Australia outlaws sex discrimination in a blaze of publicity

Australia's first national Sex Discrimination Act has just come into force in a blaze of publicity. Full-page advertisements in all the major newspapers proclaimed: ''Australians have always talked about equality. From today we can practice what we preach.''

Illustrated by a series of cartoons, the ads then described the cases of sex discrimination which the new federal legislation is intended to cover: when a woman is refused a job because the employer thinks a man would be better; when a landlord refuses to rent a home to a single father because the he favors married couples; when a woman is refused a loan from a financial institution because she's not married; when sexual harassment by a co-worker or employer makes working life miserable; or when a woman is fired because she is pregnant.

The first day of the new law produced hundreds of complaints. These ranged from complaints about discrimination between smokers and nonsmokers (a subject not covered by the law) to a complaint by a man who said he was being discriminated against in his attempts to get a job as a typist.

The legislation gave life to a new lobbying organization, ''Women who want to be women,'' which organized a vigorous campaign against the legislation. One of their complaints was that the legislation in effect discriminated against women in the home.

''The new bill really only caters to a minority and discriminates against the majority,'' said a committee member, Valerie Renkema, ''It doesn't do a bit for thousands of family women in the suburbs who don't know anything about the new legislation and don't care.''

The law relies on the federal government's power to make laws concerning foreign, financial, and trading corporations. That power is expected to cover most employment practices in Australia, other than in the governments, which mostly have endorsed equal-opportunity legislation. However, a few states have decided not to introduce complementary legislation.

While the new law contains some penalties for offenders (up to $1,000 fines for individuals, $5,000 for corporations), it relies mainly on hearings and arbitrations by a human-rights commission to overcome most complaints raised under the new law.

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