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 2018:
- In August, Scott Morrison became prime minister after successfully challenging Malcolm Turnbull for leadership of the Liberal Party, continuing a pattern in which prime ministers fail to serve their full terms due to “leadership coups.”
- In December, Parliament passed the Assistance and Access Act, which requires technology companies to provide law enforcement agencies with access to encrypted communications. Rights groups criticized the new law’s broad reach and relative lack of oversight.
- Parliament passed a number of laws designed to limit foreign influence in politics during the year, including a law passed in June requiring lobbying groups that represent foreign interests to register publicly, as well as a law passed in November prohibiting foreign donations to political parties, independent candidates, and other political campaign groups.
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. Scott Morrison, now head of the Liberal Party, became prime minister in August 2018, when he successfully challenged Malcolm Turnbull for leadership of the party. Morrison’s ascension continued a pattern in which prime ministers fail to serve their full terms due to “leadership coups,” which have drawn criticism for failing to reflect the will of the voters. After becoming party leader, Morrison took steps in December to limit leadership coups in the Liberal Party by introducing rules requiring a two-thirds majority vote in order to change the prime minister.
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. The Liberal–National coalition lost its parliamentary majority after former prime minister Turnbull resigned from Parliament in August 2018, leading to a by-election in October in which an independent candidate won his seat.
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, traditionally alternating between the Labor Party and the Liberal–National coalition. The Australian Greens and smaller left-leaning parties tend to ally with Labor, while rural-oriented and 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.
Concerns about foreign interference in politics, particularly from China, persisted during 2018. Chinese actors had allegedly funded particular candidates and parties, and a senator resigned in 2017 due to his financial ties with companies linked to the Chinese government. Responding to these concerns, the government passed a law in November banning foreign donations to political parties, independent candidates, and other political campaign groups. Additionally, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which was passed in June and came into force in December, requires persons who engage in political activities, such as lobbying, on behalf of a foreign government or other entity, to register publicly.
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 members of Parliament have reported being bullied, intimidated, and harassed. 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. In December 2018, Prime Minister Morrison announced the formation of a new anticorruption commission, although Labor politicians criticized the commission for lacking transparency and holding limited power.
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.
Suppression orders can sometimes inhibit journalism. For example, a judge in Victoria issued a suppression order that largely prevented reporting on the trial of Cardinal George Pell, an Australian Vatican official convicted of sexual assault in December 2018. While the order aimed to prevent jeopardizing potential future trials involving the cardinal, it was criticized for stifling reporting on a story of great public interest.
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.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is generally respected. However, in 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. The government passed a number of laws in recent years increasing its surveillance powers. In December 2018, the government passed the Assistance and Access Act, which requires technology companies to provide law enforcement agencies with access to encrypted communications on grounds that include preventing terrorism and crime. Rights groups criticized the new law’s broad reach, relative lack of oversight, and steep fines for companies that do not comply.
A data retention law that came into effect in 2017 requires telecommunications companies to store users’ metadata for two years. The law sparked concerns about the government’s ability to track mobile and online communications. 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.
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. Earlier versions of the bill passed in November 2018 banning foreign donations to political parties also sought to limit donations to certain charities from foreign entities, which raised concerns that it would severely impact the ability of NGOs to function. However, after pressure from Labor and the Greens, the bill was amended to specify that it does not apply to charities and advocacy groups.
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 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.
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.
Religious exemptions within the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 allow for the expulsion of students and dismissal of teachers on the basis of their sexual orientation. While it appears that this power is rarely exercised, some recent examples of discrimination have come to light. In October 2018, parts of a religious freedom report commissioned by the government in late 2017 were published, which contained recommendations that schools retain the right to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Prime Minister Morrison has faced pressure from rights groups to remove the exemptions and from religious groups to retain and even bolster them. Responding to the controversy, Morrison unveiled a bill in December aimed at protecting LGBT students from discrimination.
Domestic and international condemnation of Australia’s harsh asylum and immigration policies persisted in 2018. Rights groups and other observers continued to condemn 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. The offshore processing center on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea was closed in 2017, and asylum seekers in offshore detention centers in Nauru have been increasingly transferred to Australia. However, over 1,000 people remained in detention on Manus Island and Nauru at the end of 2018.
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 2017, the government amended the law to narrow the scope of information that would qualify as protected information, thus lessening 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 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 November 2018, Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act, requiring large businesses to be more transparent about potential slavery in their supply chains and to make efforts to address the problem. While the law, which takes effect in early 2019, has been largely viewed favorably, some critics have noted that it fails to impose penalties for noncompliance.