Freedom in the World
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Australia’s Labor-led government in 2012 readopted the Pacific Solution plan for asylum seekers that it once rejected, signing new agreements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea to reopen detention and processing centers on those islands. Australia’s controversial new tax on carbon dioxide went into effect in July. In September, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage was defeated after heated debate.
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.
The Labor Party was successful in 2007 elections, with Labor’s Kevin Rudd replacing the Liberal Party’s John Howard as prime minister. The Rudd government reversed several of its predecessor’s positions, including issuing a formal apology for past laws and policies that had “inflicted profound grief, suffering, and loss” on the country’s Aborigines. It also closed the detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea that the Howard government had created as part of its Pacific Solution plan to deal with the massive influx of asylum seekers from South Asia. By the end of 2008, however, the Rudd government was forced to open a new detention center on Christmas Island to receive an increasing number of migrants. Public sentiment on both sides of the issue intensified as asylum seeker set fire to their boats, went on hunger strikes, committed suicide, or took other extreme measures to demand entry into Australia.
Rudd resigned as party leader and prime minister in June 2010 in the face of multiple difficulties, including 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 coal and iron-ore industries, and parliamentary rejection of a carbon-emissions trading scheme. Labor chose Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard to replace Rudd, making her Australia’s first female prime minister. She called snap elections in August 2010. Although Labor won only 72 seats compared to 73 for the conservative parties, Labor secured support from the Green Party and three independents.
Escalating violence, suicides, hunger strikes, and arson at the Christmas Island detention center ultimately forced the Gillard government to readopt the Pacific Solution. In 2012, the government signed new agreements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea to reopen the refugee centers on those islands; the Nauru center alone was expected to cost almost $2 billion to maintain over four years. Gillard’s decision to reopen the overseas centers was strongly criticized by human rights groups. By year’s end, 386 and 50 asylum seekers were, respectively, sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Australia’s controversial tax on carbon dioxide emissions went into effect in July; the law places a tax on the country’s top 500 carbon emitters, which is scheduled to be replaced with an emissions permit trading system in 2015. Although the plan’s supporters say it is necessary to combat global warming, opponents claim the tax could devastate the Australian economy.
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. Minor parties represented in Parliament are the left-leaning Green Party 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 7 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
There are no constitutional protections for freedoms 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.
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. Australian immigration has been expanding the use of electronic biometric captures of fingerprints and facial images for visitors since 2011, with emphasis on those from countries deemed a high risk for Islamic extremism, such as Yemen and Somalia.
In 2011, the military was embroiled in a series of scandals involving rape, homophobia, bullying, and sexual predation. In September 2011, a navy male cadet was found guilty of raping a female cadet, and in December, a navy commander was found guilty of abusing a female subordinate by spanking her. In November 2012, the government officially apologized to victims after a government-commissioned study found more than 1,000 claims of abuse from the 1950s to the present.
Racial tensions involving South Asian and other immigrant groups have grown in recent years, especially in Melbourne, where the bulk of interracial violence has occurred. The number of South Asian applications to universities in Australia fell for two consecutive years in the 2010 and 2011 academic years. Foreign student enrollment dropped by 8.4 percent in the first half of 2012 and the number of new Indian students—the largest group from South Asia—dropped by 24 percent during the same period. With tuition from foreign students an important source of income for universities, the government decided in October 2012 to reduce the cost of applying for a student visa.
Aborigines, who comprise 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, including life expectancy and employment. Aborigines are reportedly routinely mistreated by police and prison officials, and they experience higher rates of incarceration and levels of violence, including homicide and child abuse.
Women enjoy equal rights and have attained greater parity in pay and promotion in public and private sector jobs. A new law allowing women in the military to serve in combat positions went into effect in 2012. Violence against women remains a serious problem, particularly within the Aboriginal population. In 2011, New South Wales gave new powers to the police to order women to remove burqas and other face coverings if they are suspected of a crime. Those who refuse to remove the coverings could face one year in jail or be fined around A$5,500 (US$5,384).
Gay men and lesbians 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 September 2012, after days of heated debate lawmakers voted to reject a bill to legalize gay marriage. Both Prime Minister Julia Gillard—whose party backed the bill—and opposition leader Tony Abbott voted against the proposal.