Freedom in the World
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Australia has a long history of respect for political rights and civil liberties. However, recent years have seen some concern about laws that permit government surveillance of online communications, as well as about the country’s harsh policies toward asylum seekers.
- The governing Liberal Party/National Party coalition narrowly won federal elections held in July.
- Linda Burney of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) became the first indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives.
- In April, media reports revealed that the police had admitted that they lawfully sought—without a warrant—communications metadata for a journalist who reported that an Australian ship had ventured into Indonesian waters to turn back a boat carrying asylum seekers.
- In September, health professionals were exempted from secrecy and nondisclosure provisions in Australia’s controversial Border Force Act, thus permitting them to speak openly about medical treatment in immigration detention centers abroad.
Australia has a strong record of protecting political rights and civil liberties. However, 2016 saw the introduction of curbs on demonstrations in New South Wales, revelations of warrantless collection of a journalist’s metadata, and continued criticism of harsh conditions in the country’s offshore centers for asylum seekers.
In March, the New South Wales state government passed laws intended to discourage a protest movement targeting mining operations. The measures introduced criminal penalties and increased fines for interfering with commercial operations; fines may now reach as much as $5,500, up from $550 previously. The approval of the laws prompted protests and drew denunciations from lawyers’ associations.
Australia’s immigration and asylum policies continued to draw domestic and international condemnation in 2016, particularly in regard to the housing and vetting of asylum seekers at processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Reports of poor living conditions, inadequate safety for women and children, delays in processing applications, detainees attempting suicide, and lack of sufficient healthcare and education services at the centers persisted. A section of the 2015 Border Force Act known as the Secrecy Provision threatens a prison sentence of up to two years for “entrusted persons” working in the centers—including social workers, lawyers, and teachers—who disclose unauthorized information about activities or conditions within. In September 2016, the head of Australia’s customs and border protection agency signed an amendment exempting “health professionals” from the Secrecy Provisions.
In April 2016, media reports revealed that the Australian Federal Police admitted that they had lawfully sought—without a warrant—communications metadata on journalist Paul Farrell in the wake of his report that an Australian ship had ventured far into Indonesian waters in order to turn back a boat carrying asylum seekers.
Voting is compulsory in Australia, and citizens participate in free and fair multiparty elections to choose representatives for the bicameral Parliament. In 2016 federal elections, the Liberal Party/National Party coalition won a slim majority of 76 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, down from 90 previously. Linda Burney of the ALP became the first indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Australia, see Freedom in the World 2016.