This post is part of a series examining the anti-discrimination laws that exist in each Australian jurisdiction and analysing how well, or how poorly, they protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people from discrimination. Other articles in the series can be found here.
Specifically, each post considers three main aspects of LGBTI anti-discrimination legislation:
- Protected attributes
- Religious exceptions, and
- Anti-Vilification Coverage.
Unfortunately, as we shall see below, the Western Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (‘the Act’) has significant problems in terms of all three elements, making it serious competition to the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 for the (unwanted) title of worst LGBTI anti-discrimination law in the country.
As with most Australian anti-discrimination laws (other than those in the Commonwealth, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT), the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 only protects some parts of the LGBTI community from discrimination, but not others.
On the positive side, it does include all lesbian, gay and bisexual members of the community – with ‘sexual orientation’ defined in section 4 as:
“in relation to a person, means heterosexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism or bisexuality and includes heterosexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism or bisexuality imputed to the person.”[i]
On the negative side, however, it completely excludes intersex people from anti-discrimination protection, an omission that should be rectified immediately.
On the negative and downright bizarre side, the Western Australian Act adopts a completely unique approach that results in only transgender people whose gender identity as been officially recognised by the State Government benefiting from anti-discrimination coverage.
Specifically, rather than prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity (which would be best practice), the Act only prohibits discrimination against “a gender reassigned person on gender history grounds”.[ii]
Section 4 of the Act states that “gender reassigned person means a person who has been issued with a recognition certificate under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000 or a certificate which is an equivalent certificate for the purposes of that Act”, while section 35AA prescribes that “[f]or the purposes of this Part, a person has a gender history if the person identifies as a member of the opposite sex by living, or seeking to live, as a member of the opposite sex.”
Prima facie, the combination of these two definitions mean that only people who have transitioned from male to female, or vice versa, and had that transition recognised by the Government via the Gender Reassignment Act are protected from discrimination. People who have yet to transition, or any trans person who is non-binary, are not covered by these clauses. This is a serious flaw, and one that must be corrected by the WA State Government.
Conclusion: While lesbian, gay and bisexual Western Australians are included in the protected attributes of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984, intersex people are completely excluded, as are a large number of trans people (either because their gender identity has not been formally recognised under the Gender Reassignment Act, or because their gender identity is non-binary).
Both flaws should be rectified as a matter of priority, with the adoption of the protected attribute of ‘gender identity’ as found in the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, and the inclusion of ‘sex characteristics’ as called for by intersex activists in the March 2017 Darlington Statement.
While it’s approach to trans anti-discrimination regulation is unique, the Equal Opportunity Act’s provisions surrounding the rights of religious organisations to discriminate against LGBT people are pretty standard for a state and territory (or even Commonwealth) law[iii]. Unfortunately, that ‘standard’ allows homophobic, biphobic and transphobic discrimination in an incredibly wide range of circumstances.
Section 72 of the Act states:
Nothing in this Act affects-
(a) the ordination or appointment of priests, ministers of religion or members of any religious order; or
(b) the training or education of persons seeking ordination or appointment as priests, ministers of religion or members of a religious order; or
(c) the selection or appointment of persons to perform duties or functions for the purposes of or in connection with, or otherwise to participate in any religious observance or practice; or
(d) any other act or practice of a body established for religious purposes, being an act or practice that conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion or is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.”
The first three sub-sections ((a), (b) and (c)), can potentially be justified on the basis that there is a direct connection with the appointment and training of religious office-holders, or the conduct of religious ceremonies.
However, sub-section 72(d) is effectively a blanket exception that allows any religious organisation – including religious-operated schools, hospitals and community services – to discriminate against LGBT employees, and LGBT people accessing their services. This is clearly unacceptable.
Religious schools don’t even need to rely on this broad exception. That’s because they have additional, specific protections in section 73, which allow them to discriminate against teachers and other employees (sub-section (1)), contract workers (sub-section (2)), and even students (sub-section (3)).
Sub-section (1) is incredibly generous (with sub-section (2) adopting similar wording):
“(1) Nothing in this Act renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on any one or more of the grounds of discrimination referred to in this Act in connection with employment as a member of the staff of an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”
Even though the wording used in relation to students is slightly narrower, it nevertheless envisages discrimination against students on the basis of sexual orientation or against gender reassigned persons on the basis of their gender history:
“(3) Nothing in this Act renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on any one or more of the grounds of discrimination referred to in this Act, other than the grounds of race, impairment or age, in connection with the provision of education or training by an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in favour of adherents of that religion or creed generally, but not in a manner that discriminates against a particular class or group of persons who are not adherents of that religion or creed.”[iv]
Given education is conducted in the public sphere, it is, in nearly all circumstances, at least partially paid for by taxpayers, and above all it is the right of students to receive a comprehensive and inclusive education free from discrimination, there can be no justification for the continued existence of the exceptions for religious schools outlined in section 73. Just like sub-section 72(d), they should be repealed as a matter of priority.
Conclusion: The religious exceptions contained in the WA Equal Opportunity Act are, sadly, similar to those that exist in most Australian jurisdictions, in that they provide religious organisations generally, and religious schools in particular, extremely generous rights to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans employees and people accessing services. These religious exceptions must be curtailed to better protect LGBT Western Australians against discrimination.
This will be the shortest section of this post because, well, there isn’t any: there is currently no prohibition on vilification of LGBTI people under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984. This lack of protection is similar to the Commonwealth, Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
Interestingly, the Act also excludes racial vilification. Instead, Western Australia has chosen to outlaw racial vilification via the Criminal Code 1913, which creates a total of eight related offences, including:
“Section 77. Conduct intended to incite racial animosity or racist harassment
Any person who engages in any conduct, otherwise than in private, by which the person intends to create, promote or increase animosity towards, or harassment of a racial group, or a person as a member of a racial group, is guilty of a crime and is liable to imprisonment for 14 years” and
“Section 78. Conduct likely to incite racial animosity or racist harassment
Any person who engages in any conduct, otherwise than in private, that is likely to create, promote or increase animosity towards, or harassment of, a racial group, or a person as a member of a racial group, is guilty of a crime and is liable to imprisonment for 5 years.”[v]
However, there are exactly zero offences outlawing vilification of LGBTI people in the Code. This disparity is completely unjustified, especially given the real and damaging impact of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexphobia on people’s lives (similar to the detrimental impact of racism).
If vilification offences are to be retained, as I believe they should (even if some right-wing Commonwealth MPs and Senators may disagree), then they should be expanded to cover vilification against members of the LGBTI community.
Conclusion: Neither the Equal Opportunity Act nor the Criminal Code prohibit LGBTI vilification, despite the latter creating a number of offences against racial vilification. Similar offences should also be established against the vilification of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Western Australians.
We have already seen, under ‘Protected Attributes’ above, that the Equal Opportunity Act offers only limited anti-discrimination protections to Western Australia’s trans and gender diverse community.
Unfortunately, this ‘anti-trans’ approach is replicated in a number of other sections of the Act, and is even featured in the Long Title: “An Act to promote equality of opportunity in Western Australia and to provide remedies in respect of discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, pregnancy, sexual orientation, family responsibility or family status, race, religious or political conviction, impairment, age, or publication of details on the Fines Enforcement Registrar’s website, or involving sexual or racial harassment or, in certain cases, on gender history grounds” [emphasis added].
Note that, not only does ‘gender history’ come last, it is also the only ground which features the qualifier ‘in certain cases’.
The objects of the Act are also exclusionary with respect to trans people. While object (a) in section 3 the Act seeks to ‘eliminate, so far as possible’ discrimination on grounds including sexual orientation and “in certain cases, gender history”, object (d) excludes trans people altogether:
“to promote recognition and acceptance within the community of the equality of persons of all races and of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation, religious or political convictions or their impairments or ages.”
Apparently, promoting recognition and acceptance of transgender people is not a priority.
This approach is also reflected in substantive parts of the Bill. Whereas section 35ZD allows discrimination in favour of people on the basis of their sexual orientation “to ensure that persons of a particular sexual orientation have equal opportunities with other persons” and “to afford persons of a particular sexual orientation access to facilities, services or opportunities to meet their special needs” (ie positive discrimination), there is no equivalent section for transgender people (or gender reassigned people with a gender history).
There is even a sub-section (74(3a)) that ensures an aged care service cannot discriminate solely in favour of transgender people (even though other aged care services can discriminate on the basis of ‘class, type, sex, race, age or religious or political conviction’[vi]).
Even the way some sections of Part IX, which aims to provide ‘Equal opportunity in public employment’, are drafted indicate that transgender discrimination is to be considered separately. For example, section 140 states:
“The objects of this Part are-
(a) to eliminate and ensure the absence of discrimination in employment on the ground of sex, marital status, pregnancy, family responsibility or family status, sexual orientation, race, religious or political conviction, impairment, age or the publication of relevant details on the Fines Enforcement Registrar’s website; and
(aa) to eliminate and ensure the absence of discrimination in employment against gender reassigned persons on gender history grounds; and
(b) to promote equal employment opportunity for all persons.”[vii]
It is bizarre that even the protected attribute of ‘publication of relevant details on the Fines Enforcement Registrar’s website’ is included with sex, race and sexual orientation (among others), while gender reassigned persons are included in a separate sub-section.
Whenever the Western Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984 is finally updated to ensure all transgender and gender diverse people are protected from discrimination, these additional sections will need to be updated to ensure that, as a protected attribute, gender identity is finally treated equally to other attributes.
In October 2018, the Western Australian Attorney-General John Quigley announced that the Equal Opportunity Act would be referred to the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia for a comprehensive review. This was in the wake of the leaking of the recommendations from the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review, and publicity about the issue of discrimination against LGBT students and teachers in religious schools.
In March 2019, the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia confirmed the details of this review (which can be found here).
Importantly, from an LGBTI perspective, this includes consideration of:
a. the objects of the Act and other preliminary provisions;
b. the grounds of discrimination including (but not limited to) introducing grounds of gender identity and intersex status;
e. the inclusion of vilification, including racial, religious, sexual orientation and impairment vilification;
g. exceptions to grounds of discrimination including (but not limited to) those for religious institutions;
l. interaction with the Commonwealth Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 and with other relevant Commonwealth laws or proposed laws.
It will be essential for LGBTI advocates within WA, and with support nationally, to engage with the Law Reform Commission process, and then to pressure the McGowan Government to bring the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 into the 21st century.
Update 11 July 2020:
Unfortunately, while the Law Reform Commission process was commenced in early 2019, as of mid-2020 there have been no official consultations or publications arising from this Review. The website for the inquiry has not even been updated since 6 March 2019. With the next State election due on 13 March 2021, it is now highly unlikely the Review will be completed this term.
Will WA Labor Premier Mark McGowan, elected in March 2017, update the out-dated Equal Opportunity Act 1984?
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[i] With discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation then prohibited under Part IIB of the Act.
[ii] Section 35AB.
[iii] Other than Tasmania’s exceptions, which are significantly narrower and, to a lesser extent, Queensland’s and the Northern Territory’s.
[iv] Interestingly, the phrase “other than the grounds of race, impairment or age” is omitted from the exceptions relating to teachers and contract workers – presumably religious schools can discriminate on these attributes then too.
[v] Other related offences include:
79 Possession of material for dissemination with intent to incite racial animosity or racist harassment
80 Possession of material that is likely to incite racial animosity or racist harassment
80A Conduct intended to racially harass
80B Conduct likely to racially harass
80C Possession of material for display with intent to racially harass
80D Possession of material for display that is likely to racially harass
[vi] Sub-section 74(2)(a).
[vii] Section 146 includes a similar delineation.