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 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Police officers may seek an arrest warrant from a magistrate when a suspect cannot be located or fails to appear, but they also may arrest a person without a warrant if there are reasonable grounds to believe the person committed an offense. Police must inform arrested persons immediately of their legal rights and the grounds for their arrest and must bring arrested persons before a magistrate for a bail hearing at the next session of the court. The maximum investigation period police may hold and question a person without charge is 24 hours, unless extended by court order for up to an additional 24 hours.
Under limited circumstances in terrorism cases, a number of federal and state or territorial laws permit police to hold individuals in preventive detention without charge or questioning for up to 14 days. These laws contain procedural safeguards including on access to information related to lawyer-client communication.
By law the Office of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor helps ensure that counterterrorism laws strike an appropriate balance between protecting the community and protecting human rights. The federal police, the Australian Crime Commission, and intelligence agencies are subject to parliamentary oversight. The inspector general of intelligence and security is an independent statutory officer who provides oversight of the country’s six national intelligence agencies.
Bail generally is available to persons facing criminal charges unless authorities consider the person a flight risk or the charges carry a penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment or more. Authorities granted attorneys and families prompt access to detainees. Government-provided attorneys are available to provide legal advice to and represent detainees who cannot afford counsel.
Arbitrary Arrest: The law allows courts to detain convicted terrorists beyond the expiration of their sentence by up to an additional three years for preventive purposes where there is no less restrictive measure available to prevent the risk posed by the offender to the community. Various human rights organizations criticized this law as allowing the government to detain prisoners arbitrarily.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government respected judicial independence and impartiality.
The law provides for the right to a fair and timely public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. In state district and county courts and in state and territorial supreme courts, a judge and jury try serious offenses. Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and cannot be compelled to testify or confess guilt. They have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges, with free interpretation as necessary from the moment charged through all appeals, the right to an attorney, to be present at their trial, and adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. Government-funded attorneys are available to low-income persons. The defendant’s attorney can question witnesses, present witnesses and evidence, and appeal the court’s decision or the sentence imposed.
News emerged in late 2019 that a man known as both “Witness J” and Alan Johns (a pseudonym) had been prosecuted by the federal government and imprisoned in secret for crimes not made public. Media reports claimed Witness J is a former “senior military officer involved in intelligence” whose imprisonment in Canberra only came to light following a November 2019 judgment in the Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court arising from a dispute related to his treatment in prison. The Australian Capital Territory’s justice minister, Shane Rattenbury, told media in November 2019 he was “deeply disturbed by the extraordinary levels of secrecy surrounding the ‘Witness J’ case” imposed by the federal government, claiming it showed a “growing disregard for the principles of open justice and a robust democracy.” In a statement in December 2019 federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said the matter related to “highly sensitive national security information” that was “of a kind that could endanger the lives or safety of others.” Witness J has since been released from prison after serving a 15-month sentence.
The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, James Renwick, began a review into the Witness J trial in March, stating that “wholly closed criminal proceedings do indeed appear to be unprecedented in Australia, save possibly during the World Wars.” In April Renwick abandoned the review, citing limitations imposed by COVID-19. Renwick’s term concluded on June 30, and it will be up to the new monitor to consider restarting the review of Witness J’s trial.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
Although the constitution does not explicitly provide for freedom of speech or press, the High Court has held that the constitution implies a limited right to freedom of political expression, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
National Security: In May, after the highest federal court ruled in April that a warrant used by federal police in a June 2019 raid on the home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst was defective, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) announced it would not charge Smethurst for her use of classified information in a 2018 article on surveillance of citizens.
In July the federal police asked the federal director of public prosecutions to consider charging an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) journalist for publishing classified information in 2017 reports alleging Australian war crimes in Afghanistan. The AFP raided ABC’s Sydney headquarters in June 2019.
The News Corp and ABC raids (relating to separate reports but occurring in the same month) sparked a national discussion on press freedom, led by a coalition of media organizations calling for more legal protections for journalists and whistleblowers. In August the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security released a report into “the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press.” The committee’s inquiry was initiated by the federal attorney general following public concerns about the two federal police raids. The committee recommended the government make changes to the use of warrants that would establish a “public interest advocate” to contest the issuance of warrants against journalists and media organizations. Media organizations including News Corp and the ABC said the report did not go far enough and continued to seek the ability to contest warrants themselves before raids take place.
c. Freedom of Religion
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
To control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, all state and territory governments, with the exception of Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, enacted interstate border control measures, either outright prohibiting movement, or requiring an enforced mandatory 14-day quarantine period on arrival.
At various times all states and territories also temporarily prohibited or strongly discouraged movement within their borders to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading, especially to rural communities with vulnerable populations. For individuals, significant, for some burdensome, fines were the penalty for breaching social distancing and travel restrictions.
f. Protection of Refugees
The Department of Home Affairs oversees refugee resettlement via the Refugee and Humanitarian Program, which distinguishes between “offshore” and “onshore” individuals. Individuals residing offshore–outside the country–can apply for a refugee visa if they are subject to persecution in their home country; meet the “compelling reasons” criterion; and satisfy health, character, and national security requirements. Individuals who arrived in the country legally (onshore) can apply for a Temporary Protection visa. Persons who seek to enter the country without proper authorization, including preapproval to settle, are considered illegal migrants and subject to detention either in the country or in a third country. Individuals who arrived illegally may apply for a Temporary Protection visa or a Safe Haven Enterprise visa, but it is generally very difficult for them to legalize their status.
Refugee processing centers operated on behalf of Australia in Nauru and Papua New Guinea were closed in March 2019 and October 2017, respectively. As of September 7, approximately 170 refugees or asylum seekers remained in Nauru, housed in community-based facilities funded by the Australian Government. An equivalent number remained in Papua New Guinea.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Domestic and international organizations reported credible allegations of abuse and deteriorating mental health among migrants brought from Nauru and Papua New Guinea for medical treatment and detained in facilities in Brisbane and Melbourne. Alleged abuses included harsh conditions, inadequate mental health and other medical services, assault, and sexual abuse; these also contributed to suicide and self-harm. These organizations also reported suspicious deaths. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that in several cases, family members were not allowed to accompany a relative sent to the country for medical treatment. Government policy required such persons to return to Nauru, Papua New Guinea, or their home country at the conclusion of treatment. The government reported that it provided necessary services to refugees. Months-long protests in Brisbane have sought policy changes, including a change to community detention.
Since the repeal of medevac legislation in December 2019, approval of transfers of asylum seekers and refugees from Nauru and Papua New Guinea–under the off-shore agreements with each country–to Australia for medical treatment not available in the regional processing country remains subject to the discretion of federal ministers. The home affairs minister has approved the medical transfer of 71 persons from Nauru and Papua New Guinea to Australia since the December 2019 repeal; the most recent person arrived from Nauru in July.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status. The government maintains a humanitarian refugee program that includes several types of visas available to refugees for resettlement in the country. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees identifies and refers most applicants considered under the program. The government rejected family reunification as a ground for approval of an asylum request.
The law allows the home affairs minister to enter into agreement with a third country to designate that country as a regional processing country for migrants who attempt to enter the country illegally.
Unauthorized maritime arrivals transferred to a regional processing country have their protection claims assessed by the regional processing country under its domestic laws. Since 2019, persons transferred to these countries were no longer held in camps and resided in community-based accommodation while their claims were processed. Australia has memoranda of understanding on regional processing with Papua New Guinea and Nauru and had such arrangements with Cambodia from 2014-18. The settlement arrangements provide for third-country resettlement of unauthorized maritime arrivals that Nauru or Papua New Guinea assess to need international protection.
Australia has another arrangement with Papua New Guinea for the settlement of persons it assesses need international protection. Under this arrangement, any unauthorized maritime arrival entering Australian waters is liable for transfer to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement there or in any other participating regional states.
Christmas Island was reopened in August to accommodate overflow in Australia’s immigration detention network. The government says it will initially support 250 persons, mostly individuals whose visas were cancelled for character reasons (i.e., persons who served 12 months or more in jail and are pending removal from Australia). The government stated there is no intention to take asylum seekers, including persons from regional processing countries, to Christmas Island.
By law the government must facilitate legal representation when requested (section 256 of the Migration Act). Some government-funded legal assistance remained available for unauthorized maritime arrivals.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement from third countries and funded refugee resettlement services. The Humanitarian Settlement Services program provided case-specific assistance that included finding accommodation, employment or job training programs, language training, registering for income support and health care, and connecting with community and recreational programs.
Temporary Protection: The law permits two temporary protection options for individuals who arrived in the country and were not taken to regional processing countries. The Temporary Protection Visa is valid for three years, and visa holders can work, study, and reside anywhere in the country with access to support services. Once expired, Temporary Protection Visa holders are eligible to reapply for another. The Safe Haven Enterprise Visa is valid for five years and is granted on the basis that visa holders intend to work or study in nonmetropolitan areas. Safe Haven Enterprise Visa holders are eligible to apply for certain permanent or temporary visas after 42 months.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively.
Corruption: All states and territories have anticorruption bodies that investigate alleged government corruption, and every state and territory appoints an ombudsman who investigates and makes recommendations in response to complaints about government decisions. The government also appoints one commonwealth (federal) ombudsman as laws differ between states, and one process or policy cannot always be used across jurisdictions.
The law requires persons and entities who have certain arrangements with, or undertake certain activities on behalf of, foreign principals to register with the government.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires all federal, state, and territorial elected officials to report their financial interests. Failure to do so could result in a finding of contempt of parliament and a possible fine or jail sentence. Federal officeholders must report their financial interests to a register of pecuniary interests, and the report must be made public within 28 days of the individual’s assumption of office. The law prohibits foreign campaign contributions.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Human Rights Commission, an independent organization established by parliament, investigates complaints of discrimination or breaches of human rights under the federal laws that implement the country’s human rights treaty obligations. The commission reports to parliament through the attorney general. Media and nongovernmental organizations deemed its reports accurate and reported them widely. Parliament has a Joint Committee on Human Rights, and federal law requires that a statement of compatibility with international human rights obligations accompany each new bill.
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.).
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
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.
Section 7. Worker Rights
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, color, sex, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV/AIDS status, or refugee or stateless status. Federal, state, and territory laws provide for protections against employment discrimination.
The law requires organizations with 100 or more employees to establish a workplace program to remove barriers to women entering and advancing in their organization. The law requires equal pay for equal work. The government continued efforts to encourage persons under the Disability Support Pension program to enter the workforce when they have the capacity to do so, including by requiring compulsory workforce activities for its recipients younger than age 35 who can work for more than eight hours per week.
The government enforced laws prohibiting employment discrimination and penalties were commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference; however, employment discrimination against women, indigenous persons, and persons with disabilities occurred. According to the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the full-time gender pay gap was 14 percent. The International Labor Organization noted its concern that, despite several government initiatives, indigenous peoples continued to be disadvantaged and that employment targets were not met.
In 2017-18, the latest year for which such data were available, approximately 30 percent of the complaints about disability discrimination received by the Human Rights Commission were in the area of employment.