U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Australia

AUSTRALIA   Australia has a federal system of government and a long history as a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The judiciary is independent. Federal, state, and local police are under the firm control of civilian authorities and carry out their functions in accordance with the law. A highly developed economy, which includes manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and services, provides most people with a high per capita income. A wide range of government programs offers assistance for the minority of relatively disavantaged citizens. Laws provide for basic human rights; the Government respects and enforces these laws. The Government administers many programs to improve the socioeconomic conditions of Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders, who together form about 2 percent of the population, and to address longstanding discrimination against them. A national study documented credible allegations that police have used excessive force against juvenile aborigine detainees. Societal discrimination and violence against women are problems, which, however, are being actively addressed.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings. According to a February Australian Institute of Criminology report, there was a 12 percent increase (74 deaths in 1993 versus 83 in 1994) in total deaths in police and prison custody during the 12-month period ending in June 1994. The number of Aboriginal deaths in custody increased from 7 to 11. The same report shows that non-aborigine deaths in custody increased from 49 to 51. The incidence of deaths per 1,000 prisoners was 4.44 for aborigine detainees versus 3.65 for non-aborigine detainees. In the state of Victoria, at least eight people in 1995 were shot dead by police. There have been allegations in the print media and among human rights groups of pervasive police use of excessive force in the apprehension of suspects. Four separate investigations into the shootings were carried out by the state government and the police. These recommended a vigorous plan of action, including additional training techniques in nonviolent apprehension, and new equipment for police officers. In all, there were 22 fatal police shootings in Victoria between 1988 and 1995, 5 of which involved people with histories of mental illness.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits all such practices, and there were no reports that officials employed them. Prison conditions meet international standards and the Government permits visits by human rights monitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, and the Government observes this prohibition in practice.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the executive and legislative branches respect its provisions. There is a well-developed system of federal and state courts, with the High Court at its apex. Almost all criminal trials are conducted by courts established under state and territorial legislation. The Federal Court and the High Court have very limited roles to play. When trials are conducted in local courts, the magistrates sit alone. In the higher courts, namely the state district or county courts and the state or territory supreme courts, trials are usually conducted by judge and jury. The jury decides on the facts and verdict after a trial conducted by a judge. The law provides for the right to a fair trial, and the judiciary vigorously enforces this right. There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits such practices. The authorities generally respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject to effective legal sanction.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

There is no bill of rights. In two decisions, the High Court indicated that freedom of political discourse is implied in the Constitution. The Government respects these rights in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Although these freedoms are not codified in law, citizens exercise them without government restriction.

c. Freedom of Religion

Citizens have complete freedom of religion. A provision of the Constitution precludes the adoption of a state religion.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The law provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. The Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The Government has continued to forcibly repatriate persons who it has determined do not have a valid claim to refugee status. Private human rights and refugee lobby groups maintain that the Government's refugee and asylum adjudication process is applied inconsistently. Under the Migration Reform Act of 1992, asylum seekers who arrived at the border without prior authorization to enter the country were automatically detained. In November and December 1994, there was a dramatic, but temporary, increase in the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat, mostly from southern China, bringing the annual total to 952. The majority of asylum seekers were detained for the duration of the often-prolonged asylum process. The detention policy has been an intractable issue. The policy has led to extensive litigation initiated by human rights and refugee lobbies charging that the lengthy detentions (in some instances involving children and lasting several years) violate the human rights of the refugees. In September the Government's Human Rights Commissioner, Chris Sidoti, initiated an investigation of alleged human rights violations arising from the prolonged detention.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. No legal impediments exist to prevent women and indigenous people from holding public office. However, historical patterns of bias against women and the deleterious effects of poor educational achievement and a generally inferior socioeconomic status for indigenous people have contributed to their underrepresentation among political leaders. Approximately 14 percent of Members of Parliament (M.P.'s) are women. There are no Aboriginals serving as M.P.'s. The Government and the opposition have both declared their intent to increase the number of women elected to public office, but little progess has been made since these declarations.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A wide variety of human rights groups operate without government restriction (and in some instances with government funding), investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are very cooperative and responsive to their views.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The law prohibits discrimination based on the above listed factors, and the Government and an independent judiciary vigorously enforce the prohibition.


Social analysts and commentators estimate that domestic violence may affect as many as one family in three or four. Government statisticians stress that, because of underreporting and the lack of an agreed method for collecting statistics, it is impossible to provide an accurate national profile of the number of women who are victims of domestic violence. The Government is in the last tranche of a well-received national 3-year community education campaign about domestic violence and the legal recourse available to victims. Women have equal status under the law, and the law provides for pay equity. There are highly organised and effective private and public women's rights organisations at the federal, state and local levels. There is a federal-level Office of the Status of Women which monitors women's rights. The Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner receives complaints and attempts to resolve those that are deemed valid. A 1994 U.N. report estimated that women receive approximately 90 percent of wages paid to men for substantially similar work. A government-funded advisory body reported in 1994 that women face systemic discrimination within the legal system. The report indicated that discrimination against women permeates law, judicial interpretation, and women's access to legal services.


The Government demonstrates its strong commitment to children's rights and welfare through its well-funded systems of public education and medical care. There is no pattern of societal abuse against children. The Federal Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission receives complaints and attempts to resolve those it finds valid. Similarily, the six states and two territories investigate complaints of neglect or child abuse and institute practical measures aimed at protecting the child when such complaints prove founded.

People with Disabilities

The Government has enacted legislation which prohibits discrimination against disabled persons in employment, education, or other state services. The Disability Discrimination Commissioner promotes compliance with federal laws prohibiting discrimination against disabled persons. The Commissioner also promotes more energetic implementation and enforcement of state laws that protect the rights of disabled persons. State and territory governments have not enacted legislation mandating the provision of accessibility for the disabled. It is lawful to deny employment or services to those with disabilities if there are reasonable grounds for believing that the disabled person would be unable to carry out the work or would require the employer or service provider to furnish services or facilities which could not reasonably be supplied. State and territory courts have upheld or dismissed suits brought by disabled plaintiffs on a case-by-case basis. Attempts by physically impaired people to use antidiscrimination legislation in broader battles have not been successful to date.

Indigenous People

The Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin. The Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs, in conjunction with the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission (ATSIC), has the main responsibility for initiating, coordinating, and monitoring all governmental efforts to improve the quality of life of indigenous peoples. A wide variety of government initiatives and programs seek to improve all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander life. In practice, however, indigenous Australians continue to experience significantly higher rates of imprisonment, inferior access to medical and educational services, greatly reduced life-expectancy rates, elevated levels of unemployment, and general discrimination which contribute to an overwhelming feeling of disenfranchisement. Indigenous people are imprisoned 16 times more than nonindigenous people. Over 45 percent of aborigine men between the ages of 20 and 30 have been arrested at some time in their lives. The prison representation rate for indigenous juvenile offenders is almost 20 times that of nonindigenous juveniles. Indigenous groups claim that the Government's lack of response to a series of recommendations by the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody contributes to these disturbing statistics. The Government acknowledges that socioeconomic conditions give rise to the common precursors of indigenous crime, e.g., unemployment, homelessness, and boredom. Police harassment of indigenous people and racial discrimination by police and prison custodians persists. A 1994 University of Melbourne study of 171 aborigine juveniles in custody stated that 85 percent reported being hit, punched, kicked, or slapped by police. Preliminary data suggest that the problems highlighted by the 1994 study continued in 1995. Most of the juveniles interviewed had complaints concerning violence occurring after apprehension and during questioning about alleged offenses. Government statistics have confirmed the common perception among indigenous people that they are systematically ill-treated by police. Government reports have suggested that the pursuit of economic self-determination for indigenous people will greatly assist in solving the crime problems in indigenous communities and the inequities in rates of imprisonment. The average life expectancy of an indigenous person is 20 years less than that of a nonindigenous person. The infant mortality rate for indigenous children is three times that of nonindigenous children. The maternal mortality rate for indigenous women is five times that of nonindigenous women. The incidence of illnesses such as tuberculosis, leprosy, hepatitis, and of sexually transmitted diseases is 10 times greater among indigenous people. A national survey indicated that 22.5 percent of indigenous children complete secondary education versus 76.2 percent of nonindigenous children. Only 7 percent of Aboriginals pursue postsecondary education. The Government has initiated programs, including a 1 billion Australian dollar (US$ 750 million) Indigenous Land Fund and a Federal Social Justice Package, aimed at ameliorating the challenges faced by indigenous Australians. The Government is also seeking ways to improve upon 1993 Native Title Legislation which has been largely unsuccesful in assisting aborigines to establish and pursue title to land.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Australian law and practice provide workers, including public servants, freedom of association domestically and internationally. Approximately 35 percent of the work force is unionized. Although unions carry out their internal functions free from government or political control, most local affiliates belong to state branches of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Union members must make up at least 50 percent of the delegates to ALP congresses, but unions do not participate or vote as a bloc. There are no restrictions on the right to strike. Legislation which went into force on March 30, 1994 for the first time legalized what had always been a de facto right to strike. Laws and regulations prohibit retribution against strikers and labor leaders, and they are effectively enforced. In practice, employers tend to avoid legal remedies (e.g., secondary boycott injunctions) available to them in order to preserve a long-term relationship with their unions. Since 1992 the federal Labor Government has used its adherence to International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions to override state objections to new labor relations legislation. Recent major provisions (right to strike, parental leave, pay equity, minimum wage, and protection from unfair dismissals and hiring discrimination) were deliberately based on ILO conventions and recommendations, as well as on broader international conventions and covenants. Unions may freely form and join federations or confederations, and they actively participate in international bodies.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Australian law and practice provide workers with the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the law protects them from antiunion discrimination. Federal and state governments administer centralized, minimum-wage awards and provide quasi-judicial arbitration, supplemented by industrywide or company-by-company collective bargaining. Government legislation has aimed to facilitate decentralized collective bargaining, keyed to individual enterprises, in order to relate wage increases more directly to gains in productivity. Workers can trade fringe benefits for greater wage increases, but must register their agreement with the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC), which insures that they suffer no net disadvantage. The legislation also created an industrial relations court to adjudicate disputes, especially the failure to bargain in good faith, arising from the increased use of enterprise bargaining. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Although there are no laws prohibiting it, forced labor is not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

There is no federally mandated minimum age for employment, but state-imposed compulsory education requirements, monitored and enforced by state educational authorities, effectively prevent most children from joining the work force until they are 15 or 16 years of age. Federal and state governments monitor and enforce a network of laws, which vary from state to state, governing the minimum school-leaving age, the minimum age to claim unemployment benefits, and the minimum age to engage in specified occupations.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Although a formal minimum wage exists, it has not been relevant in setting wages since the 1960's. Instead, 80 percent of workers are covered by differing minimum wage rates for individual trades and professions, all of which are sufficient to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. However, the recent growth of cottage industry, especially in the manufacture of clothing, prompted a government-funded report in March which spawned a Senate motion to inquire about outwork reform. Most workers are employees of incorporated organizations. For them, a complex body of government regulations, as well as decisions of applicable federal or state industrial relations commissions, prescribe a 40-hour or shorter workweek, paid vacations, sick leave, and other benefits, including at least one 24-hour rest period per week. Federal or state safety laws apply to every workplace. The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act of 1991 provides federal employees with the legal right to cease work if they believe that particular work activities pose an immediate threat to individual health or safety. Most states and territories have laws that grant similar rights to their employees. At a minimum, private sector employees have recourse to state health and safety commissions, which will investigate complaints and demand remedial action.

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