This year has again been an incredibly busy and productive year for the South Australian Equal Opportunity Commission (the Commission), within a broader context that continues to evidence the vital importance of equal opportunity laws.

The Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (the Act) establishes the position of Commissioner as a statutory authority with responsibility for administering the Act to prevent discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, and to facilitate the participation of all citizens in the economic and social life of the community. In introducing the Equal Opportunity Bill in 1984, the Hon Greg Crafter MP, then Minister of Community Welfare, outlined that the intention of the legislation was to give ‘each and every person a basis on which they can live their life in dignity and in equality and with the respect that is due to every single person in the community’.1

The year 2019-20 has highlighted a critical need for the social cohesion promoted by equal opportunity laws, with increased reports of racism and disability-related discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic. The year has also seen increasing attention on, and reports of, sexual harassment in the workplace. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s important Respect@Work Report2 is clear that sexual harassment in Australian workplaces remains widespread and pervasive. With 85% of Australian women having experienced sexual harassment, every workplace must take action to ensure safe and respectful workplace cultures.

It is a huge privilege to oversee the administration of the Act in our community. It is grounded in fundamental principles that guide our interactions and decisions in many facets of public life, that give us a sense of belonging, of safety, and a chance for us all to contribute on an equal footing. It is only when every person in the community is treated with dignity and respect that they achieve their full potential for the benefit of the whole community.

This is also a responsibility with increasing challenges. In the parliamentary debates in passing the Act in 1984, the then opposition Member, the Hon Diana Laidlaw AM, articulated what was agreed on both sides of the floor, that ‘the major objective of anti-discrimination equal opportunity legislation is its educative function’. She followed this by asking ‘whether the Government has seen fit to provide adequate resources to the Commission to fulfil its functions and responsibilities to the community’.3 In my view, following funding reductions from successive governments, the ability of the Commission to fulfil this vital function is in jeopardy.

Over the last decade, funding to the Commission has reduced by over 50 percent. I have outlined the risks associated with inadequate funding for the Commission on pages 18-20 of this report. These are risks both to the realisation of the Act’s objectives within the South Australian community and to the wellbeing and life chances of already marginalised people who seek the Commission’s services.

I oversee a small team of dedicated and passionate staff, who are under great pressure to meet expectations beyond the current capacity of the Commission. Our reduced staffing has also meant my increasing involvement in operational management and oversight, resulting in reduced capacity to engage in the educative and consultancy activities of the Commission. Nevertheless, I have continued to maintain and build on strong partnerships, particularly with universities, to leverage and expand the reach of our work. Despite the challenges, the Commission team has again this year punched well above its weight in delivering on our functions as prescribed by the Act.

Complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation

The Act prescribes reactive functions where discrimination is alleged to have occurred. The Commission provides an impartial, free and confidential means for people to address unlawful discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, by assessing and resolving complaints made under the Act by individuals and groups (see section 4.1.1.2).

In 2019-20, disability discrimination was again the most common ground for complaints to the Commission, at 21% of accepted complaints. Only marginally less frequent, 20% of complaints alleged sexual harassment. The remaining most frequent grounds of complaint were victimisation (14%) and discrimination on the basis of sex (11%), race (10%) and age (7%). While complaints on the ground of disability discrimination in 2019-20 were down from recent years4, complaints on these other grounds were all substantially higher in 2019-20 than the average over the previous four years.

In 2019-20, the number of discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation complaints assessed by the Commission increased by over a third from last year. Despite this increase, the Commission continued to see the rewards of process improvements. 2019-20 saw over 80% of conciliations successfully resolved and a 40% reduction in the time taken to finalise complaints, compared with last year. Our conciliation team has received consistent and abundant positive feedback from parties involved in conciliations (see page 38).

While complaint statistics are incredibly important for quantifying the reactive work of the Commission and providing guidance for the direction of our proactive work, I must emphasise that they are of very limited utility in providing a basis on which to allocate funding to the Commission. While the reactive function is critically important where issues of discrimination have occurred and require redress, the educative function of the Commission must also be adequately funded for the Commission to meet its responsibilities to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and associated victimisation in the community.

Promoting equality of opportunity within the South Australian community

The Act provides the Commission with a proactive function, namely to educate the community with a view to promoting inclusion and acting collectively to eliminate discrimination. To this end, I spoke at 47 events in 2019-20, maintaining the previous year’s level despite the cancellation of almost all public-speaking engagements with the advent of the pandemic. I was also involved in 80 radio, online or print media reports relating to equal opportunity in 2019-20, a 45% increase on the previous year.
This year, I continued in my role as Chair of the Australian Council of Human Rights Authorities, as appointed by my interstate and federal colleagues, overseeing increasing collaboration and information-sharing between commissions.

Despite funding constraints, the Commission expanded its focus on preventing disability- related discrimination in 2019-20, with a number of new projects aimed at educating the community on these issues. This has included: supervising a Law Intern’s research and report regarding assistance animal law reform; collaboration on the production of a pamphlet outlining the rights and responsibilities of venues and facilities regarding assistance animals; writing to SA-based travel insurers on the issue of disability discrimination in the form of blanket mental health exemptions; developing an ‘Access Alert’ app (yet to be made public) with students from Flinders University to provide informal notification to venues when a person living with disability has encountered an access issue; collaboration with PwC and Julia Farr Purple Orange on disability employment initiatives; and revising the Commission’s disability data categories to more usefully capture data to inform future projects regarding disability discrimination (see sections 4 and 5).

Fee-for-service consultancy work

In 2019-20, the Commission has continued to lead the three-year Workplace Equality and Respect (WER) project, which establishes the State Government as a national leader in workplace prevention of violence against women. Through the innovative WER Project, 24 State Government agencies are implementing Gender Equality and Respect Action Plans and preparing to seek reaccreditation as White Ribbon workplaces (see pages 60-61).

Relatedly, the SA Chiefs for Gender Equity, which I convene, has overseen the production of a suite of eight resources to support the advancement of gender equity in South Australian small and medium enterprises (pages 57-58)

In 2019-20, the Commission finalised the South Australia Police (SAPOL) Monitoring Project, producing a final report reviewing the changing perceptions, experiences and practices to support gender equality and cultural change in SAPOL since the initial review and recommendations made by the Commission in 2016 (see pages 61-62).

Legislation and policy advice

My comment has been sought by the Attorney-General in relation to three pieces of proposed legislation relevant to the area of equal opportunity, and I have developed five submissions for the Attorney-General’s consideration regarding areas for reform to further advance the objectives of the Act (see page 71). One of these submissions informed the Equal Opportunity (Parliament) Amendment Bill 2020, proposing to extend the protections and obligations regarding sexual harassment in the Act to Members of Parliament in their conduct towards other Members of Parliament.

As outlined in detail in this report, I have undertaken formal advocacy activities to fulfil my responsibilities as Commissioner, through correspondence to key stakeholders on a range of equal opportunity matters. These include; access and opportunities for people living with disability, gender-neutral parental leave provisions, opportunities for mature job seekers and non-discriminatory school uniform policies.

The team and I have supervised the production of another two Law Intern reports (details on pages 66-67) and I have continued to co-supervise two PhD students from the University of Adelaide who are undertaking research of relevance to the work of the Commission.

Acknowledgements

I take this opportunity to thank my incredibly resilient and resourceful team and acknowledge their hard work and dedication to delivering quality services to the South Australian community. It is my privilege to have a team comprised of some of the most highly- performing people I have ever worked with in my career across the private, university, not- for-profit and government sectors.

I am extremely appreciative of the wonderful support that we get for our work from our strategic partners, consulting clients, student interns and legal clinic volunteers, business and community leaders and the general community.

I also want to acknowledge the privilege inherent in my role in hearing personal stories from members of our community. Reiterating the words of the Hon Greg Crafter AO quoted above, these interactions are a daily reminder that each and every person in our community deserves to live with dignity, equality and respect. In the year ahead, the Commission will continue to work to realise the promise of these words.

Dr Niki Vincent
Commissioner for Equal Opportunity (SA)

1 South Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House of Assembly, 4 December 1984, 2079 (Greg Crafter, [former] Minister of Community Welfare).

2 AHRC (2020) Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report, available at
https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/publications/respectwork-sexual-harassment-national-inquiry-report-2020

3 South Australia, Parliamentary Debates, Legislative Council, 17 October 1984, 1181 (Diana Laidlaw).

4 17% lower than the average number of complaints on the ground of disability discrimination for the previous four years.