2001 Scores

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

Overview

Following through on its central promise from the 1998 election campaign, John Howard's center-right coalition government introduced a controversial goods and services tax (GST) in July 2000. Howard's government also staked out conservative positions on Aboriginal rights and other social issues ahead of elections due by October 2001.

Claimed by the British in 1770, Australia gained independence in January 1901 as a commonwealth of six states. The government adopted the Northern Territory and the capital territory of Canberra as territorial units in 1911. In the post-World War II era, political power has alternated between the center-left Labor Party and the conservative coalition of the Liberal Party and the smaller, rural-based National Party. Under Bob Hawke and later Paul Keating, Labor governments in the 1980s and early 1990s began cutting tariffs; deregulating financial markets; privatizing transport, telecommunications, and utilities; and reorienting Australia's trade and diplomatic priorities toward Asia.

The Liberal-National coalition took power under Howard after winning the 1996 elections amid a high unemployment rate and an economic slowdown. In its first term, Howard's government aggressively promoted small- and medium-sized businesses, tried to curb the influence of trade unions, and backed the interests of farmers and miners over Aboriginal land claimants. In a defining act, the government backed a stevedoring company's dismissal in 1998 of some 1,400 dock workers in one of Australia's largest labor disputes in decades. A court ultimately ordered the workers reinstated. The government also satisfied demands of farmers and miners by winning parliamentary approval in 1998 for controversial legislation restricting Aboriginal claims to pastoral lands.

Seeking a fresh mandate before the regional crisis that began in 1997 could undermine Australia's economy, Howard led the coalition to victory in elections on October 3, 1998. The Liberal and National parties won 80 lower house seats (64 and 16, respectively); Labor, 66; and independents, 2. The government had campaigned on its handling of the economy, a pledge to introduce the GST while cutting income taxes, and plans to further privatize the state-owned Telstra telecommunications company, despite concerns of rural voters that unprofitable but needed services would be cut. Labor leader Kim Beazley criticized the proposed GST for taxing food and promised a jobs-creation program. The far-right One Nation party won a senate seat with its campaign against Aboriginal land rights and Asian immigration.

Howard's policies toward Australia's Aboriginal minority have continued to be a key issue in the coalition's second term. Despite pressure from activists and many ordinary Australians, Howard said in May 2000 that the government would not apologize formally for past injustices toward Aborigines. The prime minister argued that one generation should not have to apologize for the wrongdoings of another, and downplayed the forced removal of some 100,000 Aboriginal children from their parents in an official assimilation policy between 1910 and the early 1970s. Several marginal parliamentary seats are located in rural areas, where many white voters are considered to be indifferent to Aboriginal issues.

Howard had made a concession on Aboriginal rights in April, when he bowed to pressure from within his own government and ordered the Northern Territory to exclude juveniles from a 1997 mandatory sentencing law. The move came after a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy committed suicide in February while serving a 28-day mandatory sentence for petty theft. Critics said that mandatory sentencing laws in the Northern Territory and Western Australia disproportionately affect Aborigines. However, the federal government can change the law only in the Northern Territory, which is not a state.

In introducing the GST in July, the government risked alienating its supporters among small business owners, who complained about the tax's administrative burden. The senate had narrowly approved the GST in 1999 after the government agreed to an exemption for food.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Australians can change their government through elections. The 1900 constitution established a directly elected bicameral parliament that currently consists of a 76-member senate and a 148-member house of representatives. Lower house elections are held under an alternative vote system in single-member districts. In a November 1999 referendum, voters rejected a plan to replace the Queen of England as head of state with a president elected by parliament. Polls showed that a majority of Australians favored a republic but with a directly elected president.

Fundamental freedoms are respected in practice and safeguarded by an independent judiciary. Australia's primary human rights concerns involve its Aboriginal minority. The 399,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders frequently face discrimination and mistreatment by police; are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites (down from 29 times more likely in the early 1990s), often because they cannot afford a fine or are denied bail for minor offenses; and die in custody at far higher rates than whites. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) said in March that the mandatory sentencing law in the Northern Territory and a less draconian one in Western Australia "appear to target offenses that are committed disproportionately by indigenous Australians." According to the Law Council of Australia, Aborigines constitute roughly 75 percent of the prisoners but only 24 percent of the general population in the Northern Territory.

CERD criticized in 1999 what it called Australia's "racially discriminatory" policies under 1998 amendments to the Native Title Act that restrict Aboriginal claims to state-owned pastoral land. The government countered that under the amended law, 79 percent of Australian land is still subject to native title claims. The government had enacted the amendments at the behest of rural interests, who feared losing land rights after a court ruled in 1996 that under the 1993 Native Title Act, native title could coexist with farming and mining leases on pastoral land. The then-Labor government had passed the act after the high court formally recognized that from a legal standpoint, Aborigines inhabited Australia prior to the British arrival in 1770. Aboriginal groups could therefore claim native title where they had maintained a connection to the land. The act requires the government to compensate Aboriginal groups with valid claims to state land.

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have a life expectancy that is 20 years lower than and an infant mortality rate that is nearly twice as high as corresponding figures for white Australians. Aborigines also face societal discrimination and inferior educational opportunities. The government is generally responsive to these concerns and has undertaken numerous initiatives in health care and education.

In another controversial issue, the official Australian Human Rights Commission has criticized the government's practice of detaining asylum seekers pending resolution of their claims, which can take up to five years. The UN Human Rights Committee said in July that the mandatory immigration detention law "raises questions of compliance" with Australia's international commitments.

Australian trade unions are independent and active, although recent legislation has curbed their power and contributed to a decline in union rolls. 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 the periods when contracts are being negotiated, abolished closed shops, and limited redress for unfair dismissal. The International Labor Organization (ILO) ruled in 1998 that the Workplace Relations Act breaches ILO conventions for failing to promote collective bargaining. The ILO called in March for the government to amend provisions to the act that link strike action to interference in trade, and to amend provisions of the Trade Practices Act that make secondary strikes illegal.

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