Australia

Free
97
100
PR Political Rights 40 40
CL Civil Liberties 57 60
Last Year's Score & Status
98 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Australia has a strong record of advancing and protecting political rights and civil liberties. Challenges to these freedoms include the threat of foreign political influence, harsh policies toward asylum seekers, discrimination against LGBT+ people, increasingly stringent checks against the press, and ongoing difficulties ensuring the equal rights of indigenous Australians.

header2 Key Developments in 2019

  • Prime Minister Peter Morrison won a new term in office when the Liberal and National parties’ coalition won May’s federal election, despite expectations that the opposition Labor Party would form the next government.
  • In December, the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) revealed that Australian intelligence agents were investigating claims that a businessman connected to the Chinese government attempted to plant an agent in Parliament in November. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a prominent Chinese-Australian politician’s ties to entities directed and supported by Chinese government that same month.
  • The Australian Federal Police (AFP) conducted two controversial raids against a newspaper editor and the country’s public broadcaster in June, after they used leaked government documents as sources for stories in 2017 and 2018. The editor, who was threatened with prosecution, took her case to the High Court, which was considering the matter at year’s end. The broadcaster also sought judicial redress, and their case was still being weighed at the end of the year.
  • The High Court restricted public servants’ ability to criticize the government when it ruled that a civil servant’s dismissal for criticizing immigration policy through a social media account was justified in August.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 4

The Australian government is a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy. The leader of the popularly elected majority party or coalition is designated as prime minister, and serves as head of government. Scott Morrison, the head of the Liberal Party, became prime minister in 2018 after successfully challenging Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership. Morrison’s ascension continued a pattern in which prime ministers failed to serve full terms due to “leadership coups,” which have drawn criticism for failing to reflect the will of the voters. After becoming Liberal leader, Morrison took steps in late 2018 to limit “coups” in the party with new rules; a two-thirds majority of Liberal members of parliament is now required to remove a party leader who has ascended to the country’s premiership. Morrison won a new term as prime minister when the Liberal Party and its coalition partner, the National Party, won a free and fair election in May 2019.

A governor-general, appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister, represents the UK monarch as head of state. The powers of the monarchy are extremely limited. Retired general David Hurley was appointed governor-general in July 2019.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 4

The bicameral legislative branch consists of a 151-member House of Representatives and 76-member Senate. Lower house members are elected through a ranked-choice ballot, and serve three-year terms. Senators are elected through a ranked-choice ballot and serve staggered six-year terms.

The Liberal–National coalition won 77 seats in the House of Representatives in the May 2019 election, earning a one-seat majority over all other parties. The Labor Party won 68, while the Greens won 1. Independents took the remaining 5 seats.

Forty seats in the Senate were filled in the same contest. The Liberal–National coalition won 19 of the seats up for reelection, while Labor won 13, the Greens won 6, and 2 were won by independents. Turnout for the election stood at 91.9 percent.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 4

Australian electoral laws and procedures are generally fair and impartial. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC)—an independent federal agency—coordinates all federal elections and referendums, draws seat boundaries, and keeps the electoral rolls. Voting is compulsory, and a registered voter’s failure to vote may result in a small fine, which if unpaid can increase, and ultimately lead to a criminal conviction.

On election day in 2019, Liberal Party campaigns in two seats displayed Chinese-language signs telling electors that the “correct way” to vote was to vote Liberal; their design mimicked official AEC signage. Two Liberal members of parliament, federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Gladys Liu, won in the seats where this took place.

However, the incident prompted an independent candidate and a voter to sue to void the results. An advisor to Frydenberg admitted the signs were designed to mimic AEC material when he testified in November. The AEC did not take the signs down, and argued that the plaintiffs’ evidence was insufficient to justify the legislators’ disqualification. The court ruled against the plaintiffs in late December.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 4

Australians may organize political parties without restrictions. Registration and recognition as a political party requires a party constitution and either one member in Parliament, or at least 500 members on the electoral roll.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 4

Power rotates between parties frequently, traditionally alternating between the Labor Party and the Liberal–National coalition. The Greens and smaller left-leaning parties tend to ally with Labor, while rural-oriented and conservative parties often ally with Liberals.

B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 4 / 4

Political participation in Australia is largely free from undue domestic influence. The UK’s monarch remains the Australian head of state, but the monarchy’s power is strictly limited by the Australian constitution and legal precedent.

Concerns about foreign interference in politics, particularly from China, has persisted for several years. Chinese actors have allegedly funded candidates and parties, and a senator resigned in 2017 due to his financial ties with companies linked to the Chinese government. The government subsequently banned foreign donations to political parties, independent candidates, and other political campaign groups in 2018. Additionally, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which came into force that year, requires persons who engage in political activities, such as lobbying, on behalf of a foreign government or other entity, to register publicly.

Chinese efforts to infiltrate Australian politics continued in 2019. In November, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), the country’s spy agency, was revealed to be investigating claims that Chinese intelligence attempted to plant an agent in the House of Representatives. Zhao Bo, a car dealer living in the city of Melbourne, claimed that a businessman tied to the Chinese government offered him A$1 million ($740,000) to run for a seat as a Liberal in 2018. Zhao was found dead in March 2019 while awaiting trial on fraud-related charges. The ASIO considered Zhao’s story to be credible, and was investigating the individual who solicited him as 2019 ended.

Chinese connections to Liberal lawmaker Gladys Liu were also publicized in 2019. In September, Liu admitted that she was an honorary member of a chapter of the China Overseas Exchange Association (COEA), which was controlled by China’s State Council. In December, the press tied Liu to Allen Saylav, the former head of Chinese electric bus manufacturer Brighsun’s subsidiary in Australia. Saylav relied on Liu to win the Australian government’s support for the introduction of electric buses in 2015, and Brighsun donated A$105,000 ($81,000) to the Liberals that same year.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 4

Political rights and electoral opportunities are granted to all Australians. However, the interests of women are inadequately represented, and female members of Parliament have reported being bullied, intimidated, and harassed by their male colleagues. Female representation in Parliament remains fairly low; only 46 seats in the lower house are held by women, representing 30.7 percent of the body. The opposition Labor Party employs an internal quota specifying that 40 percent of its candidates must be women; this quota will rise to 50 percent in 2025. The governing Liberal Party also aims for equal gender representation by 2025, but does not use a quota system.

Some voting restrictions—including requirements that voters hold a fixed address and a ban on voting by prisoners serving long sentences—disproportionately affect indigenous Australians, who are also underrepresented in Parliament. However, indigenous politicians have recently entered the legislature; the lower house’s first indigenous man won a seat in 2010, while its first indigenous woman won a seat in 2016. The Australian government has considered reforms to strengthen the indigenous population’s political voice since 2017, when indigenous leaders proposed a representative body that would advise Parliament on policy matters that affect them. Prime Minister Morrison had dismissed the idea in 2018, calling the proposed body a de facto third chamber of Parliament. However, the government formed a 19-member panel to consider the idea in November 2019, though the proposed body would not be constitutionally enshrined.

Chinese-Australian representation in national politics saw a breakthrough in 2019, when Gladys Liu became the first Chinese-Australian to enter the lower house.

LGBT+ representatives have served in Parliament since the 1990s, when Green senator Bob Brown became the first openly gay member of the upper house. The first openly gay member of the House of Representatives was elected in a 2016 by-election.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 4

The freely elected government is generally able to develop and implement policy.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 4 4

Laws against official corruption are generally well enforced, but the absence of a federal anticorruption body makes enforcement more difficult. All states and territories operate local anticorruption bodies; the first state-level agency was formed in 1989, when Queensland created its Criminal Justice Commission. Other states followed suit in the 2000s and 2010s.

Prime Minister Morrison faced increasing pressure from independent legislators and the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Transparency International to create a federal equivalent, and announced the Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC) in late 2018. The proposed commission would monitor law enforcement agencies as well as other federal bodies, but would have no authority to hold public hearings and would be unable to investigate allegations of corruption without receiving a referral. The proposal remained under consideration at year’s end.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 4

Government operations are characterized by a high degree of transparency, and political affairs are openly discussed in the parliament and in the media. Parliamentary records and commissioned reports are readily available. The Freedom of Information Act allows people to access a wide range of government documents, though some government agencies have been criticized for long delays and unnecessary refusals of freedom of information requests.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 3 4

Though the constitution does not explicitly protect press freedom, journalists scrutinize lawmakers and the government and cover controversial topics, generally without encountering serious obstacles or risking harassment or violence.

However, the use of leaked government documents by the press prompted two controversial raids by the AFP in June 2019. The publicly owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Sydney office was raided in response to the broadcaster’s 2017 publication of the “Afghan Files,” a series of stories based on leaked documents that focused on misconduct and unlawful killings by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. The AFP presented a warrant before entering ABC premises and searched through files relating to the stories. The ABC sued to block the federal police from reviewing the seized documents in a federal court; the case was still ongoing at the end of 2019.

The day before the AFP searched the ABC’s Sydney office, the AFP raided the home of Sunday Telegraph political editor Annika Smethurst, in response to a 2018 story covering leaked plans to expand the government’s spying powers. A warrant gave the AFP permission to search Smethurst’s home, computer, and phone as part of their investigation into the alleged publication of classified material. Smethurst took her case to the High Court, with her lawyers calling on the AFP to delete data copied from her mobile phone when they presented their case in November 2019.

Members of the press have also been constricted by the use of judicial suppression orders while covering criminal cases. A judge in the state of Victoria issued a suppression order to limit reporting on the trial of Cardinal George Pell, an Australian Vatican official convicted of sexual assault in December 2018. The order was issued that June to prevent undue influence on a second trial scheduled against Pell, but foreign media outlets reported on the verdict and many domestic outlets followed suit.

Victoria state prosecutors called on nearly 100 journalists to explain their decision to report on the Pell case in a February 2019 letter, saying they had scandalized the court and warning that they risked contempt of court charges if their explanations were deemed insufficient. Some staff members of publications that covered the case received these letters even though they did not report on the case themselves. Prosecutors filed charges against 36 individual journalists and organizations in April, and their cases were still ongoing at the end of 2019.

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to contempt of court charges being levied against journalists who reported on a major criminal case and police raids against media outlets as part of an investigation into government leaks.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 4

The constitution explicitly prohibits laws that would either impose or restrict religious expression, and individuals are generally able to express religious beliefs or nonbelief.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 4

Academic freedom is generally respected. However, in 2017, federal officials warned of Chinese attempts to monitor Chinese students in Australia, and to question academics whose views differed with those of the Chinese government.

In July 2019, pro-Chinese counterprotesters at the University of Queensland destroyed banners and engaged in physical altercations with demonstrators who opposed the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur minority group and the violent response by Hong Kong police to prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong. Days after the incident, the Chinese mother of one protester was approached by a government official who inquired about their child’s loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Participants in subsequent demonstrations, especially those hailing from Hong Kong, expressed fears of foreign surveillance, and some wore masks in an effort to protect their identities.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 4

Generally, people in Australia may freely discuss personal views on sensitive topics, though the government passed a number of laws in recent years increasing its surveillance powers. A data retention law requires telecommunications companies to store users’ metadata for two years. The law sparked concerns about the government’s ability to track mobile and online communications. Some experts have warned of the potential for data breaches, and have argued that the law undermines civil liberties. In July 2019, the AFP disclosed that it accessed Australians’ metadata nearly 20,000 times, and reviewed the metadata of journalists 58 times during its 2017–18 reporting period.

In 2018, the government passed the Assistance and Access Act, which requires technology companies to provide law enforcement agencies with access to encrypted communications on grounds that include preventing terrorism and crime. Civil rights groups criticized the new law’s broad reach, relative lack of oversight, and steep fines for companies that do not comply. Vault Systems, an Australian provider of cloud services, warned in July 2019 that multinational companies were increasingly housing their data in other countries because of the legislation, when it submitted a brief during a review of the law.

Additionally, in August 2019, the High Court ruled against Michaela Banerji, who had been dismissed from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in 2013 in connection with a pseudonymous Twitter account in which she criticized government policies on immigration and the treatment of detainees. She had sued for wrongful dismissal.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4 4

Freedom of assembly is not explicitly codified in law, but the government generally respects the right to peaceful assembly. There are some limited restrictions meant to ensure public safety.

There has been concern in recent years about measures designed to discourage protests, however. In 2016, the New South Wales state government passed laws increasing potential fines for those protesting at mining sites. In November 2019, New South Wales enacted a state-level “right to farm” bill that instituted large fines for similar activity on farms; civil rights groups criticized the bill, warning that it could be used in other enclosed spaces including schools and hospitals.

Large environmental protests were held in several cities in 2019, with isolated incidents taking place during these assemblies. Environmental advocacy group Extinction Rebellion organized marches in the cities of Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne in late October. Police arrested 38 people in Sydney, several of whom were elderly. A teenage protester in Brisbane later reported that she and 20 others were strip-searched in a police station. A late October protest in Melbourne ended with over 20 activists being arrested, with protesters saying that police were overly aggressive in their efforts to break the demonstration. After protesters used “lock-on” devices to attach themselves to buildings during these protests, the Queensland state government hastily passed laws prohibiting their use, instituting fines and jail sentences for protesters found to be using them.

University students took part in a string of protests against the Chinese government’s treatment of its Uighur minority and the Hong Kong authorities’ response to ongoing prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong. While most participants were peaceful, pro-Chinese counterprotesters tried to disrupt a July 2019 demonstration at the University of Queensland. Police separated the two groups when prodemocracy protesters were physically attacked, but no arrests were made.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 4

NGOs are generally free to form, function, and receive funding. A bill intended to limit foreign interference in the political sphere was enacted in December 2018. Earlier versions of the bill, which banned foreign donations to political parties, also sought to limit donations to certain charities from foreign entities, which raised concerns that it would severely impact the ability of NGOs to function. However, after pressure from the Labor and Green parties, the bill was amended to specify that it does not apply to charities and advocacy groups.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 4

Workers can freely organize and bargain collectively, and trade unions actively engage in political debates and campaigns. However, strikes are only allowed when negotiating new union agreements, and may only pertain to issues under negotiation. In 2017, a High Court ruling prohibited organizations that had previously violated orders from the Fair Work Commission from holding strikes during negotiations. The court described the right to strike as a “privilege.”

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 4 4

The Australian judiciary is generally independent. However, a lengthy investigation in September and October 2019 by independent media outlet Crikey revealed that the Liberal–National government stacked the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), a body that reviews the merits of administrative decisions by government agencies, with individuals affiliated to the Liberal Party, including former candidates, donors, and party members.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 4

The right to due process is generally respected. Defendants and detainees are presumed innocent until proven guilty and can only be held for 24 hours without being charged for a crime, with exceptions for terrorism cases.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 4

Australia provides protection from the illegitimate use of force, and Australians have means to seek redress for harm. Prison conditions mostly meet international standards. However, conditions at numerous juvenile detention centers are substandard. Some children have instead been detained in adult prisons. In May 2019, an ABC investigative program reported on the practice of placing minor detainees in “watch houses,” maximum security facilities usually reserved for violent adult offenders.

The use of solitary confinement has become controversial, with the Victoria state ombudsman calling for the end of its use in September 2019. The ombudsman noted that children and adolescents were sometimes placed in solitary confinement.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 4

Indigenous Australians continue to lag behind other groups in key social and economic indicators, suffer higher rates of incarceration, and report routine mistreatment by police and prison officials. Indigenous children are placed in detention at a rate 26 times higher than that of nonindigenous children. Additionally, people with disabilities make up over half the prison population, and face harassment and violence in prisons.

Men and women have the same legal rights, and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited. In practice, women and LGBT+ people experience employment discrimination and harassment.

Religious exemptions within the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 allow for the expulsion of students and dismissal of teachers on the basis of their sexual orientation. While this power is rarely exercised, this act has sometimes been used to discriminate. In 2018, parts of a religious freedom report commissioned in 2017 were published, containing recommendations that schools retain the right to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Prime Minister Morrison faced pressure from rights groups to remove the exemptions and from religious groups to retain and bolster them. In response, Morrison unveiled a bill at the end of 2018, aimed at protecting LGBT+ students from discrimination.

The Liberal–National government spent much of 2019 drafting a bill meant to limit religious discrimination in Australian society. LGBT+ advocates objected to the draft, warning that the bill would allow health providers to deny treatment to LGBT+ patients for religious reasons. Equality Australia, an LGBT+ advocacy group, called on the government to introduce stronger hate speech legislation alongside the proposed bill in July. The NGO also warned that state-level antidiscrimination laws could be superseded by the federal bill. The bill’s second draft was unveiled in December 2019, and remained under consideration at year’s end.

Domestic and international condemnation of Australia’s harsh asylum and immigration policies persisted in 2019. Rights groups objected to the detention of refugees and asylum seekers in offshore facilities characterized by poor living conditions, inadequate safety for women and children, delays in processing applications, and a lack of sufficient healthcare and education services. The processing center on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea closed in 2017, and asylum seekers in offshore detention centers in Nauru have been increasingly transferred to Australia. The UN’s special rapporteurs on migrant rights called on the government to continue that practice, warning that the lack of medical care on Manus Island and Nauru amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment in a June 2019 statement. Despite this, Parliament repealed a law allowing offshore detainees to seek emergency medical care in Australia in December 2019, only ten months after it was enacted. Nearly 600 people remained in detention by late September 2019.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 4

The government respects the freedom of movement, and neither state nor nonstate actors interfere with the choice of residence, employment, or institution of higher education.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 4

With an open and free market economy, businesses and individuals enjoy a high level of economic freedom and strong protections for property rights.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 4

The government generally does not restrict social freedoms. In 2017, Parliament legalized same-sex marriage following a nationwide, nonbinding postal survey in which more than 60 percent of participants favored legalization. Same-sex couples have also won the right to adopt children at the state level, with the Northern Territory becoming the last state or territory to legalize LGBT+ adoption in 2018. Discrimination based on gender identity was prohibited under a 2013 amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984.

Violence against women remains a national concern, particularly for indigenous women. In addition, women who kill domestic abusers in self-defense are often jailed, with indigenous women representing the majority of this incarcerated group. In September 2019, the attorney general pledged that the government would legislate so that defendants claiming self-defense against their abusers can more easily submit evidence to support their claims in court.

Abortion law is decided by state and territory governments. New South Wales was the last state to decriminalize abortion when it overturned a 119-year old law in September 2019. Access to abortions is also proscribed in some states despite its legality, forcing women in those areas to seek assistance from private providers instead of public health systems.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 4

Australians generally enjoy robust economic opportunities and freedom from exploitation. However, indigenous people continue to face economic hardship. Census data from 2016 revealed that indigenous employment rates in remote areas declined since 2006, impeding their upward social mobility.

In 2018, Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act, requiring large businesses to be more transparent about potential slavery in their supply chains and to make efforts to address the problem. While the law, which took effect in early 2019, has been largely viewed favorably, some critics have noted that it fails to impose penalties for noncompliance.

On Australia

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  • Global Freedom Score

    97 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    77 100 free