From the Commissioner
Over the past year, discrimination and human rights have been prominent in public discourse, including the ongoing influence of the #MeToo movement focusing attention on sexual harassment and gender inequality. Racism, both overt and structural, has also been highlighted by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Sports teams ‘taking the knee’ in American football, soccer, basketball and other sports, and ongoing media reports of racial abuse has emphasised discrimination in sport and the community.
These trends are reflected in Western Australia where complaints of sexual harassment comprise over 20% of all employment related complaints in this reporting year. With regard to structural racism, Aboriginal people, who comprise 3.1% of the WA population, lodged a disproportionate 12.8% of complaints.
In dealing with these complex issues, the Commission continues to endeavour to provide a sensitive, efficient, and client-centred complaint handling process.
The demand for the Commission’s community education and training services remains high, promoting awareness and providing guidance and expertise to public, community and private sector organisations on how to minimise discrimination.
More broadly, the Commission continues to build, strengthen, and deepen its collaboration with a range of related organisations This has included working collaboratively with the State and Federal Ombudsmen, the Health and Disability Services Complaints Office, and other accountability agencies in activities such as delivering information sessions to regional and remote communities.
As with all workplaces, the Commission adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions, adjusting how we work and what we do. Like many organisations, this included moving our operations online, when lockdowns required our staff to work from home.
In December 2020, the Commission transitioned from a stand-alone agency to be a part of the Department of Justice. The purpose was to obtain sustainable corporate services from a larger host agency. The Commission remains independent in the performance of its statutory functions under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (the Act).
While the Act has been effective in addressing direct discrimination in WA in many areas for over 35 years, it has not been able to provide proper redress for entrenched systemic discrimination which exists in our community, nor for discrimination against job seekers, who continue to experience bias and discrimination in a form that is not easily revealed.
Private and public sector organisations which make diversity a priority in recruitment and service delivery produce more creative and inventive solutions, and respond more effectively to the specific needs of diverse populations. In contrast, a group made up of people with similar backgrounds and skill sets may approach a dilemma in the same way they always have.
While there has been positive progress in employing more women in senior management roles in WA, there remains limited diversity regarding race and disability. The Act contains an exception to unlawful discrimination in the form of ‘measures to achieve equality’ which can assist organisations to increase diversity in the grounds of sex, race, impairment, and age.
In addition, the WA Government’s Policy Framework for Substantive Equality provides an analytical framework to assess and assist in modifying policies and practices to achieve substantive equality in service delivery. This framework, successfully adopted in several WA Departments, assists these agencies ensure they can achieve greater responsiveness to a diverse community.
Greater effectiveness could be obtained by amending the Public Sector Management Act 1994 to require that all agencies strive to achieve substantive equality in delivery of their services.
The WA Government commitment to reviewing the Act is an important task being handled by the WA Law Reform Commission. The Act has remained largely unchanged since 1984, and would benefit from amendments in areas such as increasing the number of grounds, expanding the areas of life in which discrimination is unlawful, increasing the amount of compensation that can be awarded by the State Administrative Tribunal, and requiring employers to act positively to eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
I would like to thank all staff for their patience, professionalism, commitment to delivery of high-quality services and for their receptiveness to change. This year was exceptionally challenging with new accommodation at the beginning of the year, a transition of our corporate services, and the pandemic, which resulted in a significant increase in complaints and enquiries, while adjusting to working from home.
Finally, I would like to thank the Director General of the Department of Justice and staff for agreeing to the transition of the Equal Opportunity Commission to the Department and for their support and work that ensured a smooth transition.