Human rights in a year like no other – a message from the Commissioner
Respect for human rights is vital at any time – but especially during a crisis. And in this year unlike any other, we’ve seen time and again the central role human rights must play in protecting individuals from unfair treatment, shaping government decision making and prioritising care and support to communities facing the greatest vulnerability.
As detailed in our most recent Annual Report, the Commission has responded to the unique challenges of this last year by continuing to progress work on our four strategic priorities, adapted to respond to the issues that emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Embedding a human rights culture
A positive human rights culture plays a vital role in shaping the decisions, policies and operations of public authorities, so this year we continued our work to embed human rights in Victoria’s public sector. Our Charter Education Program reached 1532 public sector workers, and the human rights culture indicator framework we developed for our annual Charter report, showed strong signs the public sector is engaging the community in decisions that impact on their rights.
As the pandemic gained momentum, it became clear that the Victorian Government and other public authorities would need to strike a delicate balance when responding to the threat to human life posed by COVID-19, while still upholding human rights. We identified six important principles that should guide the government’s response and ensure it fulfilled its obligations under the Charter.
These principles provide that responses should be necessary and proportionate, time bound, lawful, transparent, scrutinised, and should build in additional safeguards and supports for those most likely to be adversely affected. We applied this thinking to our analysis of the COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020 passed by the Victorian Parliament in April, enforcement of the CHO directions, the right to free speech and movement. We also published a register of rights which gave a real-time snapshot of which rights had been limited and the justification for those limitations.
Improving workplace equality
Every worker deserves to feel respected and valued in their working life, but health crises can exacerbate existing gender inequalities. During the pandemic, women have been over-represented in frontline, essential work – including health and caring professions, and roles within the social support and retail sectors – placing them at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.
This year, we commissioned research to understand the impact the pandemic was having on flexible work arrangements for both men and women. To help employers and other duty holders deal with sexual harassment more effectively, we also prepared an updated edition of our Guideline: Preventing and responding to workplace sexual harassment.
In 2019–20, we also concluded our independent review into sex discrimination and sexual harassment, including predatory behaviour, in Victoria Police, helping the organisation chart a course towards gender equality for all employees. We also interrogated the barriers to pay equity in small and medium enterprises and supported the introduction of the Gender Equality Act. Most recently we have established a comprehensive review into workplace equality in Ambulance Victoria. Considering the extraordinary role that Ambulance Victoria has played in responding to the bushfires at the start of the year and the COVID-19 health crisis, it is critical that this organisation is one in which every member is able to equally thrive.
Protecting human rights in closed environments
In 2019–20, we used our intervention powers under the Charter to intervene in the coronial inquest into the death of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day, who died in police custody after being arrested for public drunkenness. This case represented the first time a coronial process in Australia has considered systemic racism as a potential causative factor. We welcomed the important recommendations made by the Coroner to a number of bodies, including the Attorney-General, V/Line, Victoria Police and the Department of Justice and Community Safety
During the pandemic, the close confines and security demands of closed environments like prisons and other forms of detention presented especially challenging environments for the prevention and management of COVID-19 outbreaks. When community transmission began to accelerate, we wrote to the Victorian Government proposing a range of strategies to safely reduce the prison population and further reduce the risk a COVID-19 outbreak within the prison system.
When the Victorian Government enforced a full lockdown of nine public housing towers in inner Melbourne, it was clear there could be significant impacts on residents’ human rights. We moved quickly to produce a fact sheet for residents explaining their rights, which was translated into the seven written and three spoken languages. We worked closely with the Victorian Multicultural Commission and a coalition of community legal centres to monitor the experience of residents and consult with community members, and then provided support to the Victorian Ombudsman as her office conducted its investigation into the lockdown. (Read our statement responding to the findings of the Ombudsman’s report).
From the start of the pandemic, we heard about increasing incidents of public abuse, harassment and vilification against people from Asian backgrounds, ranging from offensive comments and verbal abuse, through to threats of physical violence. Reports made through our streamlined Community Reporting Tool significantly increased, almost doubling from early March. Almost half the reports we received related to racial or religious vilification and a further 20 per cent concerned race discrimination.
In response, we translated critical information on human rights and Victoria’s anti-discrimination laws into 10 community languages, supported by an awareness campaign in five different languages across radio, print and online. This campaign resulted in more than 4500 visits to the translated information pages on our website in just one month.
This year, we also advocated for stronger protections from vilification. Our submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act called for the scope of the Act to be broadened to protect more Victorians from hate, as well as a clearer threshold to determine when vilification has occurred.
We were also proud to release our Aboriginal Community Engagement Strategy 2020–22. Developed through extensive consultation with Aboriginal Victorians and organisations that deliver services to Aboriginal Victorians, this strategy will guide our ongoing engagement with Victoria’s Aboriginal community.
Helping Victorians understand and exercise their rights
While the pandemic disrupted many aspects of how we live, work and study, there was continued demand for our enquiries and complaints services.
We continued to answer Victorians’ questions about anti-discrimination laws and human rights throughout the year, receiving 6650 enquiries from people, raising 7740 issues of discrimination. Disability remained the most common issue raised in enquiries (1232 issues raised), followed by race (461), sex (322), sexual harassment (311) and age (215).
We saw a slight increase in complaints compared to the prior year – we received 1633 complaints of discrimination, harassment and vilification from 914 different people. Employment (879 complaints), provision of goods and services (437) and accommodation (102) were the most common places where people reported discrimination.
Our education programs continued to build the skills and knowledge of employees, government, educators and public sector workers throughout the year. We delivered 267 education sessions, attended by 5324 people. The largest audiences we reached were state government, statutory authorities and local government, accounting for 55 per cent of education participants.
While this has been an incredibly testing year in many ways, I am so proud of how nimbly and creatively the team at the Commission has responded to the emerging issues. Their commitment to upholding Victorians’ rights has been unwavering and they have demonstrated what a flexible, adaptable and innovative workplace we have.
And as we look ahead to 2021 I believe that what lies before us is a period of change and of opportunity – the opportunity to not just rebuild what we had, but to reimagine something better, something more inclusive, something that prizes participation in government decision-making, and that protects and upholds the human rights that we are all entitled to.
These are ideas and opportunities we began exploring during the recent Human Rights Week and ones that I am so looking forward collaborating with you on in the year ahead.
Until then, I am wishing you a safe and restful holiday period from all of us at the Commission.
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner