Australia, officially nomenclatured the “Commonwealth of Australia,” is a country that comprises the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania and numerous smaller islands. It is the world’s sixth-largest country by total area. Neighbouring countries include Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea to the north; the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia to the north-east; and New Zealand to the south-east.
The Continent was inhabited by indigenous Aboriginals, prehistoric settlers who had arrived on the continent from Southeast Asia at least 40,000 years before the first Europeans began exploration in the 17th century. No formal territorial claims were made until 1770, until Capt. James Cook took possession of the east coast in the name of Great Britain, and the British started settling it through penal transportation from 26 January 1788, to the colony of New South Wales. Subsequently, all of Australia was claimed as British territory in 1829, with the creation of the colony of Western Australia. Six colonies were created in the late 18th and 19th centuries; they federated and became the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Since then on, Australia has maintained a stable liberal democratic political system that functions as a federal parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The federation comprises six states and several territories.
The new country took advantage of its natural resources to rapidly develop agricultural and manufacturing industries, and to make a major contribution to the Allied effort in World Wars I and II. In recent decades, Australia has become an internationally competitive, advanced market economy due in large part to economic reforms adopted in the 1980s and its location in one of the fastest growing regions of the world economy. The population of 23.1 million is highly urbanised and concentrated in the eastern states. Long-term concerns include aging of the population, pressure on infrastructure, and environmental issues such as floods, droughts, and bushfires. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, making it particularly vulnerable to the challenges of climate change. Australia is home to 10 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, and a great number of its flora and fauna exist nowhere else in the world.
A highly developed country and one of the wealthiest, Australia is the world’s 12th largest economy and has the world’s fifth-highest per capita income. Australia’s military expenditure is the world’s 13th largest. With the second-highest human development index globally, Australia ranks highly in many international comparisons of national performance, such as quality of life, health, education, economic freedom, and the protection of civil liberties and political rights. Australia is a member of the United Nations, G20, Commonwealth of Nations, ANZUS, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Trade Organization, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and the Pacific Islands Forum.
Australia’s landmass of 7,617,930 sq. kms lies on the Indo-Australian Plate. Surrounded by the Indian and Pacific oceans, it is separated from Asia by the Arafura and Timor seas, with the Coral Sea lying off the Queensland coast, and the Tasman Sea lying between Australia and New Zealand. The world’s smallest continent and sixth largest country by total area, Australia — owing to its size and isolation — is often dubbed the “island continent”, and is sometimes considered the world’s largest island. Australia has 34,218 kilometres of coastline, and claims an extensive Exclusive Economic Zone of 8,148,250 sq. kms. This exclusive economic zone does not include the Australian Antarctic Territory. Excluding Macquarie Island, Australia lies between latitudes 9° and 44°S, and longitudes 112° and 154°E.
The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef, lies a short distance off the north-east coast and extends for over 2,000 kilometres. Mount Augustus, claimed to be the world’s largest monolith, is located in Western Australia. At 2,228 metres, Mount Kosciuszko on the Great Dividing Range is the highest mountain on the Australian mainland. Even taller are Mawson Peak (at 2,745 metres), on the remote Australian territory of Heard Island, and, in the Australian Antarctic Territory, Mount McClintock and Mount Menzies, at 3,492 metres and 3,355 metres respectively. Australia’s size gives it a wide variety of landscapes, with subtropical rainforests in the north-east, mountain ranges in the south-east, south-west and east, and dry desert in the centre. It is the flattest continent, with the oldest and least fertile soils; with desert or semi-arid land commonly known as the outback making up by far the largest portion of land. Only its south-east and south-west corners have a temperate climate. The population density, 2.8 inhabitants per square kilometre, is among the lowest in the world, although a large proportion of the population lives along the temperate south-eastern coastline.
Eastern Australia is marked by the Great Dividing Range, which runs parallel to the coasts of Queensland, New South Wales and much of Victoria. The name is not strictly accurate, because parts of the range consist of low hills, and the highlands are typically no more than 1,600 metres in height. The coastal uplands and a belt of Brigalow grasslands lie between the coast and the mountains, while inland of the dividing range are large areas of grassland. These include the western plains of New South Wales, and the Einasleigh Uplands, Barkly Tableland, and Mulga Lands of inland Queensland. The northernmost point of the east coast is the tropical-rainforested Cape York Peninsula.
The landscapes of the northern part of the country — the Top End and the Gulf Country behind the Gulf of Carpentaria, with their tropical climate — consist of woodland, grassland, and desert. At the north-west corner of the continent are the sandstone cliffs and gorges of The Kimberley, and below that the Pilbara. To the south of these and inland, lie more areas of grassland: the Ord Victoria Plain and the Western Australian Mulga shrublands. At the heart of the country are the uplands of central Australia; prominent features of the centre and south include the inland Simpson, Tirari and Sturt Stony, Gibson, Great Sandy, Tanami, and Great Victoria deserts, with the famous Nullarbor Plain on the southern coast.
The climate of Australia is significantly influenced by ocean currents, including the Indian Ocean Dipole and the El Niño – Southern Oscillation, which is correlated with periodic drought, and the seasonal tropical low-pressure system that produces cyclones in northern Australia. These factors cause rainfall to vary markedly from year to year. Much of the northern part of the country has a tropical, predominantly monsoon-type climate. The southwest corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate. Much of the southeast, including Tasmania, is temperate.
For more than two centuries now, the majority of settlers, and later immigrants, came from the British Isles, and accounts for the reason why the people of Australia are primarily of British and/or Irish ethnic origin. The 2011 Census asked respondents to provide a maximum of two ancestries with which they most closely identify. The most commonly nominated ancestry was English (36.1%), followed by Australian (35.4%), Irish (10.4%), Scottish (8.9%), Italian (4.6%), German (4.5%), Chinese (4.3%), Indian (2.0%), Greek (1.9%), and Dutch (1.7%). Asian Australians make up 12% of the population. While Australia’s population has more than quadrupled since World War I, it’s population density of a mere 2.8 inhabitants per square kilometre places it among the lowest in the world. Much of the population increase has came from immigration. Following World War II and through to 2000, almost 5.9 million of the total population settled in the country as new immigrants, meaning that nearly two out of every seven Australians were born in another country. Most immigrants are skilled, but the immigration quota includes categories for family members and refugees. By 2050, Australia’s population is currently projected to reach around 42 million.
In 2011, 24.6% of Australians were born elsewhere and 43.1% of people had at least one overseas-born parent; the largest immigrant groups were those from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, China, India, Italy, Vietnam, and Philippines. Over 80 percent of Australia’s population is of European ancestry, and most of the rest are of Asian heritage, with a smaller minority of indigenous (Aboriginal) background. Following the abolition of the White Australia policy in 1973, numerous government initiatives have been established to encourage and promote racial harmony based on a policy of multiculturalism. In 2005–06, more than 131,000 people emigrated to Australia, mainly from Asia and Oceania. The migration target for 2012–13 is 190,000, compared to 67,900 in 1998–99.
The Indigenous population — mainland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders — was last counted at 548,370 (2.5% of the total population) in 2011, a significant increase from 115,953 in the 1976 census. The increase is partly due to many people with Indigenous heritage previously having been overlooked by the census due to undercount, and cases where their Indigenous status had not been recorded. Indigenous Australians experience higher than average rates of imprisonment and unemployment, lower levels of education, and life expectancies for males and females that are 11–17 years lower than those of non-indigenous Australians. Some remote Indigenous communities have been described as having “failed state”-like conditions. In tune with the trend in many other developed countries, Australia too is experiencing a demographic shift towards an older population, with more retirees and fewer people of working age. In 2004, the average age of the civilian population was 38.8 years. A large number of Australians (759,849 for the period 2002–03, 1 million or 5% of the total population in 2005) live outside their home country.
Australia has no state religion; Section 116 of the Australian Constitution prohibits the federal government from making any law to establish any religion, impose any religious observance, or prohibit the free exercise of any religion. According to the 2011 census, 61.1% of Australians were counted as Christian, including 25.3% as Roman Catholic and 17.1% as Anglican; 22.3% of the population reported having “no religion” (which includes humanism, atheism, agnosticism and rationalism); 7.2% identify with non-Christian religions, the largest of these being Buddhism (2.5%), followed by Islam (2.2%), Hinduism (1.3%) and Judaism (0.5%). The remaining 9.4% of the population did not provide an answer.
Prior to European settlement of Australia, the animist beliefs of Australia’s indigenous people had been practised millennia. In the case of mainland Aboriginal Australians, their spirituality is known as the “Dreamtime” and it places a heavy emphasis on belonging to the land. The collection of stories that it contains shaped Aboriginal law and customs. Aboriginal art, story and dance continue to draw on these spiritual traditions. In the case of the Torres Strait Islanders who inhabit the islands between Australia and New Guinea, spirituality and customs reflected their Melanesian origins and dependence on the sea. The 1996 Australian census counted more than 7000 respondents as followers of a traditional Aboriginal religion.
Since the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships in 1788, Christianity has dominated the religious scene. Consequently, the Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter are public holidays, and the skylines of Australian cities and towns are marked by church steeples and cathedral spires. The Churches have played an integral role in the development of education, health and welfare services in Australia, with the Catholic education system operating as the largest non-government educator, accounting for about 21% of all secondary enrolments as of 2010, with Catholic Health Australia similarly being the largest non-government health-care provider. Christian welfare organisations also play a dominant role in national life, with organisations such as the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul Society and Anglicare having widespread support. Such contributions are recognised on Australia’s currency, with the presence of Christian ministers such as Aboriginal writer David Unaipon (AU$ 50); founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, John Flynn (AU$ 20); and Catherine Helen Spence (AU$ 5) who was Australia’s first female candidate for political office. Other significant Australian religious figures have included Mary MacKillop, who in 2010 became the first Australian to be recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and Church of Christ pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls who, like Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, led a movement against racial inequality in Australia and was also the first indigenous Australian to be appointed as a state governor.
For much of Australian history the Church of England (now known as the Anglican Church of Australia) was the largest religious affiliation. However, multicultural immigration has contributed to a decline in its relative position, with the Roman Catholic Church benefiting from the opening of post-war Australia to multicultural immigration and becoming the largest group. Similarly, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism have all been expanding in the post war decades. To a lesser extent, smaller affiliations including the Bahá’í Faith, Sikhism, Wicca and Paganism have also seen a significant increase in numbers. In the 2001 census there were, 17,381 Sikhs, 11,037 Bahá’ís, 10,632 Pagans and 8,755 Wiccans in Australia.
The Australian economy has consistently experienced sustained continuous growth, and features low unemployment, contained inflation, a very low public debt, and a strong and stable financial system. By 2012, Australia had experienced no less than 20 plus years of continued economic growth averaging 3.5% a year. Demand for resources and energy from Asia and especially China has grown rapidly, creating a channel for resources investments, and growth in commodity exports. A high Australian dollar has hurt the manufacturing sector, while the services sector is the largest sector of the economy, accounting for about 70% of GDP and 75% of jobs. Australia was comparatively unaffected by the global financial crisis as it’s banking system has remained strong and inflation is under control. Australia has also benefited from a dramatic surge in it’s terms of trade in recent years, stemming from rising global commodity prices. The country is a significant exporter of natural resources, energy, and food.
Australia’s abundant and diverse natural resources attract high levels of foreign investment, and include extensive reserves of coal, iron, copper, gold, natural gas, uranium, and renewable energy sources. A series of major investments, such as the US$ 40 Billion Gorgon Liquid Natural Gas project, is expected to significantly expand the resources sector. Australia is an open market with minimal restrictions on imports of goods and services.
The process of opening up has increased productivity, stimulated growth, and made the economy more flexible and dynamic. Australia plays an active role in the World Trade Organization, the APEC, the G20, and other trade forums. It has bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, and the US, has a regional FTA with ASEAN and New Zealand; and is negotiating agreements with China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, as well as with its Pacific neighbors and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. It is also working on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement with Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US, and Vietnam.
Over the past decade, inflation has typically been 2~3% and the base interest rate 5~6%. The service sector of the economy as mentioned earlier, which includes tourism, education, and financial services, accounts for about 70% of GDP. Rich in natural resources, Australia is a major exporter of agricultural products, particularly wheat and wool, minerals such as iron-ore and gold, and energy in the forms of liquified natural gas and coal. Although agriculture and natural resources account for only 3% and 5% of GDP respectively, they contribute substantially to export performance. Australia’s largest export markets are Japan, China, the US, South Korea, and New Zealand. Australia is the world’s fourth largest exporter of wine, and the wine industry contributes $5.5 Billion per year to the nation’s economy. In terms of average wealth, Australia is ranked second in the world after Switzerland in 2013, and it’s poverty rate increased from 10.2 per cent to 11.8 per cent, from 2000/01 to 2013. It has been identified by the Credit Suisse Research Institute as the nation with the highest median wealth in the world, and the second-highest average wealth per adult in 2013.