Last month the Baillieu government passed a bill allowing employers to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, gender identity and marital status. The bill enables faith-based organisations to fire or refuse to hire gays, lesbians, transgender people and single parents. It also restricts the investigative powers of the Equal Opportunity Commissioner.
In a sign of the government’s arrogance, the Liberals broke with parliamentary precedent and re-sat the vote on the bill. On the first sitting the bill was lost after Liberal MP Mary Wooldridge outrageously missed the vote!
This cynical nod to the religious right puts the livelihoods of thousands of workers at risk. Community sector workers – who often work at faith-based organisations such as charities – are among some of the hardest working and lowest paid in the country. This bill dramatically reduces their ability to both find work and contest their treatment at the hands of employers.
In a blatant attempt to prevent community backlash and unity among workers, the bill stipulates that the changes only apply to new employees. The bill’s supporters argued that current employees need not fear for their jobs or rights.
This is a tactic commonly used to end industrial disputes: striking workers are asked to accept agreements with conditions that only apply to new employees (who are, needless to say, their effective replacements). Not only does this bill legitimise the open discrimination, it turns workers against each other.
The Labor Party held an unashamedly hypocritical protest against the bill prior to the second vote. Despite the fact that Victorian Labor still does not support same sex marriage, opposition leader Daniel Andrews told protestors that no government has a mandate to discriminate! Other Labor MPs specifically instructed angry protestors to remain silent on the steps of Parliament.
After this self-serving publicity stunt, the public was told Parliament’s public gallery was full, and was barred from entering the building. Socialist Party members and union activists still managed to make their way inside, only to find the public gallery completely empty.
This attack on equal rights must be repealed. As this shameful episode proves, such a defence cannot be left to cynical Labor MPs. The trade union movement must take this issue up and link it with the campaign for equal pay.
By Chris Dite