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.
- In May, Anthony Albanese of the Labor Party was sworn in as prime minister following parliamentary elections that handed a major defeat to the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the Liberal Party.
- In August, it emerged that when he was prime minister, Morrison had secretly appointed himself to jointly lead five ministries between March 2020 and May 2021.
- In March, Western Australia reopened its interstate and international borders, becoming the country’s final state or territorial government to lift pandemic-related travel restrictions.
|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. Anthony Albanese, leader of the Labor Party, became prime minister after free and fair federal elections in May 2022. His predecessor, Scott Morrison of the Liberal Party, was the first prime minister to serve an uninterrupted three-year term since 2007. The 2010s saw the premiership frequently switch hands following “leadership coups” in which politicians within the major parties contested the party leadership and, in turn, the office of prime minister. This pattern drew criticism for failing to reflect the will of the electorate, and both Labor and the Liberals have reformed their internal rules to make leadership challenges more difficult.
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. David Hurley was appointed governor-general in 2019.
The September 2022 death of Queen Elizabeth II triggered debate about whether Australia should become a republic. Republican sentiment is divided in Australia, with polls in late 2022 showing between 40 and 46 percent of respondents supporting calls for an Australian head of state. Following the Australian Labor Party’s victory in the 2022 election, the Albanese government created a new post, assistant minister for the republic, fueling speculation that it might push for a referendum on the issue.
|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 2022 federal election saw the Labor Party returned to power after almost a decade in opposition after winning 77 seats in the House of Representatives, enough to form a single-party majority. The previous ruling coalition, composed of longtime partners the Liberal Party and the National Party, won less than 40 percent of seats in the lower house, losing 19 seats in the worst electoral defeat for Australian conservative parties in decades. Several senior Liberal Party figures, most notably Deputy Leader Josh Frydenberg, lost seats traditionally held safely by the party. Scott Morrison kept his seat, but was replaced as party leader soon after the election by Peter Dutton.
However, the coalition’s resounding defeat did not translate to a landslide victory for the Labor Party, with Independent candidates and the Greens gaining ground. Six lower house seats were claimed by so-called “teal Independents,” named for the color many of them used for their campaign signs, a loose association of mostly female Independent candidates. Many had no background in politics, but campaigned on transparency and climate and environmental issues. Teal candidates notably won some usually safe Liberal seats. Independent candidates who were not associated with the teal movement won four seats.
The Greens, a left-wing party traditionally aligned with Labor, won four seats in the lower house, an increase of three from the 2019 elections, while two minor parties, Centre Alliance and Katter’s Australian Party, won one seat each.
Forty seats in the Senate were filled in the same contest. Labor and the Liberal-National coalition each won 15 seats; the Greens won 6; and the remaining seats were divided between Independents and minor parties, with one going to the far-right One Nation Party. Turnout for the election stood at 89.8 percent.
On Election Day, the Liberal Party drew criticism for sending an SMS message to millions of voters detailing the interception of a boat carrying asylum seekers travelling to Australia. The SMS message urged voters to “keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today.” Asylum seekers, particularly those arriving unlawfully by boat, are a hot-button issue in Australian politics and the text message was widely viewed as a scare campaign. Correspondence released under freedom of information laws after the election revealed that the Morrison Government had pressured immigration officials to prepare and release a statement about the interception while events were still unfolding, and that officials described the request as “astonishing in form and timing.” and ”unprecedented.”
|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.
On Election Day in 2022, the Morrison government placed pressure on public servants working for Australian Border Force (ABF), part of the country’s immigration apparatus, to hastily release information about the interception of a Sri Lankan asylum seeker boat; the pressure and subsequent release of a Liberal Party SMS message about the situation appeared to be an attempt to influence the election.
Concerns about foreign interference in politics, particular from China, have persisted for several years. There have been allegations that Chinese actors, possibly including consular officials, have funded political candidates and parties. 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 people 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?||3.003 4.004|
Political rights and electoral opportunities are granted to all Australians. The interests of women are inadequately represented, but the results of the 2022 election offer cautious optimism that this situation is changing.
Following the election, 58 seats, or 38 percent of total seats, in the lower house were held by women, an increase of 10 from the previous parliament, and women made up a majority of the Australian Senate, holding 57 percent of its seats. A notable feature of the 2022 elections was the role played by female “teal Independent” candidates, who in several cases ousted male incumbents in seats long considered safe.
The Labor Party employs an internal quota specifying that 45 percent of its candidates must be women, a quota that will rise to 50 percent by 2025). A majority—52 of 103—of the members of the Labor Party’s federal caucus are women. By contrast, the Liberal Party has long resisted calls to introduce a gender quota system, and Liberal leader Peter Dutton and National Party leader David Littleproud again ruled out introducing quotas in 2022.
Women in parliament have reported being intimidated and harassed by their male colleagues. A November 2021 report by Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, found that a third of federal political staffers experienced sexual harassment at work. That same year, a series of high-profile sexual assault allegations emerged, corroborating the commissioner’s report and highlighting the misogyny and physical endangerment women in Australian politics face. One of those cases was the alleged 2019 rape of Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins by a colleague in the office of the defense minister at the time, Linda Reynolds, in 2019. Higgins accused the Liberal Party of covering up the story and leaking her personal information to journalists in an attempt to undermine her credibility. Higgins’s alleged rapist, Bruce Lehrmann, was charged but, in October 2022, his trial before the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory was aborted due to juror misconduct. A retrial, scheduled for February 2023, was abandoned by the prosecution, citing the impact that retestifying was likely to have on Higgins’s mental health. Both Higgins and Lehrmann foreshadowed further legal proceedings in relation to the way the trial was handled and the surrounding media coverage.
The May 2022 elections resulted in improvements in the gender and racial diversity of Australia’s Parliament, with successful candidates including Independent representative Dai Le, a journalist and former Vietnamese refugee, and Labor senator Fatima Payman, the daughter of an Afghan Hazara refugee, who became Australia’s first hijab-wearing Muslim parliamentarian. However, Parliament remains disproportionately White compared to the make-up of Australia‘s population. Openly LGBT+ representatives have served in Parliament since the 1990s.
Indigenous Australians are generally underrepresented in Australian politics and some voting restrictions—including the requirement that voters hold a fixed address and a ban on voting by prisoners serving long sentences—disproportionately affect Indigenous populations. However, the 2022 elections brought the total number of sitting Indigenous legislators to 11, bringing the proportion of First Nations parliamentarians—4.8 percent—above the proportion of Indigenous Australians as part of the Australian population—3.3 percent.
After forming its government in 2022, the Labor Party pledged to hold a referendum by mid-2024 about constitutionally enshrining an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, a body that would advise Parliament on policy matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Text of the proposed constitutional reform was released in July 2022.
|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 has made enforcement more difficult. All states and territories operate local anticorruption bodies.
After coming to power in 2022, Labor introduced legislation to create a National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), which passed the House of Representatives and the Senate in late November. The NACC will have retrospective powers to investigate a broad range of conduct by public officials. Though the NACC’s inclusive definition of corrupt conduct received praise, other elements received criticism from some legislators and transparency experts, notably the fact that the legislation as drafted only allows for public hearings in exceptional circumstances.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 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 (FOI) 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 FOI requests.
In August 2022, it emerged in a series of reports that, while serving as prime minister, Scott Morrison had secretly appointed himself cominister of five portfolios between March 2020 and May 2021. In addition to the premiership, Morrison was jointly serving as minister of health, minister of finance, minister of industry, science, energy and resources (ISER), treasurer, and minister of home affairs—giving him power over 6 of the 14 departments of state. Morrison justified his self-appointments as a contingency plan should the responsible ministers contract COVID-19. Morrison denied ever exercising the powers granted by the secret appointments except in one case where he intervened in an offshore gas exploration matter.
There was significant criticism, from both the media and political class, of Morrison’s conduct, including of his justification for the self-appointments and the secrecy surrounding them. Notably, three of Morrison’s own cabinet ministers were unaware he had appointed himself to their portfolios; one of those former ministers, Karen Andrews, who had unknowingly jointly administered the home affairs ministry with Morrison, publicly called for him to resign from Parliament over the scandal.
While legal advice given to the Albanaese government by the Australian solicitor general found that Morrison’s self-appointments were valid and had not breached any laws, it also found that Morrison’s secrecy over the appointments was inconsistent with the constitutional principle of responsible government. The advice noted that, because Morrison’s appointment was not publicly known, and because Morrison was legally and politically responsible for the administration of the departments within his ministerial remit, there was no means by which he could be held accountable for any actions he took or did not take. Following the November publication of a scathing report into the self-appointments by former High Court justice Virginia Bell, Morrison became the first former Australian prime minister to be censured by Parliament.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to the revelation that former prime minister Scott Morrison had secretly granted himself concurrent responsibility for five separate ministries during his premiership, and that the practice was evidently permissible under existing law.
CIVIL LIBERTIES 57 / 60 (+1)
|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. Members of the press have been constricted by the use of judicial suppression orders while covering criminal cases.
In February 2021, the government passed the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, which established a mandatory arbitration regime for digital platforms, such as Facebook and Google, to negotiate with and ultimately pay news outlets for using their content. The code has been criticized for potentially weakening media diversity, but by August 2022, it had resulted in an additional AU$200 million ($138 million) in revenue for Australian news outlets arising from deals they struck with global platforms. The increase in revenue has been used to fund new hiring at some outlets.
Public figures, including politicians, regularly sue journalists or members of the public for defamation for publishing unfavorable stories or other content about them, particularly online. In a recent example, the Federal Court of Australia ordered in June 2022 that Google pay former deputy premier of New South Wales John Barilaro AU$715,000 ($493,000) in damages after popular blogger Jordan Shanks-Markovina posted videos on YouTube found to be defamatory toward Barilaro.
|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, federal officials have in the past warned of Chinese attempts to monitor Chinese students in Australia, and to question academics in Australia whose views differed from those of the Chinese government. Some students have expressed fears of foreign surveillance, prompting them to wear masks to protect their identities while protesting Chinese government actions. 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 has passed several laws in recent years increasing its surveillance powers. A data retention law requires telecommunications companies to store users’ metadata for two years and has raised concerns about the government’s ability to track mobile and online communications. In 2019, the Australian Federal Police (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 late 2021, the Surveillance Legislation Amendment (Identify and Disrupt) Act 2021 was enacted, granting the AFP and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission broad surveillance powers, including powers to take over user accounts and disrupt user activity. Rights groups have criticized the laws as overly broad with insufficient safeguards.
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 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 2019 that multinational companies were increasingly housing their data in other countries because of the legislation.
|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. Although public health measures imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021 constrained the right to assembly, these measures were progressively wound back in 2022. A series of violent protests against vaccination mandates and lockdown restrictions occurred in the country’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, in the second half of 2021.
|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. Advocacy groups and charities are exempt from restrictions on donations by certain foreign entities, which were introduced in 2018.
|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, although strikes and other forms of industrial action are not uncommon in Australia. Throughout 2022, the metropolitan train network of Sydney, Australia’s largest city, was frequently disrupted due to ongoing disputes between the rail union and the New South Wales state government.
While there are no formal restrictions on workers’ rights to organize, in practice, policies from successive governments have contributed to plummetting union membership. By the end of 2022, only 12.5 percent of Australian workers were union members, compared to 41 percent in 1992.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The Australian judiciary is generally independent, although a lengthy investigation in 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. Just prior to the 2022 election, the Morrison government extended the terms of a number of Liberal Party–affiliated members of the AAT for periods of up to seven years, even though many of these members had over a year left in their existing terms. The Albanese government announced in December 2022 that the AAT would be abolished and replaced by a new merits review body in 2023.
The judiciary, particularly in the higher-level courts, tends to lack diversity among its members, and many appointed judges come from prominent legal families.
|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 traveling these circuits work large caseloads due to 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.
Authorities shifted court proceedings to be held online during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to increased availability of court and registry services and resources. The greater flexibility offered by virtual hearings and services has, to a degree, increased access to the justice system in rural areas.
|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 2019, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) investigative program reported on the practice of placing minors in “watch houses,” maximum security facilities usually reserved for violent adult offenders.
|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, although these exemptions are rarely invoked.
Australia’s harsh asylum and immigration policies continued to be enforced in 2022. The government announced in October 2021 that it would cease detaining asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea (PNG) by December, transferring the refugees there either to its other offshore detention facility in Nauru—which is characterized by poor living conditions, inadequate safety for women and children, and a lack of sufficient healthcare and education services—or to the Papuan government. As of September 2022, approximately 111 refugees were in detention on Nauru. 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 through at least the end of 2020. The Albanese government had indicated in its election campaigning that it would grant eligible refugees permanent visa status, and abolish Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs), which expired after three years and five years, respectively. In December 2022, the Albanese government announced that in early 2023, 19,000 refugees would be transitioned to permanent protection visas, granting them rights to social security and reunion with family members.
|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 in 2020 and 2021, some state and territory governments periodically closed their internal borders. The process to obtain an exemption for traveling between states was difficult and often significantly delayed. Some people who rely on services including employment or health care across state borders were unable to access these services due to the closures. Some states closed their borders with little notice, and some jurisdictions with lower rates of COVID-19 transmission, particularly Queensland and Western Australia, maintained a hardline stance on internal borders throughout 2021, despite low transmission rates of the virus and high vaccination rates.
Queensland reopened its borders to interstate and international travelers in January 2022, and Western Australia followed suit in March, and since then, no state or territory has reimposed pandemic-related border closures in response to the pandemic.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because the last border closures imposed by state or territorial governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were lifted, restoring the freedom of internal travel.
|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 (GBV) 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 November 2022, the New South Wales state parliament passed a law criminalizing coercive control in intimate partner relationships, with penalties of up to seven years in prison.
Abortion law is decided by state and territory governments. New South Wales was the last state to decriminalize abortion in 2019. In some states there is no access to abortion through public health systems despite its legality, forcing people in those areas to seek assistance from private providers.
|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 has been largely viewed favorably, some critics have noted that it fails to impose penalties for noncompliance.
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Global Freedom Score95 100 free
Internet Freedom Score76 100 free