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An October terrorist bombing in Indonesia that killed scores of Australian vacationers underscored Australia's vulnerability to Islamic militancy. Coming as the government mulled how many troops to contribute to a potential U.S.-led war against Iraq, the attack on the resort island of Bali left some Australians questioning the human costs of being a staunch U.S. ally in the campaign against terrorism. The economy, meanwhile, rode out the global downturn in 2002 despite a crop-killing drought that gripped much of the country.
Claimed by the British in 1770, and settled in good part by convicts, Australia gained independence in 1901 as a commonwealth of six states. The sparsely populated Northern Territory and Canberra, the capital, were adopted in 1911 as territorial units. Since World War II, political power in this parliamentary democracy has alternated between the center-left 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 straight elections as they worked to sharpen the competitiveness of what had been a protected, commodities-dependent economy. They slashed tariffs, privatized many firms, and deregulated financial markets.
The Liberal and National parties capitalized on discontent with high unemployment and an economic recession to oust Labor in the 1996 elections. Since then, their coalition government has been reelected twice. Led by John Howard, 63, the conservative coalition has introduced a goods-and-services tax, championed small- and medium-sized business interests, and tried to restrict trade union power.
Aside from labor relations, the Howard government has most visibly shifted Australian politics to the right on the cultural issues of Aboriginal rights and immigration. In its first term, the government amended legislation to limit Aboriginal land claims at the behest of farmers and miners.
Howard has also angered mainstream Aboriginal leaders 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, however, Howard ordered the Northern Territory, which is under federal control, to exempt juveniles from a 1997 mandatory sentencing law that critics said disproportionately affected Aborigines.
The Liberal-National coalition's third straight election victory, in November 2001, came after Howard deftly turned illegal immigration and the September terrorist attacks in the United States into pressing national security issues. With the election up for grabs, support for the coalition surged after the government sent a small contingent of troops to assist U.S. forces in Afghanistan; pushed through parliament tough new laws against illegal immigrants, most of whom are Muslims; and ordered the navy to send boats carrying immigrants and asylum seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea for refugee processing. The Liberal Party won 68 seats and the National Party took 13, while Labor managed only 65. Minor-party candidates and independents took the remaining 4 seats in the 150-seat lower house.
The Bali bombing may come to be seen as yet another coming-of-age moment for a country that has borne heavy costs for its engagement abroad ever since the ill-fated Gallipoli landing during World War I. Attributed to Islamic militants, the Bali attack killed some 90 Australians, and around 190 people overall.
Australia's economy continued to be one of the most buoyant among first world countries, growing at a 3.7 percent annual rate in the third quarter compared with a year earlier. However, a drought that some called the worst in a century could knock off up to one percentage point from Australia's economic growth in 2003, analysts said late in the year.
Australians can change their government through elections, and they enjoy a full range of basic rights. The 1900 constitution created the directly elected parliament, which currently consists of the 76-member Senate and the 150-member House of Representatives. In a 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 with a directly elected president.
Australia's primary human rights concern involves alleged discrimination and other abuses against its 399,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who make up roughly 2 percent of the population. Despite government initiatives, Aborigines face "inferior access to medical and educational institutions, greatly reduced life expectancy rates, elevated levels of unemployment, and general discrimination," according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. Aborigines say that they are also routinely mistreated and discriminated against by police and prison officials.
Moreover, Aborigines were jailed nationwide at a rate 14 times higher than that of whites in 1999, according to a 2001 report by the Australian Institute of Criminology. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) says that a mandatory sentencing law in the state of Western Australia seems to target petty offenses that are disproportionately committed by Aborigines.
Aboriginal leaders link Aboriginal crime, as well as high rates of domestic violence among Aborigines, to poverty, high unemployment, alleged discrimination, and inferior job and schooling opportunities. Recent governments have generally been responsive to these concerns and have introduced numerous health care and educational programs for Aborigines.
Meanwhile, Aboriginal leaders said that a December High Court ruling in a land claim case created a strict standard of evidence that would make it harder for Aborigines to gain title to ancestral lands. The court upheld a lower court rejection of an Aboriginal land claim on the grounds that the applicants failed to meet their burden, under Australia's Native Title Act, of proving a continuous link to the land before white settlers kicked them off.
Australia's immigration policies have also come under international scrutiny. Domestic and international human rights groups have criticized the government's practices of redirecting emigrants intercepted at sea to Pacific island-states for processing and of detaining nearly all illegal immigrants, including political asylum seekers, pending resolution of their claims. Most asylum cases are decided within weeks, but a small number of asylum seekers are detained for years while their cases are on appeal. Detainees in camps at Curtin and Woomera rioted and staged hunger strikes in 2002.
Domestic violence affects up to one Australian family in three or four, according to social analysts. Various studies put women's earnings at anywhere from 66 to 85 percent, on average, of their male counterparts' wages.
Australian trade unions are independent and vigorous. A recent law, however, has contributed to a decline in union rolls and power by promoting enterprise-level or even individual employment contracts that are subject to relatively few governmental regulations. By contrast, the federal and state governments traditionally have handed down minimum wage awards that were supplemented by industry or company-level bargaining. The law, the 1996 Workplace Relations Act, also banned closed shops, tightened restrictions on secondary boycotts, and limited redress and compensation for unfair dismissal. Union membership has slumped to about 25 percent of the workforce in 2001 from 40 percent in 1990.