Australia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


With the ruling center-left Labor Party polling poorly as national elections approached, Prime Minister Julia Gillard was ousted in a June party leadership vote and replaced as party leader and prime minister by the more popular Kevin Rudd, her predecessor, whom she ousted in 2010 in a similar fashion. Distaste for the political infighting and the passage under Gillard of a controversial carbon tax contributed to a big victory for the conservative Liberal Party/National Party coalition over Labor in the September 2013 general elections. Economic and fiscal concerns also contributed to the coalition’s electoral edge. The economy, which has benefited from the export of commodities to China and has been insulated from the economic recession experienced in the U.S. and Europe, nevertheless slowed in 2013, in part due to weak commodity prices and a strong currency.

Asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat remained one of the country’s most divisive political issues, and Rudd soon after taking office announced that no one arriving by sea to Australia without a visa would be resettled there; refugees would instead be resettled in Papua New Guinea or Nauru. Rudd’s government also announced a bounty of $180,000 for information leading to the arrest of human smugglers and launched a $27 million media campaign in Australia to advertise this policy change. Abbott’s government took an even harder line, announcing that boats arriving from Indonesia would be turned back. In his first term as prime minister, Rudd had rejected his Liberal Party predecessor’s “Pacific Solution” of putting asylum seekers in detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for processing, but rising numbers of people risking the perilous sea journey had led Rudd to open a new detention center on Christmas Island in 2008. Escalating violence, suicides, hunger strikes, and arson by detainees at the facility pressing their demand for resettlement in Australia led the Gillard government to readopt the Pacific Solution in 2012, in a move strongly criticized by human rights groups. However, the number of arrivals did not drop; in the first half of 2013, some 13,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat, many died at sea, and incidents of violence and self-harm among asylum seekers also persisted, and political pressure for a new approach intensified.

Australia officially ended its combat mission in Afghanistan. At year’s end, only about 400 service members remained in Afghanistan to provide training and support to Afghan forces. Public support for the mission had fallen significantly in recent years. As of October 2013, according to the Australian Defense Department, there was a total of 40 operational deaths and 261 seriously wounded from Australia’s 12 years in Afghanistan. Australia had contributed the largest non-NATO contingent in Afghanistan, and the largest number of special forces personnel after the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Political Rights: 39 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

A governor general, 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. All 150 members of the House of Representatives, the lower house, are elected by popular preferential voting to serve three-year terms, and no state can have fewer than five representatives.

Kevin Rudd replaced Julia Gillard as prime minister on July 1, 2013.  Her government fell after Rudd bested her with a 55 to 45 vote in March to secure leadership of the Labor Party. Rudd tried to shore up Labor’s poor image and flagging popularity, even shifting to a hardline position on asylum seekers. However, voters were disenchanted with Labor and Rudd. In the 150-seat House of Representative, Labor won 55 seats versus 90 for Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party and its coalition. In the 76-seat Senate, Labor won 31 seats versus 33 for the Liberal coalition.  This was one of the worst showings for Labor in a federal election.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16

Since World War II, political power has alternated between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party/National Party coalition. The left-leaning Green Party and independent legislators joined Labor in a coalition after it failed to win a majority of House seats in 2010 elections.

In the September 2013 federal elections, Abbott and his Liberal/National coalition scored a decisive 90-seat majority in the 150-seat lower house. (Labor took 55 seats; the rest went to smaller parties and independents.) Newly elected senators would not take office until mid-2014, but the results of the Senate elections would leave the Liberal coalition with 34 seats, Labor with 31, the Green Party with 9, and one each going to the Democratic Labor Party and an Independent. Since the Green Party generally opposes the Liberal/National coalition, Abbott will need support from several of the senators from small parties to pass controversial measures, including his campaign pledge to repeal the carbon tax.

Native aboriginal peoples continue to fight for a bigger voice in politics. In the September 2013 elections, the first indigenous woman was elected to the federal parliament. Other minorities are also slowly but steadily finding success in local and national politics. A Pakistan-born female environmental engineer chosen by the Greens in 2012 to fill an upper house seat in the New South Wales legislature would be the first Muslim lawmaker in Australia, and Malaysia-born Chinese-Australian Penny Wong became the first openly gay cabinet member in the Gillard government in 2010.


C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12

Australia is regarded as one of the least corrupt societies in the world, ranking 9 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. A high degree of transparency and accountability prevails in the functioning of government.  Government policies and actions are openly discussed, examined, and criticized in parliament, the media, and research.  


Civil Liberties: 58 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16

While the constitution does not protect freedoms of speech and the press, citizens and the media can freely criticize the government without reprisal. Some laws restrict publication and dissemination of material that promotes or incites terrorist acts. Ownership of private print media is highly concentrated. There are numerous public and private television and radio broadcasters.

Religious and academic freedoms are respected. Antiterrorism laws bar mosques and Islamic schools from spreading anti-Australian messages.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12

Freedoms of assembly and association are not codified in law, but the government respects these rights in practice. Workers can organize and bargain collectively.


F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16

The judiciary is independent, and prison conditions generally meet international standards. Antiterrorism laws have tightened since 2001, among them legislation enacted in 2005, with a 10-year sunset clause, that 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. After more than a decade of antiterrorism laws and more than 40 arrests, legal scholars and opponents of antiterrorism laws continue to question whether these measures are needed and effective. Australian immigration has expanded 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, and sexual predation. In 2012, the government officially apologized to victims after a government-commissioned study found more than 1,000 claims of abuse dating back to the 1950s. In March 2013, Gillard issued the first national government apology for Australia’s decades-long forced-adoption policy, which had ended in the 1970s. The state had strong-armed unmarried mothers into placing their babies for adoption and had handed the babies over to married couples that had no children; thousands or tens of thousands of such forced adoptions were believed to have taken place.

Rudd in July declared that no asylum seekers arriving by sea would be allowed to resettle in Australia. Instead, he announced a deal with Papua New Guinea by which asylum seekers trying to enter Australia would be sent to Papua New Guinea for assessment and would be resettled there if they were determined to be refugees; a similar deal was later struck with Nauru. Opponents say the new policy violates Australia’s obligations to asylum seekers under the United Nations Convention on Refugees, and criticize the living conditions at the detention centers. According to Rudd’s government, the policy had an almost immediate impact, with 1,585 people arriving by boat in August, compared to 4,236 the previous month. There were also reports of Iranian detainees asking for repatriation to their home country rather than resettlement in Papua New Guinea. Abbott, who had made a campaign promise to “stop the boats,” retained Rudd’s new approach and took an even harder line, ordering the military to develop a border protection plan and to turn boats back to Indonesia, where many asylum seekers paid human smugglers to take them by boat into Australia.

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. Foreign university student enrollment has suffered. With tuition from foreign students an important source of income for universities, the government in 2012 reduced the cost of applying for a student visa; it has also made verbal assurances of safety for foreign students.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16

An open and free market economy, Australia ranks high in individual economic freedom and is regarded overall a good place to do business.

Aborigines comprise about 2 percent of the population. Underrepresented at all levels of government and lagging considerably behind other groups in key social and economic indicators, including life expectancy and employment, they also suffer higher rates of incarceration, are more frequently involved in violent crimes, and are reportedly routinely mistreated by police and prison officials. Women enjoy equal rights and are gaining greater parity in pay and promotion in public and private sector jobs. Since 2012, they can also serve in military combat positions. However, violence against women remains a serious problem, particularly within the Aboriginal population.

Gay men and lesbians can serve in the military, and federal law grants legal residence to foreign same-sex partners of Australian citizens. However, a 2004 amendment to the Federal Marriage Act defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In 2012, lawmakers voted to reject a bill to legalize gay marriage. In October 2013, the legislature of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) voted to legalize same-sex marriage; however, the federal government challenged the territorial law, and in December, the Australian High Court ruled that the territory did not have the authority to legalize same-sex marriage. Same-sex civil partnerships are recognized in the ACT and four Australian states.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology