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 First Nations Australians.
- To combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australian authorities enforced long, strict lockdowns at different times throughout the year. In some instances, restrictions like the closure of internal state and territory borders were implemented with little warning; in December, the border between Victoria and New South Wales was closed with just over a day’s notice, stranding many people who were visiting family for the holidays. Individuals who needed to cross state borders to access health care and other essential services had difficulty obtaining exemptions.
- In June, people inspired by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States gathered in several cities to protest the mistreatment of and systemic inequity faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In New South Wales, police forcefully dispersed peaceful protesters, including by using tear gas.
- In April, the High Court of Australia ruled that the 2019 warrant the Australian Federal Police (AFP) had used to raid Sunday Telegraph editor Annika Smethurst’s home was invalid. Smethurst had overseen the publication of a controversial piece covering leaked plans to expand the government’s spying powers; charges against her were dropped in May.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
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 electorate. 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 monarch of the United Kingdom (UK) as head of state. The powers of the monarchy are extremely limited. Retired general David Hurley was appointed governor-general in July 2019.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
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.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
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.
|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?||4.004 4.004|
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.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
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 the Liberals.
|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?||4.004 4.004|
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, have persisted for several years. Chinese actors have allegedly funded candidates and parties, and a 2020 AFP foreign interference investigation named some Chinese consular officials in their warrants. The government 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.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||4.004 4.004|
Political rights and electoral opportunities are granted to all Australians. However, the interests of women are inadequately represented, and women in Parliament have reported being intimidated and harassed by their male colleagues. 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 the requirement that voters hold a fixed address and a ban on voting by prisoners serving long sentences—disproportionately affect First Nations Australians, who are also underrepresented in Parliament. The lower house’s first Aboriginal man won a seat in 2010, and the first Aboriginal woman won a seat in 2016. The Australian government has considered reforms to strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s political voice, including a proposed representative body that would advise Parliament on policy matters that affect them. Prime Minister Morrison had dismissed the proposition in 2018, calling it a de facto third chamber of Parliament, even though it would not be constitutionally enshrined. The government formed a 19-member panel to consider the idea in November 2019.
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.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The freely elected government is generally able to develop and implement policy.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||4.004 4.004|
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.
Prime Minister Morrison has faced increasing pressure from independent legislators and the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Transparency International to create a federal equivalent. In late 2018, he proposed the creation of the Commonwealth Integrity Commission (CIC), which 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. Draft legislation to create the body was released in November 2020.
In early 2020, a report by the Australian National Audit Office revealed that, leading up to the 2019 election, the ruling Liberal–National coalition misappropriated A$100 million (US$75.5 million) by favoring safe and marginal coalition seats for funding for community sporting groups and omitting organizations in safe Labor or independent electorates that had as much, and in some cases more, merit. The Audit office found that the prime minister was implicated in the scandal, and in February, sports minister Bridget McKenzie resigned.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||4.004 4.004|
Government operations are characterized by a high degree of transparency, and political affairs are openly discussed in 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.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
Though the constitution does not explicitly protect press freedom, journalists scrutinize lawmakers and the government, covering controversial topics generally without serious obstacles or risk of harassment or violence.
However, the use of leaked government documents by the press prompted two controversial raids by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in June 2019. Police raided the publicly owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Sydney office after the broadcaster published in 2017 the “Afghan Files,” a series of stories based on leaked documents that focused on misconduct and unlawful killings by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. The ABC sued to block the review of the seized documents, though their case was dismissed in February 2020.
The day before the ABC raid, the AFP searched 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. In April 2020, the High Court of Australia ruled that the warrant relied upon by the AFP in the Smethurst raid was invalid, as it lacked basic details about the nature of the alleged offense. Although the High Court declined to prohibit the evidence produced by the search from use by prosecutors, the AFP subsequently confirmed that it would not pursue charges against Smethurst.
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. Victoria state prosecutors warned nearly 100 journalists with a February 2019 letter that reporting on the Pell case could result in contempt of court charges if their explanations for doing so 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 2019, and a trial commenced in the Victorian Supreme Court in November 2020. The prosecution dropped 13 charges against journalists and publications. Proceedings remained ongoing at the end of the year.
In July 2020, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission proposed a News Media Bargaining Code that would compel online platforms to pay news media companies for use of their content. Google and Facebook have strenuously opposed the proposed regulations, launching aggressive countercampaigns, and Facebook has threatened to remove all news from its Australian platforms if the code is adopted.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution explicitly prohibits laws that would either impose or restrict religious expression, and individuals are generally able to express religious beliefs or nonbelief.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally respected. However, in 2017, federal officials warned of Chinese attempts to monitor Chinese students in Australia, and to question academics in Australia whose views differed with those of the Chinese government. Some students have expressed fears of foreign surveillance, prompting them to wear masks while protesting Chinese government actions, so as to protect their identities. Some universities receive significant amounts of foreign funding, particularly from China, which has further raised concerns over Beijing’s influence on curriculums and university governance.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
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, the potential for data breaches, and potential violations of 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.
The 2018 Assistance and Access Act requires technology companies to provide law enforcement agencies 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.
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.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
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, and some incidents of police using excessive force against protesters have been reported.
Following the police killing of George Floyd in the United States in May, Black Lives Matter protests occurred in a number of Australian cities focusing on the treatment of First Nations Australians. In June, the New South Wales (NSW) Supreme Court ruled against protest organizers who sought a license to assemble despite coronavirus lockdown measures, though this was overturned by the NSW Court of Appeals shortly before the protest’s planned start. As people were leaving a BLM protest in Sydney that month, police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. In October, a Sydney University law professor observing peaceful student protests was knocked to the ground, arrested, and fined by police.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
NGOs are generally free to form, function, and receive funding. A 2018 bill intended to limit foreign interference in the political sphere 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.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
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.”
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
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 consciously worked to install individuals affiliated with the Liberal Party—including former candidates, donors, and party members—to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), a body that reviews the merits of administrative decisions by government agencies.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||4.004 4.004|
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.
People living in rural areas, and in particular Aboriginal people, face significant barriers to accessing the justice system. Judges, lawyers, and prosecutors must be flown into remote communities, providing little time to prepare cases or be briefed by clients. Courtrooms are often in ad hoc, repurposed buildings, and lengthy case dockets are a prominent issue. Judges travelling these circuits work large caseloads as a result of understaffing and underfunding, which could impact their health and their court decisions. Significant case backlogs cause individuals to wait years for their cases to be heard, which can place some, like those who have experienced domestic violence, in further danger.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||4.004 4.004|
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.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
First Nations 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. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are placed in detention at a rate 22 times higher than that of non-Aboriginal children. Additionally, people with disabilities make up almost one-third of 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. 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, which remained under consideration at the end 2020. LGBT+ advocates objected to the draft legislation, warning that the bill would allow health providers to deny treatment to LGBT+ patients for religious reasons. In July 2020, Equality Australia, an LGBT+ advocacy group, called on the government to introduce stronger hate speech legislation alongside the proposed bill. The NGO also warned that state-level antidiscrimination laws could be superseded by the federal legislation.
Australia’s harsh asylum and immigration policies continued to be enforced in 2020. 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, and a lack of sufficient healthcare and education services. Asylum seekers can wait years for their applications to be processed; in one severe case, a man seeking asylum from Sri Lanka who fled to Australia in 2009 was still being held in immigration detention at the end of 2020. 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 United Nations special rapporteurs on migrant rights called on the government to continue that practice, warning in a June 2019 statement that the lack of medical care on Manus Island and Nauru amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment. 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. At the end of 2020, hundreds of asylum seekers remained indefinitely detained in on- and offshore immigration detention.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the difficulties faced by asylum seekers and other temporary visa holders, who were denied access to the government’s welfare packages for those affected by the coronavirus. As a result, many temporary visa holders, including refugees, were forced to rely on food banks and charities to survive. Advocacy groups criticized their exclusion from the government’s coronavirus relief that placed temporary visa holders at greater risk of homelessness and destitution. In August, Multicultural Affairs Minister Alan Tudge said the government would “make no apology” for prioritizing Australian citizens and residents over temporary visa holders in allocating welfare.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
The government respects freedom of movement, and neither state nor nonstate actors interfere with the choice of residence, employment, or institution of higher education.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, some state and territory governments closed their internal borders at different times during the year. The process to obtain an exemption from travelling between states was difficult and often significantly delayed. Some who were reliant on cross-border services including access to employment or health care, suffered as a result of the closures. In December, the border between Victoria and New South Wales was closed with the public given just over a day’s warning, stranding many cross-border travelers who had visited family for the holidays.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
With an open and free market economy, businesses and individuals enjoy a high level of economic freedom and strong protections for property rights.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4.004 4.004|
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.
Gender-based violence remains a national concern, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. In addition, women who kill domestic abusers in self-defense are often jailed, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women representing the majority of this incarcerated group. In September 2019, the attorney general pledged that the government would pass legislation facilitating defendants’ ability to claim and submit evidence of self-defense in court. Following the brutal murder of a Queensland woman, Hannah Clarke, and her three children by Clarke’s estranged husband in February 2020, there were multiple calls to criminalize coercive control as part of the arsenal for combating domestic and intimate partner violence.
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.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Australians generally enjoy robust economic opportunities and freedom from exploitation. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to face economic hardship; Census data from 2016 revealed that 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.
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Global Freedom Score97 100 free
Internet Freedom Score76 100 free