Destructive and unjust "anti-discrimination" agencies: White males are presumed guilty

In practice, complaints made to them become the start of an official extortion racket

Perth college manager Peter O'Brien's life was almost destroyed when a female staff member wrongly accused him of sexually harassing her with lewd behaviour in the office at Christmas parties. He lost his job, his wife attempted suicide and the cost of defending the charge was nearly $40,000.

The case highlights a boom area for lawyers as employees turn to discrimination laws for protection and retribution. Mr O'Brien was vindicated just over four years after 25-year-old Joanne Robinson first made the accusations. The Western Australian Equal Opportunity Tribunal found Ms Robirson was an unconvincing witness with a tendency to exaggerate. ..In contrast. O'Brien was by , and large a reliable witness," the tribunal ruled.

This is at odds with the approach of the state's Equal Opportunity Commission. It had accepted Ms Robinson's complaint, tried to broker a $40,000 settlement on her behalf and provided the solicitors that ran her losing case in the tribunal.

Mr O'Brien's case is one of the 5 per cent of cases that proceed to a tribunal. Employment lawyers say the vast bulk are settled at the conciliation stage and usually involve a payment to the employee to make the matter disappear, regardless of the strength or otherwise of the case.

Mr O'Brien agrees there is a pro-plaintiff bias in the state's anti-discrimination laws. Mr O'Brien revealed that the state's Equal Opportunity Commission told him that if he paid Ms Robinson $40,000 she would drop her complaint. "We have a letter from them saying that if you pay her this amount the case will stop," he said. "The whole process seemed designed around deciding how much I was going to pay her. "It was an intimidation process. It was so bad that during the process my wife attempted suicide. "I came home one night and found her unconscious on my living room floor. "The commission does not investigate. It simply accepts a claim and then you have to disprove it," Mr O'Brien said.

West Australian Equal Opportunity Commissioner Yvonne Henderson said she was prevented by confidentiality provisions from discussing Mr O'Brien's accusations. But she said the commission investigated every complaint and had even been criticised for "over-investigating".

Last year, Mr O'Brien provided the state Government with a list of possible reforms that would ensure other managers were not subjected to the same experience. State Attorney-General Jim McGinty has defended the current arrangements, telling Mr O'Brien the Equal Opportunity Commission is required by law to help those who lodge complaints. He said many of those who complained of discrimination did not have the means to pursue their claims. "Many of the respondents to complaints of discrimination received by the commissioner are employers, large corporations and government agencies," Mr McGinty said. If the Government changed the law and required costs to be awarded against unsuccessful parties in discrimination cases, this would "significantly decrease the incentive to lodge complaints with the commissioner, particularly amongst those members of the community who are most vulnerable to acts of discrimination".

Mr O'Brien said he believed one of the factors that affected his case was that the complaint had been lodged by a single mother with a child of Aboriginal descent.

Employer groups fear that unless state governments intervene with the anti-discrimination commissions, more managers may soon be subjected to the same complaint-handling process. Some of those state anti-discrimination commissions are trying to expand their role in workplace disputes by encouraging employees to take harassment and discrimination proceedings against their employers as an alternative to unfair dismissal action.

The above article appeared in "The Australian" newspaper on 13 May, 2006


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