Our history

[I]n any enlightened society in 1978 … it is usually assumed that old fashioned prejudices and bigotry against minorities should be forgotten as quickly as possible as subjects of shame perpetuated by our less educated and less tolerant forebears.
- Equal Opportunity Board, First Annual Report, 1978.

Take a look at the From the archives section below for some of the interesting material we've come across while working on this project.

Victoria's very quiet revolution

Forty years ago Victoria became only the third state in Australia to introduce anti-discrimination laws, targeting discrimination on the basis of sex and marital status in employment. (The two other states with similar legislation were South Australia and New South Wales).

Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 1977 created the Equal Opportunity Board and the Office of the Equal Opportunity Commissioner.

Now we are delving into our archives to research the history of our organisation, equal opportunity legislation and social attitudes over the past three-and-a-half decades.

Some discoveries are surprising because they appear so radically different to today’s views, such as the segregated lists of suggested occupations provided to boys and girls in school the late 1970s.

 List of separate occupations for boys and girls

(Image from Equal Opportunity Board, Second Annual Report, 1979).

Others are alarming because they show that we’re still battling to change the same outdated attitudes and practices thirty years on, such as access to public transport for people with disabilities.

Cartoon of wheelchair user calling for a taxi as one zooms by without stopping.

(Image from disability pamphlet reprinted in Equal Opportunity Board, Sixth Annual Report, 1983)

We look forward to sharing more gems from our research with you as we work to create a comprehensive history of Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Commission.

From the archives

Disability and the Equal Opportunity Act

14 November 2014

1981 was International Year of Disabled Persons and the Equal Opportunity Board noted that one of the most significant consequences was the emergence of strong and vocal self-help groups, which shifted the way policies were developed to include more consultation with affected groups.

The Equal Opportunity (Discrimination Against Disabled Persons) Act 1982 (Vic) came into force in 1983 and was administered by the Equal Opportunity Board and Commission. It amended the Equal Opportunity Act 1977 (the Principal Act) by creating a prohibition on discrimination against people with an impairment, and went beyond similar legislation in South Australia and New South Wales by including intellectual impairment along with physical disability. The amendment also specifically included indirect discrimination (for people with a disability), which up to that point had not been covered. (Equal Opportunity Board, Sixth Annual Report, 1983, 9.)

‘Give us a go’

Give us a go campaign logo

The number of complaints based on disability grew steadily, from 137 in the first full year of the new Act to 165 in 1985. (Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, Eighth Annual Report, 1985, 22).

That year, the Board also had its most successful education and public relations exercise to date with its ‘Give us a go’ campaign for disability. It was particularly successful in making people aware that equal opportunity was not only concerned with discrimination because of sex.

However, there was some controversy over the campaign. One scene depicted a group of intellectually disabled people who were denied service and abused by a shopkeeper, and it generated the most public comment and complaints from individuals and advocacy organisations.

The Board responded: "The script for the scene was devised by the people who participated in it and the terms of ‘abuse’ used in the scene were only utilised because they were suggested to the Board and scriptwriters by the people concerned. The believed that in order for the scene to be presented realistically, the offensive names they were called needed to be used." (Equal Opportunity Board, Eighth Annual Report, 1985, 11.)

Initially the Board continued the advertisement in the belief that it dramatically demonstrated how discrimination operates, but over time felt that support was diminishing because of the negative responses, and eventually withdrew the advertisement.

Still, the campaign was a great success in changing the perception of the Equal Opportunity Board from "policing body" to an "agency which constructively conciliates". On one occasion at a public appearance to promote human rights, people started singing the campaign theme song, "Come on, give us a go". (Equal Opportunity Board, Eighth Annual Report, 1985, 17–8.)

Changing the law just the beginning

In 1986, reflecting on the inclusion of disability under equal opportunity law, Commissioner Fay Marles said it had been conceived as "a means of opportunity and redress for many severely and permanently disabled citizens whose life opportunities have been restricted by institutional care and the lack of self-determination or access."

However, in practice, the Act had been used far more often by relatively able-bodied people used to asserting their rights and who have suffered temporary disadvantage because of work-related injuries. Ms Marles noted that “the far more difficult tasks of integrating those in sheltered workshops, institutional care, or lifelong impairment remain to be done.” (Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, Ninth Annual Report, 1986, 2.)

Under the current Equal Opportunity Act, the attribute of disability has far-reaching coverage. It protects people who have had a disability in the past and those who, because of an existing medical condition or genetic reasons, may have a disability in the future. It also includes behaviour where that is a manifestation of a disability.

Disability is the most frequent grounds of complaint under the Act, and is most common in employment. In 2013/14 the Commission received 686 complaints of disability discrimination, and 340 of those were complaints about workplace discrimination. (Equal Opportunity Commission, Annual Report 2013/14, 2014, 22–3.)

Read more from our current Annual Report.

Reaching Victorian Aboriginal Communities 1984–91

5 September 2014

The Commission has long recognised the particular discrimination faced by Aboriginal Victorian communities.

In 1985 Fay Marles, the first Victorian Equal Opportunity Commissioner, wrote:
The most blatant form of discrimination in Victoria, as elsewhere in Australia, is that suffered by Aboriginal people. They have little reason to expect that they will be treated with equality and respect, for the detriments which Victorian Aborigines suffer daily afflict all parts of their lives – housing, jobs, health, services, equality before the law. (Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, Eighth Annual Report, 1985, 2.)

Compounding the problem was the historical mistrust felt by many Aboriginal Victorians toward the police and government bodies. The Commission established an Aboriginal/Police Liaison Committee network in 1983/84 to provide "a much needed bridge between the two groups, and the result was a substantial drop in the number of incidents leading to ill-feeling". (Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, Ninth Annual Report, 1986, 14.)

Adding race to the legislation

In 1987 Ian Siggins, the Acting Equal Opportunity Commissioner, noted the potential source of "equalising power" for Aboriginal people that the Equal Opportunity Act presented: "it may not chance people’s hearts, but it can restrain the heartless". (Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, Tenth Annual Report, 1987, 15.)

Race had been added as a protected characteristic to the Equal Opportunity Act 1984, but numbers of complaints from Aboriginal Victorians remained relatively low:

  • 1984/85: 115 complaints of racial discrimination, 18 from Aboriginal complainants (15.6 per cent)
  • 1985/86: 103 complaints under race, 17 from Aboriginal Victorians (16.5 per cent)
  • 1986/87: 85 race complaints, 12 from Aboriginal complainants (14 per cent)

Continued outreach

The Commission continued its efforts to reach Aboriginal communities, particularly in regional Victoria. In 1987 the Commission made a video, ‘Even Chance’, about the experiences of a young Aboriginal woman who comes to Melbourne from the bush, and the varieties of typical prejudice she encounters.

In 1988/89 the Commission, under Commissioner Barbara Wertheim, began the Koorie Research Project, researching legal needs of Aboriginal Victorians with a focus on anti-discrimination legislation.

The Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was published in 1991, as was the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Inquiry into Racist Violence, which documented racism and discrimination as an everyday experience for many Aboriginal Victorians.

One of the recommendations from the Royal Commission was that the state provide information on human rights and anti-discrimination law and processes. The Victorian Commission increased its contact with Koori communities, and 57 enquiries led to 28 formal complaints from Aboriginal people in 1990/91.

2014 Report Racism project

The Commission continues to work with Victoria’s Aboriginal Community, one of its priority target groups. Recently we launched Australia’s first ever third-party reporting mechanism, in partnership with Victoria Police and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

Report Racism is an online tool that enables individuals to report any incident of racism, which may include racial discrimination, racially motivated crime or racially motivated incidents by any member of the community, including police officers.

Reports can be made online at www.reportracism.com.au or through a reporting place, such as the Neighbourhood Justice Centre. Reports can be made by a witness, victim or a third party. Once a report is made the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission will be responsible for managing the information.

The trial will be piloted in Northern Melbourne (City of Yarra, Darebin and Whittlesea) and Shepparton.

Sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the 1980s

15 August 2014

With sexual harassment in the news again let's take a look back at what first Commissioner Fay Marles called "the most widespread, persistent, and 'normal' form of unequal opportunity in this community".

1 August 1984 saw the proclamation of the new Equal Opportunity Act 1984, which added race, religion, ethnic origin, political belief and de-facto spouse status to the list of protected characteristics.

Sexual harassment also became unlawful in its own right (the Commissioner had recommended explicit proscription of sexual harassment in 1982).

Since 1980 the Commissioner, Fay Marles, had used the Equal Opportunity Bulletin to raise awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace – and the fact that it was against the law.

EO Bulletin from 1981, Sexual innuendo - a common cause of office problems

And education seemed to be working. The Commissioner noted in 1985: 

Those enterprises that have established sexual harassment policies – a corporate statement that the company will not tolerate the behaviour because it destroys equality of opportunity, job satisfaction and work output – have gained greatly by doing so. (Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, Eighth Annual Report, 1985, 17.)

With the introduction of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, under which the Commission was delegated to handle Victorian complaints, there was a sharp rise in the number of enquiries in 1984/85.

Yet despite almost a decade of equal opportunity law and education, the Commissioner called sex discrimination “the most widespread, persistent, and ‘normal’ form of unequal opportunity in this community”. (Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, Eighth Annual Report, 1985, 13.) She noted that women were still:

  • earning, on average, only two thirds of their male counterparts’ wages
  • concentrated in the lower ranks of most enterprises.
  • upon leaving school, being channelled into a very small number of ‘appropriate’ career paths (clerical, retails, teaching, nursing, hair dressing, waitressing)
  • largely responsible for the care of children and domestic work
  • rated less favourably as credit risks and prospective tenants
  • given less access than men to sport and recreation
  • facing far less adequate provision for income maintenance in old age than men.

We might take a moment to consider how many of these statements still ring true today, thirty years on...

Public education campaigns

10 July 2014

From the earliest days of Victoria's anti-discrimination legislation, a large part of the Commission's (and formally the Equal Opportunity Board's) role has been to educate the public about equal opportunity.

"Our present legislation is no longer seen as novel or revolutionary. People in Victoria on the whole have become used to the idea of equal opportunity and no longer see it as threatening."
– Equal Opportunity Board, Sixth Annual Report, 1983.

By 1983 people were started to get more comfortable about equal opportunity. Public education campaigns such as these from 1982–83 must have been working:


And this from 1984–85:


Related information




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