Moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016: parliamentary politics, freedom of the press, climate change, surveillance

This article is part of a short (albeit growing at the rate of one entry per entry…) series on one person’s perspective on what people might want to know before considering immigrating to Australia as a person with progressive politics, in 2016.

The goal of this series is, if there’s issues that affect you and/or you are active in and/or you want to know more about, to give you a capsule summary of the issue from my point of view, with links for further reading. Where I have them, I’ll give details of activists and organisations I follow in the space, and in some cases well known organisations that I don’t personally follow.

It’s worth noting that I’m not especially radical; I consider myself a social democrat. If you’re interested in, say, anarchism or communism in Australia, I don’t have pointers here, but it may still give you a sense of some places to begin asking questions. I’m also more accustomed to the lens of intersectional feminism (sometimes badly wielded) than other styles of progressive analysis. I’m not a member of any political party and don’t comment here on what it’s like to get involved in party political activity. I’ve tended to read and write more than I have to organise, or to take to the streets. This may change.

Apologies to everyone for either sketchy or no treatment of things that are important to you; this is a personal overview and necessarily partial and biased. Thanks to the many folks over the years who’ve developed the resources I relied on for this, ranging from Twitter to Wikipedia to our beleagured ABC.

Thumbnail sketch of parliament politics

Australia is a Commonwealth of states, formed in 1901 from British colonies (now our states) that were established by European invasion of Australian lands from 1788 onwards. The colonies were granted limited self-government in the period 1856–1890, and nationalism grew from 1870 onwards leading to federation.

Like other federations, states have some self-governance, maintaining their own parliaments and a substantial body of law. They also provide a great deal of the services. However, since it is the federal government which raises revenue and doles it out to the states, state policy tends to be harmonised more or less willingly under federal pressure. There’s occasional serious commentary calling for the states to be abolished entirely but it’s never been seriously picked up politically and I don’t know how practical it is constitutionally. I don’t expect to see abolition of the states any time soon.

Australia holds federal elections roughly every two and a half to three years largely at the behest of the government at the time (they can’t hold out forever, Parliament has a maximum term limit, but there’s roughly a six month window in which Parliament can be dissolved for an election). States hold separate elections, some on fixed terms, some also based on the government’s choice of timing. It’s broadly speaking normal for a change of government to occur every three terms or so (so every seven to nine years). Australia has a strong two party system formed by the Liberal-National coalition (conservative) and the Australian Labor Party (has ranged from socialist to centre-ish at various times) which have between them held government since 1944 when the Liberal Party was created.

Enrolment to vote and actually voting (in the sense of having your name checked off the register for an election, not in the sense of casting a valid vote) are compulsory for resident Australian citizens aged 18 and over. There are some British citizens also on the roll; they need to have been on it continuously since January 1984. Non-resident Australian citizens lose the right to vote after six years living outside Australia unless/until they return. (Worth noting: non-resident citizens also generally aren’t taxed.)

Some properties of the Australian parliamentary democracy that might not be obvious if you’re from the United States:

  • We don’t have an elected head of state (a president, in other words). We have a monarch who has to date always had an essentially ceremonial role and who lives in the UK, and a vice-regent the Governor-General, who lives in Australia and who is usually ceremonial but see the 1975 constitutional crisis for the major exception.
  • The leader of Australia from the point of view of both domestic politics and foreign affairs is the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is elected from among themselves by government House of Representative MPs when the Coalition has government, and (since 2013) by a combination of the MPs and the ALP party members when the ALP has government. In practice the party leader is determined well before the election and only if that leader doesn’t win a seat would a new leader become PM right away. Prospective Prime Ministers are usually “the face” of an election campaign, but unless you live in their electorate, won’t appear on your ballot paper.
  • The Prime Minister can be and has been (quite regularly, most recently last year) replaced by their party without holding a federal election.
  • Our vote counting system is preferential rather than first past the post. That is, if you vote for Candidate A within an electorate, you can still express a preference between Candidate B and Candidate C, and if the election comes down to B and C, your preference between them counts in the decision. In more detail, it’s usually instant-runoff voting in electorates where only one winner is possible and single transferable voting in electorates where multiple winners are needed (Senate/upper house seats).
  • It’s unusual, although not unheard of, for the party forming federal government (in majority in the House of Representatives) to also have a majority of the Senate. The most usual state is for the government to need to negotiate with either the opposition, or with cross-benchers from smaller parties, to pass legislation through the Senate. To date, oppositions don’t tend to roadblock legislation as a matter of course in Australia; much legislation passes with bipartisan support.
  • Australia does not have proportional or mixed-member elections; that is, candidates still need to be elected within an electorate. If party A wins 5% of the vote nationwide, they don’t get 5% of the seats. They may well get 0% if they didn’t manage to win any electorates.
  • There’s no “natural born” provision or additional age limit for Australian Prime Ministers over voters; as an Australian citizen you can be elected to Parliament and become the Prime Minister any time after your 18th birthday. Former PMs Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard were both born in the UK (in Abbott’s case, to an Australian mother) and are naturalised citizens. However, dual citizens cannot enter Parliament, they need to resign other citizenships first. (There seem to be somewhere between 4–5 million dual citizens here, so close to a quarter of the population.)

Indigenous men had voting rights in some but not all of the colonies, and women in South Australia, but almost all Indigenous people were stripped of a federal right to vote in 1902. They were gradually re-enfranchised from 1949–1965. Neville Bonner was the first Indigenous person in federal Parliament, appointed to the Senate in 1971 and later re-elected. Ken Wyatt was the first Indigenous person in the House of Representatives, elected in 2010. Nova Peris was the first Indigenous woman in federal Parliament, elected to the Senate in 2013 with Linda Burney elected the first Indigenous woman in the House of Representatives in 2016. There has not been an Indigenous Prime Minister or leader of the opposition. More on Indigenous politicians in Australia.

Non-Indigenous women have had the right to vote and stand for federal Parliament in Australia since 1902. Enid Lyons became the first woman federal MP in 1943. Julia Gillard became the first and to date only woman Prime Minister in 2010. There has been no woman leading the federal opposition in Parliament to date although minor parties have also had women parliamentary leaders, as have the states. More on women politicians in Australia.

To begin to find out which political party if any you’re aligned with in Australia, check out the ABC’s Vote Compass and Sam Thorp’s Donkey Votie (very snarky, but I found it extremely useful for differentiating the minor parties, which does matter in Australian Senate elections).

Freedom of speech & press

As background, I’m not a free speech absolutist, so might not be the best source of information for those who are. However, a quick selection of statements from the government:

  • “A well established principle of statutory interpretation in Australian courts is that Parliament is presumed not to have intended to limit fundamental rights, unless it indicates this intention in clear terms. This includes freedom of expression.”
  • “The Australian Constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of expression. However, the High Court has held that an implied freedom of political communication exists as an indispensible part of the system of representative and responsible government created by the Constitution. It operates as a freedom from government restraint, rather than a right conferred directly on individuals.”

I think it’s worth noting that the High Court’s finding there only dates from 1992 (Nationwide News Pty Ltd v Wills).

There are hate speech restrictions in Australia both federally and within state law. This is an active political debate, particularly around section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. Here’s a few links: an explainer from a legal academic who supports the provisions; the parliamentary inquiry into sections 18C and 18D.

Here’s Reporters Without Borders on press freedom in Australia:

Australia has good public media but print media ownership is heavily concentrated. Two media groups – News Corporation (owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch) and Fairfax Media – are responsible for 85 percent of newspaper sales. Overall, the media enjoy a great deal of freedom although protection of journalists’ sources varies from state to state. Coverage of Australia’s refugee detention centres on Manus Island (off Papua New Guinea) and the Pacific Ocean island of Nauru is nonetheless restricted. New laws in 2014 and 2015 provide for prison sentences for whistleblowers who disclose information about conditions in the refugee centres or operations by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

I’d add that Australia is regarded as having pretty plaintiff-friendly defamation law, at least relative to the United States. Here’s a review by Electronic Frontiers Australia as of 2006 (after state laws were harmonised) with particular reference to online publication.

The public broadcaster is comprised of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), and National Indigenous Television (NITV). The ABC’s funding is around $1 billion a year, and it tends to serve as something of a focal point for accusations of left-leaning editorial bias. Their editorial policies are here. In the privately owned press, major mastheads of Fairfax Media have maintained editorial independence from their owners for about 25 years.

Australia has content censorship. For books, images, mass media and so on, the Classification Review Board has the ability to refuse classification of content and thus make it illegal to distribute in Australia. There is also a blacklist of websites which is small compared to the web as a whole. As best I understand it, political opinions are currently not a major focus of this regime. Here’s a legal explainer aimed at artists. I’ve found it difficult to find an authoritative source for this, but my understanding is that Australian law criminalises both child pornography showing abuse of children, and fictional child pornography (cartoons etc).

Follow: if you’re thinking of moving to Australia, you probably should start reading our press. The Australian is the biggest selling national newspaper, it’s a Murdoch paper and is right/centre right editorially. Most state capitals have a Murdoch paper and a Fairfax paper (eg the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald in Sydney/NSW) focussed on capital and state news. (Australia is very urbanised into state capitals, and a “the capital and occasionally other areas” approach is common.) The Monthly and The Saturday Paper from Black Inc are often good sources of long form journalism. Crikey grew out of a email newsletter aimed at political and media insiders and while it’s less scrappy and maybe/maybe not more professional now, it is worth a look if you want something with that viewpoint,

Disclosure: my sister works for Fairfax Media.

Climate change

Australia is hardly at the forefront of international action on climate change. The Liberal-National Coalition has a fair few climate change deniers and they have tended to control party policy particularly when in government. Coal mining is a major industry in Australia and coal and fossil fuel in general seem to me to have pretty well aligned themselves with the government.

In terms of international treaties and economic action, Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 but didn’t ratify until 2007. In 2010 then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed an emissions trading scheme, which was blocked in the Senate. Malcolm Turnbull (then the leader of the opposition) lost the support of his party in advocating Coalition support for the scheme. In the 2010 election Julia Gillard pledged there was to be no carbon tax during the election campaign, and introduced one in government in 2011. This was very effectively weaponised against her by the Tony Abbott-led opposition. (Here’s a timeline to July 2014.) Once in government the Liberal-National Coalition repealed the tax and generally dismantled what climate change initiatives they could. Turnbull became the Prime Minister in 2015 but it seems to be understood that he remains so, in part, as long as he does not start supporting significant anti-climate change action again.

More recently, this month, the Turnbull Liberal-National government has announced we will ratify the Paris climate change agreement. Here’s our 2030 climate targets and some breaking news of political tensions.

In summary, expect Australia to be shamefully timid on this subject.

Follow: Greens climate change policy, the Climate Council.


Fairly pervasive. Wikipedia has what seems to be a pretty accurate summary as of 2014 (not all the 2014 proposals became law). Mandatory user Internet metadata retention by ISPs began a year ago. Internationally, Australia is a party to Five Eyes.

Follow: Electronic Frontiers Australia, Pirate Party Australia, Greens digital rights policy

This article is part of my series Moving to Australia as a progressive:Read the whole series at Moving to Australia as a progressive.