Freedom in the World
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The Australian government's handling of illegal immigrants continued to create political headlines during the year, while legal migration requirements were relaxed and quotas were greatly increased for 2005-2006. Two political asylum cases involving Chinese nationals stirred controversy at home and tensions with China. Meanwhile, the government's new antiterrorism and labor laws sparked intense domestic political debates.
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 Labour Party and a conservative coalition of the Liberal Party and the smaller, rural-based National Party. John Howard of the ruling Liberal Party-National Party coalition has been prime minister since 1996. Howard and his Liberal/National coalition again defeated Labour in the parliamentary elections of October 2004 with the help of a strong economy.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of illegal migrants, some claiming to come in small boats from as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Australia now has 900 detainees in its immigration camps, including 60 children. Canberra has introduced more stringent measures, for example, placing illegal migrants in detention camps and adopting more rigorous screening to establish asylum claims. This policy has won considerable public support, particularly among legal migrants, who have complained that boat refugees are "queue jumpers." However, human rights advocates at home and overseas have alleged wrongful detention and deportation. In June 2005, the government amended asylum laws to address some of the most controversial aspects of its policies. For example, families with children will be freed from detention while their asylum claims are processed. With regard to legal migrants, the government expanded quotas by 140,000 persons for 2005-2006-the largest increase in 35 years-and even relaxed rules on English proficiency and age to meet the labor demand of a booming economy.
The government's concern about Muslim extremism and its connection to terrorism led to the opening of dialogues with moderate Muslim groups in 2005. In August, moderate Muslim leaders formed the first Muslim political party, the Best Party of Allah, to provide a national voice for Muslim. At the same time, the government said that it would work to keep mosques and Islamic schools from preaching or teaching anti-Australian materials and would monitor organizations for funding terrorists. Meanwhile, many of the approximately 350,000 Muslims residing in Australia are said to feel increasingly alienated.
The government's handling of two political asylum cases involving Chinese nationals caused controversy at home and tensions with China. A former Chinese police officer and a Chinese diplomat with the Chinese consulate general in Sydney sought asylum in February and May, respectively. The former claimed to have information about abuse and torture of dissidents in China; the latter professed knowledge of a large Chinese spy network in Australia. Canberra was slow to respond to their petitions for fear of creating diplomatic tensions with Beijing. Eventually, Canberra granted both individuals protection visas after the opposition criticized the government of mishandling their cases and national security.
Australia continues to be active in promoting peace, restoring rule of law, improving governance, and countering terrorism in the region. Canberra is particularly worried that weakened states in the South Pacific, particularly the "arc of instability" that stretches across Papua New Guinea (PNG), Vanuatu, and Fiji, will be vulnerable to terrorist activity. Australia has sent nearly 4,000 soldiers and monitors to PNG since a ceasefire was reached in Bougainville in 1998. In December 2004, Australia committed $600 million and troops to help reform the PNG army. Australian troops were deployed to the Solomon Islands in July 2003 to lead a multinational force to restore law and order after years of ethnic warfare. Australia also sent troops, police, and other personnel to the Australia-funded Pacific Transnational Crime Center in Fiji to provide law enforcement and judicial training for Pacific island nations.
Australians can change their government democratically. The head of state is the British monarch, who appoints a governor-general to represent her in Australia. The governor-general is chosen at the recommendation of the prime minister, who is the leader of the majority party or leader of a major coalition. The governor-general has the responsibility of swearing in the prime minister when a new government is formed.
Citizens participate in free and fair multiparty elections to choose representatives to the parliament, and voting is compulsory. There are two houses of parliament, the Senate and House of Representatives. The Senate has 72 seats, in which 12 representatives come from each of the six states and 2 from each of the mainland territories. Half of the state members are elected once every three years by popular vote to six-year terms. All territory members are elected once every three years. The House of Representatives has 150 seats. All members are elected by popular preferential voting to serve up to three years. No state can have fewer than five representatives. The Liberal and Labour parties are the two major parties. Other parties are the National Party, the Green Party, and the Family First Party.
Australia is regarded as one of the least corrupt societies in the world and was ranked 9 out of 159 countries surveyed in the 2005 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 that were "negative, inappropriate, and not supportive" in order to protect the morale of Australian troops involved in the U.S.-led military coalition.
Freedom of religion is respected, as is academic freedom.
Although the rights of assembly and association are not codified in law, the government respects these rights in practice. Workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively. However, critics charge that the Federal Workplace Relations Act of 1996, which abolished closed shops and union demarcations, among other restrictions, makes it more difficult for unions to get into workplaces and organize workers. New labor laws approved on November 30, 2005, abolish centralized wage agreements and make holidays, meal breaks, and work hours negotiable, while companies with fewer than 100 employees are exempted from unfair dismissal laws. While critics maintain that the new laws will cut the negotiation power of trade unions in favor of individual contracts and will it make it easier for employers to dismiss workers, the government insists that reforms are necessary to spur job creation and keep Australia economically competitive. To obtain enough parliament support for the bill, the government accepted amendments that fixed the work week at 38 hours, guaranteed four weeks of annual leave for full-time employees, and provided employees protection from dismissal if they refuse to work on public holidays. In mid-November, tens of thousands of people-including teachers, civil servants, firefighters, and religious groups-demonstrated across the country against provisions of the draft laws, staging possibly the largest nationwide public protest ever.
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 following a riot in November 2003 were investigated by Australia's Commonwealth Ombudsman. In September 2005, the government outlined proposals for tough new antiterrorism laws that include tagging and detaining suspects for 48 hours without charge, "shoot to kill" provisions, making violence against the public and Australian troops overseas criminal offenses, and allowing the limited use of soldiers to meet terrorist threats on domestic soil. Many political leaders and counterterrorism experts voiced concerns about the impact of the new legislation on human rights and civil liberties. Amendments to the most controversial aspects of the laws and inclusion of a 10-year sunset clause helped the government to secure support from enough states and territories to pass the legislation on November 30.
The indigenous Aboriginal people are under-represented at all levels of political leadership and suffer from discrimination. Unemployment among Aborigines is disproportionately high-three times that of the general population-they enjoy inferior access to medical care and education, and their life expectancy is 20 years shorter than that for the non-indigenous population. The imprisonment rate of Aborigines is 15 times higher than that of the general population, and they face routine mistreatment by police and prison officials. In November 2004, the death of an Aboriginal man in police custody sparked rioting on Palm Island situated off the country's northeast coast. 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. The government has firmly rejected such an apology, arguing that the present generation has no responsibility to apologize for the wrongs of a previous generation.
Although women enjoy equal rights and freedoms, violence against women is a problem, particularly within the Aboriginal population. The only legal grounds for divorce is an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, which is defined as separation for a period of 12 months with no prospect of reconciliation. Federal laws do not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, although the Commonwealth Marriage Act of 1961 limits marriage contracts to between a man and a woman. However, the federal government grants legal residence to foreign same-sex partners of Australian citizens. Homosexuals can serve in the military and federal workers enjoy limited access to family leave benefits.