Freedoms

The freedoms of speech, association, assembly, religion, and movement are regarded as essential to a healthy democracy and strong civil society. A strong civil society develops when the public is encouraged to discuss and debate issues, when access to information and education is freely available, and when ordinary people are encouraged to be involved in community issues and local decision making processes.

Australians generally enjoy such freedoms, within the bounds of the law, but tensions often arise when governments make decisions that limit individual freedoms in order to protect national interests.

View of the Female Orphan School near Parramatta, New South Wales.
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The freedoms of speech, association, assembly, religion, and movement are regarded as essential to a healthy democracy and strong civil society. A strong civil society develops when the public is encouraged to discuss and debate issues, when access to information and education is freely available, and when ordinary people are encouraged to be involved in community issues and local decision making processes.

Australians generally enjoy such freedoms, within the bounds of the law, but tensions often arise when governments make decisions that limit individual freedoms in order to protect national interests.

View of the Female Orphan School near Parramatta, New South Wales.
1801

First welfare institutions

First welfare institutions

NSW Governor Philip King establishes Australia’s first welfare institution — a girls' Orphan School. The first private welfare organisation — the Benevolent Society of New South Wales — forms on 8 May 1813 to aid the poor.


1827

First Mechanics Institute and School of Arts

First Mechanics Institute and School of Arts

The Mechanics Institute and School of Arts is founded in Hobart and is one of Australia’s first public education institutions.


1828

Execution for sodomy

Execution for sodomy

The first executions for the crime of sodomy take place in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. According to Governor Arthur Phillip, murder and sodomy are the only crimes to warrant execution at the time of colonisation. The death penalty for sodomy is finally removed in 1883 but homosexual sex between males remains illegal in every state and territory in Australia until 1972.


1836

Churches receive equal funding

Churches receive equal funding

Having witnessed the effects of sectarian intolerance in Ireland, NSW Governor Richard Bourke introduces the Church Act 1836 to provide subsidies to Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches on an equal basis.


1848

National Board of Education

National Board of Education

The first National Board of Education is established to regulate schools set up and managed under Lord Stanley’s system of education. Its aim is to create an efficient system of elementary education for a scattered population of different religious denominations (excluding Indigenous children). The Board reports that it is ‘impracticable to attempt to provide any form of education for the children of the blacks’ and from 1883, Indigenous children could be barred from public schools if white parents object to their presence. This regulation remains in the Teacher’s Handbook until 1972.


1851

South Australia initiates church and state separation

South Australia initiates church and state separation

South Australia is the first place in the British Empire to formally separate church and state by ending government aid to churches. The move is supported by George Fife Angas, Member for Barossa and sponsor of the first groups of German Lutheran exiles, who are opposed to church taxes.


1856

Secret ballot introduced

Secret ballot introduced

Victoria is the first Australian colony to pass a law adopting the secret ballot, a system already successfully used in France and some American states. It involves people voting at elections by casting their vote on paper and putting it in a ballot box, rather than voting by a public show of hands. Voting by ballot has a long history. It was a key element in the British Chartist Movement of the 1830s along with one person one vote, manhood suffrage, equal representation of electoral districts and annual elections. The secret ballot is used in the Victorian elections for the Legislative Assembly in September–October 1856, and is also adopted by Tasmania and South Australia in the same year. It remains a controversial issue in Britain, with advocates seeing it as a way of promoting democracy while opponents fear it will lead to fraud or, at worst, undermine the need for a man to publicly defend his political choice.


1858

Australian ballot

Australian ballot

The secret ballot, first used in Victoria’s Legislative Assembly elections and adopted by Tasmania and South Australia in 1856, evolves into the ‘Australian ballot’ by 1858. This innovative version of the secret ballot features the distribution of government-printed official ballot slips by electoral officials, ensuring absolute secrecy of people’s voting preferences and limiting the opportunity for corruption. The Australian ballot is a form of the secret ballot and its features are subsequently adopted by many other countries. It remains an important element of the Australian electoral system today.


1867

Law for neglected children

Law for neglected children

South Australia is the first colony to de-institutionalise children under government control. The Destitute Persons Relief Act 1866–67 (SA) introduces the concept of ‘boarding out’ for children in asylums, following a proposal by philanthropist Caroline Emily Clark that neglected children should be placed in ‘respectable poor families’ supported by a government subsidy. The Act also introduces industrial and reformatory schools. The boarding out system is a success and is subsequently adopted in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.


1880

The Bulletin begins publication

The Bulletin begins publication

The Bulletin journal, founded by J F Archibald, combines news, politics and economics, and offers an Australian perspective to an Australian audience. Famous for publishing the work of promising Australian writers such as Henry Lawson, it becomes a radically nationalistic magazine. Its original masthead proclaims ‘Australia for the Australians’ then, in 1908, it adopts the logo ‘Australia for the White Man’. The Bulletin ceases publication in 2007 after 127 years.


1881

Taking care of the poor

Taking care of the poor

South Australia passes the Destitute Persons Act 1881, the first legislation for the state relief of poverty in Australia. Many immigrants to Australia have painful memories of the English poor laws and the hated workhouse, and regard the absence of poor laws in Australia as a sign of social progress. During the 1880s several colonies begin to supplement the funds of religious and charitable organisations to relieve poverty.


1888

First Australian women’s newspaper

First Australian women’s newspaper

Louisa Lawson, poet, novelist and mother of Henry Lawson, establishes Dawn magazine to promote women’s independence and rights. In the previous year Louisa had bought the ailing Republican journal which she co-edited with her husband Henry under the pseudonym ‘Archie Lawson’. However, Dawn remains a commercial success for 17 years, and is the only Australian newspaper to be printed and published by women.


1908

National pension scheme

National pension scheme

The Commonwealth exercises its Constitutional power to introduce the Invalid and Old-Age Pensions Act 1908 — a means-tested flat-rate age and invalid pension scheme for men aged from 65 and (from 1910) for women aged from 60. Aliens, ‘Asiatics’ (except those born in Australia), and certain groups of ‘aboriginal natives’ are ineligible for a pension. A pension is not granted to an inmate of a benevolent asylum or charitable institution. This scheme replaces state aged pension schemes in New South Wales and Victoria (1900) and Queensland (1908).


1912

Maternity allowance

Maternity allowance

As a result of effective lobbying by women, the Maternity Allowance Act 1912 (Cth) is introduced by Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher. It provides for payment of £5 to all white mothers, including unmarried mothers, on the birth of a child. The provision for unmarried mothers causes outrage amongst church groups. The Act excludes mothers of ‘Asiatic’, Indigenous, Papuan or Pacific Islander origin in line with the White Australia Policy. Indigenous women become eligible for the allowance in 1942, except those living a ‘nomadic or primitive’ life.


1915

Wartime censorship

Wartime censorship

As a wartime measure, the government of Billy Hughes introduces Regulation 28A, which gives it the power to force newspaper editors to submit articles to the censor for clearance before publication.


1919

James Joyce’s Ulysses is banned

James Joyce’s Ulysses is banned

James Joyce’s book Ulysses reflects changing trends in censorship. It is banned in 1919, unbanned in 1937 and re-banned in 1941. Despite protests in parliament in 1967, the Minister for Customs refuses to over-rule the Censorship Board’s ban on the film Ulysses, which the it rules as obscene and indecent.


1927

Journalists in federal parliament

Journalists in federal parliament

The new federal Parliament House in Canberra is one of the first parliamentary buildings in the world to provide specially built accommodation for journalists within the legislative chamber, indicating the increasing importance of the media to parliament and in everyday life.


1929

Censorship and the ‘talkies’

Censorship and the ‘talkies’

The federal government decides that silent and sound versions of film are to be treated as separate items for censorship purposes. The Censorship Board regrets the advent of sound, stating that the ‘soul of the film was its eloquent and vital silence and the old mystery and beauty are giving way more and more to the depiction of the sordid and vulgar with tiresome emphasis on incidents drawn from stage life’.


1932

Public broadcasting commences

Public broadcasting commences

The Australian Broadcasting Commission, established in 1929, goes to air on 1 July. It begins with 12 stations broadcasting music, sport and information programs for about 11 hours each day.


1935

Australian Council for Civil Liberties

Australian Council for Civil Liberties

A group of prominent citizens, lawyers and writers, including Brian Fitzpatrick, Herbert Burton, Max Meldrum, Sir John Barry and Sir Eugene Gorman, form the Australian Council for Civil Liberties. The Council is formed initially to lobby against censorship restrictions. It publishes booklets to promote its cause, including Yvonne Nicholls’ Not Slaves, Not Citizens in 1952. Branches of the Council are established in every state.


1939

Department of Social Services

Department of Social Services

The Department of Social Services is established in 1939, but does not function as a separate department until 1941. It assumes responsibility for national social services from the Treasury.


1941

National child endowment scheme

National child endowment scheme

The Child Endowment Act 1941 creates a Commonwealth Child Endowment Scheme following the first child endowment scheme introduced in NSW in 1927. The federal scheme provides an allowance to be paid to families for each child (after the first) under 16 years in families and each child under 16 years in approved non-government institutions. It is subsequently expanded and renamed family allowance.


1942

Widows' pension

Widows' pension

The government introduces the Widows Pensions Act 1942 and the Widows Pensions Act 1943 when it acknowledges that many widows are forced to work to provide for their children.


Broadcasting powers regulated

Broadcasting powers regulated

The Australian Broadcasting Act gives the Australian Broadcasting Commission power to decide when, and in what circumstances, political speeches should be broadcast. Directions from the Minister to broadcast, or refrain from broadcasting, any matter now has to be made in writing. That power remains in force until 1992, and is used only once in 1963 when the Postmaster-General, on the advice of the Prime Minister, directs the ABC not to broadcast an interview with the former Prime Minister of France, Georges Bidault.


1944

Unemployment benefits

Unemployment benefits

The Commonwealth Parliament passes the Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Act 1944. However, Indigenous Australians, however, are disqualified from benefits unless the Department is satisfied that by reason of their ‘character, standard of intelligence and development’ they receive the benefit. The provision disqualifying ‘aboriginal natives of Australia’ is repealed in 1960 but those deemed ‘nomadic or primitive’ remain ineligible until 1966.


1945

Parliamentary broadcasting

Parliamentary broadcasting

The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) broadcasts the proceedings of federal parliament for the first time, with Acting Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s announcement of the end of World War II in Europe. Regular broadcasts of parliament begin on ABC Radio the following year.


Australia joins the United Nations

Australia joins the United Nations

Australia sends a delegation (including feminist activist Jessie Street) led by HV ‘Doc’ Evatt to the San Francisco conference, which opens on 25 April, to establish the United Nations. Australia is one of the 51 founding members, and plays a key role in the conception of its UN Charter, which is signed on 26 June 1945. Evatt is subsequently appointed to chair the General Assembly in 1948 at which the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is adopted. The United Nations aims to promote and encourage ‘respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’, and becomes a powerful force in the pursuit of international peace and security.


1948

Australia signs UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Australia signs UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

At its third session, the UN General Assembly adopts the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its President, Australia’s Foreign Minister and Attorney-General, HV ‘Doc’ Evatt, predicts that ‘millions of people, men, women and children all over the world would turn to it for help, guidance and inspiration’. Australia, together with the United Kingdom, subsequently leads the way in advocating the adoption of the International Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Civil and Political Rights in 1966 (in force from 1976).


1950

Korean War (1950-53)

Korean War (1950-53)

Towards the end of World War II, US and Soviet forces occupy the Korean peninsula, having liberated it from Japan. The two powers divide responsibility for Korea between themselves at the 38th parallel. A Soviet-supported communist regime emerges in the north and a US-backed one in the south. Both regimes seek reunification — but under their respective governments. On 25 June, the North Korean army pushes south. The United States sends in support to the south and the United Nations enlists 21 nations against the north. When the UN force enters the north, the Chinese move in with several army divisions. More than 1.5 million people die in various battles. A peace agreement is reached on 27 July 1953.


1953

Government and commercial television

Government and commercial television

The Television Act 1953 provides for both government and commercial stations.


1959

First televised broadcast of federal parliament

First televised broadcast of federal parliament

Federal parliament is televised by the Australian Broadcasting Commission for the first time on 17 February at the official opening of the 23rd Australian Commonwealth Parliament in Canberra.


1964

Federal funding for schools

Federal funding for schools

The Commonwealth States Grants (Science Laboratories and Technical Training) Act 1964 allows the Menzies government to directly fund state and private schools.


1965

Lady Chattlerley’s Lover

Lady Chattlerley’s Lover

An account of the 1961 obscenity trial for DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is banned. The novel, first published in Italy in 1928, is one of a number of books banned from circulation in Australia because of its sexually explicit themes. The bans reflect literary and artistic censorship policies in the post-war era, and highlight the role of the Commonwealth and state governments in controlling the flow of sexually and politically controversial material into Australia. Such bans begin to decline by the late 1960s as federal and state governments introduce more liberal policies, although censorship remains a controversial issue.


1968

Copyright introduced

Copyright introduced

The Copyright Act 1968 gives individuals the right to protect their moral and economic interests arising from their work, including works of art and literature, which cannot be used or copied without the owner/creator’s permission.


1970

Censorship laws challenged

Censorship laws challenged

For the first time, a private citizen, Mr Dennis Altman, successfully challenges a ministerial decision to ban a book. The American novel Totem Pole by Sandord Friedman tells of a man’s gradual acceptance of his homosexuality.


Campaign against Moral Persecution

Campaign against Moral Persecution

The Campaign against Moral Persecution (CAMP) forms to oppose discrimination against homosexual people, and organises the first demonstrations in Sydney in 1971.


1972

Gay Liberation

Gay Liberation

The Gay Liberation political activist group is launched in Sydney.


1973

Human Rights Bill

Human Rights Bill

After the success of the 1967 referendum, Senator Lionel Murphy, Attorney-General in the Whitlam Labor government, introduces the Human Rights Bill 1973 (Cth) into the federal parliament. The Bill seeks to implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 in Australia on the basis that the Australian Constitution provides scant protection of rights. The Bill is strongly opposed and never enacted, although Murphy is subsequently appointed to the High Court where he broadly interprets the express rights in the Constitution and holds that a number of other rights can be implied.


1974

Joint sitting of parliament televised

Joint sitting of parliament televised

A historic joint sitting of parliament is held shortly after the double dissolution election of 18 May, and becomes the first parliamentary debate to be televised in Australia.


1975

National health care system

National health care system

Medicare is introduced to address dissatisfaction with the existing voluntary health insurance scheme. Medicare is a Commonwealth-funded health insurance scheme that provides free or subsidised health care services to Australians. It provides free hospital services for patients in public hospitals through the Australian health care agreements with the states, subsidises private patients for hospital services (75 per cent of the schedule fee) and provides benefits for out-of-hospital medical services such as consultations with general practitioners or specialists (85 per cent of the schedule fee). The scheme commences on 1 July, following a joint sitting of parliament on 7 August 1974.


Homosexuality decriminalised

Homosexuality decriminalised

South Australia is the first jurisdiction in Australia to decriminalise some homosexual acts between consenting adults in private. Similar reforms are introduced in the ACT (1976), Victoria (1980), Northern Territory (1983), New South Wales (1984) and Western Australia (1989). The Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists eliminates homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1974 and the Australian Medical Association does the same in 1984.


Civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights

Civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights

Australia ratifies the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in 1980, the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Australia plays a key role, along with the United Kingdom, in arguing for such covenants that would bind nations that adopt it with the force of international law. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises the ‘right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides the principal framework for the universal right to health. As a state party to this Covenant, Australia is obliged to submit five-yearly reports to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on how these and other rights are being implemented.


1978

Gay rights protest

Gay rights protest

The largest gay rights march in Australia is held in Sydney to commemorate the US Stonewall riots in 1969. The march becomes an annual event and is eventually known as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.


1981

Federal human rights laws

Federal human rights laws

The federal Human Rights Commission Act 1981 comes into force, based on the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


1982

Freedom of information laws

Freedom of information laws

The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) creates a legally enforceable right of public access to documents in the possession of Commonwealth ministers and agencies. The new law aims to increase transparency in government decision-making and to improve the accountability of government for administrative decision-making.


Anti-discrimination law against homosexuals

Anti-discrimination law against homosexuals

New South Wales is the first state to pass laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexual people.


1984

Sex discrimination

Sex discrimination

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) provides a legal avenue for addressing discriminatory practices based on gender and sexuality.


Gay Rights Lobby

Gay Rights Lobby

The NSW Parliament legislates to decriminalise homosexuality between consenting adults. The Gay Rights Lobby, formed in 1981, officially disbands after the historic Act. In the same year, three openly gay men are elected to the Sydney City Council.


1986

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 is enacted. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is established and replaces the existing Human Rights Commission.


1988

Referendum on rights

Referendum on rights

Following two unsuccessful attempts to enact a bill of rights, the Hawke government establishes a Constitutional Commission in 1985. Before the Commission completes its report, the Hawke government calls a referendum putting four proposals for constitutional change to the Australian people. These include four-year maximum terms for the federal parliament, recognition of local government, guarantee of the right to vote and ‘one vote one value’, and a guarantee of basic freedoms by extending the operation of existing guarantees in the Constitution. All four proposals are defeated nationally. Some critics argue that the best defence of civil liberties lies in the common law rather than in a specific legal instrument.


1990

Parliamentary proceedings televised

Parliamentary proceedings televised

Despite the advent of television in 1956, permission to televise proceedings of both parliamentary houses is not given until 1990. Broadcasting in the Senate begins immediately and in the House of Representatives in 1991. Senate Committee Hearings are also televised, enabling the public to see their representatives at work.


1991

Children’s rights protected

Children’s rights protected

Australia ratifies the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations in 1989.


1992

Protection for people with disabilities

Protection for people with disabilities

The federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992 provides protection for everyone in Australia against discrimination on the basis of disability.


1993

Film censorship to protect children

Film censorship to protect children

A new classification — Mature Accompanied (MA) — is added to film classifications that divide movies into age and taste groupings. MA bans children under 15 from viewing films unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.


1994

Same-sex relationships recognised

Same-sex relationships recognised

The ACT, through its Domestic Relationships Act 1994, is the first jurisdiction to give same-sex relationships the same legal standing as heterosexual de facto relationships.


Sexual conduct laws

Sexual conduct laws

The federal government passes the Human Rights (Sexual Conduct) Act 1994, legalising sexual activity between consenting adults in private throughout Australia. The UN Human Rights Commission rules that Tasmanian laws prohibiting homosexual sex is in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


1995

Euthanasia laws

Euthanasia laws

The Northern Territory Parliament passes a law making voluntary euthanasia legal. It allows physicians to prescribe and administer lethal substances to terminally ill patients who formally request assistance in ending their lives. The passage of the Bill — one of the first of its kind in the world — provokes a furore in Australia and across the world. It receives support from ‘death with dignity’ groups and widespread condemnation from euthanasia opponents, who see it as opening the way to involuntary homicide. The federal parliament subsequently passes the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, withdrawing the Northern Territory Parliament’s powers to pass laws that purport to legalise euthanasia.


1999

Internet censorship

Internet censorship

The federal government legislates to control access to explicit material on the internet with the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill 1999.


Parliament goes live

Parliament goes live

Live video broadcasts of federal parliamentary proceedings commence via the internet. The Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, responsible for arranging parliamentary broadcasting, aims to help people to understand and become involved in the workings of the House of Representatives and its committees. Hansard is also made available on the internet via the Australian Parliament House website.


2001

David Hicks prosecuted on terrorism charges

David Hicks prosecuted on terrorism charges

David Hicks, an Australian who has undertaken combat training in Al-Qaeda-linked camps and served with the ruling Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, is detained by the US Government in Guantanamo Bay until 2007, when he becomes the first person to be tried and convicted under the US Military Commissions Act of 2006. Hicks’ treatment under the newly created legal system draws widespread criticism and political controversy.


2003

Charter of a Free Press

Charter of a Free Press

The Australian Press Council, a leading advocate for the freedom and the responsibility of the press in Australia, adopts a Charter of a Free Press in the absence of any laws that guarantee press freedom and free speech. The only ‘guarantee’ of free speech arises from an implication found in the Australian Constitution, but the Charter recognises Australia’s endorsement of Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating the right to the free flow of information to enable news and opinion of public interest to be freely available to citizens.


2004

Age is no barrier

Age is no barrier

The Australian Government passes the Age Discrimination Act 2004 to eliminate discrimination on the grounds of age and to ensure equal rights before the law.


2005

GetUp

GetUp

GetUp, an independent, grass-roots community advocacy organisation, is founded by Jeremy Heimans and David Madden, Australian graduates of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Its success demonstrates the increasing power of ‘e-democracy’. In its first three years, GetUp attracts over 300,000 members and its campaigns include bringing David Hicks to Australia from US detention, changing the laws on media ownership, achieving equal rights for same-sex couples, and supporting the Parliamentary Apology to the Stolen Generations. They subsequently establish Avaaz.org, a global online political community inspired by the success of GetUp and the US group MoveOn.org.


2008

UN Convention on Disabilities and Indigenous Peoples

UN Convention on Disabilities and Indigenous Peoples

Australia ratifies the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (July 2008), and formally supports the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.