: Mass Resignation from the VEOHRC Board

Mass Resignation from the VEOHRC Board

Dominique Allen
Human Rights

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (‘VEOHRC’) was thrown into a state of chaos in June when three of its seven Board members resigned. Two other Board members had already announced in May that they were stepping down. Another member resigned in May following public condemnation of his stance against same-sex marriage.

This recent mass resignation was prompted by Attorney-General Robert Clark’s decision to reject the Board’s unanimous recommendation for a new Commissioner, a position which has been vacant for almost a year, following the resignation of Dr Helen Szoke three years before her term expired.

The VEOHRC is responsible for resolving discrimination complaints and educating the community. Under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic), it can intervene in human rights proceedings and reports annually to Parliament on the state of human rights.

In 2011, the VEOHRC’s governance structure was altered as part of broad changes introduced by the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), which put Victoria at the forefront of equal opportunity law. Under the original Act, the Commissioner was a member of the Board and presided over its meetings. The Commissioner was also responsible for the daily administration of the VEOHRC. The Board was responsible for determining the VEOHRC’s strategic direction, for example, making a decision as to whether to commence a public inquiry into discrimination.

Immediately prior to the commencement of the Act, the Baillieu government wound back the VEOHRC’s functions. It revoked the VEOHRC’s ability to conduct public inquiries into serious allegations of discrimination and it split the roles of Chair of the Board and Commissioner. The Commissioner is no longer a member of the Board or responsible to the Board for the administration of the Commission and must now act in accordance with the Board’s strategic direction.

Under s 170 of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), the appointment of a new Commissioner requires the Attorney-General’s approval. After considering the Board’s recommendation for three months, the Attorney-General rejected it, stating ‘I do not consider that the person proposed by the Board has sufficient background or experience in areas required by a Commissioner.’

Victoria is now without a properly functioning independent statutory body charged with promoting equal opportunity and protecting human rights. The government removed the watchdog’s ability to bite last year and the latest developments mean the VEOHRC may also find it difficult to bark.

DOMINIQUE ALLEN teaches law at Deakin University.

(2012) 37(3) AltLJ 202
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