1998 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.0
Civil Liberties: 1
Political Rights: 1


Buffeted by divisive social and economic issues, Premier John Howard's conservative governing coalition withstood a strong challenge by the resurgent Labor Party in October 1998 elections. Rural farmers and townspeople, stung by globalization, signaled their disillusionment with traditional parties by giving 8.4 percent of the vote to a far right party.

The British claimed Australia in 1770. In 1901, six states gained independence as the Commonwealth of Australia. The Northern Territory and the capital territory of Canberra were added as territorial units in 1911. The Queen of England is the nominal head of state in this parliamentary democracy. The directly elected bicameral parliament consists of a 76-member Senate and a 148-member House of Representatives. Power is vested in a cabinet headed by a prime minister whose party or coalition commands the most support in the House.

Since World War II, political power has alternated between the center-left Labor Party and the center-right coalition of the Liberal Party and the smaller, rural-based National Party. Beginning in 1983, the Labor Party under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating began to cut tariffs and deregulate financial markets to hone the economy for global competition. A decade of restructuring took its toll on ordinary Australians, however, and many viewed Keating as indifferent to the country's high unemployment. In the 1996 elections, the Liberal-National coalition won power with 94 seats. The Labor Party won 49 seats.

In his first term, Howard faced divisive issues that sharpened cleavages over Australia's rural-urban divide and cultural identity. In June 1998, MP Pauline Hanson's far-right One Nation Party, in its first campaign, won 23 percent of the vote in Queensland state elections. One Nation's anti-Aboriginal land rights, anti-Asian immigration, and protectionist platform tapped into rising job insecurity among economically marginalized farmers and townspeople in this conservative, largely rural state. In July, Howard satisfied demands of farmers and miners by winning passage of controversial legislation restricting Aboriginal claims to pastoral lands. Wary that Asia's economic crisis could slow the Australian economy, Howard called an early election for October 3, 1998. The Liberal-National coalition won 70 seats (64 and 16, respectively). The Labor Party won 66. One Nation won 8.39 percent of the popular vote, but Hanson lost her seat. The party's only victory was one Senate seat.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Australians can change their government democratically. Fundamental freedoms are respected. The judiciary is independent, although the official Law Reform Commission reported in the mid-1990s that women face discrimination in the legal system.

Australia's main human rights problem is the treatment of its indigenous population of approximately 386,000 Aborigines and Torres Straits Islanders. Aborigines face arbitrary arrest, systemic discrimination, and mistreatment by police. They are incarcerated at higher rates than whites, often because they cannot afford a fine or are denied bail for minor offenses, and die in custody at far higher rates than whites. A 1997 Amnesty International report found that mistreatment, a systemic lack of care, and inadequate investigations into Aboriginal deaths still characterize the penal system. Gaps in health indicators between the indigenous and white populations are among the highest for developed countries. Aborigines also face societal discrimination and inferior educational opportunities. The government is generally responsive to these concerns, and the 1999 budget boosted Aboriginal healthcare funding.

A landmark 1992 High court ruling formally recognized that, from a legal standpoint, Aborigines inhabited Australia prior to the British arrival. Native title could thus still be valid where Aboriginal groups maintained a connection to the land. The 1993 Native Title Act required the government to compensate groups with valid claims to state land, but left unclear the status of pastoral land (state land leased to farmers and miners), which represents approximately 42 percent of Australian territory. In 1996, the High Court ruled that native title can coexist with pastoral leases, although pastoral rights would take precedence over native title claims. In 1998, farmers and mining companies successfully lobbied for legislation curbing Aboriginal rights to claim title over pastoral land.

In May, the official Human Rights Commission criticized the practice of detaining asylum seekers pending resolution of their claims. Most are Asian boat people, and the strain of detention for up to five years has led to several suicides. Domestic violence is common.

Australian trade unions are independent and active, although recent labor legislation has caused union rolls to decline. The 1994 Industrial Relations Reform Act encouraged the use of workplace contracts linked to productivity rather than industry-wide collective bargaining. The 1997 Workplace Relations Act restricted the right to strike to periods when contracts are being negotiated, abolished closed shops, and limited redress for unfair dismissal. In March 1998, the International Labor Organization (ILO) ruled that the Workplace Relations Act breaches ILO conventions because it does not promote collective bargaining.

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