Freedom in the World
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Prime Minister John Howard called for a new election in October 2004 to fend off challenges from the Labor Party's Mark Latham, who took over the party leadership in December 2003.. Latham's vocal attacks against the government's decision to send troops to join the U.S.-led Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq and the government's close relationship with U.S. president George W. Bush and his administration found considerable resonance with public sentiments. The Howard government's close alliance with the United States became the major difference between Labor and the Liberal Party.
Britain claimed Australia as a colony in 1770. The country became independent in 1901 as a commonwealth of six states. In 1911, the government adopted the Northern Territories and the capital territory of Canberra as territorial units. Since World War II, political power has alternated between the center-left Labor Party and a conservative coalition of the Liberal Party and the smaller, rural-based National Party. The Liberal and National Parties capitalized on discontent with high unemployment and an economic recession to oust Labor in the 1996 parliamentary elections; Howard, of the ruling Liberal Party/National Party coalition, has been prime minister since that year. In the November 2001 parliamentary poll, the Liberal Party won 68 seats and the National Party took 13 seats, while Labor managed to secure 65 seats.
The government has tightened immigration laws in recent years to curb illegal immigration. There is considerable public support for these new measures despite international criticism and challenges by some human rights advocates. The government affirmed its "Pacific Solution" policy of using detention centers in neighboring states to hold illegal immigrants and screen those eligible for refugee status. In May 2004, the government announced that it will continue to use detention centers in Nauru to hold Afghans and other nationals who tried to enter Australia illegally by stowing away on merchant ships and using human traffickers. Nevertheless, the government granted refugee status to a number of persons who do not have third-country options and gave permanent residency to about 700 East Timorese asylum seekers in 2003. Concerns about the threat of rising sea levels as a result of global climate change on Nauru, a former Australian trust territory, led the government to commission a paper in December 2003 to consider offering Australian citizenship to Nauru's 10,000 people.
Australia has been active regionally in promoting peace, restoring rule of law, and strengthening democratic governance. The government is worried that weakened states in the South Pacific, where corruption and abuse are widespread and governments unstable, would be vulnerable to terrorist activity. This "arc of instability" north of Australia includes Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Fiji. Australia signed antiterrorism accords with Fiji, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand in 2002 and 2003. The treaties commit these countries to increasing cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence, and information sharing, and in other initiatives to disrupt terrorists and their financial backers.
Since a ceasefire was reached in Bougainville in 1998, Australia has sent 3,500 military personnel and 300 monitors to Papua New Guinea. Australia also sent troops, police, and other personnel to the Solomon Islands in July 2003 to lead a multinational force to restore law and order after years of ethnic warfare. The Australia-funded Pacific Transnational Crime Center opened in Fiji in June 2004 to provide police and judicial training for several Pacific island nations.
Australia is a constitutional democracy with a federal parliamentary form of government. Citizens participate in free and fair multiparty elections to choose representatives to the parliament. However, Aboriginal people are underrepresented at all levels of political leadership.
Australia is regarded as one of the least corrupt societies in the world and was ranked 9 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution does not provide for freedom of speech and of the press, but citizens and the media freely criticize the government without reprisal. In a rare instance of government intervention, the government announced in March 2003 that it monitored and blocked e-mail messages sent to its troops in Iraq. Electronic mail messages that were "negative, inappropriate, and not supportive" were blocked to protect the morale of Australian troops involved in the U.S.-led military action to oust the Iraqi regime.
Freedom of religion is respected, as is academic freedom.
The rights of assembly and association are not codified in law, but the government respects these rights in practice. Canberra's decision to send 2,000 troops to Iraq sparked sharp public debates and antiwar protests in many larger cities. Workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively, but the Federal Workplace Relations Act of 1996 abolished closed shops and union demarcations among other restrictions. Critics say this law makes it more difficult for unions to get into workplaces and organize workers.
The judiciary is independent, and prison conditions are generally good by international standards. Allegations of abuse by guards at the Port Hedland Detention Center in Western Australia after a riot there in November 2003 will be investigated by Australia's Commonwealth Ombudsman.
Australia began to tighten its immigration policy following a marked increase in illegal immigrants, mostly from the Middle East, between 1998 and 2001. In one instance, more than 430 mainly Afghan refugees tried to sail to Australia in 2001. Canberra refused to grant them entry when a Norwegian commercial freighter that had rescued them in the Indian Ocean tried to turn them over to Australia. Canberra transferred the refugees to Australian-funded refugee holding facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Many people, particularly legal immigrants, complained that such boat refugees are "queue jumpers." The government cited this complaint as a reason for the Migration Amendment Bill in 2001. This law bars noncitizens from applying for a "permanent protection visa" - which allows a person to live and work permanently in Australia as a refugee - if entry was unlawful and occurred in one of several "excised" territories along the country's northern arc: Christmas Island, Ashmore and Cartier Islands, the Cocos Islands, and resource installations designated by the government. All such foreign nationals would be detained and only released pending full adjudication of their asylum claim.
The Aboriginal population suffers general discrimination, reflected by a disproportionately high level of unemployment (three times that of the general population), inferior access to medical care and education, imprisonment rates 15 times higher than that of the general population, and a life expectancy 20 years shorter than that for the non-indigenous population. They complain of routine mistreatment and discrimination by police and prison officials.
Aboriginal groups have called for an official apology for the "Stolen Generation" of Aboriginal children who were taken from their parents by the government from 1910 until the early 1970s and raised by foster parents and in orphanages. Government officials have stood firm against such an apology, reasoning that the present generation has no responsibility to apologize for the wrongs of a previous generation.
In 2004, the government announced abolishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Canberra said that ATSIC, the representative organization for Aborigines, was a failure and that advisors will instead be appointed to advise the government.
Although women enjoy equal rights and freedoms, violence against women is a problem, particularly within the Aboriginal population.