Why we still need a Sex Discrimination Commissioner

The Age newspaper made a headline of the comment 'I didn't imagine we would still need a sex discrimination commissioner in 2016'Ms Jenkins cites the progress made in a landmark case of 1979. It is perhaps important to take stock of the mix of legal cases; statutory protections; statutory offices; independent monitoring agencies; independent voices; funded services; attention to data collection, research and analysis, which together shape progress on gender issues in Australia. The need for a Sex Discrimination Commissioner is very real. 

It is interesting to read in this context, the account by Anne Summers of the systematic campaign within the Liberal government under John Howard to undermine and disempower (if not abolish) the office of Sex Discrimination Commissioner among other attacks on support for women. 

See: The end of equality: Work, babies and women's choices in 21st Century 2003 Australia Random House Australia Sydney at Chapter 6: Cold shoulder from Canberra.

Summers says: '...with John Howard Australia got its most reactionary Prime Minister for at least thirty years...he immediately set out to try and end, and where possible, reverse, more than thirty years of women's economic and social progress' (125). Summers talks of 'a two-pronged attack on women's equality and independence' with cuts to services and reduction in political influence of government offices set up to protect women. Summers details:

  • cuts to childcare funding; 
  • cuts to the Office of the Status of Women (OSW); 
  • effective neutralisation of the OSW by selective appointment; 
  • cuts to the Women's Electoral Lobby; 
  • abolition of the register of women in New South Wales; 
  • abolition of the Women's Bureau in the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs;
  • moves to shut down the Affirmative Action Agency;
  • cuts to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC);
  • cuts to the human rights branch of the Attorney-General's Department;
  • accusing the then Sex Discrimination Commissioner of being 'a Labor stooge', the encumbent resigned and the role was left vacant for fourteen months;
  • an attempt to merge the roles of Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Affirmative Action Agency and OSW into one office - an obstacle to this was the fact that statutory duties of the first two positions could not be performed in a policy unit of government;
  • cuts to HREOC's powers;
  • moving complaints procedures to the Federal Court with greater expenses for claimants, filing fees and less likelihood of accessing dwindling legal aid funding;
  • the removal of complaint handling powers (apparently without the knowledge of the head of the OSW) substantially eroded the function of the Commissioners - and complaints dropped from 2000 to 300 within three years;
  • abolishing the Women's Statistics Unit of the Australian Bureau of Statistics;
  • demoting nearly all women in Cabinet in 1997;
  • taking Ministerial responsibility for the Status of Women out of Cabinet level and thus removing the chance to be aware of or contribute to Cabinet deliberations;
  • proposing to abolish the role of Sex Discrimination Commissioner (and all the other existing commissioner positions).

Summers concludes 'An unprecedented roll-back of women's rights was underway, a reversal of much that had been achieved over the past 30 years.'

The appointment of Ms Jenkins was announced on 11 February 2016 after a five month delay after Elizabeth Broderick completed her term in September 2015. 


Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/i-didnt-imagine-we-would-still-need-a-sex-discrimination-commissioner-in-2016-20160420-goakp8.html?login_token=HTHDA86m-LQReWRKwSn73ospvlU5gXWp58TWKyJoorLx-srQEB5m6nWQM3DUd7OKg8ELXEhUqLm0zdaL1niUmQ&member_token=m1M5NEmWypm-26_FpylxKfZo5hTQJ7oGtZgfaM5IkO4ghGH-d3FVWlh8DmH1BapaNRcESWX-gBDymjExm6bsSQ&expiry=1492732801#ixzz46Q1WyiB7 
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