Freedom in the World
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Government mismanagement of a terrorism case and proposals for tightened censorship laws intensified public debate on antiterrorism measures, and a government report documenting widespread human rights abuses in Aboriginal communities spurred heated debate on an appropriate national response. The Labor Party under the leadership of Kevin Rudd won a major victory over the Liberal-National coalition led by Prime Minister John Howard in a November general election.
The first British settlement in Australia was founded in 1788, and the continent’s self-governing colonies united as a commonwealth in 1901. 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. John Howard led the Liberal-National coalition from 1996 to 2007, making him the longest-serving prime minister in Australia’s history.
Increased anxiety about immigration from Muslim countries and the prevention of terrorist attacks moved to the forefront of the Howard government following the 2001 attacks in the United States, leading to restrictive new measures to address both issues. Alarmed at the arrival by sea of some 1,500 asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001, the government made arrangements with the small island nation of Nauru to host an offshore detention center for asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia. The government also tightened rules for establishing asylum claims. Human rights advocates criticize such measures, but they have received considerable public approval, particularly from legal migrants who complain that the refugees are “queue jumpers.” Ethnic riots in Sydney in 2005 were indicative of ongoing tension between white Australians and those of Muslim or Arab descent, who currently comprise about 1.5 percent of the population.
A number of terrorism-related arrests have been made. In 2004, a British-born Muslim was the first person convicted under new counterterrorism laws for ties with al-Qaeda and involvement in planning a bomb attack in Israel. In May 2007, two Sri Lankan nationals were arrested in Melbourne on suspicion of fundraising for the Tamil Tiger rebel group. More controversial was the July 2007 arrest of an Indian Muslim immigrant doctor, Mohammed Haneef, for suspected links to a terrorist plot in Britain. Charges were soon dropped, and the chief prosecutor admitted that “a mistake had been made” in pursuing the case. Courts ruled that the immigration minister’s decision to strip Haneef of his work visa was improper. The incident stirred public debate about the content and application of counterterrorism laws, with civil liberties and immigrant groups asserting that the Haneef case would have a chilling effect on immigration by Muslims and South Asians. In another antiterrorism initiative in April, the government moved to expand laws restricting media material perceived to incite terrorism.
The year 2007 also brought significant developments regarding the federal government’s treatment of Aborigines. A June 2007 report commissioned by the Northern Territory government found rampant pedophilia, juvenile prostitution, domestic abuse, and other problems in indigenous communities. The federal government responded by imposing a six-month ban on alcohol and pornography in indigenous settlements, implementing compulsory health checks for children, and increasing the number of police in the communities by the end of August. Public opinion broadly supported the plan, also endorsed by the Labor Party. Opponents maintained that the long-neglected problems were being dealt with in a heavy-handed manner due to the upcoming elections.
Howard called for elections on November 24, seeking a fifth term despite trailing significantly in opinion polls behind Kevin Rudd, his Labor opponent, because of his support for the war in Iraq and his positions on labor reform and the environment. All 150 lower house seats and 40 of the 76 Senate seats were contested. Labor won 83 seats in the lower house (or 55.33 percent of the vote) and 18 additional seats in the Senate for a total of 32 seats, coming in short of a plurality against the Liberal Party, which holds the same number of Senate seats.
Australia is an electoral democracy. The head of state is the British monarch, who is represented by a governor-general appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party or coalition in Parliament.
Voting is compulsory, and citizens participate in free and fair multiparty elections to choose representatives for Parliament. There are two houses of Parliament: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate has 76 seats, with 12 senators from each of the six states and two from each of the two mainland territories. Half of the state members, who serve six-year terms, are up for election every three years; all territory members are elected every three years. The House of Representatives has 150 seats. All members are elected by popular preferential voting to serve three-year terms, and no state can have fewer than five representatives.
The Liberal and Labor parties are the two major parties. Others 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. It was ranked 11 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution does not provide for freedom of speech and the press, but citizens and the media freely criticize the government without reprisal. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation operates national and local public television and radio stations as well as 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 2006, the government approved plans to ease restrictions on foreign media ownership—removing its 25 percent ceiling for metropolitan newspapers and 15 percent ceiling for television broadcasters—and allow television stations and newspapers to merge.
Present laws restrict the publication and dissemination of material that promotes or incites terrorist acts. In April 2007, the government proposed a measure that would outlaw any media material deemed to glorify terrorism, thus expanding government authority to remove such material from library and bookstore shelves and ban it from entering the country. Authors would not be charged, however. Critics say such censorship is ineffective and can backfire, in part by hindering research on radical Islam and terrorism.
Internet access and mobile telephone use are widespread and competitively priced. In late 2007, the newly elected Labor government announced plans for new rules that would require internet service providers to install online filters to ensure that schools and households do not receive pornography or other inappropriate content.
Freedom of religion is respected, as is academic freedom. Nevertheless, citing concerns about terrorism, the government bars mosques and Islamic schools from disseminating anti-Australian messages.
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. The adoption of the 2005 Workplace Relations Amendment Act, also known as the WorkChoices Act, introduced expansive amendments to the labor law. Employers are now required to comply with five conditions: a 38-hour work week, the government-set minimum wage, 10 days of personal/sick leave annually, 4 weeks of annual leave, and 12 months of unpaid parental leave for full-time employees. However, labor unions, church groups, and the Labor Party strongly opposed an amendment that exempts companies with fewer than 101 employees from unfair dismissal laws and all companies with 101 or more employees in cases where dismissals are made for operational reasons. All amendments took effect in 2006. The government monitors nongovernmental organizations to ensure that they do not fund terrorism.
The judiciary is independent, and prison conditions are generally good by international standards. In September 2005, the government introduced new counterterrorism laws that included powers to detain suspects for 48 hours without charge, “shoot to kill” provisions, the criminalization of violence against the public and Australian troops overseas, and authorization for the limited use of soldiers to meet terrorist threats on domestic soil. Many political leaders and counterterrorism experts voiced concern about the impact of the legislation on human rights and civil liberties. Only after introducing several amendments and a 10-year sunset clause was the government able to secure enough support to pass the legislation.
Aborigines are underrepresented at all levels of political leadership and receive low marks as a group on key social and economic development indicators. Compared with the general population, unemployment among Aborigines is 3 times higher, their life expectancy is 20 years shorter, and their imprisonment rate is 15 times higher. There are 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 between 1910 and the early 1970s and raised by white foster parents and in orphanages. The Howard government firmly rejected such calls on the grounds that the present leadership has no responsibility for the wrongdoing of a previous generation. In August 2007, an Aboriginal man won a landmark case against the government on the issue. The court ruled that the state had unlawfully removed him from his family in 1958 and kept him from seeing them for 10 years. The government only acknowledged the removal policy in 1997, after the results of an inquiry were published.
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 grants legal residence to foreign same-sex partners of Australian citizens. However, federal laws do not bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. The government 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 2006 struck down the Civil Unions Act of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government, which gave formal recognition to same-sex partnerships.