Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Status: Free
Population: 19,900,000
GNI/Capita: $19,900
Life Expectancy: 80
Religious Groups: Anglican (26 percent), Roman Catholic (26 percent), other Christian (24.3 percent), non-Christian (11 percent), other (12.7 percent)
Ethnic Groups: White (92 percent), Asian (7 percent), other, including aboriginal (1 percent)
Capital: Canberra


On the domestic front, illegal immigration and the government's responses to it continued to create headlines in Australia's local media in 2003. In international affairs, Australia was an active force in helping to restore peace and order in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and in promoting regional cooperation to counter terrorism. Australia's involvement in fighting terrorism also went beyond the region, with the country committing troops to the U.S.-led Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Claimed by the British in 1770, Australia gained independence in January 1901 as a commonwealth of six states. The government adopted the Northern Territories and the capital territory of Canberra as territorial units in 1911. The Labor Party and the conservative Liberal Party are the dominant parties. Prime Minister John Howard of the Liberal Party and the rural-based National Party coalition has been in power since 1996.

A surge in illegal immigration has prompted the government to tighten immigration laws. There is considerable public support for these new measures despite international criticism and challenges by some human rights advocates. The government tried to limit legal challenges on judgments made by the Refugee Review Tribunal, an independent body that examines decisions of the immigration department. In February 2003, the High Court ruled that applicants would be allowed to challenge judgments if they could prove, within strict time limits, that the tribunal had made mistakes. The government said the appeals system needed reform and that the fourfold increase in court cases overburdened the system and taxpayers when few could be proven. Official figures show that in 2001, only 100 out of more than 2,500 appeals lodged were successful. Nevertheless, a federal court ruled in April that the government has no power to detain asylum seekers prior to deportation when they have been refused permission to enter another country.

As a result of these rulings, the government decided in July to increase the number of refugees taken from offshore immigration detention centers that do not have third-country options. More than 700 refugees processed on Nauru and PNG have been resettled in other countries. The government also agreed to give permanent residency to nearly half of 1,400 East Timorese asylum seekers.

Since a ceasefire was reached in Bougainville in 1998, Australia has sent 3,500 military personnel and 300 monitors to PNG. A new multilateral transition team, led by Australia, took over the peace process from the UN Observers Mission at the end of June. Australia also sent troops, police, and other personnel to the Solomon Islands in July to lead a multinational force to restore law and order after years of ethnic warfare. And in August, Australia pledged $10 million to build a regional police training center in Fiji to support law, justice, and police reforms in South Pacific nations.

An Australian foreign policy white paper warned that weakened states in the South Pacific are vulnerable to terrorist activity, as reflected in growing corruption, lawlessness, and instability. This "arc of instability" north of Australia included PNG, Vanuatu, and Fiji. Australia signed antiterrorism accords with Fiji in February and the Philippines in May, following similar treaties with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand in 2002. The treaties commit these countries to increasing cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence and information sharing, and other initiatives to disrupt terrorists and their financial backers. Canberra's call for public sector reform, improved law and order, policing, judicial reform, and increased accountability for aid money in PNG stirred tensions between the two countries. Australia is the largest donor to PNG, providing aid worth $300 million annually.

Canberra's decision to send 2,000 troops to Iraq sparked sharp debates and antiwar protests in many of the country's larger cities. When order broke down at a protest in Sydney in March, with demonstrators hurling chairs and bottles at the police, the government threatened legal action to prevent further rallies if protest organizers could not commit to peaceful protests.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Australia is a constitutional democracy with a federal parliamentary form of government. Citizens participate in free and fair multiparty elections to choose representatives to the parliament.

The constitution does not provide for freedom of speech and of the press, but citizens and the media freely criticize the government without reprisal. In a rare instance of government intervention, the government announced in March that it is monitoring and blocking electronic mail messages sent to its troops in Iraq. Messages that are "negative, inappropriate, and not supportive" would be blocked to protect the morale of Australian troops involved in the U.S.-led military action to oust the Iraqi regime. Freedom of religion is respected.

The rights of assembly and association are not codified in law, but the government respects these rights in practice. Workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively, but the Federal Workplace Relations Act of 1996 has imposed numerous restrictions. Critics charge that this law has made it more difficult for unions to get into workplaces and organize workers. This law also abolished closed shops and union demarcations.

The judiciary is independent, but aborigines say they are routinely mistreated and discriminated by police and prison officials. Indeed, the Aboriginal population suffers from general discrimination, a disproportionately high level of unemployment (three times that of the general population), inferior access to medical care and education, and a life expectancy 20 years shorter than that for the nonindigenous population. Aboriginal people are also under-represented at all levels of political leadership and have imprisonment rates 15 times higher than that of the general population.

Aboriginal groups have called for an official apology for the "Stolen Generation" of Aboriginal children who were taken from their parents by the government from 1910 until the early 1970s and raised by foster parents and in orphanages. Government officials have stood firm against such an apology, reasoning that the present generation has no responsibility to apologize for the wrongs of a previous generation.

Australia began to tighten its immigration policy following a marked increase in illegal migrants, mostly from the Middle East, during the 1998-2001 period. In one instance, more than 430 mainly Afghani migrants tried to sail to Australia in 2001. Canberra refused to grant them entry to Australia when a Norwegian commercial freighter that rescued them in the Indian Ocean tried to turn them over to Australia. Canberra transferred them to Australian-funded refugee holding facilities in Nauru and PNG.

Many people, particularly legal immigrants, complained that these boat refugees are "queue jumpers." The government cited this complaint as a reason for the Migration Amendment Bill in 2001. This law removed barred noncitizens from applying for "permanent protection visas" (which allows the person to live and work permanently in Australia as a refugee) if entry was unlawful and occurred in one of several "excised" territories along the country's northern arc: Christmas Island, Ashmore and Cartier Islands, the Cocos Islands, and resource installations designated by the government. All such foreign nationals would be detained and released pending full adjudication of their asylum claim.

Although women enjoy equal rights and freedoms, violence against women is a growing problem, particularly within the Aboriginal population.

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