Australia is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent as well as the island of Tasmania and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the w smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area. Neighboring 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.
Many years before European settlement in the late 18th century, Australia was inhabited by indigenous Australians, who belonged to one or more of roughly 250 language groups. After discovery by Dutch explorers in 1606, Australia's eastern half was claimed by Great Britain in 1770 and settled through penal transportation to the colony of New South Wales from 26 January 1788. The population grew steadily in subsequent decades; the continent was explored and an additional five self-governing Crown Colonies were established.
On 1 January 1901, the six colonies federated, forming the Commonwealth of Australia. Since Federation, Australia has maintained a stable liberal democratic political system which functions as a federal parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The federation comprises six states and several territories. The population of 22.7 million is heavily concentrated in the Eastern states and is highly urbanized.
A highly developed country, Australia is the world's thirteenth-largest economy and has the world's fifth-highest per capita income. Australia's military expenditure is the world's thirteenth-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 G20, OECD, WTO, APEC, UN, Commonwealth of Nations, ANZUS, and the Pacific Islands Forum.
States and Territories
Australia has six states—New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia—and two major mainland territories—the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). In most respects these two territories function as states, but the Commonwealth Parliament can override any legislation of their parliaments. By contrast, federal legislation overrides state legislation only in areas that are set out in Section 51 of the Australian Constitution; state parliaments retain all residual legislative powers, including those over schools, state police, the state judiciary, roads, public transport, and local government, since these do not fall under the provisions listed in Section 51.
Each state and major mainland territory has its own parliament—unicameral in the Northern Territory, the ACT, and Queensland, and bicameral in the other states. The states are sovereign entities, although subject to certain powers of the Commonwealth as defined by the Constitution. The lower houses are known as the Legislative Assembly (the House of Assembly in South Australia and Tasmania); the upper houses are known as the Legislative Council. The head of the government in each state is the Premier, and in each territory the Chief Minister. The Queen is represented in each state by a Governor; and in the Northern Territory, the Administrator. In the Commonwealth, the Queen's representative is the Governor-General.
The federal parliament directly administers the following territories:
- Ashmore and Cartier Islands
- Australian Antarctic Territory
- Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands
- Coral Sea Islands
- Heard Island and McDonald Islands
- Jervis Bay Territory, a naval base and sea port for the national capital in land that was formerly part of New South Wales
Norfolk Island is also technically an external territory; however, under the Norfolk Island Act 1979 it has been granted more autonomy and is governed locally by its own legislative assembly. The Queen is represented by an Administrator, currently Owen Walsh.
Australia's landmass of 2,941,300 sq. mi is on the Indo-Australian Plate. Surrounded by the Indian and Pacific oceans, it is separated from Asia by the Arafura and Timor seas. 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 21,262 mi of coastline, and claims an extensive Exclusive Economic Zone of 3,146,060 sq mi. 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 1,240 mi. Mount Augustus, claimed to be the world's largest monolith, is located in Western Australia. At 7,310 ft., Mount Kosciuszko on the Great Dividing Range is the highest mountain on the Australian mainland. Even taller are Mawson Peak, on the remote Australian territory of Heard Island, and, in the Australian Antarctic Territory, Mount McClintock and Mount Menzies, at 11,457 ft. and 11,007 ft. respectively.
Australia's size gives it a wide variety of landscapes, with subtropical rain forests in the north-east, mountain ranges in the south-east, south-west and east areas, and a dry desert in its center. It is the flattest continent, with the oldest and least fertile soils; desert or semi-arid land commonly known as the outback makes up by far the largest portion of land. The driest inhabited continent, only its south-east and south-west corners have a temperate climate. The population density, 2.8 inhabitants per square kilometer, 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 that runs parallel to the coast of Queensland, New South Wales, and much of Victoria—although the name is not strictly accurate, as in parts the range consists of low hills and the highlands are typically no more than 5,249 ft. in height. The coastal uplands and a belt of Brigalow grasslands lay 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 northern point of the east coast is the tropical rain forested 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. South and inland of these lay more areas of grassland: the Ord Victoria Plain and the Western Australian Mulga shrub lands. At the heart of the country are the uplands of central Australia; prominent features of the center 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 induce rainfall to vary markedly from year to year. Much of the northern part of the country has a tropical predominantly summer rainfall (monsoon) climate. Just under three quarters of Australia lies within a desert or semi-arid zone. The southwest corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate. Much of the southeast (including Tasmania) is temperate.
Although most of Australia is semi-arid or desert, it includes a diverse range of habitats from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests, and is recognized as a mega diverse country. Because of the continent's great age, extremely variable weather patterns, and long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia's biota is unique and diverse. About 85 per cent of flowering plants, 84 per cent of mammals, more than 45 per cent of birds, and 89 per cent of in-shore, temperate-zone fish are endemic. Australia has the greatest number of reptiles of any country, with 755 species.
Australian forests are mostly made up of evergreen species; particularly eucalyptus trees in the less arid regions, wattles replace them in drier regions and deserts as the most dominant species. Among well-known Australian fauna are the monotremes (the platypus and echidna); a host of marsupials, including the kangaroo, koala, and wombat, and birds such as the emu and the kookaburra. Australia is home to many dangerous animals including some of the most venomous snakes in the world. The dingo was introduced by Austronesian people who traded with Indigenous Australians around 3000 B.C. Many plant and animal species became extinct soon after first human settlement, including the Australian mega fauna; others have disappeared since European settlement, among them the thylacine.
Many of Australia's Eco regions, and the species within those regions, are threatened by human activities and introduced plant and animal species. The federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is the legal framework for the protection of threatened species. Numerous protected areas have been created under the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity to protect and preserve unique ecosystems; 65 wetlands are listed under the Ramsar Convention, and 16 natural World Heritage Sites have been established. Australia was ranked 51st of 163 countries in the world on the 2010 Environmental Performance Index.
Climate change has become an increasing concern in Australia in recent years, with many Australians considering protection of the environment to be the most important issue facing the country. The Rudd Ministry initiated several emission reduction activities; Rudd's first official act, on his first day in office, was to sign the instrument of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Nevertheless, Australia's carbon dioxide emissions per capita are among the highest in the world, lower than those of only a few other industrialized nations. Rainfall in Australia has slightly increased over the past century, both nationwide and for two quadrants of the nation, while annual mean temperatures increased significantly over the past decades. Water restrictions are frequently in place in many regions and cities of Australia in response to chronic shortages due to urban population increases and localized drought.
For almost two centuries the majority of settlers, and later immigrants, came from the British Isles. As a result the people of Australia are mainly a mixture of British and Irish ethnic origin. In the 2006 Australian census, the most commonly nominated ancestry was Australian (37.13 per cent), followed by English (32 per cent), Irish (9 per cent), Scottish (8 per cent), Italian (4 per cent), German (4 per cent), Chinese (3 per cent), and Greek (2 per cent).
Australia's population has quadrupled since the end of World War I, much of the increase 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 overseas. 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 2001, 23.1 per cent of Australians were born overseas; the five largest immigrant groups were those from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam, and China. 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 immigrated to Australia, mainly from Asia and Oceania. The migration target for 2010–11 is 168,700, compared to 67,900 in 1998–99.
The Indigenous population—mainland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders—was counted at 410,003 (2.2 per cent of the total population) in 2001, a significant increase from 115,953 in the 1976 census. A large number of Indigenous people are not identified in the Census due to undercount and cases where their Indigenous status is not recorded on the form; after adjusting for these factors, the ABS estimated the true figure for 2001 to be around 460,140 (2.4 per cent of the total population).
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 common with many other developed countries, Australia 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) live outside their home country.
Australia has no state religion, and 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. In the 2006 census, 64 per cent of Australians were counted as Christian, including 26 per cent as Roman Catholic and 19 per cent as Anglican. About 19 per cent of the population stated "no religion" (which includes humanism, atheism, agnosticism and rationalism), which was the fastest-growing group from 2001 to 2006, and a further 12 per cent did not answer (the question is optional) or did not give a response adequate for interpretation. The largest non-Christian religion in Australia is Buddhism (2.1 per cent), followed by Islam (1.7 per cent), Hinduism (0.8 per cent) and Judaism (0.5 per cent). Overall, fewer than 6 per cent of Australians identify with non-Christian religions.
Prior to European settlement in Australia, the animist beliefs of Australia's indigenous people had been practiced for 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 which it contains shaped Aboriginal law and customs and Aboriginal art; story and dance continues 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 grown to be the major religion. Consequently, the Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter are public holidays, the skylines of Australian cities and towns are marked by church and cathedral spires, and the Christian churches have played an integral role in the development of education, health and welfare services in Australia. The Catholic education system operates as the largest non-government educator, accounting for about 21% of all secondary enrolments at the close of the 2000s (decade), with Catholic Health Australia similarly being the largest non-government provider. Christian welfare organizations also play a prominent role within national life, with organizations like the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul Society and Anglicare enjoying widespread support. Such contributions are recognized on Australia's currency, with the presence of Christian pastors like Aboriginal writer David Unaipon ($50) and founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, John Flynn ($20). Other significant Australian religious have included St. Mary McKillop, who became the first Australian to be recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 2010 and Church of Christ pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls, who, like Martin Luther King 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. Weekly attendance at church services in 2001 was about 1.5 million (about 7.8 per cent of the population).
An international survey, made by the private, not-for profit German think-tank, the Bertelsmann Foundation, found that "Australia is one of the least religious nations in the western world, coming in 17th out of 21 [countries] surveyed" and that "Nearly three out of four Australians say they are either not at all religious or that religion does not play a central role in their lives." A survey of 1,718 Australians by the Christian Research Association at the end of 2009 suggested that the number of people attending religious services per month in Australia has dropped from 23 per cent in 1993 to 16 per cent in 2009, and while 60 per cent of 15 to 29-year-old respondents in 1993 identified with Christian denominations, 33 per cent did in 2009.