Freedom in the World
Australia has a strong, long-standing record of advancing and protecting political rights and civil liberties. However, the country continued to face criticism in 2015 from prominent domestic and international organizations for failing to meet its obligations toward asylum seekers. Additionally, the continued expansion of antiterrorism legislation raised questions about the government’s respect for fundamental freedoms.
Political Rights: 40 / 40 (+1) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
A governor general, appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister, represents the British monarch as head of state. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament.
Voting is compulsory, and citizens participate in free and fair multiparty elections to choose representatives for the bicameral Parliament. The Senate, the upper house, has 76 seats, with 12 senators from each of the six states and two from each of the two mainland territories. Half of the state members, who serve six-year terms, are up for election every three years; all territory members are elected every three years. All 150 members of the House of Representatives, the lower house, are elected by popular preferential voting to serve three-year terms, and no state can have fewer than five representatives.
The most recent parliamentary elections were held in 2013. The Liberal Party/National Party coalition took 90 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives. The Australian Labor Party won 55 seats, while smaller parties captured the rest. Of the 40 seats up for election in the Senate, the Liberal coalition took 17, bringing its total to 33; Labor captured 12 for a total of 31; the Green Party took 4 for a total of 9; and smaller parties won the rest. Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party took office as prime minister, replacing Kevin Rudd of Labor.
In September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull successfully challenged Abbott for the leadership of the governing Liberal Party, winning a parliamentary vote and replacing Abbott as prime minister. Turnbull took office with promises of a change in the style of governance, with more thorough cabinet consultation and transparency—two areas in which the Abbott administration had been widely criticized.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 16 / 16 (+1)
Political power alternates between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party/National Party coalition. The Green Party and smaller left-leaning parties tend to ally with Labor, while some rural-oriented and conservative parties often ally with the Liberals. Registration and continuing recognition as a political party require a party constitution and either one member in Parliament or 500 members on the electoral roll.
Australia’s indigenous communities continue to fight for a greater voice in politics. Some voting restrictions—including the requirement of a fixed address and a ban on voting by prisoners serving a sentence of longer than three years—disproportionately affect indigenous peoples. In 2015, there were three indigenous legislators serving at the federal level; the first indigenous woman was elected to Parliament in 2013. In 2010, the Australian Election Commission established a special program to enhance the political participation of indigenous people, including by providing education about the electoral process and encouraging voting.
C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12
Anticorruption mechanisms operate at all levels of government, and laws against corruption by officials are effectively enforced. Australia was ranked 13 out of 168 countries and territories in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. A high degree of transparency and accountability prevails in the functioning of government. Policies and initiatives are openly discussed, examined, and criticized in Parliament and the media.
Civil Liberties: 58 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16
While the constitution does not explicitly protect freedoms of speech and the press, individuals and the media freely criticize the government without reprisal. Some laws restrict the publication and dissemination of material that promotes or incites terrorist acts. Ownership of private print media is highly concentrated, but there are many online, television, and radio news and entertainment outlets, both private and public. The government does not generally restrict access to the internet.
Religious and academic freedoms are generally respected. Private discussion is open and vibrant.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12
Freedoms of assembly and association are not explicitly codified in law, but the government respects these rights in practice. Workers can organize and bargain collectively.
F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16
The judiciary is independent, and prison conditions generally meet international standards. Antiterrorism laws have tightened since 2001. Legislation enacted in 2005, with a 10-year sunset clause, allows police to detain suspects without charge and includes “shoot to kill” provisions, the criminalization of violence against the public and Australian troops overseas, and authorization for the limited use of soldiers to meet terrorist threats on domestic soil. Legal scholars and opponents of antiterrorism laws continue to question whether these measures are needed and effective. Australian immigration services have expanded the use of biometric data in the collection of fingerprints and facial images since 2011, with emphasis on individuals from countries deemed a high risk because of the presence of Islamist extremism.
Antiterrorism measures passed by Parliament in 2014 included provisions for the designation of “no-go zones” around the world. Australians traveling to such areas may be required upon return to show that they had not participated in terrorist activity. Individuals who travel to such areas without a “legitimate” reason—which include visiting family members or engaging in humanitarian work—can face up to 10 years in prison.
Further antiterrorism legislation was passed in 2015. A law adopted in December allows the government to revoke the Australian citizenship of dual nationals who engage in terrorist activities abroad or are convicted of terrorism in Australia. A bill passed in March requires internet and mobile phone providers to store users’ metadata for two years. Broad exceptions for third-party platforms and internal corporate and university networks raised questions about the law’s effectiveness. The legislation also prompted backlash from Australian privacy advocates, who argued that it enables mass surveillance disproportionate to the threat of terrorism, as well as from media freedom advocates, who criticized it for jeopardizing the ability of journalists to converse securely with sources.
Australia’s immigration and asylum policies continued to draw domestic and international condemnation in 2015, particularly in regard to the housing and vetting of asylum seekers at processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Reports of poor living conditions, inadequate safety for women and children, lengthy delays in processing applications, and lack of sufficient healthcare and education services continued during the year. In a March 2015 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture stated that Australia’s handling of asylum seekers violated the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In August, the Senate published the findings of its inquiry into conditions in the Nauru facility; the report concluded that conditions at the center are inadequate and unsafe, and urged the government to remove children from all facilities in general, citing evidence of physical and sexual abuse, as well as mental trauma caused by detention.
In 2014, Australia signed a memorandum of understanding with Cambodia to relocate detainees from Nauru to Phnom Penh on a voluntary basis. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) condemned the agreement for simply shifting responsibility from one country to another, and others denounced it on the basis of Cambodia’s poor human rights record and lack of resources. In June 2015, the first four refugees to accept the relocation offer arrived in Cambodia.
The Australian Border Force Act, passed by Parliament in May, included binding secrecy and nondisclosure requirements that critics argued could prohibit workers at offshore detention centers from publicly raising concerns about the treatment of refugees, among other things. Although the government claimed that whistleblower protection law would mitigate the new law’s restrictions and allow workers to divulge information in line with their duties, opponents maintained that exceptions as well as discrepancies in the coverage areas of the two laws would leave workers vulnerable.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16
Citizens and legal residents in Australia enjoy the right to move freely and choose their own residence. With an open and free market economy, the country has a high level of economic freedom for businesses and individuals. Australia was ranked fourth in the world in the 2016 Index of Economic Freedom due to a stable monetary policy, prudent banking regulations, and protections for property rights.
Aboriginal peoples comprise approximately two percent of the population. Lagging considerably behind other groups in key social and economic indicators, they also suffer higher rates of incarceration, are more frequently involved in violent crimes, and report routine mistreatment by police and prison officials.
Women enjoy equal rights and are gaining greater parity in pay and promotion in public and private sector jobs. However, violence against women remains a problem, particularly for indigenous women. The military opened combat positions to women in 2012. In 2012, the government officially apologized to victims of homophobia, sexual predation, and rape in the military after a government-commissioned study found more than 1,000 claims dating back to the 1950s. In 2013, the government apologized for a policy that forced unmarried mothers to allow their babies to be adopted by childless couples. The policy lasted into the 1970s; thousands or tens of thousands of such forced adoptions are believed to have taken place.
An amendment to the Federal Marriage Act in 2004 defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but same-sex couples in de facto unions are afforded many of the same benefits that legally married couples receive. There were several attempts to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015, including through a cross-party bill introduced in August. While no legislative changes were made by year’s end, the topic received considerable discussion, and some legislators voiced support for a referendum on the issue. Gay men and lesbians can serve in the military.
Australia is a destination country for victims of trafficking for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. The government funds a support program for victims, and in 2015 began implementing a five-year action plan to combat human trafficking and slavery.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year