Freedom in the World
The Australian government continued in 2011 to struggle with an influx of asylum seekers, mostly from South Asia, and violent outbreaks at detention centers. In August, the High Court ruled against a controversial plan to exchange asylum seekers in Australia for refugees in Malaysia. In late 2011, parliament passed a controversial package of bills that would introduce a tax on some carbon dioxide emissions.
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. Labor emerged from the 2007 elections with 83 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives and 32 in the 76-seat Senate, allowing party leader Kevin Rudd to replace John Howard of the Liberal Party as prime minister.
The Rudd government reversed a number 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 detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea that the Howard government had created in response to an influx of asylum seekers from South Asia, and pledged to resolve asylum claims within a year. However, by the end of 2008, the government was forced to open a new detention center on Christmas Island to receive an increasing number of migrants; by the first week of December 2010, 82 boats with nearly 4,000 asylum seekers were stopped, or 1,000 more than the total for 2009. Public sentiment on both sides of the issue intensified as asylum seekers 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, having been buffeted by 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 booming coal and iron-ore industries, and a failed effort to adopt carbon-emissions trading. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard was chosen to replace Rudd, making her the country’s first female prime minister. She called snap elections for August, and the campaign centered on issues including the economy, health care, the national debt, and immigration. The number of Labor Party seats fell to 72 in the House, compared with a total of 73 seats for the conservative parties. The Greens took one seat, and four seats went to independents. After two weeks of intense negotiations, Labor secured support from the Greens’ member and three independents, and Gillard announced a new cabinet in September.
In response to the continuing issue of asylum seekers, the new Labor government negotiated an agreement with Afghanistan in January 2011 for the involuntary repatriation of Afghans who fail to meet refugee criteria; however, the government had yet to carry out any such repatriations by year’s end. Six months later, the Australian government announced an agreement to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia in exchange for receiving 4,000 refugees from Malaysia for permanent resettlement over the next four years. While authorities said the plan was intended to deter the smuggling of asylum seekers to Australia, the High Court ruled in August that it was unlawful on the grounds that Malaysia does not offer adequate refugee protection. The government dropped the plan in October. Also in 2011, asylum seekers at the Christmas Island detention facility turned to violence, suicide, and hunger strikes to voice their discontent with living conditions at the center and the pace of processing their applications. In March and July, asylum seekers on Christmas Island clashed with security personnel and burned buildings.
In October and November, the House and the Senate, respectively, passed a controversial package of bills that would introduce a tax on some carbon dioxide emissions, in an effort to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Under the bills, Australia’s top 500 carbon emitters—including companies in the lucrative energy and mining sectors—would be hit by the tax starting on July 1, 2012. In 2015, the tax would be replaced with an emissions permit trading system. The bills drew strong protests from industry, the Liberal Party, and the public due to concerns about its effect on the economy and jobs.
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 the 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 8 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
There are no constitutional protections for freedom 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. In September 2011, the government announced an inquiry to determine whether the media used illegal means to collect protected information in the wake of a phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom involving News Ltd., which controls some two-thirds of Australia’s newspaper market.
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 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.
Since the beginning of 2011, the military has been embroiled in a series of scandals involving rape, homophobia, bullying, and sexual predation. More than 1,000 allegations were registered by late August. In September, a navy male cadet was convicted of raping a female cadet; in December, a navy commander was found guilty of abusing a female subordinate by spanking her. In November, the Human Rights Commissioner released an initial review stating that culture change is needed. Meanwhile, in September the government lifted a ban on women in combat roles.
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 in recent years. The number of South Asian applications to universities in Australia fell for two consecutive years in the 2010 and 2011 academic years, which run from mid-January to mid-December.
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. In September 2011, the government announced that women in the military could serve in combat positions. Violence against women remains a serious problem, particularly within the Aboriginal population. Homosexuals 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. A 2010 law allows prosecution of Australians for sex crimes committed overseas and imposes prison terms of up to 25 years for sex crimes against children. In July 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 A$5,500 (US$5,384).