The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Australia, officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is the sixth-largest country in the world, the only one to occupy an entire continent, and the largest in the region of Australasia/Oceania. It also includes a number of secondary islands, the largest of which is Tasmania, an Australian State. Australia is a federation, and is governed as a parliamentary constitutional monarchy.

Australia's neighbouring countries include Indonesia, East Timor, and Papua New Guinea to the north, Antarctica to the south, the Pacific Islands to the northeast, and New Zealand to the southeast. The shortest border distance is between the mainlands of Papua New Guinea and Australia at about 150 km; however, the nearest inhabited island, Boigu Island , is about 5 km from Papua New Guinea. This has led to a complicated border arrangement allowing access for 'traditional' uses of the waterway across the border by Papua New Guinean people and Torres Strait Islanders.


Origin and history of the name

The name Australia derives from Latin australis meaning southern, and dates back to 2nd century legends of an "unknown southern land" (i.e: terra australis incognita). The British explorer Matthew Flinders named the land Terra Australis which was later abbreviated to the current form. Previously, when the Dutch explored the area they named it Nova Hollandicus or New Holland.

The British explorer Matthew Flinders named the land Australia on the chart he compiled in 1804 whilst being held prisoner on Mauritius. When he returned to England and published his works in 1814 he was forced to change the name to Terra Australis by the British Admiralty. Governor Macquarie of New South Wales became aware of Flinder's preference for the name Australia and used it in his dispatches to England and in 1824 the British Admiralty finally accepted that the continent should be known officially as Australia.

The word "Australia" is pronounced locally as either or /əˈstɹeɪjə/ (IPA).


Main article: History of Australia

The exact date of the first human habitation of Australia is still a subject of considerable research. There is strong scientific evidence for a presence around 50,000 years ago, a period of massive ecological upheaval in Australia which is believed to be consistent with human colonisation. However, there is some speculation about considerably earlier arrivals, even as far as 100,000 or more years ago. These first Australians were the remote ancestors of the current Australian Aborigines, and arrived via land bridges and navigation of significant sea crossings from present-day Southeast Asia.

The sharing of animal and plant species between adjacent parts of Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Papua and nearby Indonesian islands point to early land bridges closed when sea levels rose. The historically traditional movement of people between these places in primitive sailing craft for trade and fishing, point to the possibility of Arab and Chinese traders to the northern islands learning of and then visiting the shores of the southern continent from as early as the 9th century. Maps compiled in Europe from the late 1400s show parts of the coastline.

The land was first discovered by Europeans in 1522 by the Portuguese explorer Cristóvão de Mendonça, but it was only in the 17th century that the island continent became the subject of European exploration, with several expeditions sighting Terra Australis: The Dutch explorer Willem Jansz (1606), the Portuguese explorer Luis Vaez de Torres in Spanish service (1607), and the Dutch explorers Jan Carstensz (1623), Dirk Hartog and Abel Tasman (1642), after whom is named the island of Tasmania, but which he himself originally named after Anthoonij van Diemenslandt.

The first English explorers were Willem Dampier on the west coast of the continent in 1688, and Lieutenant James Cook who, in 1770, claimed the eastern two-thirds of the continent for Britain, despite orders from King George III to first conclude a treaty with the indigenous population. His report to London that Australia was uninhabited (see Terra nullius) provided impetus for the establishment of a penal colony there following the loss of the American colonies.

The British Crown Colony of New South Wales began by the establishment of a settlement (later to become Sydney) in Port Jackson by Captain Arthur Phillip on January 26, 1788. This date was later to become Australia's national day, Australia Day.

Van Diemen's Land (the present day Tasmania) was settled in 1803, and became a separate colony in 1825. The rest of the continent, what is now Western Australia, was formally claimed by the United Kingdom in 1829. Following the spread of British settlement, separate Colonies were created from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851 and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory was founded, as part of the Colony of South Australia, in 1863.

During the period of 1855-1890, the six Crown Colonies each successively became self-governing colonies, which managed most of their own affairs. British law was adopted in each colony at the time of the granting of responsible government, and was subsequently modified by the individual legislatures. The British government retained control of some matters, especially foreign affairs, defence and international shipping. Despite its heavily rural-based economy Australia remained significantly urbanised, centred particularly around the cities of Melbourne and Sydney. In the 1880s 'Marvellous Melbourne' was the second largest city in the British Empire. Australia also gained a reputation as a 'working man's paradise' and as a laboratory for social reform, with the world's first secret ballot and first national Labor Party government. Universal suffrage was also granted comparatively early in most colonies.

On 1 January 1901, Federation of the Colonies was completed after a 10 year gestation period, and the Commonwealth of Australia was born, as a dominion of the British Empire. The Australian Capital Territory was separated from New South Wales in 1911, to provide a neutral place for the proposed new federal capital of Canberra (the initial capital having been Melbourne). Although Australia had become independent in many respects, the British government retained some powers until the Statute of Westminster of 1931 was ratified by Australia in 1942, and the theoretical authority of the British Parliament over individual states was not completely severed until the passing of the Australia Act in 1986. The original constitution gave the federal government power to make laws relating to any race of people except Aborigines. In 1967, a referendum supported by more than ninety per cent of voters gave the federal government the right to enact laws to protect Aboriginal people and to count them in the census.


Elizabeth II, , in 1952 and 2002, shown on a
Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia, in 1952 and 2002, shown on a postage stamp

Main article: Government of Australia

The Commonwealth of Australia is a constitutional monarchy: Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of Australia, a role distinct and separate from her position as Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, and is generally considered to be the head of state, although that term is found nowhere in the Constitution or the law. The Queen is nominally represented by the Governor-General; in practice virtually the entire constitutional role of a monarch is performed independently by the Governor-General. Under the Australian Constitution the role of the monarch is almost entirely ceremonial. Although the constitution theoretically gives extensive executive power to the Governor-General, these powers are seldom used directly, and by convention, exercised only on advice from the Cabinet. The Cabinet consists of the senior ministers of the government and are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister.

Government is undertaken by three inter-connected arms of government:

The Separation of Powers is the principle whereby the three arms of government undertake their activities separate from the others:

  • the Legislature makes the laws, and supervises the activities of the other two arms with a view to changing the laws when appropriate;
  • the Executive enacts, administers and enforces the laws;
  • the Judiciary interprets the laws, using as a basis the laws as enacted and explanatory statements made in the Legislature during the enactment;
  • the other arms cannot influence the Judiciary.

The legal basis for the nation changed with the passage of the Australia Act 1986, and associated legislation in the parliament of the United Kingdom. Until the passage of this Act, a limited range of Australian cases could be referred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for final appeal. With this act of parliament, Australian law was made unequivocally the law in the nation, and the High Court of Australia was confirmed as the single highest court of appeal. The theoretical possibility of the British Parliament enacting laws to override the Australian Constitution was also removed. (Act:pdf)


Main article: Politics of Australia

Australia has a bicameral federal Parliament, comprising a Senate (or upper house) with 76 Senators, and a House of Representatives (or lower house) with 150 Members. Members of the lower house are elected on a population basis from single-member constituencies, known technically as 'divisions' but more commonly, as 'electorates' or 'seats'. The more populous the state, the more members it will have in the House of Representatives. There is a minimum of 5 members for each state. In the Senate, each state regardless of population is represented by twelve Senators, and each mainland territory by two. Elections for both chambers are held every three years, usually with only one half of the Senate being eligible for re-election, as the Senators have overlapping terms of six years each. The government is formed in the lower house, and the leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives is the Prime Minister. On only one short-lived occasion has a Senator become Prime Minister.

An exception to the constitutional conventions occurred on 11 November, 1975, when Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and his Government. This remains the single most controversial event in Australian political history.

In 1999, a referendum was held on the question of constitutional change to a republic, with an appointed President replacing the Queen as head of state, but this was rejected. Various surveys conducted before and since the referendum suggest that the majority of Australians favour some form of republic, and hence many people ascribe the negative result of the referendum to dissatisfaction with the particular republican model that was proposed (A further discussion of this issue can be found in the topic Australian republicanism).

States and Territories

Main article: Australian States and Territories

Map of Australia with main cities
Map of Australia with main cities

Australia is comprised of six states and several territories. The states are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. The two major territories are the Northern Territory (NT) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The ACT also incorporates a separate area within New South Wales known as Jervis Bay Territory which serves as a naval base and sea port for the national capital.

Australia also has several inhabitated external territories (Norfolk Island, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands) and several largely uninhabited external territories: Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Coral Sea Islands Territory, Heard Island and McDonald Islands and the Australian Antarctic Territory.

The Australian Capital Territory was created at the chosen site of the capital city Canberra in an area called the Molonglo River Valley. Canberra was founded as a compromise between the two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney. The name 'Canberra' is derived from the indigenous Ngunnawal language, which is loosely translated into English as "meeting place".


Main article: Geography of Australia

Uluru (Ayers Rock)
Uluru (Ayers Rock)

By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid — 40% of the land mass is covered by sand dunes. Australia is the driest inhabited continent, and the flattest. The highest mountain in Australia is Mawson Peak on Heard Island, at 2745 metres. The highest mountain on the Australian mainland is Mount Kosciuszko, located on the Great Dividing Range, with a height of 2228 metres. Only the south-east and south-west corners have a temperate climate and moderately fertile soil. The northern part of the country has a tropical climate: part is tropical rainforests, part grasslands, and part desert. The Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef, lies a short distance off the north-east coast and extends for over 1,200 kilometres. Uluru (until 1986 known as Ayers Rock), is the second largest monolith in the world and is located in central Australia (the largest being Mount Augustus in Western Australia).

Flora and fauna

Main articles: Australian fauna, Australian flora

Although most of the continent is desert or semi-arid, Australia nevertheless includes a diverse range of habitats, from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests. Because of the great age and consequent low fertillity of the continent, its very variable weather patterns, and its long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia's biota is unique. Well-known Australian species include the koala, many kangaroos, emu, platypus, wombats and echidnas.

Human colonisation has brought many invasive species from around the world, resulting in severe degradation of much of the continent.

See also:


Main article: Economy of Australia

Australia's economic development was slow at first and based on the export of wool. This all changed with the discovery of gold in 1851 and mining has, overall, been the most important sector of the Australian economy. By the late 20th century, Australia had a prosperous Western-style mixed economy, with a per capita GDP on par with the four dominant Western European economies. In recent years, the Australian economy has been resilient in the face of global economic downturn, with steady growth. Rising output in the domestic economy has been offsetting the global slump, and business and consumer confidence remains robust. Australia's emphasis on reforms is another key factor behind the economy's strength. In the 1980s, the Labor Party, led by Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating, played a crucial role in modernizing Australia's economy.

Since 1996, the Coalition government, led by Prime Minister John Howard, has continued to implement microeconomic reform policies. Some have claimed that the deregulation of the labour market during this period has resulted in a needed flexibility in the labour force. Others have criticised these deregulations as having a negative impact on worker's wages, safety and health grounds. Legislation introduced during this period sought to reduce union involvement and power, and has preferred to emphasise enterprise bargaining (a tendency towards wage bargaining). Also during this period, the Coalition government deregulated numerous other industries, including the telecommunications sector, and privatised many of the pre-existing natural monopolies.

Since the recession "Australia had to have" (P. Keating) in the early 1990s, the Australian economy has not suffered a recession in over 13 years. Even the downturn of the early 2000s did not affect its consistent GDP growth. As of October 2004, unemployment had fallen to a level of 5.2%, the lowest level since the late 1970s.

Many raw materials (including resources postulated to exist but yet to be discovered) remain mostly unexploited. Australia is often referred to by economists as the "world's farm", but despite this emphasis on the agriculture sector, in recent years the Australian government has been focusing on the tourism, education and technology markets.


Main article: Demographics of Australia

The Indigenous Australian population, estimated at about 250,000 at the time of European settlement, declined steeply for 150 years but had recovered to 186,049 (including Torres Strait Islanders, who are of Papuan descent) in 1986. Although comparatively more rural than the general population, the Aboriginal population is increasingly becoming more urbanised, with some two-thirds living in cities. Over half of the Aboriginal population reside in both New South Wales and Queensland. In Tasmania the Aboriginal population was virtually wiped out in the 19th century.

Most of the Australian population descends from 18th and 19th century immigrants, most from the UK and Ireland to begin with, but from other sources in later years. Although the Australian colonies were founded as a penal colonies (except for South Australia and Western Australia - with the latter later receiving convicts), the transportation of British convicts to Australian colonies was gradually phased out between 1840 and 1868. During the "gold rush" of the late 19th century, the convicts and their descendants were rapidly overshadowed by hundreds of thousands of free settlers from many different countries: for example, in the 1850s about two per cent of the combined populations of Britain and Ireland emigrated to New South Wales and Victoria.

Australia's population has more than doubled since the end of World War I, spurred by an ambitious postwar immigration program. In the 18th century, Australia enacted strong measures to prevent immigration by nonwhites. After World War II, immigration from Greece, Turkey, Italy, and other countries increased Australia's cultural diversity. In 1973, Australia officially ended discriminatory immigration policies, and substantial Asian immigration followed. By 1988 about 40% of immigration to Australia was from Asia, and by 1997 Asians constituted about 5% of the population. The indigenous population, the Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, make up 2.2% of the population, according to the 2001 Census. In 2001, the political campaign was dominated by issues of immigration and national security and there still remains substantial anxiety among Australians concerning immigration.

In common with many other developed countries, Australia is currently experiencing a demographic shift towards an older population, with more people retiring and fewer people of working age. Similarly, a large number of Australian citizens (950,000 as of 2004) live outside of their home country. This number (almost 5%) represents a higher per capita percentage of overseas residents than many other countries including the United States. This phenomenon was, until recently, given little attention by the Australian government and media, but the term Australian Diaspora has now joined the Australian vocabulary.

Because of the ageing population, Australia maintains one of the most active immigration programs in the world, absorbing tens of thousands of immigrants from all over the world every year. Most permanent resident visas are granted on the basis of professional skills or family associations.

New Zealand citizens are entitled to live and work in Australia under the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement. New rules in 2001 divided New Zealanders living in Australia into two categories: those who were resident in Australia before 2001, and those who arrived in Australia after 2001. Those who were resident before 2001 may claim unemployment benefits after two years residence, as is the norm for permanent residents of other nationalities. New Zealanders who have arrived in Australia after 2001 are not entitled to any unemployment benefits at all, as is the norm for people living in Australia only on work permits.

English is the main official and spoken language in Australia, although some of the surviving Aboriginal communities maintain their native languages. A considerable number of first and sometimes second-generation migrants are bilingual; languages such as Italian, Cantonese and Greek are spoken in many communities.

The Australian Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state; there is no state religion in Australia. Although the nation is broadly secular and few are church-goers, three-quarters of Australians are nominally Christian, mostly Catholic or Anglican. A diverse range of other religions are practised.

Although education is not a federal concern, government grants have aided in the establishment of numerous state universities including the University of Sydney (1850), the University of Melbourne (1853), the University of Adelaide (1874), the University of Tasmania (in Hobart, 1890), the University of Queensland (in Brisbane, 1909), and the University of Western Australia (in Perth, 1911).


Main article: Culture of Australia

Australian singer Dame was acclaimed throughout the world during her career from the 1950s to 1990
Australian opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland was acclaimed throughout the world during her career from the 1950s to 1990

Much of Australia's culture is derived from European and more recently American roots, but distinctive Australian features have evolved from the environment, aboriginal culture, and the influence of Australia's neighbours. The vigor and originality of the arts in Australia—films, opera, music, painting, theater, dance, and crafts—are achieving international recognition.

Australia has had a significant school of painting since the early days of European settlement, and Australians with international reputations include Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, and Arthur Boyd—not to mention the prized work of many Aboriginal artists. There are excellent art galleries (even in surprisingly small towns); a rich tradition in ballet, enlivened by the legacy of Dame Margot Fonteyn and Sir Robert Helpmann; a strong national opera company, Opera Australia, made prominent by the world renowned diva Dame Joan Sutherland; and symphony orchestras in all capital cities, in particular the Melbourne and Sydney symphony orchestras. In ths field, conductor Sir Charles Mackerras has achieved international renown.

Writers who have achieved world recognition include Thomas Keneally, Les Murray, Colleen McCullough, Nevil Shute, Morris West, Tim Winton, Jill Ker Conway, Booker Prize winners D.B.C. Pierre and Peter Carey and Nobel Prize winner Patrick White.

In the popular music sphere Australian bands and musicians have had considerable international success. Some notable examples include the 1960s successes of The Easybeats and the folk-pop group The Seekers, through the heavy rock of AC/DC, the disco of the English-born Bee Gees, the slick pop of INXS and more recently Silverchair and Savage Garden. In the new millennium, garage rock bands Jet and The Vines have achieved popular success locally and in the United States and the United Kingdom, with the work of both featuring prominently in films and advertising.


Main article: Media in Australia

Australia has a highly concentrated ownership of media companies. Newspapers are dominated by two companies, News Corporation and John Fairfax Holdings. News Corporation publishes the only daily national newspaper, The Australian, as well as a daily newspaper in every capital city except Perth. Its holdings include The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), Herald Sun (Melbourne), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane) and The Advertiser (Adelaide). News Corporation was founded in Adelaide and its first newspaper was The News which was later merged with The Advertiser. John Fairfax Holdings owns The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (Melbourne) and the most prominent financial newspaper, The Australian Financial Review. Rural and regional media is dominated by Rural Press Limited , with significant holdings in all States and Territories. Titles include The Canberra Times as well as The Land (New South Wales), Queensland Country Life , Stock and Land (Victoria), Stock Journal (South Australia) and Farm Weekly (Western Australia). Rural Press also has significant holdings in New Zealand and the United States.

Australia has three major commercial television networks, the Nine Network, Seven Network and the Ten Network. It also has two public broadcasters, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC and colloquially Channel 2) and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).

According to Reporters Without Borders in 2004, Australia is in 41st position on a list of countries ranked by Press Freedom; well behind New Zealand (9th) and United Kingdom (28th).

Related topics

Main article: List of Australia-related topics

Topics in Australia
History Timeline (Eureka Stockade | Constitutional history) | Foreign relations | Postal history
Geography Cities | Islands | Mountains | Regions | Protected areas | Rivers | Ecoregions
Politics Constitution | Political parties ( Liberal, Labor, National, Greens) | Elections | States and Territories | Republicanism | Military
Culture Australian English | Art | Cinema | Cuisine | Literature | Music | Public holidays | Television (SBS, ABC)
Other List of Australians | Communications in Australia | Transportation in Australia | List of Australian Awards | Australian of the Year Award | Australia's Big Things | List of Australian companies | RACA

International rankings

External links

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy