Australia is a constitutional democracy with a freely elected federal parliamentary government. In a free and fair federal parliamentary election in May 2019, the Liberal Party and National Party coalition was re-elected with a majority of 77 seats in the 151-seat House of Representatives. The House subsequently reconfirmed Scott Morrison as prime minister.
The Australian Federal Police (federal police), an independent agency of the Department of Home Affairs, and state and territorial police forces are responsible for internal security. The federal police enforces national laws and state and territorial police forces enforce state and territorial laws. The Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force are responsible for migration and border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. The Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force is conducting an independent inquiry into allegations that members of the Special Forces may have committed abuses in Afghanistan.
Significant human rights issues included credible allegations of deaths related to neglect or abuse in prison and occasional neglect or mistreatment of prisoners, especially Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander persons or persons with disabilities.
The government took steps to prosecute officials accused of abuses, and ombudsmen, human rights bodies, and internal government mechanisms responded effectively to complaints.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men and women, including spousal rape, and the government enforced the law effectively. The laws of individual states and territories provide the penalties for rape. Maximum penalties range from 12 years to life imprisonment, depending on the jurisdiction and aggravating factors.
The law prohibits violence against women, including domestic abuse, and the government enforced the law. The laws of individual states and territories provide the penalties for domestic violence. In the largest jurisdiction, New South Wales, domestic violence offenses cover acts of personal violence (such as stalking, intimidation, or strangulation) committed against a person with whom the offender has (or had) a domestic relationship. For domestic-violence offenses, courts must impose a full-time prison sentence unless a valid exception applies. In the case of strangulation, an offense associated with domestic violence, the maximum penalty is five years’ imprisonment.
Violence against women remained a problem, particularly in indigenous communities. Indigenous women were 32 times as likely to be hospitalized due to family violence as nonindigenous women, according to a 2018 report.
According to a 2019 statement by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of women who experienced partner violence in the last decade remained relatively stable. Women were more likely than men to be victims of domestic violence, including homicide, across all states and territories. In July a survey of 15,000 women by the Australian Institute of Criminology revealed more than half of women who had experienced physical or sexual violence before the COVID-19 pandemic said violence had become more frequent. The research found 8.8 percent of women in a relationship experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former cohabiting partner between February and May.
Federal and state government programs provide support for victims, including funding for numerous women’s shelters. Police received training in responding to domestic violence. Federal, state, and territorial governments collaborated on the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-22, the first effort to coordinate action at all levels of government to reduce violence against women.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment. Complaints of sexual harassment can lead to criminal proceedings or disciplinary action against the defendant and compensation claims by the plaintiff. The Human Rights Commission receives complaints of sexual harassment as well as sex discrimination. The penalties vary across states and territories.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. State and territorial governments provided comprehensive sex education and sexual health and family planning services. Women had access to contraception and skilled medical care, including attendance by skilled health-care workers during pregnancy and childbirth. Indigenous persons in isolated communities had more difficulty accessing such services than the population in general. Cultural factors and language barriers also inhibited use of sexual health and family planning services by indigenous persons, and rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy among the indigenous population were higher than among the general population. Government, at national and state and territory levels, provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The law provides the same legal status and rights for women and men, including under laws related to family, religion, personal status, labor, property, nationality, and inheritance, as well as employment, credit, pay, owning or managing businesses, education, and housing. The government enforced the law effectively.
Employment discrimination against women occurred, and there was a much-publicized “gender pay gap” (see section 7.d.).
The Law Council of Australia and other civil society groups campaigned for all Australian jurisdictions to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.
Birth Registration: Children are citizens if at least one parent is a citizen or permanent resident at the time of the child’s birth. Children born in the country to parents who are not citizens or permanent residents acquire citizenship on their 10th birthday, if they lived the majority of their life within the country. Failure to register does not result in denial of public services. In general births were registered promptly.
Child Abuse: State and territorial child protection agencies investigate and initiate prosecutions for child neglect or abuse. All states and territories have laws or guidelines that require members of certain designated professions to report suspected child abuse or neglect. The federal government’s role in the prevention of child abuse includes funding for research, carrying out education campaigns, developing action plans against commercial exploitation of children, and funding community-based parenting programs.
The rate of indigenous children on care and protection orders was nearly seven times greater than the nonindigenous rate.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18 for both boys and girls. Persons age 16 to 18 may apply to a judge or magistrate for an order authorizing marriage to a person who has attained 18 years; the marriage of the minor also requires parental or guardian consent. Two persons younger than age 18 may not marry each other; reports of marriages involving a person younger than age 18 were rare. Forced marriage is a criminal offense. In 2019 the government expanded the definition of forced marriage explicitly to capture all marriages involving children younger than age 16. The government reported an increase in the number of forced marriage investigations, but the practice remained rare.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law provides a maximum penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment for commercial sexual exploitation of children and was effectively enforced.
The law prohibits citizens and residents from engaging in, facilitating, or benefiting from sexual activity with children overseas who are younger than age 16 and provides for a maximum sentence of 17 years’ imprisonment for violations. The government continued its awareness campaign to deter child sex tourism through distribution of pamphlets to citizens and residents traveling overseas.
The legal age for consensual sex ranges from ages 16 to 18 by state. Penalties for statutory rape vary across jurisdictions. Defenses include reasonable grounds for believing the alleged victim was older than the legal age of consent and situations in which the two persons are close in age.
All states and territories criminalize the possession, production, and distribution of child pornography. Maximum penalties for these offenses range from four to 21 years’ imprisonment. Federal laws criminalize using a “carriage service” (for example, the internet) for the purpose of possessing, producing, and supplying child pornography. The maximum penalty for these offenses is a possibly substantial fine and 15 years’ imprisonment. Under federal law, suspected pedophiles can be tried in the country regardless of where the crime was committed, and the maximum penalty for persistent sexual abuse of a child outside the country is 25 years’ imprisonment.
The government largely continued federal emergency intervention measures to combat child sexual abuse in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, following findings of high levels of child sexual abuse and neglect in a 2007 inquiry. These measures included emergency bans on sales of alcohol and pornography, restrictions on the payment of welfare benefits in cash, linkage of support payments to school attendance, and medical examinations for all indigenous children younger than age 16 in the Northern Territory.
Public reaction to the interventions was mixed, with some indigenous activists asserting there was inadequate consultation and that the measures were racially discriminatory, since nonindigenous persons in the Northern Territory were not initially subject to such restrictions.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
According to the 2016 census, the country’s Jewish community numbered 91,000. The nongovernmental Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported an incremental increase in anti-Semitic incidents every year since 2015. These incidents included vandalism, threats, harassment, and physical and verbal assaults. According to press reports, persons in the country posted comments and shared various images online, portraying the coronavirus as a “Jew,” as well as accusing Jews of creating and spreading the virus.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The government effectively enforced the law.
The disability discrimination commissioner of the Human Rights Commission promotes compliance with federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities. The law also provides for commission mediation of discrimination complaints, authorizes fines against violators, and awards damages to victims of discrimination.
Children with disabilities generally attended school. The government provided funding for early intervention and treatment services and cooperated with state and territorial governments that ran programs to assist students with disabilities.
According to government sources, approximately half of Australians with a disability are employed, compared with approximately 80 percent of all working-age persons.
Of total complaints (2,307) received by the Human Rights Commission in 2019-20, 17 percent related to racial discrimination. The plurality of racial discrimination complaints related to the provision of goods and services (37 percent), with the second largest category being discrimination related to employment (19 percent). One percent of racial discrimination complaints related to access to places and facilities.
Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders constitute the country’s indigenous population. Despite federal and state government initiatives, indigenous peoples and communities continued to have high incarceration rates, high unemployment rates, relatively low levels of education, and high incidences of domestic and family violence, substance abuse, and limited access to health services in comparison with other groups. The National Indigenous Australians Agency has responsibility for policy and programs related to indigenous peoples and communities. The prime minister reports annually to parliament regarding government progress on eliminating indigenous inequalities.
Indigenous groups hold special collective native title rights in limited areas of the country, and federal and state laws enable indigenous groups to claim unused government land. Indigenous ownership of land was predominantly in nonurban areas. Indigenous-owned or -controlled land constituted approximately 20 percent of the country’s area (excluding native title lands) and nearly 50 percent of the land in the Northern Territory. The National Native Title Tribunal resolves conflicts over native land title applications through mediation and acts as an arbitrator in cases where the parties cannot reach agreement about proposed mining or other development of land. Native title rights do not extend to mineral or petroleum resources, and in cases where leaseholder rights and native title rights conflict, leaseholder rights prevail but do not extinguish native title rights.
As part of the intervention to address child sexual abuse in Northern Territory indigenous communities (see section 6, Children), the national government administered indigenous communities directly and has a number of programs that provide funding for indigenous communities.
According to the Bureau of Statistics, while indigenous peoples make up less than 3 percent of the total population, they constituted 27 percent of the full-time adult prison population. Nearly half of the imprisoned indigenous persons were serving sentences for violent offenses. Figures from parliament note that indigenous youth were significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. The data indicates that 68 percent of detained juveniles were from an indigenous background, notably rising to 100 percent of detained juveniles in the Northern Territory in 2019 and 2020, when it was more likely that an indigenous juvenile would be incarcerated than at any other point since 1991, when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was released. An Australian Law Reform Commission study released in March 2018 found that the justice system contributed to entrenching inequalities by not providing enough sentencing options or diversion programs for indigenous offenders.
The Human Rights Commission has an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
No laws criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited by law in a wide range of areas, including employment, housing, family law, taxes, child support, immigration, pensions, care of elderly persons, and social security.
The law provides protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics.