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Our history

Forty three years ago Victoria became only the third state in Australia – after South Australia and New South Wales – to introduce anti-discrimination laws. Since the introduction of Victoria’s first Equal Opportunity Act in 1977, our laws to protect human rights and the structure of our organisation have evolved to meet shifting community expectations about rights and equality in this state.

Watch our video about the 40th anniversary of equal opportunity in Victoria

The early years

In 1977, the Victorian Government enacted the state’s first Equal Opportunity Act, targeting discrimination on the basis of sex and marital status. The Act also created the Equal Opportunity Board and the Office of the Equal Opportunity Commissioner.

A few years later, in 1983, the Equal Opportunity (Discrimination Against Disabled Persons) Act 1982, came into force. It addressed discrimination against people with an impairment, going  beyond similar legislation in South Australia and New South Wales by including intellectual impairment along with physical disability.

In 1984, a new version of the Equal Opportunity Act added further protected attributes – race, religion, ethnic origin, political belief and de-facto spouse status. Sexual harassment also became against the law.

Almost a decade later, in 1993, the organisation underwent significant structural and operational changes which replaced the Equal Opportunity Commissioner with a five-member Equal Opportunity Commission. The Commission was led by a Chairperson and one of the five members was the Chief Conciliator.

Two years later, another new version of the Act further developed the range of protected attributes – under the Equal Opportunity Act 1995, it was against the law to sexually harass or treat someone unfairly because of their

  • age
  • carer status
  • disability
  • industrial activity
  • lawful sexual activity
  • marital status
  • parental status
  • physical features
  • pregnancy
  • race
  • religious belief or activity
  • sex
  • personal association with someone else perceived to have one or more of the listed attributes.

Expanding protection for human rights

In 2006, the Victorian Government became the first state to introduce a human rights charter – the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006. Outlining civil and political rights and responsibilities, the Charter compels public authorities such as state and local government to consider human rights when making laws, setting policies and providing services. Coinciding with the Charter, the Commission’s name was changed to the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

The next year, the Attorney-General appointed Mr Julian Gardner, the former Victorian Public Advocate, to review certain aspects of the Equal Opportunity Act 1995. The final report recommended a range of reforms related to the scope of the legislation, the Commission’s complaints process and powers, and its governance structure.

Recommendations from the Gardner review led to a new version of the Act, the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. It amended the Act’s statutory framework to enable it to address systemic discrimination. It introduced a ‘positive duty’, which obliges all organisations covered by the Act, to take reasonable, proportionate and proactive steps towards eliminating discrimination. The Act also extended protection from sexual harassment to volunteers and unpaid workers.

However, shortly afterwards, further amendments to the Commission’s powers were passed through the Equal Opportunity Amendment Act 2011. This new Act removed the Commission’s new power to conduct public inquiries and investigations, removed the ‘inherent requirements’ test in the exception for employment in a religious body or school to allow faith-based organisations to engage staff who have the same values as the organisation, and introduced exceptions for youth wages and same-sex clubs. The new version of the Act replaced the term ‘impairment’ with ‘disability’, but retained the same definition.

Timeline: How has the Equal Opportunity Act changed over time?