Australia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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Racial violence broke out between Australian young men of European and Lebanese origin in Sydney in December 2005. The government withdrew a controversial refugee asylum bill, marking a major defeat for the government of Prime Minister John Howard.

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 conservative 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.

Australia continues to be active in promoting peace, restoring the rule of law, improving governance, and fighting terrorism in a number of Pacific island nations, specifically through providing them with experts and funding for military, police, and judicial training. The country sent several thousand soldiers and monitors to Papua New Guinea (PNG) to restore peace and order following a ceasefire in 1998 and has promised $600 million and troops to reform the PNG army. After leading a multinational force in 2003 to restore law and order in the Solomon Islands following years of ethnic turmoil, Australia sent troops again in 2006 to quell widespread violence sparked by allegations of election fraud. Also in 2006, Australia sent 150 soldiers to quell violence and restore order in East Timor as well as a smaller number of soldiers to restore calm in the Tongan capital.

On the home front, concern about Muslim extremism and its connection to terrorism has led Canberra to open dialogues with moderate Muslim groups. The government maintains that it wants to keep mosques and Islamic schools from preaching or teaching anti-Australian messages and will monitor organizations for funding terrorists. Meanwhile, many of the approximately 350,000 Muslim residents are said to feel increasingly alienated. In August 2005, moderate Muslim leaders formed the first Muslim political party, the Best Party of Allah, to provide a national voice for Muslims. An outbreak of racial violence in Sydney in December 2005 between young men of European and Lebanese descent and an attack on a mosque demonstrated the level of tension in some segments of society. The ethnic riots in Cronulla, a beachfront suburb of Sydney, were sparked by attacks on two lifeguards and other incidents of assault and intimidation in early December by persons reportedly of Middle Eastern origin.

Illegal migration has become a major political issue in recent years, and human rights groups have criticized the government’s handling of asylum petitions and illegal migrants. In 2001 alone, some 1,500 persons, mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq, came by boat seeking refuge. To discourage them and their handlers from choosing Australia as a destination, Canberra has introduced several stringent measures, including placing illegal migrants in detention camps in the Pacific Island country of Nauru and adopting more rigorous screening procedures for establishing asylum claims. These measures have enjoyed considerable public support, particularly from legal migrants who complain that such refugees are “queue jumpers.” However, criticism from human rights groups resulted in amendments to several controversial measures; for example, families with children are now freed from detention while their asylum claims are being processed.

The government tried to tighten asylum laws in 2006 following a political fallout with Indonesia sparked by Australia’s granting of temporary protection visas to 42 Papuans seeking refuge from alleged abuse by Indonesian soldiers in February. The new system would have required all new arrivals by boat to have their claims heard in an offshore location, denied asylum seekers access to review under Australian law. If claims were upheld, asylum seekers would be resettled in a third country rather than be allowed entry to Australia. The bill failed to obtain adequate support to pass in August, however, representing a significant defeat for the government of Prime Minister John Howard.

Among key political developments, Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, defeated Kim Beazley to assume leadership of the Labour Party, and Prime Minister Howard announced that he will seek a fifth term in the next general election in 2007.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Australia is an electoral democracy. 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.

Voting is compulsory, and citizens participate in free and fair multiparty elections to choose representatives to Parliament. There are two houses of Parliament: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate has 76 seats: 12 senators come from each of the six states, and 2 from each of the two mainland territories. Half of the state members are elected once every three years by popular vote to six-year terms, and 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, and no state can have fewer than 5 representatives.

The Liberal and Labour parties are the two major parties. Other parties include the National Party, the Green Party, the Family First Party, and the Best Party of Allah, which was formed in 2005 to represent the interests of Muslim Australians.

Australia is regarded as one of the least corrupt societies in the world, ranking 9 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 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. The Australia Broadcasting Corporation operates national and local public television and radio stations and a television service for the Asia-Pacific region. A second public station delivers multilingual radio and television broadcasts. There are three major commercial television networks and many commercial radio stations. In August 2006, the government approved plans to ease restrictions on foreign media ownership—removing its 25 percent ceiling for metropolitan newspapers and 15 percent for television broadcasters—and allowing television stations and newspapers to merge. Internet access and mobile telephone use are widespread and competitively priced.

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 can organize and bargain collectively. In December 2005, the government adopted the most comprehensive labor law amendments in a decade. Labor unions, church groups, and the Labour Party vehemently opposed an amendment to the Workplace Relations Act of 1996 that would exempt companies with fewer than 101 employees from unfair dismissal laws as well all companies with 101 or more employees in cases where dismissals are made for operational reasons. The Workplace Relations Amendment Act of 2005, also known as the “WorkChoices Act,” requires employers to comply with five conditions: a 38-hour work week; a minimum wage established by the government; 10 days of personal/sick leave annually; 4 weeks of annual leave; and 12 months of unpaid parental leave for full-time employees. The December 2005 amendments took effect in March 2006.

The judiciary is independent, and prison conditions are generally good by international standards. 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. Only after introducing several amendments and a 10-year sunset clause was the government able to secure support from enough states and territories to pass the legislation in November 2005.

The indigenous Aboriginal people are underrepresented at all levels of political leadership and rank low in all social and economic development indicators. Compared with the general population, unemployment among Aborigines is three times higher, their life expectancy is 20 years shorter, and their imprisonment rate is 15 times higher. There are also claims of routine mistreatment 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 white 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 and have attained greater parity in pay and promotion in public and private sector jobs, violence against women remains a serious problem, particularly within the Aboriginal population. Homosexuals can serve in the military, and federal law permits legal residence to foreign same-sex partners of Australian citizens. However, federal laws do not bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. The government has also amended the Federal Marriage Act in 2004 to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman “to the exclusion of all others” and in June 2006 struck down the Civil Unions Act of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government, which gives formal recognition to same-sex partnerships.