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Labor and anti-discrimination laws – where did the wheels fall off?

Penny Wright 20 Mar 2013

Did you know in Australia it is okay for a religious school to refuse an enrolment to a child just because her parents are gay?

Or that a woman can be refused accommodation because she's a victim of domestic violence and she has no legal protection to appeal this decision?

Or that fathers and mothers can lose their jobs because of family responsibilities?

Or that church-run nursing homes can refuse to accept gay or lesbian residents - even if it's the only nursing home in the area?

This seems so out of step with modern Australian society.

And - for just a moment there - many of us believed we were going to fix these things and better protect some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

But yesterday, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus dropped the Labor government's plans to reform Australia's anti-discrimination laws.

He talked of delaying the legislation, but the reality is that it will not be introduced before the next election - and if Tony Abbott wins government there will certainly be no such reform.

So, why has Labor walked away from a commitment they made before the last election? 

Sadly, I think it's clear that Labor has lost the political will to protect human rights.  They are using time pressures as an excuse to mask what is essentially a failure of nerve. 

While amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act are welcome and long overdue to protect LGBTI people, the continuation of religious exemptions means that church-run agencies and schools will still be able to discriminate against Australians just because of their sexuality or marital status. 

Religious schools will still be able to expel a student because of their sexuality.

Failing to fix our anti-discrimination laws affects everyone not only because there are very large protection gaps but because discrimination law across Australia is complex and inconsistent.

This was a common sense reform, to simplify the system, and had the overwhelming backing of legal and human rights groups. 

The Senate Committee, which examined the draft Bill, took extensive evidence and made 12 recommendations to further strengthen protections. 

As part of this committee, I saw the hopes and expectations of the many people who took time to appear. I acknowledge my fellow Labor members, who were also keen to see this vital law reform proceed to protect Australians all over the country.

So where did the wheels fall off? Why has the Government backed away from a reform that had every chance of succeeding in Parliament?

In the end, Labor wasn't up for the challenge.  In the midst of other, powerful voices whispering in their ear, they lacked the courage to make the case and see these reforms through.

Every day in Australia there are people who continue to face discrimination because of who they are. And many others who can't stand up for the rights they do have, because it is just too hard.

In modern Australia, we must not accept this.  The Greens will continue to work with many other Australians to achieve better protections against discrimination  and simpler equality laws.

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