Freedom in the World
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Prime Minister John Howard's conservative coalition won a third three-year term in November 2001 after taking tough action against illegal immigration and global terrorism. Trailing badly in opinion polls, Howard's popularity soared after his government turned away a ship in August that had rescued hundreds of boat people and later sent troops to aid the United States' military campaign in Afghanistan. While Howard's hard line on illegal immigration resonated among many rural and working class Australians, critics noted that it had not deterred more refugees from arriving. They also said it risked straining Australia's relations with its Asian and Pacific neighbors.
Claimed by the British in 1770 and settled by convicts, Australia gained independence in January 1901 as a commonwealth of six states. The government in 1911 adopted the Northern Territory and Canberra, the capital, as territorial units. Since World War II, political power has alternated between the left-leaning Labor Party and the conservative coalition of the Liberal Party and the smaller, rural-based National Party. Under Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating, Labor governments in the 1980s and early 1990s won five consecutive elections and helped transform a commodities-dependent, protected economy into a more open and competitive one. They privatized many firms, slashed tariffs, and deregulated financial markets. Keating in particular also promoted Australia as a multicultural society, sought to make amends for past wrongs to its Aboriginal minority, and encouraged his countrymen to see their economic futures as linked primarily to Asia rather than Europe and the United States.
Amid high unemployment and an economic slowdown, Howard led the Liberal-National coalition to victory at the 1996 parliamentary elections. In its first term, Howard's government aggressively promoted small- and medium-sized business interests, satisfied demands of farmers and miners by amending legislation to limit Aboriginal land claims, and tried to restrict trade union power. In a defining act, the government supported a stevedoring company's dismissal in 1998 of some 1,400 dock workers in one of Australia's largest labor disputes in decades. A court ultimately ordered the workers reinstated.
After winning reelection in October 1998, Howard's government carried out its main campaign pledge in July 1999 by introducing a goods and services tax (GST), which it partly offset with income and corporate tax cuts. Small-business owners, who tend to be Liberal-National supporters, complained of the cost and time needed to collect the new tax. Howard also angered mainstream Aboriginal leaders in 2000 by rejecting their long-standing demands for an official apology and some form of reparation for past abuses against Aborigines. These abuses include the forced removal of some 100,000 Aboriginal children from their parents under an official assimilation policy between 1910 and the early 1970s. At the same time, Howard ordered the Northern Territory to exempt juveniles from a 1997 mandatory sentencing law that critics said disproportionately affected Aborigines.
With Labor needing a national swing of less than one percent to unseat the coalition in the November 10, 2001 elections, the Liberal Party won 68 seats and the National Party 13 against 65 seats for Labor. Minor-party candidates and independents took the remaining four seats in the 150-seat lower house.
Howard, 62, won reelection by deftly turning illegal immigration and the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States into pressing national security issues. Support for the coalition increased after it sent a small contingent of troops to assist U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, pushed through parliament tough new laws against illegal immigrants, most of whom are Muslims, and began turning back boatloads of migrants and asylum seekers. That policy began in August, when the government turned away a ship carrying 433 people rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry. Labor leader Kim Beazley largely supported Howard's security policies while promising to boost spending on schools, universities, and hospitals and reform the highly unpopular GST.
The election came amid a fall in the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent in October from 7.1 percent in September. Gross domestic product grew at an annualized rate of 4.0 percent through the third quarter of 2001 after growing by 3.3 percent in 2000.
Australians can change their government through elections and enjoy a full range of basic rights. The 1900 constitution set up a directly elected bicameral parliament that currently consists of a 76-member senate and a 150-member house of representatives. In a November 1999 referendum, voters rejected a proposal to replace the queen of England as head of state with a president elected by parliament. Polls showed a majority of Australians favoring a republic, but with a directly elected president.
Australia's primary human rights problem involves discrimination and other abuses faced by its 399,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who make up roughly two percent of the population. Aborigines allegedly face discrimination and mistreatment by police and prison officials and are incarcerated at far higher rates than whites. Adult Aborigines make up 1.6 percent of Australia's adult population but 20 percent of the total prison population, according to a 2000 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Critics note that often Aborigines are imprisoned under mandatory sentencing laws for minor crimes. The mandatory sentencing law in the Northern Territory and a less draconian one in Western Australia "appear to target offenses that are committed disproportionately by indigenous Australians," the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) said in 2000.
Aboriginal leaders link Aboriginal crime, as well as high rates of domestic violence among Aborigines, to poverty, high unemployment, alleged economic and social discrimination, and inferior educational and health care opportunities. Compared with white Australians, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have life expectancies that are 20 years lower and infant mortality rates that are nearly twice as high. The government is generally responsive to these concerns and has introduced numerous remedial health care and education programs.
CERD in 2000 also criticized a 1998 legislative amendment that restricted Aboriginal claims to state-owned pastoral land. The Howard government countered that under the amended Native Title Act, 79 percent of Australian land is still subject to native-title claims. Parliament had amended the law at the behest of farmers and miners following a 1996 court ruling that Aborigines could claim native title to pastoral land leased by commercial users. The amended act still requires the government to compensate Aboriginal groups with valid claims to pastoral land.
Domestic and international human rights groups have criticized the government's practice of detaining anyone arriving in Australia illegally, including asylum seekers, pending resolution of their claims. While most cases are decided in a matter of weeks, a small number of asylum seekers are detained for years while their cases are on appeal. A parliamentary group that visited all six immigrant detention centers reported in June that they were "shocked" by the conditions in the facilities. The camps hold more than 2,000 people.
Social analysts and commentators estimate that domestic violence affects up to one family in three or four, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Australia's human rights record in 2000. Studies show that women earn only two-thirds to three-fourths of their male counterparts' wages, the report added.
Australian trade unions are independent and active, but recent legislation aimed at increasing the country's economic competitiveness has curbed their power and contributed to a decline in union rolls. The 1996 Workplace Relations Act encouraged the use of "workplace agreements" between management and individual employees that are subject to relatively few government regulations. These contracts are gradually replacing the previous system under which the federal and state governments handed down minimum-wage awards that were supplemented by industrywide or company-level bargaining. The 1996 act also banned closed shops, limited redress and compensation for unfair dismissal, tightened restrictions on secondary boycotts, and permitted workers to strike only while they were renegotiating their contracts. In 1999, however, a union successfully challenged this latter provision. The International Labor Organization recommended in 2000 that the government amend provisions of the act linking certain strikes to interference in trade and commerce and to ensure that workplace agreements do not undermine collective bargaining rights. Union membership slumped to about 25 percent of the workforce in 2001 from 40 percent in 1990.