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In the era of online news and ease of access to it, discussions about current events are commonplace – both inside and outside the workplace.
These discussions can lead to expressing political opinions, attendance at rallies, civil disobedience or simply expressing your opinion in a public forum (like social media).
In an employment law context, political opinion includes: membership of a political party; expressed political, socio-political, or moral attitudes; or civic commitment.
At worst, expressing political opinions in a public way could land you in hot water with your employer. This is especially if your employer disagrees with your views.
Therefore, it is important to know what your rights are and whether you are legally protected from your employer taking or threatening to any action against you.
It is common for employers to have employment contracts, codes of conduct and/or policies which have terms to the effect of needing to comply with all company policies as varied from time to time and/or not bringing the employer’s business into disrepute.
These documents may also require employees to abide by company ‘values’ such as ‘respect’ and ‘inclusivity’, which are admirable but also vague enough to be used broadly and, in some cases, unreasonably.
There are even stricter policies for federal and SA public sector workers, who are bound by codes of ethics that stress impartiality and political neutrality.
If your employer alleges that you have breached one of these terms, based on a political opinion you have expressed in the workplace or outside of work, they will still need to follow reasonable disciplinary procedures.
For more information on disciplinary matters and what you can do, see our factsheet here: https://wwcsa.org.au/resources/disciplinary-meetings-what-do-i-do/.
Fair Work Commission
The Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) gives workers certain protections (called ‘general protections’) to exercise workplace rights and prevents employers from taking harmful action (called ‘adverse action’) against workers for exercising these rights.
One of these protections protects workers from discrimination at work on the basis of attributes like race, sex, age, political opinion, etc. However, the Fair Work Act says that the type of discrimination must also be unlawful under state anti-discrimination laws for a worker to be protected.
In South Australia, political opinion is not protected from discrimination under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (SA). This means that a worker is not able to make a general protections claim to the Fair Work Commission on the basis of political opinion discrimination.
Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
If you expressed your political opinion in the workplace and experienced discrimination in your employment because of it, you can make a complaint to the AHRC.
The AHRC has the power to investigate political opinion-based discrimination complaints. Although political opinion is not protected under Australian federal discrimination laws, your complaint would allege discrimination in employment under the ILO Convention concerning Discrimination in respect of Employment and Occupation, to which Australia is a party. For AHRC claims of this kind, a time limit of 12 months from the date the discrimination occurred applies.
A link to the AHRC complaint form can be found here: https://humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/2023-01/ahrc_complaint_form_10012023.pdf.
Once a complaint has been submitted, the AHRC will investigate the complaint and may try to resolve the complaint by conciliation. Conciliation is a form of dispute resolution that will take place between the employer and employee to resolve the issue (for exmaple, by an apology, compensation or change of policy). For more information on the AHRC conciliation process see: https://humanrights.gov.au/complaints/complaint-guides/conciliation-how-it-works.
If the complaint is not resolved at conciliation, the AHRC President will decide if discrimination has occurred, and if it has, they may report the matter to the Federal Attorney-General. For more information about the AHRC process see: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/complaint-information-service/complaint-process-complaints-about-discrimination-employment.
Get some legal advice
Contact the Working Women’s Centre on 08 8410 6499 to get legal advice and our lawyers will walk you through whether making a claim is an option for you.