Giving the Aussies a Few Pointers

The government of the Australian province of Victoria (includes the city of Melbourne) is underway with a review of their human rights legislation. Specifically, they are considering the list of exemptions to discrimination laws, deciding which to keep and which to repeal.

Some of the suggested amendments in the options paper have caused significant concern among many in Australia. Perusing the options document, it almost seems like they hired Barbara Hall herself to write it; almost every revision or repeal would strengthen the hand of the Victoria Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Many include additions of clauses that allow the VEOHRC to determine on a case-by-case basis whether an exemption is “objectively reasonable” – sounds like the Canadian HRCs’ classic make-work strategy. In fact, one provision allows the Commission to intervene in order to determine if a particular religious belief is “objectively verifiable”.

The same commission called publicly for this review of the exemptions at the conclusion of a 2008 report, in order to place more institutions under the watchful eye of the VEOHRC. (a hilarious coincidence – check the bottom of that link and note the last name of the media contact)

Some of the proposed changes include repeals of important exceptions – changes to exceptions 76 (religious schools) and 77 (religious beliefs or principles), are especially alarming. Traditionally, independent and religious schools have operated with an exemption from discrimination rules. For example, a Catholic school could use discriminatory hiring practices to employ only Catholics. If the proposed revisions were enacted, these schools may no longer be able to make such decisions.

Peter Costello, a member of Australia’s parliament, wrote an excellent column that lays out the possible consequences if the Victorian legislature moves forward with this. Here’s an excerpt:

[The VEOHRC] harbours the view that discrimination has gotten sophisticated – so hard to find under current law – that we must widen the law to catch more of it. One area in the State Government’s sights is religious bodies, and their schools.

Now, discrimination statutes don’t apply to religious organizations and their schools on the grounds of freedom of religion. So a parliamentary committee has recommended options to extend the power of the state over the province of religion. One proposed change is to restrict the freedom of religious schools to choose their employees on the basis of their religious faith.

The Christian churches want to continue current practice. But a host of community organizations want to change it. The Federation of Community Legal Services told the parliamentary review that the law should change, claiming “to allow religious organizations a broad exemption for conscience encourages prejudice”.

Just think about that statement. According to these lawyers, a religious conscience leads to prejudice.

Within the document, the VEOHRC also quotes the Canadian HRC system with respects to Jennifer Lynch’s “No right is absolute” moniker. They do this in order to support their claim that more limitations to particular rights should be justifiable, at the discretion of, you guessed it, the VEOHRC.

One more reason to stop Jennifer Lynch and her provincial counterparts – they’re taking the whole world down with them. Maybe we can tell the Aussies that in Canada people are criticizing them even in the most left-wing newspaper in the country.

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