Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The new Labor Party government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd worked to undo some of the most unpopular policies of its conservative predecessor in 2008. Among other moves, Rudd ended Australia’s combat role in Iraq in June and issued a formal apology to Aborigines for the abuses they have suffered. He also ended the “Pacific Solution” policy, under which asylum seekers, including children, were placed in detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The government, however, opened a new detention center on Christmas Island in December. Quentin Bryce became Australia’s first female governor general in September.
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 government from 1996 to 2007, making him one of the longest-serving prime ministers in Australia’s history.
The Howard government oversaw a number of terrorism-related arrests. In 2004, a British-born Muslim became the first person convicted under new counterterrorism laws for his ties with Al-Qaeda and involvement in planning a bomb attack in Israel. In 2007, two Sri Lankan nationals were arrested in Melbourne on suspicion of raising funds for their country’s 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. The charges were soon dropped for lack of evidence, and the immigration minister’s decision to withdraw Haneef’s work visa was subsequently ruled improper by the courts. The incident stirred public debate about the content and application of counterterrorism laws.
In August 2007, the Howard government exercised national emergency powers in the Northern Territory after a report found rampant pedophilia, juvenile prostitution, domestic abuse, and other problems in Aboriginal communities. The federal government imposed a ban on alcohol and pornography in the settlements, required health checks for children, and increased the police presence. Public opinion and a broad parliamentary majority endorsed these actions, agreeing that federal intervention was needed to improve conditions for Aborigines. Opponents charged that the long-neglected problems were dealt with in a heavy-handed manner for political reasons.
Howard sought a fifth term as prime minister in November 2007 elections, but he was unseated by Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party. Labor captured 83 seats in the 150-seat lower house and gained 18 Senate seats for a new total of 32 in the 76-seat upper chamber. Howard also lost his own parliamentary seat and was replaced as Liberal Party leader by Brendan Nelson. In September 2008, Nelson himself lost his leadership position to Malcolm Turnbull, a lawyer and former banker.
After taking office, Rudd immediately reversed some of the most controversial policies of the Howard government. He announced an end to his predecessor’s asylum practices, known as the Pacific Solution, in January 2008. By mid-year, the offshore detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea were closed and the last detainees were shipped to Australia for review and adjudication. A total of 1,637 people had been held in the detention centers since their inception, costing Australia some US$265 million. The Rudd government also promised financial aid to help Nauru and Papua New Guinea cope with the loss of rent and jobs associated with the detention centers. In July, the government took the additional step of ending the policy of jailing asylum seekers. In December, however, the government opened a new detention center on Christmas Island that had been previously commissioned by the Howard government to deal with the continuing influx of asylum seekers.
On the issue of counterterrorism policy, the government in April 2008 began an inquiry into the poor handling of the Haneef case, and later concluded that his arrest was improper and that sweeping changes to antiterrorism laws were needed. However, the threat of terrorism apparently remained. In September, seven men were convicted for forming a cell that planned attacks on Howard and major sports events. Rudd also ended Australia’s combat role in Iraq in June, though several hundred troops are expected to remain to serve in noncombat roles, and approximately 1,000 troops are still stationed in Afghanistan.
Rudd also sought to set a new tone on policy toward Aborigines. Speaking before Parliament in February, he made a formal apology to the Aboriginal population for past laws and policies that had “inflicted profound grief, suffering, and loss.” However, the government decided to continue the federal intervention in the Northern Territory, imposed by the previous government in 2007 in response to evidence of rampant pedophilia, juvenile prostitution, domestic abuse, and other problems in Aboriginal communities. Controversy regarding sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities persisted during the year, as public outrage led to heavier sentences in June for nine Aboriginal men who had initially received suspended sentences or probation for raping a 10-year-old girl.
As for providing compensation to those who were removed from their families between 1915 and 1969 as part of the government’s former policy of assimilating Aboriginal children into the white culture and mainstream economy, the Rudd government declared that payments would not be made to individuals. Instead, a reparations fund would provide money for health and education programs benefiting all Aborigines.
In September, Quentin Bryce, a former governor of Queensland, was sworn in as Australia’s first female governor-general. She had been one of the first women admitted to the Queensland bar and later served as a federal sexual-discrimination commissioner.
Australia is an electoral democracy. The British monarch is represented as head of state by a governor-general, who is 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, ranking 9 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
There are no constitutional protections 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. Since 2006, full foreign ownership of domestic media outlets has been permitted. Some laws restrict the publication and dissemination of material that promotes or incites terrorist acts.
Internet access and mobile telephone use are widespread and competitively priced. The new Labor government aims to 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 changes to the labor law. Labor unions opposed the measure, alleging that it reduced workers’ protection from unfair dismissals. The Labor government has pledged to guarantee the right to collective bargaining for workers, and in March, the Rudd government amended the WorkChoices Act to eliminate the most controversial features.
The judiciary is independent, and prison conditions are generally good by international standards. In 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. Only after several amendments to address concerns about human rights and civil liberties, and the addition of a 10-year sunset clause, was the government able to win enough parliamentary support to pass the legislation.
Aborigines, comprising about 2 percent of the population, 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 three times higher, life expectancy is 20 years shorter, and the imprisonment rate is 15 times higher. There are claims of routine mistreatment of Aborigines by police and prison officials.
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 it struck down the Civil Unions Act of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government, which gave formal recognition to same-sex partnerships.