Victoria is now the first Australian jurisdiction with a Minister for Equality, Martin Foley. He has taken to the role with several clear objectives for ending discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, including:
- removing restrictions on same-sex couples adopting children (though a review will be conducted before a Bill is prepared);
- rolling back the Baillieu government’s changes to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), particularly by reintroducing the ‘inherent requirements’ test that would limit gender and sexuality discrimination by religious organisations; and
- repealing section 19A of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic), which criminalises the intentional transmission of HIV, and which has been identified as contributing to stigma and discouraging people from seeking proper treatment.
Of course, none of these proposals is a fait accompli, and it will require a deft hand to negotiate bills through the balkanised Legislative Council cross-bench. (Five seats went to four micro-parties who each attracted less than 3 per cent of the statewide vote.)
Prevention of Family Violence
Similarly, Fiona Richardson was appointed to the new position of Minister for Prevention of Family Violence, created in response to a campaign by the No More Deaths coalition of community groups. They argued that a dedicated ministry would aid in ‘breaking down the system silos that endanger women and children’.
In furtherance of that objective, Justice Marcia Neave has been appointed to preside over a Royal Commission into Family Violence. It has broad terms of reference, covering prevention, intervention, protection, support for victims, perpetrator accountability, and the roles of the community and government. Recent inquiries into institutional child abuse show that inquisitorial powers may indeed be useful in silo-busting.
This shift in focus is welcome; governments tend to focus on infrequent but tabloid-ready violence such as ‘one-punch’ and drug- and alcohol-related offences. By way of comparison, a 2014 Monash University study identified just 24 one-punch fatalities in Victoria from 2000 to 2012, compared to 29 family violence deaths in 2013 alone.
However, while it clearly has some overarching reform goals, the Andrews government has also proven itself to be highly responsive to media campaigns.
When a 3-year-old child died after being fed unpasteurised milk, Consumer Affairs Minister Jane Garrett swiftly responded to calls for government intervention. It has long been prohibited to sell unpasteurised milk for human consumption, but it is sold on a nudge-wink basis in health food shops as ‘bath milk’. The new regulations will require a bittering agent to be added, so that it may be used for cosmetic purposes but will be unpalatable. This quick change was made to effectively close a loophole in widely supported public health laws.
On the other hand, in response to media inquiries about a bail decision, Attorney-General Martin Pakula immediately called upon his department to look for ‘any gaps in the current law’. This review was initiated notwithstanding that the DPP had not yet considered whether to appeal the decision. While a thorough and considered evaluation of the Bail Act 1977 (Vic) would be welcome — and it should be noted that key recommendations of the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s 2007 report were ignored — a behind-closed-doors review in response to tabloid headlines is a poor approach. It is hoped that the government can keep this law and order reflex in check.
ROBERT CORR is a Legal Studies teacher at the Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School.