying law these cases resonated with me. I found inspiration and developed confidence in our justice system through cases like Wardley and Ansett. Cases like that challenge systemic injustices and use the law to create positive and progressive social change and better outcomes for everyone. Despite this, there is no doubt that improved progress towards gender equality is needed in Australia. Women continue to experience inequality and sexual harassment in the workplace. For example, in August 2010, women earned 16.9 per cent less per week on average than men, with the total earnings gap increasing to 34.8 per cent per week when taking into account part-time and casual work.

A 2008 survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 22 per cent of women aged between 18 and 64 had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in their lifetime—22 per cent, or nearly one in four. These statistics show that, for women, the workplace continues to be a major site of discrimination and sexual harassment. In a more recent case in Victoria, a youth suicide prevention initiative known as WayOut, which provides services to homosexual young people in rural Victoria, was refused accommodation and services by a Christian youth camps facility. WayOut took the case to court, alleging that its booking was refused on the basis of the sexual orientation of the proposed attendees. In that case, Supreme Court Justice Hampel found:

The conduct of the respondents in refusing the booking was clearly based on their objection to homosexuality. They are entitled to their personal and religious beliefs. They are not entitled to impose their beliefs on others in a manner that denies them the enjoyment of their right to equality and freedom from discrimination in respect of a fundamental aspect of their being.

Whilst it is reassuring to know that the law can in some instances be used to redress discrimination, it is of great concern that such discrimination still exists in society today, and the law does not always afford protection against discrimination either. The case I mentioned earlier that involved the four-year-old girl being refused permission to a government funded kindergarten on the basis of her parents same-sex relationship is a disgraceful example of the law perpetuating harmful discriminatory practices. Religious schools are exempt from certain aspects of antidiscrimination legislation and, as a result, the form of discrimination in this case, although clearly unfair and unreasonable and penalising a young Australian child, remains lawful.

Discrimination on the basis of race, culture and ethnicity also remains prevalent in our society. VicHealth has conducted important research into the impact of discrimination on people's health, and has found that one in two people of non-English-speaking background and three in four Indigenous Australians report experiencing race based discrimination in their lifetimes. So discrimination can be extremely debilitating, with affected individuals and their families experiencing serious health, social and economic consequences. Research undertaken by VicHealth has found that exposure to discrimination is linked to anxiety and depression and can also increase the risk of developing a range of other mental health and behavioural problems.

Inequality also contributes to poorer educational results, lower productivity and lower workforce participation. In contrast, research by the University of Melbourne and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has found that more equal societies have been associated with better public health and education outcomes and that equal opportunity in labour markets has positive economic benefits. The evidence is clear: more equal societies are healthier, happier and more socially cohesive.

Clearly, we should be working towards eliminating discrimination and promoting equality in Australia. We need to take action to ensure that our laws, policies and practices effectively tackle discrimination and promote equality in all aspects of public life. The government has started this process through the consolidation of the Commonwealth antidiscrimination laws. Whilst the government is keen to streamline laws and reduce the regulatory burden, the consolidation process must go further to strengthen and improve our equality laws so that they are brought into line with Australia's international human rights obligations. The federal government needs to show leadership and vision on this. If the government is serious about creating a fairer and more inclusive Australia, it must urgently release an exposure draft of a federal equality act that aims to bring Australia in line with its international human rights obligations. It is time for equality to be a priority. Equality is for everyone.


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