Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd resigned as leader of the Labor Party and relinquished the premiership in June 2010. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard was chosen to replace him, and she secured a narrow Labor victory in August parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, the continued influx of asylum seekers remained a contentious political issue, along with concerns about the economy.
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 National Party. Labor emerged from the 2007 elections with 83 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives and 32 in the 76-seat Senate, 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 positions, including 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. It also closed detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea that the Howard government had created in response to an influx of asylum seekers from South Asia. The new government pledged to resolve 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 was forced to open a new detention center on Christmas Island to receive the increasing number of migrants. Rudd appealed to Indonesia to stop boats carrying asylum seekers from entering Australian waters, though the problem grew worse in 2010. By the first week of December 2010, 82 boats with nearly 4,000 asylum seekers were stopped, or 1,000 more than the total for 2009. Public sentiment on both sides of the issue intensified as asylum seekers set fire to their boats, went on hunger strikes, committed suicide, or took other extreme actions to demand entry into Australia. In April, the government temporarily suspended processing asylum claims by Sri Lankans and Afghans, who made up 85 percent of the boat people, to discourage them from attempting the journey. Meanwhile, overcrowding at the Christmas Island detention site and a refusal by East Timor and other neighboring countries to host alternate detention centers compelled the government to announce plans in October 2010 to construct two new detention centers in Perth and Adelaide. These new centers are expected to hold up to 2,000 asylum seekers, while 3,000 were awaiting review in a detention center in Sydney at year’s end.
Rudd resigned as party leader and prime minister in June 2010, having been buffeted by the asylum crisis, a national home-insulation scheme that was linked to four deaths and many fires, a controversial proposal for a “super tax” on the booming coal and iron-ore industries, and a failed effort to adopt carbon-emissions trading. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard was chosen to replace Rudd, making her the country’s first female prime minister. She called snap elections for August, and the campaign centered on issues including the economy, health care, the national debt, and immigration. The number of Labor Party seats fell to 72 in the House, compared with a total of 73 seats for the conservative parties. The Greens took one seat, and four seats went to independents. After two weeks of intense negotiations, Labor secured support from the Greens’ member and three independents, and Gillard announced a new cabinet in September.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Australia is an electoral democracy. A governor general, who is appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister, represents the British monarch as head of state. 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 Labor and Liberal parties are the two major parties. Also winning representation in the 2010 elections were the left-leaning Greens and three right-leaning factions: the Liberal National Party of Queensland, the National Party, and the Country Liberal Party.
Australia is regarded as one of the least corrupt societies in the world, ranking 8out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 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. Some laws restrict publication and dissemination of material that promotes or incites terrorist acts. There are numerous public and private television and radio broadcasters, but ownership of private print media is highly concentrated. In July 2010, the government said it would review the country’s system for rating and filtering obscene or violent internet content, which internet freedom advocates had criticized as improper censorship. Under current law, internet-service providers’ participation in the scheme is voluntary. By year’s end, considerable political and public opposition to mandatory filtering of websites deterred any effort to pass new legislation.
Freedom of religion is respected, as is academic freedom. Under antiterrorism laws, mosques and Islamic schools are barred from disseminating anti-Australian messages.
Freedoms of assembly and association are not codified in law, but the government respects these rights in practice. Workers can organize and bargain collectively.
The judiciary is independent, and prison conditions generally meet 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.
Some 40 people have been arrested on terrorism charges since 2000. Five men of Libyan, Bangladeshi, and Lebanese origin arrested in 2005 were sentenced in February 2010 to prison terms ranging from 23 to 28 years for conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. Also that month, the government announced plans to fingerprint and scan the faces of visitors from 10 high-risk countries, and warned of an increased threat from Islamic extremists raised in Australia.
Racial tensions involving South Asian and other immigrant groups continued to worsen in 2010, especially in Melbourne, where the bulk of interracial violence has occurred in recent years. In an apparent effect of the strife, the number of Indian students at the start of the academic year in January reportedly showed a 50 percent decline from the previous year.
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 indicators. For Aborigines, life expectancy is 20 years shorter than for other Australians, the rate of unemployment is three times higher, the homicide rate is seven times higher, incidence of child abuse is six times higher, and the rate of imprisonment is 13 times higher. There are also claims of routine mistreatment by police and prison officials. According to an October 2010 study, a disproportionately high number of cases of mentally ill persons were “tazed” or subdued with high-voltage electroshock devices.
Although women enjoy equal rights and have attained greater parity in pay and promotion in both 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, there is no federal ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a 2004 amendment to the Federal Marriage Act defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In response to criticism that Australians are active in sex tourism abroad, Parliament passed a new law in July 2010 that allows prosecution of Australians for sex crimes committed overseas and imposes prison terms of up to 25 years for sex crimes against children.