Moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016: introduction

Many of my US friends are frightened of the Donald Trump presidency for very good reasons. I have no special insight (less so than them) but the bad and worst cases seem very very frightening to me too, far more so than for a typical Republican or generally conservative government. Some folks I know are considering or actively planning emigration and I greatly sympathise, although I don’t know what I would choose or when I would pursue my choice.

This has caused me to think over what I know about Australia, good, bad, and terrible, Hopefully if you are considering immigrating to Australia you have time and resources and are able to seek out many voices inside and outside Australia. Some of this may also be useful to people who are simply interested in Australia as a place to visit or in Australian news.

I am one person. More specifically I’m a white cis heterosexual partnered mother of young children who works in a well compensated job in the tech industry (in fact for Google, a US company), as does my spouse. I’m able-bodied but not strictly healthy; I have a few acute and chronic illnesses that aren’t disabling at present and I have some experience of being seriously and, once, life-threateningly ill in Australia. I’m Australian-born, I’m a citizen, and I’ve never lived in any other country. My insight is limited, the more so the less these are true of you too. I will try and link to a number of other voices and sources of information in these pieces from other perspectives. I’d be very interested in comparative pieces of all kinds and for many regions and countries!

I honour the Wongal people of the Eora nation, on whose land I live, and I pay my respects to elders both past and present.

Over the next few days, I will be publishing several articles with my best assessment of things you might want to know before you seriously consider moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016, for any reason.

Moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016: logistics

This article is part of a short 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.

Money and privilege

While there are innumerable ways of immigrating to Australia ranging from skilled migration to attempting to seek asylum as a refugee (there’s a more comprehensive list here) it is very hard to move to Australia unless you are on an above average income for a rich country, and have other privileges such as education and health.

I’m not in a position to advise on getting around that, but I do want to acknowledge it, and I will focus on the big costs of living in Australia, now and in the future, in this post so you know what you’re getting into.

If you need to seek asylum, you probably know that Australia’s refugee policies are cruel and inhumane. I’ll come to that in the politics entry. I am profoundly sorry you are in this position and that Australia is making it worse.

Skilled migration

In this section I’ll talk about skilled migration as I understand it. If you may be eligible for other Australian immigration pathways such as having close relatives who are citizens or possibly being a citizen (for example, you were born here prior to August 1986) I won’t touch on that here, be sure to look over your connections to Australia and the different visas for possibilities.

Very important: I am not a lawyer or immigration expert. If attempting to immigrate to Australia under our visa regime, you should make use of official advice and, if possible, advice from an immigration lawyer. You may also want to seek perspectives from Australian immigrants; I’m an Australian citizen by right of birth and have been a resident my entire life, so my perspective is from second hand experiences.

First: skilled migration to Australia is considered to be pretty tough to do. I have no special insight into New Zealand’s equivalent regime, but I have known people in the past who chose to naturalise as a New Zealand citizen and then work in Australia (most New Zealand citizens can enter Australia and work here under a special visa category) rather than attempt to immigrate through Australia’s system. That should give you some idea.

Australia’s immigration regime, particularly for permanent residency, discriminates in many ways, specifically, in favour of young, healthy, highly educated people in particular professions. Your education will be assessed. Your ability to work in a targeted profession will be assessed. Your health will be assessed. It is a points-based system where certain attributes give you “points” and you must pass a certain threshold to be granted residency. The older you are the more points you will need. Again, I am not an expert but the last time I saw the points assessment applying for permanent residency on the basis of skills was increasingly difficult after age 30 and close to impossible after age 45.

A permanent residency skilled migration visa presently costs AUD 3600 to apply, which is not refundable if your application is denied. Assessment of your skills and your health check are not included, and can cost AUD 500 or more each.

Smaller but still substantial difficulties I have had friends encounter:

  • bridging visas: these visas are often granted to people transitioning between Australian visas, such as between a student and a residency visa. Bridging visas very frequently last for a year or more and on some of them you cannot leave Australia without a good reason, at penalty of forfeiting your right to return.
  • wait times for visa assessment can be long, and may hinder any travel to Australia in the meantime
  • targeted professions: these change, and changes can apply to existing applications, not just to new ones

The main alternative is entering temporarily on a work visa, usually a 457. These last up to four years after which the normal pathway is transitioning to skilled migration in any event. They obviously require a sponsoring employer with all the difficulties that entails, including the risk of needing to leave Australia if your employment ends or you can’t get permanent residency.

Finally, if you are considering (further) tertiary education or are open to it, you could apply to an Australian university and enter on a student visa. Holding a specifically Australian university degree is in turn a boost to your later skilled migration case. Major cautions: there are some scholarships, particularly for research degrees, but if you aren’t awarded one, tuition fees may be tens of thousands of dollars per year; and the university application cycle may not suit your plans to move. You can typically work on a student visa but only for a limited number of hours a week.

My understanding is that Australia typically does extend visas to your immediate family (under a certain definition of family that you can more or less guess at) if you are a permanent resident or on a long term work visa, and these include the ability for your spouse or partner to work. (This also includes student visas, last I heard.)

While Australian law does not recognise same-gender marriages for immigration or any other purpose (coming in the politics entry), you are recognised as de facto spouses along with unmarried woman-man partners, and de facto partners including same-gender partners can get visas. Either marriages or de facto relationships may be examined for being whatever the immigration authorities consider genuine relationships to be. It looks like marriages and de facto partnerships are, among other things, expected to be “exclusive”, ie, there is not support for your multiple spouses or partners obtaining a visa when you get one.

Again, there are visa categories not discussed here, definitely do some research.

Other experiences

As a special and very terrible example of the way that health and ability status can interfere with Australian immigration, there are many folks with Down syndrome whose diagnosis caused their or their family’s visa applications to be declined: Lukas Moeller in 2008, David Robinson in 2008, Eliza Fonseka in 2016 (all these cases were overturned in the applicant’s favour by the Immigration Minister, but presumably most aren’t).

Earning money in Australia

Australia has a highly educated workforce and a resources and service economy; we mine raw materials, and we sell things to each other. The resources economy is boom and bust, and presently more towards bust. The wealth and education level of the country means that R&D certainly happens here, but it isn’t a major economic driver and political interest in it and support for it waxes and wanes.

Australia was one of the few wealthy countries to avoid a major recession and employment crisis circa 2009 and has had around 20 years of continuous economic growth. For an aggressively pro-Australia take on this — much more than I’m willing to go with — here’s former Prime Minister Paul Keating this last week (warning for some mention of gun violence):

[T]his society of ours is a better society than the United States, than the society of the United States.

I mean, it’s more even, it’s more fair, we’ve had a 50 per cent increase in real incomes in the last 20 years, median America has had zero, zero.

(As a note in interpreting Keating if you read that interview: he is a famous advocate of much closer ties with Asian countries; that isn’t a truly mainstream foreign policy position in Australia. He’s also famously provocative. And… he was the Prime Minister ending those 20 years ago. the story of his relationship with Australian economic growth is a long one and I’m not the person to tell it.)

Many of my readers would be interested in software jobs. There is a comparatively immature but growing software startup scene (with major involvement from Australians and other residents who have lived in the US) and a growing amount of funding. Several major US technical employers have a long-time presence in Australia, including Google and Microsoft, and due to the timezone, it’s also a reasonably popular base for at least a small ops/SRE site. Atlassian is the best known company that is the other way around: Australian founded, expanded to the US, and there are others. Major banks, both retail and investment, are fairly large technical employers. I feel that Sydney and Melbourne are not the Bay Area, or New York, or Boston, but there are certainly software jobs, including very senior ones, around, and increasingly so.

Unemployment stands at 5.8 percent. It was slightly worse in 2014–2015, but that’s because those two years were the worst two in the last ten. (That said, it was above 10 percent in the 1990s — again, when Keating was Prime Minister… — so it is far from historically high.)

This may be stating the obvious but there are big regional variations in employment, income and wealth, with urban residents of inner cities doing the best.

There are welfare payments for unemployed citizens and permanent residents funded by the state, they’re subject to increasing restrictions and strict interpretations of the rules and recipients are an easy target for any government that wants to look tough.

Risks: I think there’s a strong risk that Australia’s growth trend will not continue much longer. There’s a resources bust. Graduate un- and under-employment is at a record high. Our interest rates are now very low (although not as low as in many countries) and the Reserve Bank therefore has less levers to pull to stimulate the economy in the event of a slump, particularly without further stimulating the housing market which really doesn’t need their help. And we’re strongly vulnerable to global shocks, although not more than anywhere else I think. If I had a choice — and anyone looking at skilled migration has some financial resources unfortunately — I would be cautious about immigrating to Australia without an offer of employment in a seemingly stable workplace, or else savings or an independent income stream.

Paying for big stuff in Australia

Short version: a lot of stuff is pretty expensive in Australia. Consumer stuff-wise: it’s a wealthy country with a small population that’s a long way from most other places. Food and consumer goods are priced accordingly and this can be tough. I’m sticking with big ticket things here.


Real estate in Australian capital cities, especially Sydney, is world-leadingly expensive and likely to be a shock unless you are moving from Manhattan, the San Francisco Bay area, or Tokyo, and perhaps even then if you were hoping to save money. Presently in Sydney, houses have a median price of AUD 1,000,000 and apartments AUD 650,000. And keep in mind that Sydney is a large metro, and that data includes dwellings with a commute to the business district in the order of two hours each way. Those aren’t the prices of “lifestyle” suburbs. Meanwhile, Sydney rents are a AUD 490 weekly median for houses (about AUD 2200 monthly) and AUD 465 weekly (AUD 2100 monthly) for an apartment. Expect other cities to be cheaper, research how much. Prices vary a lot by city and local conditions.

At present in Sydney rents are quite stable, even arguably about to fall. Purchase prices continue to climb. There is a heated and long-running debate about whether Sydney in particular or Australia in general are in a housing bubble, if so when it will burst, and if it bursts how big the falls will be. As with, as far as I can tell, all bubbles, almost no one will be close to the mark on the details and the person who is will have done it by accident. It’s been seven years since the Mount Kosciuszko bet now and as far as I can tell the various arguments remain. But at the very least if you buy a dwelling in a major Australian city, you are buying it in what could be a bubble.

Personal opinion: Australia needs higher density housing in major cities. I’d prefer that housing prices flatlined for a long time while inflation degrades their real value rather than collapsed because of knock-on effects.

Medical care

Right now, as best I can tell, acute medical care in Australia is fairly cheap by the standards of rich countries, and of excellent quality. There is universal healthcare for citizens and permanent residents, some of which is free, particularly acute care in a public hospital, and, for many people, regular care from a GP. There’s a set fee called the Medicare Benefits Schedule. Medical practitioners are free to bill the MBS (called “bulk billing”, free to you) or charge what they want above the MBS and you pay what is called a “gap” (the term “co-pay” is only starting to show up).

The best specialist tertiary acute services such as neonatal intensive care are most commonly only available in the free-to-the-patient public hospitals.

Likewise, there is a single payer for pharmaceuticals, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The upshot of this is that typically, if a medication is PBS listed, you pay around $30 to $40 for it (less if a low income earner, there’s an additional scheme) and the balance is paid by the PBS as negotiated between the PBS and the supplier.

The existence of the PBS and the MBS apparently often mean that even unlisted drugs and procedures are cheaper than they would be in the United States, as they drive down consumer expectations of cost. If everything else costs $40, you’re less likely to pay $5000 for a particular drug even if you can afford it.

Bulk billing is offered by many but far from all GPs (and more often to children, students and pensioners) and some specialists, but specialists less so. A gap is common there. To give a sense of it, as a thyroid cancer patient, I end up about $100 out of pocket to see my endocrinologist, my endocrine surgeon bulk bills for office consultations but decidedly not for the surgery itself, and my imaging can run to a few hundred dollars. However I’m lucky enough to be a bit price-insensitive: I could have had the surgery for free in a public hospital by the surgeon’s registrar, and I could get cheaper imaging in a few other places.

Billing is usually quite predictable to the practitioners and they (and especially their receptionists) can usually state it entirely accurately in advance. There are esoteric exceptions, the main one that’s happened to me was a couple of genetic tests where the exact price was uncertain.

Holders of 457 visas and student visas and similar will need to buy health insurance, both in case they get sick but also as a condition of the visa. A quick look places it at between $20 a week for singles to $60–$100 a week for families. Private health insurance in Australia, both the kind citizens and residents can buy to afford care in the private system, and the kind that visa holders need to get access to the public system, has strong regulatory restrictions avoiding much health risk discrimination; it’s group risk. The major form of restriction they can and do apply is waiting periods; usually six to twelve months for pre-existing conditions to be covered. I am not sure how this applies to visa-holders who need care for a chronic condition, or preventative care to prevent a pre-existing condition worsening; this would obviously be something you’d need to seek advice on.

As for the private system, there is a parallel health system of non-emergency care with some benefits, such as choice of doctor and ability to be on shorter waiting lists. Public benefits apply to procedures but not in-patient stays in the private system; many Australians carry optional additional health insurance against such stays. Honestly, it’s a complicated and weird system and I won’t get into it here.

I like our medical system a lot, and I’ve been its reluctant guest several times. However it is of course not all bright side. Some downsides:

  • It’s completely possible for all the little gaps to not be so little to you, and for this to be too expensive.
  • Non-emergency care for public patients is accessed in order of urgency; as a public patient, you can wait months or years for a procedure that would substantially improve your quality of life but is not putting your life at risk.
  • Just as the MBS and PBS spare you detailed arguments with your insurer about a procedure or drug, they deny you arguments. If a procedure or drug isn’t on the schedule, it isn’t on there. You or your doctor may be part of a group making a case for it to be on there, but in the meantime, you’re buying the drug out of pocket; there’s no individual consideration. For some newer cancer therapies for example, this can cost tens of thousands.
  • New drugs tend to be accepted for coverage by the PBS later than they are by, say, good US medical insurers, and the alternative is out of pocket. I’ve only twice in my life encountered this situation, once was for the Nuvaring contraceptive which I bought out of pocket for about $1 a day, and the other, unfortunately, is potentially far more impactful but it’s a thyroid cancer specific case.

Risks: this system has never been beloved of our conservative (currently governing) Liberal-National coalition. They developed an active policy a few years ago to begin charging $7 gap fees on all medical care (if applied to all GP visits, and all blood tests ordered, and all imaging ordered, this adds up; trust me, I’m a cancer patient with regular lifetime monitoring requirements) and I assume that was an opening salvo in a move towards a much more user-pays health system. It was a deeply unpopular proposal and failed. It was popular with neither doctors nor the public. However, I can’t see very far into the future on this one, and I’m not assuming that the current system will substantially survive into my old age.

Trans care

Briefly, I researched this and it seems that top surgery is sometimes covered under MBS codes for mastectomies and similar breast surgeries. Other affirming surgeries often have no MBS coverage, and hormones also have patchy if any coverage under the PBS. Here’s a 2014 statement calling for change from the National LGBTI Health Alliance.

Movement on this seems generally slightly towards improved coverage. Eg, in 2013, several procedures related to eg uteruses stopped being restricted by gender on the MBS. There’s a long way to go.

In terms of papers, for federal government paperwork see Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender. In very very short form, there’s an ‘F’, ‘M’, and ‘X’ designation and the preference is to collect identity unless your assignment at birth is considered specifically relevant. (Note: there’s the fairly common distinction between sex and gender in those guidelines, which I know does not capture the experience of many people.)

Updating birth certificates is a state-based issue, and some states, including NSW, require affirmation surgery as a prerequisite.

Personal opinion: this sucks badly, I’m sorry.

Reproductive choice

Contraception is widely available in Australia and many medical methods are covered under the PBS. For example, the Mirena IUD costs around $40 for the device plus (potentially) any private fee to have it inserted by a privately billing gynaecologist if you don’t or can’t wait for a public clinic. (Family Planning Australia also trains GPs to insert them but I’ve only ever met one who has done the training; I’ve known quite a few who can do Implanon insertion.) Many common formulations of the contraceptive pill are covered on the PBS, resulting in a cost of around $0.30 a day. Condoms are available in pharmacies and supermarkets.

Risks: Denying or restricting contraceptive access is not a topic of regular political debate; I can recall it arising once in my adulthood. I don’t fear loss of access to contraceptives absent a major change in public opinion or national politics. (Obviously, that’s not zero risk.)

Doctors and pharmacists can refuse to issue or fill prescriptions. (See a 2015 news story.) This has never happened to me, and in major cities there’s a lot of ability to switch practitioner if this happened. In isolated rural areas it can be a problem, as can access to medical care at all without considerable travel and cost.

Abortion availability is governed by state law, because the states inherited the English Crimes Act which forbade it. At the present time, abortion is fully legal in several Australian states up to a certain week of pregnancy, some time between week 14 and 24; state-by-state details here. In some states doctors who personally refuse to perform or refer for abortions must at least provide a list of willing doctors to patients. Abortion remains illegal in NSW and Queensland. In practice in NSW at least there’s case law which gives a fairly wide definition of “harm to the mother” that includes social and economic factors and abortion can be accessed in NSW but it’s more expensive, more tightly overseen by doctors and ethics committees, than it would be if it were decriminalised. Several years ago I transcribed a detailed talk by a lawyer about the NSW situation.

In general, the legality of abortion is supported by a reasonably sized majority of the Australian voting population (albeit increasingly less so in late pregnancy) and it is not a central political issue. This has some cons in that legalising it in NSW and Queensland is not perceived as an urgent issue. In NSW Upper House member Mehreen Faruqi is championing the decriminalisation of abortion, you can learn more at #end12.

Risks: Aggressive restriction of abortion is not something I see looming or worry about but it’s possible and more likely than aggressive restriction of contraceptive access. There have been attempts to establish fetal personhood under law in several Australian states, notionally aimed at injuries to the fetus incurred when the mother is harmed, but championed by politicians who are anti-abortion and presumably therefore ultimately aimed at (further) criminalising abortion. To date they have not become law but it remains a risk. In addition, my sense is that there is some complacency that the current status quo is good enough, even though Queensland criminally tried a woman for an alleged home abortion in 2009 and abortions stopped throughout the state for periods of time due to the legal danger to doctors.

I won’t deal with reproductive rights of people who are pregnant and plan to continue in as much detail, but Australian birthing largely takes place in hospitals, with access to midwifery care and especially homebirth often not available or based on very strict medical criteria (eg, most or all of: normal BMI, no prior birth over 4kg, at least one prior full term birth, no diabetes or blood pressure issues, singleton…). Caesarean section rates are around 30% of births; choice-wise I believe requests for maternal-choice Caesareans are frequently denied, especially in the public system.

Disability resources

Could be vastly improved, although I am not myself disabled or experienced with navigating the system so cannot speak to it in great detail. One major issue disability advocates talk about is a continuing political focus on “return to work” if at all possible, including if returning to (or starting) work is technically possible for you but would leave you unable to do anything else.

If disability resources and caretaking are part of what you need to consider, you should carefully evaluate the National Disability Insurance Scheme rollout, its scope, and the political threats to it. A small sample of writers and activists you could learn more from are:

Mental health care

A limited amount of outpatient mental health care is available under the MBS, for more details see the Department of Health. Private health insurance often has some cover for additional therapy.

I have some limited experience of this process, and it was that MBS funded therapy tends to be focused on whether you have a DSM diagnosis, and on discharge if and when it appears that you don’t. Most folks I know have had slightly better experiences although the number of sessions funded per year is very low for a lot of people.

Acute mental health care is somewhat available through the public hospital system, but my understanding is that the availability of acute care hospital beds has basically never met demand.


There is publicly funded primary and secondary education in Australia for permanent residents. In NSW, schooling is Monday to Friday, 9am to 3pm, roughly 40 weeks of the year.

Primary and secondary schooling are funded by the states (recall though: we only have six states and two territories). The states also set the curriculum. My belief is that this somewhat evens out inequality relative to a local funding and curriculum model, but it’s not magical. There are seriously disadvantaged schools in Australia. There’s also the outsourcing of tuition fees to the housing market: schools perceived as desirable drive up local housing costs. And there’s increasing discussion of race-based moves away from local public schools. I have definitely had white Australians tell me (usually subtly) about their schooling and housing choices being driven by wanting their child to attend a majority-white school.

Free schooling is not necessarily available at all to children in families without permanent residency.

There is a competing private school system, which by and large adheres to the same curricula as public schools with the odd exception (mostly offering the International Baccalaureate). Many but not all of the system is run by religious organisations, and since religious organisations in Australia are allowed to discriminate, so too are their schools. Private schools also receive substantial public funding, but charge tuition fees ranging from nominal to astronomical.

Personal opinion: public funding of private schools should be abolished. I don’t expect to see this any time soon; I expect this would be exceptionally difficult both politically and in terms of planning (as there would be increased demand for public schooling), but, it should be.

Risks: means-testing of public education is on the table, and some members of the government are of the opinion that all education should be private. I think in the medium term this would only go as far as some kind of mandated but not large fee for wealthy children attending public schools (and a corresponding move of some of those families to equivalently priced private schools, which is probably the policy goal).

There is public funding of tertiary education in Australia, but tertiary education is not free; universities charge a regulated and often substantial amount. In addition, the public funding is attached to, you guessed it, Australian citizens and permanent residents; full tuition is charged to others and is usually in the multiple tens of thousands per year.

Australian citizens (only) admitted to eligible university places can borrow their tuition fees from the Australian government at (presently) only CPI-linked interest rates and with repayment through the tax system once your income is high enough.

Risks: I think there is a serious risk of tertiary tuition fees being fully deregulated in Australia in the next ten years, especially since some of the universities support deregulation. There is also serious risk of the loans scheme moving more towards a private model with market interest rates and the ability of the lender to, eg, have input into the jobs you choose. I don’t think our tuition would rise as high as the United States for two reasons: one is that the universities aren’t held in as high regard as some in the US, and the other is that there’s an entire generation of wealthy children whose parents have not been saving for their university tuition since birth, so there’s a medium-term limit to the fees that even rich people would accept.


There is only very limited fully publicly funded childcare in Australia, and most of it is educational in nature (ie, focuses on children at a preschool age). Childcare that is more designed for the benefit of adults in the household (ie, childcare so you can work) is privately provided, sometimes not-for-profit and sometimes for-profit. Centre daycare is pretty tightly regulated, daycare in the carers’ home increasingly regulated, nannies not very regulated. There is some public contribution to centre fees for permanent residents and citizens, particularly those on low incomes. Unfortunately, because the fees aren’t regulated, they have arguably simply risen to absorb the public contribution while keeping out of pocket costs the same, which is bad news for folks who aren’t eligible for the public contribution.

There is no universal daycare right recognised in Australia. Your ability to find care depends on a private market. My experience is that people usually can find it, but needing to alter your workdays or defer working to wait for a place, commuting out of your way to daycare, accepting a daycare place at a place neither you nor your child like, and an awful lot of anxiousness, are all very normal.

Out of school hours care for school-aged children (eg, 3pm to 6pm, school vacations) is similarly privately provided. Individual schools may or may not have an arrangement with a particular provider and that provider may or may not be able to accommodate demand.

Personal opinion: I think having a scheme involving public contributions to private unregulated fees are pretty silly.

Risks: there is no question that the funding for childcare is changing radically because policies are actively being worked on. I haven’t read them closely but some of the changes seemed progressive if anything: moving an already means-tested system towards supporting low income people. (I’m agnostic on whether means-testing for state benefits is a good thing, but when it exists it should be clearly progressive.)

I unfortunately have little insight into accessing and affording paid caretaking for young or old adults who need or want it.


As you can tell, there’s two big issues here: migration is by far the easiest if you are financially well-off and basically the same kind of person who is less at immediate risk of punitive economic policies and severe employment discrimination in your own country, and the other is that as in any country, Australia’s publicly funded medical and educational resources, and policies in general, are always at risk from our governments and economic conditions. I partly wrote this so that you know that.

In the next entry I will discuss how some issues that progressives may care about are dealt with in Australia.

Moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016: authoritarianism

This article is part of a short 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.

Someone I discussed this series with said that what they were really looking for was an answer to the question (extremely paraphrased) “which country would let me in, would be physically safe, and has the least chance of being governed by fascists?”

If I could answer it I’d be a much better person in the world, more likely to leave it in a better place than I found it. I’m sorry.

Something I’ve been thinking on, from John Quiggin, Australian Research Council Federation Fellow, University of Queensland, in There’s a lot of ruin in a country:

The political reality, however, is that the initiative is with the other side, not only in the US, but in the UK, Australia and much of Europe. The collapse of neoliberalism as a dominant ideology (though not yet as a policy reality), has so far favored the tribalist right rather than the still disorganised left. The tribalists now have the chance to prove that their policies can work, or be perceived to work. If Trump can create and sustain an illusion of restored national greatness, as Putin has done (so far) in Russia, it won’t matter much what the Democrats do. The same will be true in Britain if Brexit can be made to work, or at least be seen to work.

At the same time I don’t want to fall into a false equivalence; I personally am glad to be a resident of Australia right now rather than of the US, and if I was, as I’ve considered becoming several times, an immigrant worker in the US, I would be at least evaluating and if possible maintaining my ability to move back at short notice. But…

I feel like there’s two questions: how likely is Australia to maintain its current social democracy? and is there any just political system robust against authoritarianism for the next 50–100 years?

I can grab at a few things in the fog on the first question only. So here we are, I’ll give you what I have on authoritarianism and Australian social democracy in all its imperfect and awful reality. It is crumbs. My faith in Australia’s ability to keep its authoritarianism from getting worse in the face of global trends is not high (but I cannot easily think of any other country I think is definitely better placed, I think we all must beware). I hope I can give people with better instincts than me some starting points for their research.

One thing I wasn’t able to assign to a bin here was the way human rights law works in Australia. Here’s how the government itself puts it:

In Australia, human rights are protected in different ways. Unlike most similar liberal democracies, Australia has no Bill of Rights to protect human rights in a single document.

Rather rights may be found in the Constitution, common law and legislation – Acts passed by the Commonwealth Parliament or State or Territory Parliaments.

I’m genuinely unclear which is likely to survive longer: one document, or a bundle of legal traditions.

Likewise, income inequality is markedly lower than in the US or the UK, but is above the OECD average and is getting worse. Here’s a report by the Australian Council of Social Service in 2015.

Positive signs

There isn’t an Australian Federal election due until, at the earliest, August 2018, absent special circumstances (which admittedly aren’t that hard to create, even without anything extra-constitutional going on), and perhaps not until early 2019. This isn’t at all entirely good news — I’m thinking about continued abuse of asylum seekers for example — but the direction and harm caused by the Republican Trump presidency in the US and the Conservative May government in the UK will be clearer by then, and there may be time for increasingly organised ideological opposition to play a role here and for facts on the ground in the US and UK to be incorporated into the campaigns and policies.

Australia is very able, both constitutionally, and in practice, to change Prime Ministers. This has been something of a joke nationally and internationally recently, but does suggest we’re not immediately ideally set up for a charismatic authoritarian strong man to get established free of any pending election or partyroom overthrow.

Australia does not have anything like as strong a union movement as it did in the 20th century, but it is strong enough that it still has significant party-political power in the Australian Labor Party (one of the two majors), and also made a major contribution to an ALP electoral victory comparitively recently.

Australia is a low population country that has never been a singular world leader economically, politically, culturally. We are not a humbled superpower. We have not been defeated in a recent war, suffered a recent economic reversal of fortunes, or had significant loss of territory recently. We were in an empire, its privileged and beloved and spoiled children, but we didn’t run the empire.

We were fairly recently presented with a policy package that represented a significant dismantling of our public infrastructure in health and education, and it was deeply unpopular and could not be implemented by the government. Significant parts of our public spending enjoy widespread support.

Negative signs

We demonise and abuse outsiders, presently asylum seekers and Muslims among others. Our politicians have actively created outgroups and nurtured xenophobic sentiments for political gain. It worked. So they’ll do it again, and probably better.

Individual politicians with structural power, either powerful partyroom members of the (conservative) Federal government or people holding some of the balance of the power in the Federal Senate, were pleased with Donald Trump’s policy platform and were either openly pleased he was elected or signalled their alignment with voters who embraced his platform.. Have some names: Tony Abbott (who was Prime Minister 2013–2015, and who is widely understood to be planning to be so again), Cory Bernardi, Pauline Hanson. Here’s one article for you. (If you’d like to learn more about the electoral popularity of various political parties in one place, I think the 2016 Federal Senate votes would be the first place I’d look.)

There are plenty of people left out of Australia’s economic success and who don’t see themselves portrayed in our national picture of what is good about Australia. And per the last entry, I think we’re at serious risk of the first economic downturn in a generation, and everyone holding more tightly to anything that promises they can keep what they have, or get back what they lost.

Rupert Murdoch was born in Australia and lived here until he was in his forties (he’s now a US citizen and forfeited Australian citizenship), News Corp was founded here and the Australian arm is one of our largest media companies. We do not have a direct equivalent of Fox News, but Murdoch is actively interested in Australian politics and involved to the point of being a kingmaker, both because of his outlets’ editorialising, and through direct regular contact with senior Australian politicians.

Australian Prime Ministerial changes have largely been brought about by party anxiety about medium-term polling of said Prime Minister (particularly in the case where they are also personally disliked by their party colleagues, which has apparently been true of several recent PMs). The kind of charismatic authoritarian strong men we worry about would be popular with the public pretty much by definition and if he (or perhaps she or they, but less likely) had decent partyroom skills, I don’t see any particular reason why he’d necessarily join the rotating line of recent PMs.

Speaking of which, my impression is that polling still seems to work in Australia in a way that wasn’t true of this US presidential election or of the last UK parliamentary election or the Brexit referendum. It may stop working someday soon, perhaps leaving people misled about the popularity of an authoritarian politician or a damaging change to the constitution in the same way as happened in the US and UK. (Australia is one of comparitively few countries where voting is compulsory, whether this makes our polling more robust I don’t know.)

Less immediate negative signs

I separated these into a separate section because they’re much more dependent on unknowable global changes in the coming years and decades.

Australia is a large country with substantial natural resources, including coal, sunshine, and uranium. I have no great sense of our immediate desirability as a conquest target, but some reasons are there.

This may seem a bit out there given the stability of this setup over a couple of lifetimes, but we’re talking world-historical here. So: Australia is a constitutional monarchy. Our head of state is Elizabeth II, the Queen of Australia, the same woman you may know better as the Queen of England. (Or Canada. Or New Zealand. Or 12 other countries.) This arrangement enjoys majority support from the Australian people, and even if it didn’t, amending the Australian constitution is more difficult than winning a majority vote. Elizabeth II is fairly discreet about her political opinions, but she is also 90 years old and I expect to see two or three more monarchs in her line in my lifetime. Her son and heir seems likely to be a more politically active King at least of the United Kingdom. Clearly a constitutional monarchy is not necessarily terrible — it’s keeping me up at night the least of everything here — but it’s authoritarian by definition.


Such as it is: I want to acknowledge again that to many people who live here or are trying to come here, Australia is plenty authoritarian and punitive. I deeply feel my lack of ability to forecast and warn here. I hope I’ve given a starting point to folks who don’t have a lot of Australia-specific political context to do their risk assessment.

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

Moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016: discrimination, violence, and activism

This article is the conclusion of a short 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’ve given details of activists and organisations I follow in the space, and in some cases well known organisations that I don’t personally follow. In this last entry, I’m dealing mostly with identities and rights where I am not in the affected group and where I have no specific expertise. (Being a woman is the major exception to this, but even there I’m not a specific expert on women’s rights in Australia.) So rather than attempt to do justice to anything in detail, in most cases I’ve listed up to five things to learn more about, and then some follows of groups and individuals you can learn from.

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. Most links from this entry are to Wikipedia; this is due to my limitations in finding the best sources. I strongly encourage you to treat Wikipedia articles as an overview and one source of further reading, not the last word.

Indigenous dispossession and oppression

Warning: this section uses the surnames of deceased Indigenous Australians, and links from this section may contain images and names of deceased Indigenous Australians.

In moving to Australia, unless you are an Indigenous Australian, you are inevitably taking part in the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, who lived here for tens of thousands of years prior to European invasion two centuries ago.

Four things to learn more about:

Follow: The Land Councils (the list seems very incomplete, it is missing eg the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council), Black Australia Tumblr (see their FAQ on non-Indigenous readers), Celeste Liddle at Black Feminist Ranter and Daily Life, the @IndigenousX tweeters together with @TheKooriWoman, the 2015 IQ2 Racism Debate and 2016 Wallace Wurth lecture speeches and ‘The Australian Dream’ Quarterly Essay by Stan Grant. National Indigenous Television is made by and for Indigenous Australians under the auspices of the public Special Broadcasting Service, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation maintains an Indigenous news portal and The Koori Mail is an Aboriginal-owned and operated national newspaper.

On January 26 each year, Invasion Day protests and Survival Day observances protest the original invasion and celebrate the continuance of Aboriginal communities and culture. If you are visiting or living in Australia on January 26 2017 as a non-Indigenous Australian, observing, supporting, and attending these (where appropriate) is a possible way to begin to support Indigenous activism.

Refugee rights

Australia has a punitive, human rights-violating regime of imprisoning asylum seekers, particularly those who arrive by sea. Many asylum seekers are imprisoned on Papua New Guinea and Nauru where the refugees have less access to basic needs, lawyers, activists, and the media (and as noted in the last entry there are also strong restrictions on media reporting). The government is trying to arrange it so that any refugee held in these prisons will never be offered asylum in Australia, with recent proposals that they would never be allowed entry to Australia under any circumstances on any visa.

The UN has repeatedly condemned this regime, finding that it violates the Convention Against Torture and calling for immediate movement to humane conditions. Among the deaths in offshore detention centres are those of Reza Berati in 2014 at the hands of prison staff and, just recently, Faysal Ishak Ahmed after alleged serious medical neglect.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott (whose party remains in government now, under PM Malcolm Turnbull) has given lectures promoting this system to other countries. At present, while dislike of and protest against our torture of asylum seekers is widespread, it is not a core political issue for many Australians, and it gains support whenever it is relaxed and asylum seekers begin arriving by boat, and dying at sea, in larger numbers. The ALP, currently in opposition, supports offshore imprisonment continuing. The Greens are the largest party committing to ending it in their policy platform (and as best I can tell, even the Greens are not opposing imprisonment within Australian borders).

A selection of detailed reading on Australian refugee policies and immigration detention:

Follow: RISE (Refugees, Survivors and Ex Detainees), Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Human Rights Law Centre, Refugee Action Coalition. Julian Burnside (a barrister who acts pro bono on refugee rights) has assembled a long list of asylum seeker support organisations. In May 2016 No Award published things australians can do to support asylum seekers.

Workers’ rights

Five things to learn more about:

Follow: The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the ALP’s workers’ policies (see also those of the Greens), the ACTU’s list of individual unions and Diversity Council Australia for equality initiatives in the workplace.

Racial equality and anti-racism

Five things to learn more about:

Follow: I don’t have a solid set of follows in the anti-racism and racial justice space yet. I’d love some suggestions in comments.

LGBTI rights

Five things to learn more about:

Follow: the Star Observer has a list of national and state LGBTI Community Services and Organisations.

Women’s rights

Five things to learn more about:

Follow: the monthly Down Under Feminist Carnival collating feminist writing in Australia and New Zealand

Disability rights

Four things to learn more about:

Follows: Sam Connor, Lauredhel at Hoyden About Town and Feminists With Disabilities, the late Stella Young and other writers at the ABC’s now defunct Ramp Up website, Australian Centre for Disability Law, The Conversation‘s disability rights writing, Our Consumer Place (a guide by and for consumers of mental health care).

Sex work

NSW is one of the few jurisdictions in the world where sex work is decrminialised. Some other states and territories have legal sex work in some circumstances (eg in brothels, or privately) but not others, it varies quite widely. The Scarlet Alliance has a state-by-state breakdown.

Follow: Scarlet Alliance.