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Australia Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997.



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 disadvantaged citizens.

The Government respected the human rights of its citizens, and the law and judiciary provide effective means of dealing with instances of individual abuse. 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. Societal discrimination and violence against women are problems, that are being actively addressed.


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.

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.

Human rights observers allege a pattern of mistreatment and abuse of indigenous people by police (see Section 5).

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.

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, government 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

Australia does not have a bill of rights. In two decisions, the High Court has 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 rights are not codified in law, citzens 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 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. There is no provision for first asylum. The Government either grants a protection visa, with full residence and employment rights in Australia, or refuses it, with no in-between measures. The Government has continued to forcibly expel persons who it has determined do not have a valid claim to refugee status. 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 1994, asylum seekers who arrive at the border without prior authorization to enter the country are automatically detained, but may be released from detention if they meet certain criteria--including age, ill-health, and experiences of torture or other trauma. The majority of asylum seekers are detained for the duration of the often-prolonged review process. The detention policy has led to extensive litigation initiated by human rights and refugee lobbies charging that the sometimes lengthy detentions violate the human rights of the asylum seekers.

In 1994-95, Australia accepted 13,362 migrants under the humanitarian program, which accepts refugees and those in refugee-like situations in urgent need of resettlement. In addition, 1,407 persons (out of 8,802 applicants) already in Australia were granted refugee status in the same period. Regular migration figures for this period were 44,500 in the family category and 30,400 in the skills category.

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 and mandatory voting. On March 2, 13 years of Labor Party government at the federal level ended when voters returned a Liberal-National Party coalition Government to power in the House of Representatives.

No legal impediments 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 22 percent of Members of Parliament (M.P.'s) are women. The percentage increased from 14 percent as a result of the 1996 election. There are no Aboriginals serving as M.P.'s.

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 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. The Government recognizes that domestic violence and economic discrimination are serious problems, and the statutorily independent Sex Discrimination Commissioner actively addresses these problems and other areas of discrimination. Government statisticians state 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.

Women have equal status under the law, and the law provides for pay equity. There are highly organized 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.


The Government demonstrates its strong commitment to children's rights and welfare through its well-funded systems of public education, day care, and medical care. 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. The Government has enacted strict new legislation aimed at restricting the trade in, and possession of, child pornography and which further allows suspected pedophiles to be tried in Australia regardless of where the crime was committed. There is no societal pattern of abuse.

People with Disabilities

Legislation 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 energetic implementation and enforcement of state laws that require equal access and otherwise protect the rights of disabled persons.

There is no federal legislation mandating the uniform 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 provided.

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 people. 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 infrastructures, greatly reduced life expectancy rates, elevated levels of unemployment, and general discrimination which contribute to an overwhelming feeling of disenfranchisement.

Nationally, indigenous people are imprisoned at over 15 times the rate of nonindigenous people. Over 45 percent of Aboriginal men between the ages of 20 and 30 have been arrested at some time in their lives. The incarceration rate for indigenous juvenile offenders is 21 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. Human rights observers claim that socioeconomic conditions give rise to the common precursors of indigenous crime, e.g., unemployment, homelessness, and boredom.

During a 12-month reporting period ending in July, 21 Aboriginal people were reported to have died in custody or during police operations. The five Aborigines who died "under the custodial authority of the police" all died of injuries which were not inflicted by the police. Injuries were suffered in fights or accidents before the prisoners were taken into custody. The 16 Aborigines who died in prison died of hanging (7), natural causes (7), and injuries (2). Of the seven who died of natural causes, five died of cardiovascular disease. This is the highest number of Aboriginal deaths in custody in a single 12-month period since records were first collected in 1980. Each death in custody is subject to a full and complete coroner's inquiry; no police have been charged with causing deaths in custody since 1980. Although indigenous people make up only 1.3 percent of the total adult population over 14 years of age, they account for almost 14 percent of the prison population and approximately a quarter of custody-related deaths. During the same time frame, 65 non-Aborigines died in police custody or during police operations.

Indigenous groups charge that police harassment of indigenous people is pervasive and that racial discrimination among police and prison custodians persists. A human rights delegation that visited Australia in March alleged a pattern of ill-treatment and arbitrary arrests occurring against a backdrop of systematic discrimination. In one study, 85 percent of juvenile indigenous suspects reported being hit, punched, kicked, or slapped by police. Most of the juveniles interviewed had complained about violence occurring after apprehension and during questioning about alleged offenses. Government statistics confirm 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 would greatly assist in solving the crime problems in indigenous communities and the inequitites in rates of imprisonment.

The average life expectancy of an indigenous person is 17 years less than that of a nonindigenous person. The infant mortality rate for indigenous children is 3 times that of nonindigenous children. The maternal mortality rate for indigenous women is 5 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 than nonindigenous people. Data indicate that 22.5 percent of indigenous children complete secondary education versus 76.2 percent of nonindigenous children. Calendar year 1995 figures from the Department of Education, Employment and Training show that the participation rate in university education for Aborigines is 2.4 percent (up from 1.8 percent in 1991) compared to 2.7 percent for non-Aborigines.

Government programs, including a $750 million Indigenous Land Fund and a Federal Social Justice Package, aim at ameliorating the real 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

The law and practice provide workers, including public servants, freedom of association domestically and internationally. Approximately 35 percent of the work force is unionized.

Unions carry out their functions free from government or political control, but 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 that 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.

Unions may freely form and join federations or confederations, and they actively participate in international bodies.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The 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.

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, which insures that they suffer no net disadvantage. Legislation also provides for 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 minimum school-leaving age, minimum age to claim unemployment benefits, and minimum age to engage in specified occupations.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Although a formal minimum wage exists, it has not been relevant in wage agreements 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.

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.

[end of document]


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