17 October, 2011
Story and photo by: Vivian Yue
As the Federal Government sought public comment on the consolidation of anti-discrimination laws, timely discussions were being generated at ‘Discrimination in Modern Australia’, the second UTS Law Students’ Society Speaker Series event of the year titled. Those who attended the Speaker Series event were able to claim points of credit towards the UTS Brennan Justice and Leadership Program, an extra-curricular initiative which aims to strengthen justice consciousness, idealism and a sense of service in law students.
Panelists including Nicolas Patrick, partner at DLA Piper, Anna Cody, Director of Kingsford Legal Centre and Senthorun Raj, Senior Policy Advisor for the Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (NSW) were invited to share their insights on discrimination in Australia. The speakers were advocates representing different areas of the community but they were united by their desire to achieve equality and protection before the law.
“Equality before the law is concerned with the rights of every person to be treated equally by the law. Australia has ratified conventions, but we have failed to get equality before the law,” said Nicolas Patrick.
As a passionate human rights lawyer, Patrick has been involved in countless disputes targeting discrimination in Australia. He highlighted one particular case involving a transgender woman who applied for a certificate to show a change of identity. Instead of extending her rights, the legislation denied her affirmation of her identity.
“This bizarre requirement [of divorce] can probably only really be understood by the paranoia surrounding same sex marriage in New South Wales. Presumably, what the government is concerned about is the rush of people who will buy plane tickets to Thailand, have surgery in order for them to achieve same sex marriage.”
Patrick believes despite Australia’s ratification of international treaties, the law does not provide protection of equality. Not only is there limited protection, there are few remedies available to those affected. For these reasons, Patrick has welcomed the Commonwealth Government’s ‘Consolidation Project’, which seeks to review existing anti-discrimination laws and make the system more accessible. He said there is potential for equality before the law and for Commonwealth entrenched discrimination to be addressed. But Patrick also admits he is not holding his breath.
“The Government has said they’ll address inconsistencies and not diminish the existing protections. The way to address inconsistencies without diluting existing protections is to at least make s10 of the Racial Discrimination Act a section that is consistent across sex, age, disability and gender base discrimination.”
Anna Cody, who specialises in discrimination and employment law, is also supportive of the Commonwealth’s ‘Consolidation Project’. According to Cody, the current Federal Discrimination Law disenfranchises Australians with complex identities.
“The approach in Federal discrimination law is to identify a ground of discrimination in an area of life. Where an individual wants to claim more than one form of discrimination they have to choose between the two grounds or take action separately,” said Cody. “This means discrimination law doesn’t get accessed by most people with disadvantage and complex forms of discrimination.”
We are forced to ask ourselves, does the entrenchment of anti-discriminatory values and practices within the Australian community require change only in the legal system? For Senthorun Raj, an advocate of LGBTI rights and equality, discrimination is a ‘pervasive socio-cultural and legal problem’.
“A stronger statutory framework will not ensure protection for gender diverse people. Policy initiatives must elaborate legal reform by providing education campaigns to challenge prejudice,” said Raj.
“I’m often reminded of the political scandal that occurred when Play School screened a young girl being raised by two lesbian mothers. When that becomes a scandal they’ve failed to acknowledge those children who come with two mothers or fathers or extended family structure.”
Raj emphasised that unless laws are clear about discrimination, it is too easy for discriminatory acts to be done and justified. He encouraged students to contribute their thoughts and opinions to the ‘Consolidation Project’. “It’s important a lot of people’s voices are represented in what I think is a very historic moment of law reform.”