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Freedom in the World 2010

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The Labor Party government in 2009 continued to grapple with the complex problems of immigration, racially motivated violence, and poor conditions in Aboriginal settlements. Also during the year, a quadriplegic man won a court battle to stop being fed and be allowed to die, advancing the cause of voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide.

The British colonies in Australia, first settled in 1788, were organized as a federative commonwealth in 1901, and gradually gained full independence from Britain. 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. In the 2007 elections, 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, allowing party leader Kevin Rudd to replace John Howard of the Liberal Party as prime minister.
The Rudd government reversed a number of its predecessor’s policies, ending Australia’s combat role in Iraq, issuing a formal apology for past laws and policies that had “inflicted profound grief, suffering, and loss” on the country’s Aborigines, and announcing the creation of a reparations fund for health and education programs benefitting all Aborigines. The new government also closed detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea that had been created by the Howard government in response to an influx of asylum seekers from South Asia. It pledged to assure adjudication of asylum claims within a year, barred detention for women and children, and implemented a system of three-year temporary visas.
However, by the end of 2008, the government had to open a new detention center on Christmas Island to receive the increasing number of asylum seekers. By October 2009, the facility had nearly reached its capacity of 1,200, and the government said it would expand the center to accommodate 2,000 in order to meet increasing demand. Prime Minister Rudd also appealed to Indonesian authorities to stop boats carrying asylum seekers toward Australian waters, and even visited Jakarta in October to meet with his counterpart on this matter. When the Indonesian navy intercepted a vessel carrying 250 Sri Lankans in October, Rudd insisted that they were the responsibility of the United Nations, refusing to allow them to enter Australia despite their threat of a hunger strike.
On Aboriginal issues, the federal government and local council members attempted in 2009 to negotiate a rescue plan for a settlement of some 3,000 people in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, that was plagued by chronic overcrowding, poor sanitation, and crime. However, the talks broke down as the government threatened to seize control of the settlement and local leaders argued that this would constitute a federal land grab. The federal government had intervened in the Northern Territory in 2007 in response to evidence of rampant pedophilia, juvenile prostitution, domestic abuse, and other problems in Aboriginal communities there.
Also in 2009, racial violence involving immigrant groups continued to simmer. In May, more than 2,000 South Asian students and their supporters marched in Melbourne to protest alleged racial attacks. In June, more than 200 South Asians held a street protest in Sydney after an Indian man said he was attacked by a Lebanese group. Violence broke out and police intervened when a Lebanese man alleged assault by the South Asian protesters. In August, another four South Asians alleged attacks in Melbourne. The government said it would consider increasing penalties for hate crimes. The number of Indian students in Australia is projected to fall in 2010, costing the country some US$70 million.
In light of new allegations of attempted terrorist attacks, the government announced plans to allow the police to search property without a warrant, and to expand the definition of terrorism to include both physical andpsychological harm. However, detention without charges would be restricted to a maximum of eight days. In August, four Australian citizens of Somali and Lebanese descent were arrested in Melbourne for allegedly planning a suicide attack on an army base. Antiterrorism laws were also used in September to sentence former airport worker Bela Khazaal to 12 years in prison for producing an instructional book that encouraged terrorist acts.
In August, a quadriplegic man in Perth won a court battle to refuse feeding and be allowed to die, weakening a legal ban on voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide. The man, Christian Rossiter, died the following month.

In another effort to own up to past wrongdoings committed by the state, Rudd apologized in November to tens of thousands of men and women who were abused or neglected in state care as children between 1930 and 1970. Many of the affected individuals were brought to Australia as children from Britain, without the knowledge or consent of their parents, under a British government-sponsored migrant scheme.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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. Quentin Bryce, a former governor of Queensland, became the first female governor-general in 2008. 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 the bicameral Parliament. The Senate, the upper house, 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, the lower house, 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, formed in 2005 by Muslim Australians.
Australia is regarded as one of the least corrupt societies in the world, ranking 8 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index. Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon resigned in June 2009, when it was revealed that he had failed to declare gifts and that there was possible conflict of interest related to contacts between the government and his brother’s company.
There are no constitutional protections for freedom of speech and the press, but citizens and the media freely criticize the government without reprisal. Some laws restrict publication and dissemination of material that promotes or incites terrorist acts. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation operates national and local public television and radio stations. A second public station delivers multilingual radio and television broadcasts. There are three major commercial television networks and many commercial radio stations. Internet access and mobile telephone use are widespread and competitively priced.
Freedom of religion is respected, as is academic freedom, although mosques and Islamic schools are barred from disseminating anti-Australian messages.
The rights of assembly and association are not codified in law, but the government respects these rights in practice. Workers can organize and bargain collectively. The Fair Work Act of 2009 replaced the Workplace Relations Act (WRA) of the Howard administration. Labor groups disliked the WRA, alleging that it undermined collective bargaining.
The judiciary is independent, and prison conditions are generally good by international standards. Antiterrorism legislation enacted in 2005, with a 10-year sunset clause, includes police powers to detain suspects 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.
Aborigines, comprising about 2 percent of the population, are underrepresented at all levels of political leadership and lag far behind other groups in key social and economic development indicators. A national report published in July 2009 indicated that the gap between Aborigines and other Australians continues to widen. For Aborigines, life expectancy is 20 years shorter, the rate of unemployment is three times higher, homicide is seven times higher, child abuse is six times higher, and imprisonment is 13 times higher. There are also claims of routine mistreatment 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. In 2009, the first shelter for domestic abuse victims opened in the Northern Territory to help Aboriginal women. 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. A 2004 amendment to the Federal Marriage Act defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman “to the exclusion of all others,” and a local law in the Australian Capital Territory that granted formal recognition to same-sex partnerships was struck down in 2006.