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Victoria's equal opportunity history

in 1979, Victorian Parliament passed an Act that made it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis of sex and marital status. This was the birth of the anti-discrimination legislation in Victoria.

The Equal Opportunity Act received bipartisan support that signalled our aspirations for equality with strength and clarity. It was the product of significant lobbying and determination, and aimed to establish a new normative standard in civilised behaviour.

The Act followed steps taken to reduce discrimination against women in the Victorian public service – equal pay for equal work, maternity leave, and the elimination of discrimination in advertisements for public service jobs, to name a few.

The Act had a substantive and symbolic impact, as a tool to address individual instances of discrimination and promote social change, and a framework to debate equality. In 1977, Deborah Lawrie applied to become a trainee pilot with Ansett, then one of Australia's largest airlines. She was well qualified, being flight instructor with extensive flight experience, and more qualified than many of her male students who had already been accepted as trainee pilots. Her application was rejected by the General Manager of Ansett with the explanation that:

We have a good record of employing females in a wide range of positions within our organisation but have an adopted policy of only employing men as pilots.

More than three decades on, we can marvel at this comment knowing that no major public company would adopt, or admit to holding, such a blatantly discriminatory policy. Lawrie (now Wardley) challenged the rejection, lodging a sex discrimination claim with the Commission (then the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board), and won.[1] In 1979, the Board ruled that women's childbearing potential could not be used to limit their role in society. It also ordered Ansett to employ Ms Wardley in its next pilot intake. This was the first sex discrimination complaint determined by an Australian Equal Opportunity Board.

Following this landmark decision, protection from discrimination was extended to people with disabilities, race, religion, political belief and de facto status. In 1984, sexual harassment became unlawful.

Gradually, its scope has changed to reflect the diversity of our community. In 1995, protection from discrimination was extended to (amongst other things) carer status, age and pregnancy. In 2000, breastfeeding, sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination were included. In 2008, it was amended to protect employees who requested flexible working arrangements to accommodate their family responsibilities.

After decades of relying on individual complaints to address discrimination, the introduction of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 marked a new approach to tackling all forms of discrimination - individual and systemic.

Importantly, the Act focuses on achieving substantive equality. It recognises that access to opportunities are not equitably distributed throughout society, and that equality in terms of outcomes – as well as access to opportunities – is required to eliminate discrimination to the greatest possible extent.

The Act enhanced the role of the Commission from a complaints-handling body to one that educates and facilitates dispute resolution, best practice and compliance. It also provided the Commission with power to intervene in legal proceedings involving issues of equal opportunity or discrimination, and conduct investigations on systemic issues.

Though progressive in its day, the legislation of a generation ago does not reflect the diversity of today's society. Reforms to the Equal Opportunity Act in the last 35 years have encouraged our community to prevent discrimination, rather than just react to it, and assume the responsibility for eliminating discrimination together.

Find more information on the history of the Equal Opportunity Act.

[1] Ansett Transport Industries (Operations) Pty Ltd v Wardley (1984) EOC 92003 at 75,260

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