Freedom in the World
Freedom in the World Scores
Australia has a strong record of advancing and protecting political rights and civil liberties. Challenges to these freedoms include the threat of foreign political influence, harsh policies toward asylum seekers, and ongoing difficulties ensuring the equal rights of indigenous Australians.
Key Developments in 2017:
- In December, Parliament legalized same-sex marriage following a nationwide, nonbinding postal survey in which more than 60 percent of participants favored legalization.
- Mounting concerns about foreign influence in politics prompted lawmakers to propose potentially restrictive laws in December. One proposal would ban foreign donations to political parties and activist groups; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claimed the measure would harm their ability to operate freely. A proposal to toughen espionage laws was met with pushback by press freedom advocates, who said the measure could restrict journalists’ operations.
- In April, a new data retention law came into effect. The law, which authorities said was aimed at combatting terrorism and crime, requires telecommunications companies to store users’ metadata for two years. Privacy advocates have expressed concern about the potential for data leaks, or the law’s misuse.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 40 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The Australian government is a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy. The leader of the popularly elected majority party or coalition is designated as prime minister, and serves as head of government. Malcolm Turnbull, head of the Liberal Party, has been prime minister since 2015, when he successfully challenged Tony Abbott for leadership of the party. A governor general, appointed on the recommendation of the prime minister, represents the British monarch as head of state. The powers of the monarchy are extremely limited.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The bicameral legislative branch consists of a 150-member House of Representatives and 76-member Senate. The Liberal Party/National Party coalition won a slim majority in the House of Representatives in 2016 elections, which were free and fair. Several by-elections were held in 2017 due to the resignations of parliament members who had dual citizenship. The Liberal/National coalition temporarily lost its majority, but had gained it back through more by-elections by year’s end.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
Australian electoral laws and procedures are generally fair and impartial. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC)—an independent federal agency—coordinates all federal elections and referendums, draws seat boundaries, and keeps the electoral rolls. Voting is compulsory, and a registered voter’s failure to vote may result in a small fine, which if unpaid can increase, and ultimately lead to a criminal conviction.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 16 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Australians may organize political parties without restrictions. Registration and recognition as a political party requires a party constitution and either one member in Parliament, or at least 500 members on the electoral roll.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
Power rotates between parties frequently in Australian politics, traditionally alternating between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party/National Party coalition. The Australian Greens and smaller left-leaning parties tend to ally with Labor, while rural-oriented and more conservative parties often ally with Liberals.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
Political participation in Australia is free from undue influence of the military, religious organizations, or other powerful groups. The British monarch remains the Australian head of state, but the monarchy’s power is strictly limited by the Australian constitution and legal precedent.
In 2017, there was growing concern about foreign influence on politics. More than a dozen members of parliament (MPs) resigned, were deemed ineligible for office, or were under investigation for being dual citizens—a status federal elected officials are banned from holding. Some observers downplayed concerns about officials with dual citizenship though, particularly in light of Australia’s large foreign-born population.
Concerns about Chinese interference in politics also emerged during the year. In December, a senator was forced to resign in connection with his financial ties with companies linked to the Chinese government. Media reports also raised the possibility of Chinese attempts to directly influence election campaigns by funding particular candidates or parties, both in past elections and in the year’s by-elections. In December, the government proposed a ban on foreign donations to political parties due to concerns about foreign influence.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4
Political rights and electoral opportunities are granted to all Australians. However, the interests of some groups, including women and indigenous Australians, are inadequately represented, and women MPs have reported being the targets of sexist remarks while working. Some voting restrictions—including requirements that voters hold a fixed address, and a ban on voting by prisoners serving long sentences—disproportionately affect indigenous Australians.
In the 2016 legislative elections, the first indigenous woman was elected to the House of Representatives.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 12 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
The freely elected government is generally able to develop and implement policy.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 4 / 4
Laws against official corruption are generally well enforced. However, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory lack jurisdictional anticorruption bodies.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4
Government operations are characterized by a high degree of transparency, and political affairs are openly discussed in Parliament and in the media. Parliamentary records and commissioned reports are readily available. The Freedom of Information Act allows people to access a wide range of government documents.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 58 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 16 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
The constitution does not explicitly protect press freedom. However, journalists scrutinize lawmakers and the government and cover controversial topics, generally without encountering serious obstacles or risking harassment or violence.
However, in December 2017, lawmakers proposed amendments that would toughen espionage laws, making it illegal not only to communicate certain sensitive information, but to receive and possess that information, even if a person were unaware that the information was in their possession. Press freedom advocates expressed concern about the proposed amendments, saying they could interfere with journalists’ work.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
The constitution explicitly prohibits laws that would either impose or restrict religious expression, and individuals are generally able to express religious beliefs or nonbelief. Some religious practices, such as drug use, are limited by general laws.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is generally respected. However, in October 2017, federal officials warned of Chinese attempts to monitor Chinese students in Australia, and to question academics whose views differed with those of the Chinese government.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Generally, people in Australia may freely discuss personal views on sensitive topics. However, in April 2017, a new data retention law came into effect, sparking concerns about the government’s ability to track mobile and online communications. Under the law, which authorities said was aimed at combatting terrorism and crime, telecommunications companies must store users’ metadata for two years. Some experts have warned of the potential for data breaches, and have argued that the law undermines civil liberties.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is not explicitly codified in law, but the government generally respects the right to peaceful assembly in practice. There are some limited restrictions meant to ensure public safety.
There has been some concern in recent years about measures designed to discourage protests at certain kinds of workplaces. In 2016, the New South Wales state government passed laws apparently meant to curb a protest movement targeting mining operations. In October 2017, the High Court ruled that laws in Tasmania prohibiting demonstrations in areas designated as workplaces were not constitutional.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
NGOs are generally free to form, function, and receive funding. However, in December 2017, due to concern about foreign influence, the government proposed a ban on foreign donations to political parties and activist groups. The legislation would also require Australians to declare whether they are working for a foreign power. Several domestic and international NGOs said the legislation, if approved, would severely impact their ability to function.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
Workers can freely organize and bargain collectively, and trade unions actively engage in political debates and campaigns. However, strikes are only allowed when negotiating new union agreements, and may only pertain to issues under negotiation. In December 2017, a High Court ruling prohibited organizations that had previously violated orders from the Fair Work Commission from holding strikes during negotiations. The court described the right to strike as a “privilege.”
F. RULE OF LAW: 15 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
The Australian judiciary is generally independent.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4
The right to due process is generally respected. Defendants and detainees are presumed innocent until proven guilty and can only be held for 24 hours without being charged for a crime, with exceptions for terrorism cases.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
Australia provides protection from the illegitimate use of force, and Australians have means to seek redress for harm. Prison conditions mostly meet international standards. However, conditions at numerous juvenile detention centers are substandard, and children have been held at adult prisons. In 2017, juvenile detention centers in the Northern Territory were judged by a royal commission to be “not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating” minors.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Indigenous Australians continue to lag behind other groups in key social and economic indicators, suffer higher rates of incarceration, and report routine mistreatment by police and prison officials. Indigenous children are placed in detention at a rate 25 times higher than that of nonindigenous children. Additionally, people with disabilities make up over half the prison population, and face harassment and violence in prisons.
Men and women have the same legal rights, and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited. In practice, women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population experience employment discrimination, and occasional harassment.
Australia’s immigration and asylum policies continued to draw domestic and international condemnation in 2017. Rights groups and other observers continued to blast the country’s policy of transporting many refugees and asylum seekers to offshore facilities that are characterized by poor living conditions, inadequate safety for women and children, delays in processing applications, and a lack of sufficient healthcare and education services. A section of the 2015 Border Force Act threatens a prison sentence of up to two years for service providers who disclose unauthorized information about the facilities. In August 2017, the government proposed an amendment to lessen the danger of criminal charges for service workers who disclose such information.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 15 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
The government respects the freedom of movement, and neither state nor nonstate actors interfere with the choice of residence, employment, or institution of higher education.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
With an open and free market economy, businesses and individuals enjoy a high level of economic freedom and strong protections for property rights.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4
The government generally does not restrict social freedoms. In December 2017, Parliament legalized same-sex marriage following a nationwide, nonbinding postal survey in which more than 60 percent of participants favored legalization.
Violence against women remains a national concern, particularly for indigenous women. Abortion law is decided by state and territory governments, and abortion is illegal in some regions.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Australians generally enjoy robust economic opportunities and freedom from exploitation. However, indigenous people continue to face economic hardships. Census data from 2016 revealed that the indigenous employment rates in remote areas have declined since 2006, impeding their upward social mobility.
In 2017, the government was in its third year of a five-year action plan to combat human trafficking and slavery. The program has resulted in the investigation of over 100 trafficking cases, and the identification of more than over 30 victims from mid-2016 to mid-2017.