(Sydney) – Australia’s Labor Party government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese should fulfill all rights-related election pledges and urgently deliver improvements on climate, refugee policy, and First Nations justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The Labor Party won parliamentary elections a year ago, on May 21, 2022.
“While the Albanese government has made some improvements on human rights issues, serious concerns remain that need to be swiftly addressed,” said Sophie McNeill, senior Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Albanese government should take urgent, concrete steps to phase out fossil fuels, reduce the incarceration of First Nations people, and uphold Australia’s international legal obligations toward people in detention, refugees and asylum seekers.”
In July 2022, Prime Minister Albanese joined Pacific Island leaders in Fiji in declaring a climate emergency and a commitment to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, while the Albanese government has legislated a 43 percent emissions reduction target by 2030 and has given significant support to growing the renewable energy sector, the government is still actively supporting the expansion of fossil fuels industries in Australia. The federal budget announced earlier in May 2023 showed the government is subsidizing the fossil fuel industry with billions of dollars each year.
The government has continued to deny any responsibility for emissions created by the vast amounts of coal and gas that Australia exports as one of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers. On May 12, the environment minister approved a new coal mine and rejected a request to reconsider approvals for three other coal mine projects or extensions. This is contrary to earlier warnings by the United Nations, the International Energy Agency, and the world’s leading climate scientists who have said that to protect lives, livelihoods, and the environment from ever-growing risks, there can be no new investments in oil, gas, and coal.
In February, the Albanese government fulfilled a key election pledge regarding the treatment of asylum seekers by permitting thousands of refugees living in Australia on “temporary protection visas” to apply for permanent residency and citizenship.
While the government has released a number of asylum seekers who have spent more than a decade in Australian immigration detention, figures from May 2023 show that there are still 130 immigration detainees who have been held for more than 5 years.
And the Albanese government has continued the cruel, expensive, and unlawful policy of offshore processing of asylum seekers, allocating AU$1.5 billion (US$1 billion) over the next four years to fund offshore operations.
The “turn-back” policy of interdicting boats and summarily turning them to the high seas or returning the people onboard to countries of departure or origin has continued, with the Albanese government turning or pushing back eight boats since taking office.
The government has not yet delivered on an election commitment to increase Australia’s annual refugee intake to 27,000 places.
In February, the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture cancelled a trip to inspect detention facilities in Australia after it was denied full access to institutions in the states of New South Wales and Queensland. The terminated inspection means Australia failed to uphold its treaty obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which the country ratified in 2017.
Before the election, the Labor Party pledged to reduce the over-incarceration of First Nations children, who are currently 20 times more likely to be jailed than non-Indigenous children, and also supported a review of the minimum age of criminal responsibility.
In November, the Northern Territory government passed a law to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years old. In April, the state of Victoria committed to implementing the same increase. The Albanese government should prioritize efforts to ensure all states and territories in Australia raise the age of criminal responsibility to the internationally accepted age of 14, Human Rights Watch said.
The Albanese government did not grant emergency funding to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) in the May federal budget, leading to the suspension of critical legal services for Indigenous people in New South Wales and Queensland. ATSILS said that the demand for its services has increased by up to 100 percent in the last five years, while core funding from the federal government has declined in real terms.
“Ambitious, courageous policies are needed to address the growing climate emergency and decades of mistreatment of refugees and First Nations people in Australia,” McNeill said. “The Albanese government should prioritize these urgent domestic rights reforms to enable Australia to become a true human rights leader in the region.”