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Chapman has another crack at Equal Opportunity Commissioner

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A simmering dispute between the state’s Attorney-General and Equal Opportunity Commission has once again flared, with the Commissioner branding Vickie Chapman “vindictive” after she accused it of not doing enough to curb disability discrimination.

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Chapman last week told Parliament that despite disability being the number one issue of complaint to the Commission, she was “concerned” that “insufficient” resources had been directed towards tackling that form of discrimination.

It follows the release of Commissioner Niki Vincent’s annual report last week, which called on the State Government to give “considerable reflection” to data showing South Australia’s Equal Opportunity office is the lowest-funded in Australia.

Tabling the report in Parliament, Chapman said Vincent had placed a “significant emphasis” on public education activities that focussed on leadership and gender inequality.

“While these are very commendable, the need to address discrimination in relation to disability – a ground of complaint that far exceeds all other complaints – should be a priority, as it is for the Government,” Chapman said on Thursday.

“The commissioner reiterated the importance of public education activities through the annual report.

“Unfortunately, only two of her 49 speaking engagements in 2018-19 specifically related to the issue of disability and there was only one of 51 speaking engagements in the previous year.”

Chapman said she would request that Vincent’s office prioritise addressing disability discrimination and that she report to the State Government on “how she intends to do so and the outcomes that we can expect”.

“My request will seek the commission to realign its efforts,” Chapman said.

“It is my expectation that the commissioner and other statutory officers manage their offices within their existing resources.

“This must be the priority.”

It comes after Chapman in July labelled Vincent’s $50,000 spend on an external public relations firm an “absurdity” that was “not justified or sustainable”.

It seems like it’s a bit vindictive now

Vincent responded at the time by defending the outlay, saying she tried but failed to publicise issues using Chapman’s departmental media advisers as she had no power to direct them.

In response to Chapman’s latest critique, Vincent told InDaily this morning that she was “disappointed” that the Attorney-General had raised the concerns during Parliament “in an area where I’m not able to defend myself”.

“We are such a tiny, little organisation and yet she’s (Chapman) has taken two very public opportunities to criticise the work of the commission, which is funded this year to $959,000 by the Government,” she said.

“We are running on the smell of an oily rag and there’s no accounts taken or no mention of all the great work that we do in really punching so much above our weight in the arena of discrimination.

“It seems like it’s a bit vindictive now.”

According to Vincent’s report, in the past 10 years government funding for the commission has been cut by 54.5 per cent, with the number of full-time staff also dropping from 20.2 in 2009-10 to 5.7 this year.

“This is something that should give both the former state Labor government and the current state Liberal government cause for considerable reflection,” Vincent wrote.

“Whilst the funding cuts to date have all come from the previous government, I am hopeful of a more constructive approach from the current government to ensure that the funding for the Commission meets the needs of our community.”

Vincent said this morning that majority of her public speeches centred on gender inequality “because that’s what I’m most often invited to speak about”.

She said gender discrimination across its various forms – including sexual harassment, and discrimination on the grounds of sex, marital status, pregnancy, caring responsibilities and association of a child – accounted for more complaints than those recorded on the grounds of disability.

According to Vincent, gender inequality when considered across its various forms constituted 34 per cent of complaints lodged to her office in 2018-19, compared to disability discrimination, which comprised 28 per cent of complaints.

“That’s the anomaly there that the Attorney hasn’t added,” she said.

“Furthermore, gender inequality may intersect with other inequalities such as disability and race, to magnify these forms of discrimination.”

Vincent said she would issue an amendment to her annual report to include all the work that the commission had done towards combatting disability discrimination, including media coverage.

“The senior manager has done a lot of speeches (about disability) herself, we’ve run training sessions, we’ve made submissions in the policy area… and also through the free legal advisory clinic a large majority of free advice that we provide is to people with a disability,” she said.

“But I would still argue that gender inequality underpins the large majority of complaints to the commission.”

Vincent added that a State Government funding cut under Labor meant she was forced to retrench one of her employees with a disability.

Chapman said in a statement this morning that it was “entirely appropriate” for an Attorney-General to “request, and when appropriate direct, a statutory officer to realign their priorities in accordance with areas of need”.

The dispute is not the first time Chapman has crossed swords with independent statutory figures since becoming Attorney-General at last year’s state election.

Last year, Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander said Chapman had contravened an express agreement not to mention ICAC in a public statement she made about the controversy plaguing Renewal SA at the time.

She also upset River Murray Royal Commissioner Bret Walker who demanded an apology from the Attorney-General over a statement that he said was “wrong, discourteous and inappropriate”.

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