Leader of the Liberal Party
Leader of the Opposition

Portfolio Speeches

Equal Opportunity Bill 2010

Mr O'BRIEN (Malvern) -- I am pleased to follow the member for Albert Park, and I am very pleased that the member for Albert Park has now made clear to all those groups in the community which have been concerned that this bill is going to infringe on their ability to operate in accordance with their beliefs, that this is only the first stage of the government's equal opportunity reforms. We now know that all the little concessions that the Attorney-General was dragged kicking and screaming to grant in this election year will be back on the table if Labor is returned on 27 November this year. I am grateful to the member for Albert Park for putting that on the record.

I am pleased to speak in the debate on this bill, and I reiterate the Liberal-Nationals coalition's opposition to it for the reasons comprehensively described by the member for Box Hill.

Before turning to the specific provisions of the bill, I remind the house of the facts that equal opportunity legislation was the creation of the Liberal Party under the Hamer government in 1977 and that the Kennett coalition government significantly extended equal opportunity laws in 1995. This side of the house gave birth to the first equal opportunity laws in this state because a belief in the equality of opportunity of each and every individual is, to coin a phrase, an inherent requirement of the Liberal Party.

As the risk of labouring the point, I refer to a document entitled Liberal Values, which can be found on the website of the Liberal Party of Victoria. It states in part:

Among the main values that have motivated Liberals and Liberal governments are:
A belief in the equal rights and dignity of every person. All people should have equal rights, and equal responsibilities to their fellow citizens.

It goes on:

People should be free to pursue their values and control their own lives so long as they do not harm others ... Governments exist to protect the rights and dignity of the individual person, and to establish a framework of  laws and institutions which empowers individual people so they can achieve their values.

That is the beating heart of what being a Liberal is all about, and that is why this side of the house was the side that gave birth to equal opportunity laws in this state. I make this point to underline the fact that this side of the house has the prouder record when it comes to respecting equal opportunity in our legislation. But there is a world of difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. That is where we part company with members opposite, who believe the role of the state is to engineer the same for all, regardless.

I will give credit to the Deputy Premier; he was very up-front about this. If you look at the second-reading speech, he describes special measures in the bill and says 'to aim for equality of outcome, rather than just equality of opportunity'. There is a world of difference between those two concepts.

It is turning equal opportunity on its head to introduce a bill which is all about equality of outcomes, not equality of opportunities. In fact this bill's name is a misnomer, because this government is now ripping up the heritage of this Parliament in legislating for equal opportunity. This bill is more about legislating for the Labor dream of equal outcomes instead of respecting the rights of individuals.

In many ways these differences are key to the differences between the government, being the Labor Party, and the coalition parties. Perhaps we should not be surprised. While I will defend equal opportunity to the hilt, I will not defend equality of outcomes, because that is not part of our philosophy. I wish government members opposite were a little bit more honest, as was the Attorney-General in the second-reading speech, and would say, 'This bill is not about equal opportunity; this is about equality of outcomes'. They are two fundamentally different philosophical positions.

We are changing the way this type of legislation operates in Victoria, and we are ripping up our proud heritage.

This bill really reflects the priorities of the Brumby government. It will give sweeping powers to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to issue compliance notices requiring actions to be taken if VEOHRC 'believes' discrimination has occurred. These notices will be mandatory unless appealed against. Again it is an example of the state saying to an individual, to a private entity or to an association, 'We believe you may have done something that is wrong, so we are going to tell you to do things our way. If you want to challenge us and all the resources of the state, then you can take us to court'.

In that way it is a reversal of the onus that has traditionally existed under our rule of law and under the Westminster system, whereby if the state believes that an individual has acted in contravention of the law, it is the state's obligation to bring a case against that individual or that private entity or that association. That has now been turned on its head as well through this bill.

The bill also empowers VEOHRC to conduct investigations and public inquiries into any matter that raises a serious issue, indicates a possible contravention and relates to a class or group of persons. So you will have an organisation which is empowered to obtain information and data which even Victoria Police cannot get, because VEOHRC thinks some body might have a discriminatory intent in its operations.

You do get the impression the Brumby government is more concerned with providing extra resources and extra powers to what some might term the 'thought police' than providing extra resources and extra powers to real police.

Time does not permit me to examine the examples from around the world where overambitious human rights bureaucracies have used the resources of the state and coercive powers to stifle free speech and engineer conflict between groups in society for the purpose of making a political point. But there are a large number of them. We have always felt close to our fellow commonwealth country Canada, which is a liberal democracy, but Canada has had some appalling examples where overzealous state agencies of the type that the government now envisages through this bill have ruined the lives of individuals quite unfairly through pursuing political agendas. The government gives us no confidence at all that similar fates will not befall Victorian individuals, clubs, companies and associations.

It is not as though members opposite are doing such a fantastic job of running the basics of government -- transport, community safety, water, health care -- that they should feel justified in lifting their gaze to micromanaging businesses, faith-based schools, associations or sporting clubs in Victoria. Perhaps the government should get its own house in order before it starts trying to get more involved in telling others how they should be living their lives.

That brings me to the inherent requirements test, which is particularly relevant in relation to employment in faith-based schools. Who will judge the inherent requirements of a position in a religious school? Will VEOHRC do it? Will VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) do it? Will Jewish scholars be brought before VCAT to plead before one of the Attorney-General's VCAT appointees why the school may wish to engage a Jewish cook at a Jewish school? Will VCAT decide that a person who once read a book on kosher cooking meets the inherent requirements test and should be employed?

These are the sorts of real issues which demonstrate that the government does not understand that people who are employed at a school are not just there to teach maths or to cook. They are there as leaders, counsellors, role models, people who guide and shape the ethos of the school. This government does not understand that; it does not get it. It believes that you can just compartmentalise every single aspect of a school, and that that will work. I am telling the government now that that will not work, and that is why the opposition is opposing this bill. This bill is ultimately more about social engineering and social control than it is about protecting human rights.

This government, and particularly this Attorney-General, is very excited by the idea of an arm of the state, such as VEOHRC, being able to investigate, intervene and interfere in the operation of non-government bodies. The Labor Party fundamentally wants to shrink the sphere of the private at the expense of the state. That is anathema to members on this side of the house. We stand for individual liberty, freedom and responsibility. We have a proud heritage in relation to equal opportunity legislation in this state, but we are not prepared to back a bill which, while using the name of equal opportunity, actually seeks to turn that concept on its head.

This bill is not about equal opportunity; it is about equality of outcomes, and they are two completely different concepts. The Labor Party supports one; we support the other, and ultimately we will be happy for the people of Victoria to determine who is right.

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Michael O'Brien MP

313 Waverley Road

Phone: (03) 9576 1850
Fax: (03) 9576 1849

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