Twenty years ago Tasmania became the last state in Australia to enact anti-discrimination laws, but the lag in enactment was actually a blessing for the island state.
The resulting legislation has been described as a simpler, less prescriptive and significant law.
Most recently a Senate report in November stated that Tasmania’s anti-discrimination laws stood as a useful guide for other states.
Tasmania’s anti-discrimination commissioner Sarah Bolt said it is one of the better pieces of anti-discrimination legislation in Australia, and has a broad operation.
"The benefit of being the last is that you can see what happened to the laws in other states, see the gaps and then address those gaps, which is what Tasmania has done," Ms Bolt said.
"The legislation has changed attitudes. It has shone the light on the LGBTI community in Tasmania, on gender inequity, has been very helpful in making Tasmanians more welcoming and inclusive of new arrivals, and also made it easier for people with disability to gain access to employment,” she said.
“Although there is still some way to go, employers now realise they have a legal and moral duty to make reasonable accommodations for those with disability, which would not have happened without the legislation.”
The Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 includes discrimination against age, race, disability, gender and identity, sexual orientation, relationship, marital and parental status and religious belief.
A complaint can be raised when the conduct occurs in employment, education and training, during the provision of goods, services and accommodation, and in club activities.
The Act also covers sexual harassment, bullying, hate speech, and conduct that offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules.
Ms Bolt said it has a restorative, rather than punitive focus, where the aim is to find resolution between parties.
She said complaints are positive, where they have the ability to raise awareness of outdated practices, procedures and attitudes, and instigate necessary change.
An example, Ms Bolt said, is people complaining about the inability to move wheelchairs off kerbs, which led to infrastructure changes that allowed wheelchairs and prams to move easily off pavements.
Speak Out Advocacy manager Jenny Dixon said discrimination complaints had resulted in positive change to education policy, and training within businesses that raised awareness of disability rights.
But she said some areas still needed major improvement, with disability complaints to the Equal Opportunity Commission being three times more likely than other issues.
"Some of the cases we have helped were against large multi-national companies with teams, including barristers. Through the generosity of local legal professionals who offered their services pro bono, individuals have presented their cases and been successful,” she said.
Ms Bolt said the Act enabled those who felt discriminated against, harassed or treated unfavourably to take action, and importantly, that the intent of the discriminator was not relevant.
“Some people become unwitting respondents because they never intended to insult or discriminate. The thing is that they did, because their actions or words had a negative impact on another.”
It took three attempts for anti-discrimination legislation to actually pass in Tasmania, the first attempt by the Labor government was in 1978, the second came in the early 1990s after Labor’s return to government in 1989, with the final attempt succeeding in 1998.
The resulting political and social debates revealed a swathe of discriminatory issues and community opinions, but while homophobic, racist and sexist elements existed in society the debates ultimately gave rise to a truth that many Tasmanians wanted fairness and equality for all.
Ms Bolt said one of the Act’s major purposes is to set expectations of appropriate behaviour in the community.
"It provides rights and responsibilities for everybody”, she said, and added that promotion of cultural attitudes was a continuous process.
"Overseas events and the attitudes of international and national leaders impact on social behaviour. Even in Tasmania the impacts can cascade down and there always needs to be vigilance.
"While we have had 20 years of anti-discrimination legislation we are still having conversations about discriminatory practices. We can't be lazy and think that this piece of legislation is finished. We need to honour the legislation and make sure it is always emboldened and moves with the times."
Ms Bolt raised some emerging issues where legislative protection does not exist, either in the anti-discrimination act or elsewhere.
These include the homeless, victims of family violence, as well as older people living in aged-care facilities.
"You can have laws and very good laws but they don't drive themselves. Legislation is driven by leaders of the community, members of the community, by people who take up the right to lodge a complaint because they have been treated unlawfully, less favourably, or because of a particular attribute."
Long-term gay activist Rodney Croome is no stranger to the legal operations of the Act and the benefits that can ensue.
He has assisted cases dealing with hate speech, sexual discrimination in the workplace, harassment by neighbours, as well as the unsuccessful case brought by Launceston man Michael Cain in 2008 to lift a gay blood donation ban.
He said the Act had greater protections for same sex couples and transgender people against neighbour harassment, unlike in other states, and also did not contain any exemptions for religions organisations and schools.
For instance, Tasmania is the only state to prohibit religious schools from discriminating against lesbian, gay or transgender teachers.
"Discrimination has been prohibited against LGBTI staff and students for the past 20 years and this has had tremendously positive impacts on cultures in those schools," Mr Croome said.
"For the students of 20 years ago, every story was consistently a horror story about discrimination, prejudice and harassment, and sometimes extended to them being expelled. Today gay students talk about being supported and treated equally."
Ultimately Mr Croome sees the Act as having had a tremendous impact on diversity in Tasmania.
It came into effect one year after homosexuality was decriminalised, a time that was preceded by aggressive campaigns against gay and lesbian people.
"It was a repudiation of Tasmania's dark, troubled and hateful past when it came to minorities, and there was a real determination in the community and parliament to make a strong statement to say 'we are not like that anymore’.”