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Statistics: trends in human rights in Australian democracy

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Human rights in Australia

Australia generally has a good human rights record. There is no state-sanctioned torture and the protection of women and some minorities is reasonably good by world standards. There are also a number of pieces of legislation to protect certain human rights.

Australia has, however, been criticised at various times for its immigration policies, treatment of asylum seekers, and treatment of its Indigenous population. There have also been several occasions when the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has found that Australia has breached the fundamental human rights of people living in Australia, in particular concerning Australia's mandatory immigration detention.

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South Australia was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to grant women suffrage when it allowed women to vote and to stand for Parliament in 1894. The Commonwealth Franchise Act gave women the right to vote at the federal level in 1902. The dates for the other States of Australia are below:


Right to Vote

Right to stand for Parliament

South Australia



Western Australia



Australia (Commonwealth)



New South Wales












Indigenous Australians

When the Constitution was drafted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were mentioned twice. The first mention, in section 51 (26) of the Constitution, said that the Commonwealth could make laws regarding any race of people in Australia except the Aboriginal race. This meant that only the State governments could make laws for Indigenous peoples.

The second mention, in section 127, said that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not to be included in the census (official counts of the Australian population). The effect of these sections was to make the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples legally invisible, at least as far as the Commonwealth (federal) government was concerned.

State laws towards Indigenous peoples became stricter throughout the early 20th century. In the 1930s Indigenous activists started trying to change these laws so they could enjoy the rights and freedoms that other Australians enjoyed. The Constitution needed to be changed.

The referendum

It was not until 1967 that a referendum was proposed to amend the Constitution. The Prime Minister at the time, Harold Holt, realised that countries around the world were talking about racial inequality and that Australia appeared to be ignoring the calls for fairness by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In 1967, Holt proposed a referendum to change the Constitution and the parliament agreed to it.

By this time all the political parties supported the idea of changing the Constitution. Activists, community groups and politicians all said the two sections should be changed for the sake of justice, human rights and common sense. The referendum was held in May 1967 and Australians voted overwhelmingly in support of it.

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Trends in human rights in Australia

From the 1960s Australian society went through a series of great changes. Women were demanding equality and immigrants were arriving from all over the world and fighting against discrimination. People with disabilities were demanding more access to facilities, gay and lesbian people began campaigning for acceptance and the government needed to find more money in the budget to support people who needed welfare.

In 1945, about 50 percent of the federal Budget was spent on defence. In 2001-2002, defence accounted for around eight percent of Commonwealth spending. More money raised from taxation was being spent on poorer citizens. Most Australians accept that taxation is one way of sharing wealth more evenly among the population.

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The federal government's expenditure on welfare rose to 42.5 percent of the Budget in 2005, amounting to a welfare bill of $88 billion per annum. This amounts to a very large increase over the years and is linked to the changes in population levels and the age of the population.

Around 35 percent of Commonwealth spending consists of social safety net payments to individuals requiring support or supplementary assistance. About 90 percent of these payments are linked to changes in population levels and structure (for example, pension payments). These figures reflect the changing values and trends of Australian society since the 1960s.


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