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Formal Name
Commonwealth of Australia

Local Name

Local Formal Name
Commonwealth of Australia

Location: Oceania

Status: UN Country

Capital City: Canberra

Main Cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Darwin

Population: 18,090,000    Area []: 7,713,360

Currency: 1 Australian dollar = 100 cents

Languages: English, Aboriginal languages

Religions: Anglican, Roman Catholic, others



Australia, island continent located southeast of Asia and forming, with the nearby island of Tasmania, the Commonwealth of Australia, a self-governing member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The continent is bounded on the north by the Timor Sea, the Arafura Sea, and the Torres Strait; on the east by the Coral Sea and the Tasman Sea; on the south by the Bass Strait and the Indian Ocean; and on the west by the Indian Ocean. The commonwealth extends for about 4025 km (about 2500 mi) from east to west and for about 3700 km (about 2300 mi) from north to south. Its coastline measures some 36,735 km (about 22,826 mi). The area of the commonwealth is 7,682,292 sq km (2,966,150 sq mi), and the area of the continent alone is 7,614,500 sq km (2,939,974 sq mi), making Australia the smallest continent in the world, but the sixth largest country.

The Commonwealth of Australia is made up of six states—New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia—and two territories—the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. The external dependencies of Australia are the Territory of Ashmore and Cartier Islands, the Australian Antarctic Territory, Christmas Island, the Territory of Cocos Islands (also called the Keeling Islands), the Coral Sea Islands Territory, the Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and Norfolk Island.

The first people to live in Australia, called Aborigines, migrated there about 40,000 years ago. The continent remained relatively unknown by outsiders until the 17th century. The first European settlement by British convicts occurred in 1788 at Botany Bay in southeastern Australia. Australia grew as a group of British colonies during the 19th century, and in 1901 the colonies federated to form a unified independent nation.

Land and Resources



Australia lacks mountains of great height; it is one of the world's flattest landmasses. The average elevation is about 300 m (about 1000 ft). The interior, referred to as the outback, is predominantly a series of great plains, or low plateaus, which are generally higher in the northeast. Low-lying coastal plains, averaging about 65 km (about 40 mi) in width, fringe the continent. In the east, southeast, and southwest, these plains are the most densely populated areas of Australia.

In the east the coastal plains are separated from the vast interior plains by the Great Dividing Range, or Eastern Highlands. This mountainous region averages approximately 1200 m (approximately 4000 ft) in height and stretches along the eastern coast from Cape York in the north to Victoria in the southeast. Much of the region consists of high plateaus broken by gorges and canyons. Subdivisions of the range bear many local names, including, from north to south, the New England Plateau, Blue Mountains, and Australian Alps; in Victoria, where the range extends westward, it is known as the Grampians, or by its Aboriginal name, Gariwerd. The highest peak in the Australian Alps, and the highest in Australia, is Mount Kosciusko (2228 m/7310 ft), in New South Wales.

A section of the Great Dividing Range is in Tasmania, which is located about 240 km (about 150 mi) from the southeastern tip of the continent and is separated from it by Bass Strait. The waters of the strait are shallow, with an average depth of 60 m (200 ft). The major islands in the strait are the Furneaux Group and Kent Group in the east, and King, Hunter, Three Hummock, and Robbins islands in the west.

The western half of the continent is a great plateau, about 300 to 450 m (about 1000 to 1500 ft) above sea level. The Great Western Plateau includes the Great Sandy, Great Victoria, and Gibson deserts. Western Australia has, in its northern half, several isolated mountain ranges, including the King Leopold and Hamersley ranges. The interior is relatively flat except for several eroded mountain chains, such as the Stuart Range and the Musgrave Ranges in the northern part of South Australia and the Macdonnell Ranges in the southern part of the Northern Territory.

The central basin, or the Central-Eastern Lowlands, is an area of vast, rolling plains that extends west from the Great Dividing Range to the Great Western Plateau. In this region lies the richest pastoral and agricultural land in Australia. Uluru (Ayers Rock), in the center of Australia in Uluru National Park, is believed to be the largest monolith in the world. It is about 9 km (about 6 mi) around its base and rises sharply to some 348 m (some 1142 ft) above the surrounding flat, arid land. Other mountain ranges of limited size in the central part of Australia are the Flinders Ranges and Mount Lofty Ranges in South Australia. The area along the south central coast is called the Nullarbor Plain. The Nullarbor is a vast, arid limestone plateau that is virtually uninhabited. It has an extensive system of caverns, tunnels, and sinkholes that contain valuable geological information about life in ancient Australia. Extinct volcanic craters are located in the southeastern part of South Australia and in Victoria.

The coastline of Australia is generally regular, with few bays or capes. The largest inlets are the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north and the Great Australian Bight in the south. The several fine harbors include those of Sydney, Hobart, Port Lincoln, and Albany.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest known coral formation in the world. It extends some 2010 km (some 1250 mi) along the eastern coast of Queensland from Cape York in the north to Bundaberg in the south. The chain of reefs forms a natural breakwater for the passage of ships along the coast.


Australia was once part of the enormous landmass Gondwanaland, which earlier formed part of the supercontinent Pangaea. Much of its geological history is remarkably ancient; the oldest known rock formations date from 3 billion to 4.3 billion years in age.

The great plateau of western Australia is underlain by a vast, stable shield of Precambrian metamorphic and igneous rocks, ranging in age from 570 million to 3 billion years old. These form the core of the ancestral continent, which, with Antarctica, had split off from Gondwanaland during the Jurassic Period, less than 200 million years ago, and had begun drifting eastward (see Plate Tectonics). Australia began to assume its modern configuration by the Eocene Epoch, some 50 million years ago, when Antarctica broke away and drifted southward.

The thick sedimentary rocks of the Great Dividing Range were deposited in a great north-south trending geosyncline during an interval that spanned most of the Paleozoic Era (570 million to 225 million years ago). Compressive forces buckled these rocks at least twice during the era, forming mountain ranges and chains of volcanoes.


The Great Dividing Range separates rivers that flow east to the coast from those that flow across the great plains through the interior. The most important of the rivers that flow toward the eastern coast are the Burdekin, Fitzroy, and Hunter. The Murray-Darling-Murrumbidgee network, which flows inland from the Great Dividing Range, drains an area of more than 1 million sq km (more than 400,000 sq mi) in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. The Murray River and its main tributary, the Darling, total about 5300 km (about 3300 mi) in length. The Murray River itself forms most of the border between New South Wales and Victoria. Considerable lengths of the Murray, Darling, and Murrumbidgee rivers are navigable during the wet seasons.

The central plains region, also known as the Channel Country, is interlaced by a network of rivers. During the rainy season these rivers flood the low-lying countryside, but in dry months they become merely a series of water holes. The Victoria, Daly, and Roper rivers drain a section of Northern Territory. In Queensland the main rivers flowing north to the Gulf of Carpentaria are the Mitchell, Flinders, Gilbert, and Leichhardt.

Western Australia has few major rivers. The most important are the Fitzroy, Ashburton, Gascoyne, Murchison, and Swan rivers.

Because of Australia's scarce water resources, dams have been constructed on some rivers to supply cities with water and to support irrigation farming. The Snowy Mountains Scheme (1949-1972) and the Ord River Scheme (1960-1972) are the two largest water-conservation projects. The Snowy Mountains Scheme, in the southeastern highlands in New South Wales, is an enormous, multipurpose engineering project that was financed by the federal and state governments to supply water for irrigation, domestic and livestock use, and for the generation of hydroelectricity. The Ord River Scheme is an irrigation project in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia. During its construction the scheme attracted criticism from economists, environmentalists, and agriculture scientists, and today questions remain about its viability.

Lakes and Underground Water

Most of the major natural lakes of Australia contain salt water. The great network of salt lakes in South Australia—Lake Eyre, Lake Torrens, Lake Frome, and Lake Gairdner—is the remains of a vast inland sea that once extended south from the Gulf of Carpentaria. During the dry season many of the salt lakes become salt-encrusted swamp beds or clay pans. Lake Argyle, created by the construction of the Ord River Scheme, is Australia's largest artificially created freshwater lake.

Great areas of the interior, which otherwise would be useless for agriculture, contain water reserves beneath the surface of the land. These artesian water reserves, usually found at a great depth, are tapped by drilling to provide water essential for livestock. Artesian water reserves underlie about 2.5 million sq km (about 1 million sq mi) of Australia. The Great Artesian Basin, extending from the Gulf of Carpentaria into the northern part of New South Wales, includes more than 1.7 million sq km (700,000 sq mi). Other artesian basins are in the northwest, southeast, and along the Great Australian Bight.


The climate of Australia varies greatly from region to region, but the continent is not generally subject to marked extremes of weather. The climate ranges from tropical (monsoonal) in the north to temperate in the south. The tropical region, which includes about 40 percent of the total area of Australia, essentially has only two seasons: a hot, wet period with rains falling mainly in February and March, during which the northwestern monsoons prevail; and a warm, dry interval characterized by the prevalence of southeastern winds. Many points on the northern and northeastern coast have an average annual rainfall of 1500 mm (60 in); in parts of Queensland average annual rainfall exceeds 2500 mm (100 in). On the fringe of the monsoonal region are the drier savanna grasslands, where the low, unreliable rainfall is supplemented by artesian water. In central and northern Australia average summer temperatures range between 27° and 29° C (80° and 85° F). The deserts of central and western Australia, making up more than two-thirds of the area, have an annual rainfall of less than 250 mm (10 in).

The warm, temperate regions of southern Australia have four seasons, with cool winters and warm summers. Because Australia is in the southern hemisphere, seasons there are the reverse of those in the northern hemisphere. January and February are the warmest months, with average temperatures varying between 18° and 21° C (65° and 70° F). June and July are the coldest months, with an average July temperature of about 10° C (about 50° F), except in the Australian Alps, where temperatures average 2° C (35° F). The eastern coastal lowlands receive rain in all seasons, although mainly in summer. The warm, temperate western and southern coasts receive rain mainly in the winter months, usually from prevailing westerly winds. Tasmania, lying in the cool temperate zone, receives heavy rainfall from the prevailing westerly winds in summer and from cyclonic storms in winter. Over the greater part of the lowlands, snow is unknown; however, in the mountains, particularly the Australian Alps in southern New South Wales and the northern part of Victoria, snowfall is occasionally heavy.

All of the southern states are exposed to hot, dry winds from the interior, which can suddenly raise the temperature considerably. In most years, parts of the continent experience drought conditions and smaller localities are ravaged by floods and tropical cyclones. Southeastern Australia, including Tasmania, has among the highest incidences of serious bushfires in the world, along with California in the United States and Mediterranean Europe. In 1994, notably, bushfires swept through New South Wales and destroyed several hundred homes in suburban Sydney.

Natural Resources

Australia is rich in mineral resources, notably bauxite, coal, diamonds, gold, iron ore, mineral sands, natural gas, nickel, petroleum, and uranium. Readily cultivatable farmland is at a premium because much of the land is desert. Australia, however, has become one of the leading agricultural producers in the world by applying modern irrigation techniques to vast tracts of arid soil.


The continent of Australia has a distinctive flora that includes many species not found elsewhere. Of the 22,000 species of plants in Australia, more than 90 percent occur naturally there. Some 840 species are threatened with extinction, and 83 have become extinct since the beginning of European settlement. Approximately 2000 plant species are introduced, or nonnative, species. Most have been associated with the development of agriculture and grazing, or with the establishment of large plantations of pines for commercial softwood. The spread of weeds and other aggressive introduced plants into areas of original vegetation is a serious environmental challenge.

Australia's vegetation is predominantly evergreen, ranging from the dense bushland and eucalyptus forests of the coast, to mulga and mallee scrub and saltbush of the inland plains. The tropical northeastern belt, with its heavy rainfall and high temperatures, is heavily forested. Palms, ferns, and vines grow prolifically among the oaks, ash, cedar, brush box, and beeches. Mangroves line the mud flats and inlets of the low-lying northern coastline. The crimson waratah, golden-red banksias, and scarlet firewheel tree add color to northern forests.

Along the eastern coast and into Tasmania are forests of pine, which ranks second to the eucalyptus in terms of economic importance. The Huon and King William pines are particularly valuable for their timber, but the Huon pine is now considered rare and is usually protected. In the forest regions of the warm, well-watered southeastern and southwestern sectors, eucalyptus predominates; more than 500 species are found, some reaching a height of 90 m (300 ft). The mountain ash, blue gums, and woolly butts of the southeast mingle with undergrowth of wattles and tree ferns.

The jarrah and karri species of eucalyptus, which yield timber valued for hardness and durability, and several species of grass tree are unique to Western Australia. The wild flowers of the region are varied and spectacular. In the less dense regions of the interior slopes grow red and green kangaroo paws, scented Boronia, waxflowers, bottle brushes, and smaller eucalypti, such as the stringbark, red gum, and ironbark. More than 500 species of acacia are indigenous to Australia. The scented flower of one acacia, the golden wattle, is the national flower of Australia and appears on the official coat of arms. In the interior region, where rainfall is low and erratic, characteristic plants are saltbush and spinifex grass, which provide fodder for sheep, and mallee and mulga shrubs.

The most valuable native grasses for fodder, including flinders grass, are found in Queensland and northern New South Wales. During occasional seasonal floodings, rapid and luxuriant growth of native grasses and desert wildflowers occurs, and water lilies dot the streams and lagoons.



Unique and primitive forms of animal life exist in Australia. Seven families of mammals and four families of birds are classified as native to the country. About 70 percent of the birds, 88 percent of the reptiles, and 94 percent of the frogs are unique to Australia. Seven of the more than 700 known species of birds have become extinct since the beginning of European settlement, and another 36 are endangered or vulnerable. Of mammals, 19 are extinct and 49 are threatened. Environmentalists have argued for more rigorous conservation policies to protect Australia's unique animal life.

One striking aspect of mammal life in Australia is the absence of representatives of most of the orders found on other continents. However, the primitive, egg-laying mammals known as monotremes are found most abundantly in Australia. One of them, the platypus, a zoological curiosity, is an aquatic, furred mammal with a bill like that of a duck and with poisonous spurs. It lives in the streams of southeastern Australia. Another monotreme of Australia is the spiny anteater, or echidna.

Most native mammals are marsupials, the young of which are nourished in an external marsupium, or abdominal pouch. The best-known marsupials of Australia are the kangaroos, which include about 50 species. The kangaroo is vegetarian and can be tamed. The large red or gray kangaroo may stand as high as 2 m (7 ft) and can leap up to 9 m (30 ft). The wallaby and kangaroo rat are smaller members of the kangaroo family. The phalangers are herbivorous marsupials that live in trees; they include the possum and the koala, a popular fur-bearing animal that is protected throughout Australia. Other well-known marsupials are the burrowing wombat, bandicoot, and pouched mouse. The carnivorous Tasmanian devil, principally a scavenger, is found only on the island of Tasmania.

Rodents, bats, and the dingo, or warrigal, belong to a different order of mammals. The dingo is a doglike night hunter that also preys on sheep; it does not bark, but howls.

When Europeans settled in Australia, they brought in many species of animals. The wild descendants of these introduced animals pose serious environmental threats. For example, the European rabbit was brought in mainly for sport in the mid-19th century. These rabbits quickly reached plague proportions in Australia's receptive environment with no natural predators, and their total population has reached as many as 500 million. The damage they cause includes soil erosion, the destruction of habitat for native species, and large commercial production losses. Rabbits, as well as foxes and cats, have been targeted for massive national efforts in biological control and regional eradication programs. Other destructive animals include pigs, goats, cattle, horses, and camels. In the monsoonal areas of tropical Australia, the Asian water buffalo has increased its population over a vast territory; it is responsible for erosion and the disruption of delicate swamp habitats.

The continent contains a variety of reptile life. It has two species of crocodiles, the smaller of which is found in inland fresh waters. The larger, fierce saurian crocodile of the northern coastal swamps and estuaries attains lengths of 6 m (20 ft). There are more than 500 species of lizards, including the gecko, skink, and the giant goanna. About 100 species of venomous snakes are found in Australia. The taipan of the far north, the death adder, the tiger snake of southern Australia, the copperhead, and the black snake are the best known of the poisonous snakes.

The waters surrounding Australia support a wide variety of fish and aquatic mammals. Several species of whales are found in southern waters, and seals inhabit parts of the southern coast, the islands in Bass Strait, and Tasmania. The northern waters supply dugong, trepang, trochus, and pearl shell. Edible fish and shellfish are abundant, and the oyster, abalone, and crayfish of the warmer southern waters have been exploited commercially. Australian waters contain some 70 species of shark, several of which are dangerous to humans. The Queensland lungfish, sometimes called a living fossil, is a primitive fish that breathes with a single lung instead of gills.

Most insect types are represented in Australia, including flies, beetles, butterflies, bees, and ants. The giant termites of northern Australia build huge, hill-like nests up to 6 m (up to 20 ft) in height. Australia has earthworms in abundance, including the giant earthworms of Victoria, which range from 0.9 to 3.7 m (3 to 12 ft) in length, the longest in the world.

Australia is the home of more than 700 species of birds, ranging from primitive types, such as the giant, flightless emu and cassowary, to highly developed species. The fan-tailed lyrebird has great powers of mimicry. The male bowerbirds build intricate and decorative playgrounds to attract females. The kookaburra, or laughing jackass, is noted for its raucous laughter. Many varieties of cockatoos and parrots are found; the budgerigar is a favorite of bird fanciers. The white cockatoo, a clever mimic, is more common than the black cockatoo. Black swans, spoonbills, herons, and ducks frequent inland waters. Smaller birds include wrens, finches, titmice, larks, and swallows. Gulls, terns, gannets, muttonbirds, albatrosses, and penguins are the most common seabirds. The muttonbird, found mainly on the islands of Bass Strait, is valued for its flesh.


All types of soils are found in varying quantities throughout the continent. Although more than 40 percent of the land consists of desert and sandy plains, suitable in places only for light grazing of sheep, soil resources are a significant factor in the Australian economy. Traditionally, the base of Australia's exports has been supplied by those who farm and graze the land, although the proportion of foreign earnings from farming has declined in recent years.

Phosphate additives have been used extensively as soil fertilizers for many years; large areas of marginal land have been made more productive by the use of trace elements, such as zinc, copper, and manganese, and some new lands have been opened up to production. Criticism of the accumulating side effects of soil additives increased during the 1970s and 1980s, when it was demonstrated that soil acidification was affecting vast areas. During the same period, water runoff from fertilized soils was linked with periodic outbreaks of toxic blue-green algal blooms in the Murray-Darling Basin. Elsewhere, wind erosion in the semiarid pastoral and agricultural regions and water erosion in the wetter, deforested southeastern regions pose major problems. A local movement called Landcare won significant government support to address these problems. The ecological and economic threats to the soil and water are being countered by a wide range of technical and educational programs.


About 94 percent of Australia's people are of European descent. The majority have a British or Irish heritage, but about 18 percent of the total population have other European origins. Asians, including Middle Easterners, account for about 5 percent of the population. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders make up about 1.5 percent of the population. In 1991 the largest overseas-born groups were from Great Britain and Ireland (22.5 percent), other European countries (30 percent), and Asia and the Middle East (21 percent). Before World War II (1939-1945) more than 90 percent of the people were of British or Irish origin. Since then, more than 2 million Europeans from other countries have migrated to Australia. Since 1975, about 125,000 Southeast Asians have been admitted to the country, most as refugees.

English is the official language of Australia. Aboriginal and other minority languages are spoken in ethnic communities.

Australian Aborigines

The first Australians were the Aborigines. Aboriginal folklore claims that the Aborigines were always in Australia. However, most anthropologists believe that the Aborigines migrated from Southeast Asia at least 40,000 years ago, probably during a period when low sea levels permitted the simplest forms of land and water travel. A rise in sea level subsequently made Tasmania an island and caused some cultural separation between its peoples and those on the mainland.

These original Australians were essentially hunter-gatherers without domesticated animals, other than the dingo, which was introduced by the Aborigines between 3000 and 4000 years ago. The Aborigines employed a type of "firestick farming" in which fire was used to clear areas so that fresh grazing grasses could grow, thereby attracting kangaroos and other game animals. Aborigines also may have harvested and dispersed selected seeds. Those widespread operations may have been responsible for extensive tracts of grassland. There is evidence of careful damming and redirection of streams and of swamp and lake outlets, possibly for fish farming.

Although the Aborigines were nomadic or seminomadic, their sense of place was exceptionally strong and they had an intimate knowledge of their home landscapes. A growing historical record points to the existence of some permanent or semipermanent stone villages. The most recent 3000 years of Aboriginal history were characterized by accelerating changes based on the use of stone tools, the exploitation of new resources, the growth of the population, and the establishment of long-distance trading.

By the time of the first notable European settlement in 1788, Aboriginal people had developed cultural traits and ecological knowledge that showed an impressive adaptation to Australia's challenging environments. They also had developed many complex variations between regional and even local communities. The total Aboriginal population at that time was about 300,000. More than 200 distinct languages existed at the beginning of the 19th century. Bilingualism and multilingualism were common characteristics in several hundred Aboriginal groups. These groups—sometimes called tribes—were linguistically defined and territorially based.

During the first century of white settlement, there were dramatic declines in the Aboriginal population in all parts of the country. The declines resulted from the introduction of diseases for which the Aborigines had little or no acquired immunity; social and cultural disruptions; brutal mistreatment; and reprisals for acts of organized resistance. By the 1920s, the Aboriginal population had declined to 60,000.

Until the 1960s the Aboriginal population was mainly rural. Over the next two decades Aborigines began moving in greater numbers to urban areas. In many country towns, Aboriginal families were viewed negatively as fringe dwellers. In the larger cities, small, but highly volatile, ghettolike concentrations caused the Aborigines to begin demanding greater political rights.

In fact, the Aborigines' social and political status was so low that they were omitted from the official national censuses until 1971, following the overwhelming passage of a 1967 referendum that granted the government power to legislate for the Aborigines and to include them in the census count. At the 1991 census, 238,590 Australian residents were counted as Aborigines and 26,902 as Torres Strait Islanders; the two groups are not clearly distinguished, and the term Aboriginal often is used for both groups. Their greatest concentrations were in New South Wales and Queensland (each with 26.4 percent of the national total), Western Australia (15.7 percent) and the Northern Territory (15 percent).

More than 70 percent of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders live in urban areas. Traditional ways of life are still maintained in small enclaves in the more remote locations, especially in the north and center of the continent. Every region of the country is represented by its own Aboriginal land council, and most regions run cultural centers and festivals. A shared desire to reassert their claim to land rights has united the widely separated communities, and Aboriginality is now widely expressed in art, popular music, law, literature, and sport.

In terms of social and economic disadvantage—unemployment, family income levels, welfare dependence, infant mortality rates, and average life expectancy—the Aboriginal population still fares badly in comparison with the Australian population as a whole. Its recent renaissance has brought victories in many spheres, and the confirmation of Aboriginal ownership and control of extensive areas of northern and central Australia has introduced a new dimension into the economic, political, and social life of the nation.

Population Characteristics

Australia is the most sparsely populated of the inhabited continents. According to the 1991 census, Australia had a population of 16,849,496. The 1995 estimated population, including Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, and Norfolk Island, is 18,338,000, giving the country an overall population density of about 2 persons per sq km (about 6 per sq mi).

The country is heavily urbanized. About 85 percent of the population lives in cities, about two-thirds in cities with 100,000 or more residents. The most rapidly growing areas are the coastal zones near and between the mainland capitals in the east, southeast, and southwest. In fact, four out of every five Australians live on the closely settled coastal plains that make up only about three percent of the country's land area. The fastest-growing region is southeastern Queensland.

Australia's total population grew at an annual rate of about 1.4 percent in the early 1990s. The principal reasons for this growth were the continued high level of immigration and the associated increase in the numbers of younger people in the childbearing and childrearing age groups.

Political Divisions

The Commonwealth of Australia comprises six states and two territories. The states and their capitals are New South Wales (Sydney), Victoria (Melbourne), Queensland (Brisbane), South Australia (Adelaide), Western Australia (Perth), and Tasmania (Hobart). The territories and their chief cities are the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra) and the Northern Territory (Darwin).

Principal Cities




The major cities of Australia are, in order of population (1991, greater city), Sydney, a seaport and the commercial center (3,538,749); Melbourne, the cultural center (3,022,439); Brisbane, a seaport (1,334,017); Perth, a seaport on the western coast (1,143,265); and Adelaide, an agricultural center (1,023,617). Canberra, the national capital, has a population of 278,894.


Australia has no single established church, and its constitution guarantees freedom of worship. The population is predominantly Christian. The largest single denominations are the Roman Catholic church (26 percent of the population) and Anglican Church Australia (24 percent). About 20 percent more belong to Protestant denominations, such as the Uniting Church (founded in 1977 with the merging of the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists), the Baptist Union, the Lutheran Church of Australia, and the Church of Christ. Eastern Orthodox adherents represented 4 percent, and Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim worshippers make up a small portion of the population. The number of Buddhists and Muslims is increasing, reflecting the changing immigration patterns since the 1960s.


Education in Australia is primarily the responsibility of the individual states. In each state administration, the training and recruiting of teachers are centralized under an education department. Education is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 15 in all the states except Tasmania, where the upper age limit is 16. Most children start their schooling at the age of 5. State schools provide free secular education; students may attend religious classes offered by the clergy of various denominations. About 72 percent of students attend state schools. In addition to the state school system there are private schools, which are usually denominational and charge tuition fees. The majority of the private schools are Catholic. Some private schools, which in some states are called public schools as in Britain, accept day students and boarders. Schooling is provided at kindergartens and play centers for children from 2 to 6 years of age. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation conducts broadcasts for kindergarten children unable to attend such centers. Special provisions are made for children in isolated areas. These include Schools of the Air—where children use two-way radios, television sets, video and cassette recorders, and computers to participate in classroom instruction—and correspondence schools.

Most children transfer from the primary to the secondary school level at the age of 12. Secondary schools, known as high schools and junior technical schools, provide five- or six-year courses that enable students to prepare for state examinations for university entrance. The commonwealth government conducts the educational program for all children in the territories. In the early 1990s Australia had nearly 10,000 primary and secondary schools, with an annual enrollment of 1.6 million primary students and 1.3 million secondary students.

Specialized Schools

The commonwealth government maintains training colleges for the defense services, the Australian Forestry School in Canberra and the School of Pacific Administration in Sydney, which conduct training programs that are attended primarily by civil service administrators from Papua New Guinea. The government also maintains the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, the Australian Maritime College, and the National Institute of Dramatic Art.

Universities and Colleges

In the early 1990s Australia had 37 universities, including two significant private institutions, and a large number of colleges offering advanced education in specific subject areas. Their combined annual enrollment was approximately 535,000. Among the leading universities are the Australian National University (founded in 1946), in the Australian Capital Territory; Macquarie University (1964), the University of New South Wales (1948), and the University of Sydney (1850), in New South Wales; the University of Queensland (1910); the University of Adelaide (1874), in South Australia; the University of Tasmania (1890); La Trobe University (1964), the University of Melbourne (1853), and Monash University (1958), in Victoria; and the University of Western Australia (1911).

Way of Life

Most Australians enjoy or aspire to middle-class suburban lifestyles in their homes. Apartments—called flats—were not common until recent years. They became more prevalent because of reduced family sizes, the adoption of more cosmopolitan modes of living, a trend toward rented accommodation, and state government efforts to revitalize the inner cities and maximize expensive infrastructural investments in transportation, water supplies, and other services. These developments were accompanied to some extent by an increased sophistication, especially in the capital cities.

Australian fashion generally follows Western styles of dress, but is distinctive for the lightweight, colorful casual wear that reflects the absence of harsh winters. Food and drink preferences are influenced by global fashions, but also mirror the rise of ethnic diversity and the country's capacity to produce most kinds of food, wine, and other beverages in abundance.

Popular culture is dominated by an emphasis on leisure activities and outdoor recreation. Great pleasure is taken in traditional backyard barbecues, bush picnics, and a wide range of organized sports, including soccer, Australian Rules football, cricket, tennis, baseball, basketball, volleyball, netball (a game similar to basketball, played by women), athletics, cycling, boating, swimming, horseback riding, and horse racing. Fishing and gardening are popular activities.


Initially, the way of life in Australia substantially reflected the heritage of the British settlers. Customs were modified as the settlers adapted to the new country and its exceptionally fine climate. A culture evolved that, although based on the British tradition, is unique to Australia. The increasing sophistication of Australian culture has been promoted by government subsidies for the arts and the provision of improved facilities. Many cities and towns have built or expanded art galleries and performing art centers. The architecturally stunning Sydney Opera House is the best known of the modern venues. Opera, ballet, and dance companies, symphony orchestras, artists, playwrights, and writers are supported by the Australia Council. The federally-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation controls independent television and radio stations. Australia also has many other media companies, newspapers, and magazines that contribute to local culture, although some are now owned by foreigners.

Libraries and Museums

The development of library services after World War II was facilitated by state subsidies to local authorities. The establishment of library schools by the National Library of Australia, the Library of New South Wales, and the State Library of Victoria has raised the level of professional training of librarians. The Library Association of Australia conducts a comprehensive examination and certification system for professional librarians.

The National Library of Australia (1960), in Canberra, serves as the library of the nation, the library of the federal parliament, and the national copyright-depository library. In the early 1990s its holdings exceeded 4.7 million volumes. It has extensive collections of both Australiana and general research materials and provides bibliographical and reference services to the federal government departments. The State Library of New South Wales (1826) is the oldest and largest of the state public libraries and contains a noted collection of Australiana. The State Library of Victoria (1854) includes collections on painting, music, and the performing arts. All states maintain public libraries that are, in effect, state reference libraries. Rural areas are well served, except for the most remote locations. However, recent economic conditions have caused cutbacks in spending that reduced many rural services. Each state parliament is served by a library, and important research collections are maintained at the various university libraries. The major scientific libraries are those of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the Central Library of which is in Melbourne. Important special libraries are maintained by industrial concerns and by national and state government departments.

Australia has a variety of museums. The Australian Museum (1827) in Sydney features notable collections on natural history and anthropology; the National Maritime Museum (1991) is also in Sydney. The National Gallery of Victoria (1859) in Melbourne houses excellent exhibits of European and Australian paintings, as do the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1874) in Sydney; the Queensland Art Gallery (1895) in Brisbane; the Art Gallery of South Australia (1881) in Adelaide; and the Art Gallery of Western Australia (1895) in Perth. Also of note are the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (1880) of the Powerhouse Museum and the Nicholson Museum of Antiquities (1860) in Sydney; the Queensland Herbarium (1874); the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (1852) in Hobart; and the Museum of Victoria, incorporating the former National Museum of Victoria (1854) and Science Museum of Victoria (1870), both in Melbourne. Melbourne's renowned Royal Botanic Gardens houses the National Herbarium, a research center with specimens and original documents dating back to the mid-19th century. The Australian National Gallery opened in Canberra in 1982, and the federal capital also will be the site of an ambitious new national museum that is scheduled for completion in 2001.


See Australian Literature.


Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Australian Aborigines executed elaborate paintings on rock and bark. The value of early paintings by European immigrants lies primarily in their importance as a record of the settlement of the country. Not until the 1880s did the first generation of white Australian artists, unhampered by the restrictions of European discipline, capture the unique Australian scenery, its light, and atmospheric color. This group of painters was known as the Heidelberg School; it included Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, and Sir Arthur Streeton. From the early 1940s the work of Australian artists reflected a gradual transition from the generally accepted traditional school to the modern style. Australian painters of the 20th century include Sir William Dobell, known for his portraits; George Russell Drysdale, noted for depictions of the isolated inhabitants of the interior of the country; and Frederick Ronald Williams, whose landscapes and seascapes were notable for their quality of light. The work of Sidney Nolan, based on themes derived from Australian history and folklore, has achieved world renown, as has that of Arthur Boyd. Modern Aboriginal artists, drawing on traditional styles and themes, have found receptive audiences in Europe and North America in the late 20th century.

Music, Dance, and Film

The oldest music in Australia is the music of the Australian Aborigines. In Aboriginal societies, music plays a central role in both social and sacred life. During social gatherings called corroborees, singing and dancing provide the major form of entertainment. In sacred ceremonies, songs serve as the vital link to the realm of Aboriginal spirits called Dreamtime. The Aborigines believe that, long ago, the Dreamtime spirits sang songs that created all living things on earth. Today, these songs are sung in sacred ceremonies to ensure the survival and propagation of all plant and animal life.

The history of European-based music in Australia begins with the British settlers, who were influential in initiating public concerts. Today, each major city has a symphony orchestra, affiliated with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Distinguished artists and conductors from many countries regularly tour Australia. Australia has made notable contributions to the world of music through the sopranos Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland, the composer-pianist Percy Grainger, and the composers Arthur Benjamin, John Henry Antill, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and Peter Sculthorpe. Classical ballet was brought to Australia by the famed native-born dancer and choreographer Sir Robert Helpmann, who was one of the founders of the Australian Ballet.

Beginning in the 1970s there was a resurgence of the motion picture industry, and films produced in Australia, dealing with Australian themes, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) by the Australian director Peter Weir, attracted audiences throughout the world. Romanticized accounts of life in the Australian bush proved successful at home and overseas, as films such as The Man From Snowy River (1982) and Crocodile Dundee (1986) enjoyed great success. See Motion Pictures, History of: The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand.


Australia is an outstanding producer of primary products. The country is self-sufficient in almost all foodstuffs and is a major exporter of wheat, meat, dairy products, and wool. Australia usually produces more than 25 percent of the world's yearly output of wool. The volume of manufacturing grew rapidly between the 1940s and 1970s, and mining became a leading sector in the economy during the 1960s. The value of exports from the mining and manufacturing sectors now exceeds that of the agricultural sector. In the early 1990s the estimated annual federal budget included about $72 billion in revenues and about $83 billion in expenditures.



Despite the great expansion in mining and manufacturing after 1940, the prosperity of much of the country continues to be dependent on livestock raising and crop farming. The pastoral industry was established in the early days of settlement, when the first Spanish merino sheep were introduced from South Africa. The industry was a significant factor in Australian economic and historical development. Australia currently is the major world producer and exporter of wool, particularly fine merino, although income from wool exports is now less than one-tenth of the total export income of the country. In the early 1990s the annual production of wool was 731,300 metric tons; representing about 15 percent of the value of farm output, down from 28 percent in the late 1980s. About half the country's wool is produced in New South Wales and Western Australia.

In the past the country's great rabbit population hampered sheep raising by foraging on grazing land. Although rabbits accompanied the First Fleet that arrived in Australia in 1788, their first significant arrival occurred in 1859 at the behest of a landowner, Thomas Austin. The shipment of two dozen wild rabbits was released on his property near Geelong, Victoria. Within three years the rabbits had assumed the proportions of a potential pest. Subsequently, the rabbit population was estimated to have reached some 500 million, or about 50 times the human population of Australia. The virus disease myxomatosis, which attacks rabbits, was introduced in 1936 and proved an effective control for about 20 years. The rabbit population increased markedly thereafter and is again an economic and environmental threat.

Queensland is the leading cattle-producing state, containing more than two-fifths of the estimated 23.9 million head of cattle in Australia in the early 1990s. The country produces both beef and dairy cattle. Dairying is concentrated in Victoria and Tasmania. Irrigation is heavily relied on in much of the fruit-growing and dairying regions. In some areas the rising incidence of soil salinization threatens production. Experiments with biotechnologies may reduce the impact of salinization and the use of expensive water resources.

Although only about 6 percent of the total area of Australia is under crop or fodder production, this acreage is of great economic importance. Wheat crops occupy about 45 percent of cultivated acreage, and other grains occupy about 25 percent. The bulk of the wheat crop is grown in the southeastern and southwestern regions of the country. Annual production in the early 1990s was about 15 million metric tons. Oats, barley, rye, hay, and fodder crops also are important. Rice and cotton are grown in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (in New South Wales) and in the Northern Territory. Sugarcane production is confined to the fertile coastal fringe of Queensland and the Richmond River district of northern New South Wales. About 29.3 million metric tons of sugarcane were produced yearly in the early 1990s. Many types of fruit are grown, including grapes, oranges, apples, bananas, pears, pineapples, peaches, and nectarines. The major wine-producing areas are in the Barossa Valley of South Australia, the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, and parts of northeastern, southern, and western Victoria. Special varieties of grapes are grown, especially in the Murray Valley, for the production of raisins.

Forestry and Fishing

Forests cover about 14 percent of Australia. The main forest regions, found in the moist coastal and highland belts, consist predominantly of eucalyptus, a hardwood. Eucalyptus wood is widely used in the production of paper and furniture. The jarrah and karri species, which grow in Western Australia, are noted for the durability of their woods. Queensland maple, walnut, and rosewood are prized as cabinet and furniture woods. About one-quarter of the country's forests are permanently preserved in state reservations. Because of the deficiency in coniferous forests, the country imports large quantities of softwoods. State, federal, and private pine forests have been established to help overcome this deficiency by raising extensive stands of Monterey pine.

Australian waters contain a great variety of marine life, but the annual catch is relatively small—227,300 metric tons in the early 1990s. More than 85 percent of the yearly value of exported fishery products is made up of various shellfish, principally scallops, shrimp, spring and green rock lobsters, oysters, and abalone. Marine fishes marketed include orange roughy, sharks and rays, skipjack tuna, mullet, southern bluefin tuna, and royal escolar. Pearls and trochus shells have been harvested off the northern coast since the 1800s. Darwin, Broome, and Thursday Island are the main pearling centers, but cultured pearls are now more significant. The cultured pearl industry is dominated by Japanese-Australian ventures. Australia was a principal whaling nation until the late 1970s, when it agreed to halt most whaling activities in cooperation with an international effort to maintain the whale population.


The mining industry, long an important factor in the social and economic growth of Australia, holds great promise for the future development of the country. The gold discoveries of the 1850s were responsible for the first wave of immigration and for settlement of inland areas. Today, Australia is self-sufficient in most minerals of economic significance, and in a few cases is among the world's leading producers. Annual Australian production of coal, oil, natural gas, and metallic minerals was valued at about $12.4 billion in the early 1990s. Metallic minerals accounted for more than two-fifths percent of the total, with gold and iron ore the most significant components. Western Australia had the largest share of total mineral production, especially of metallic minerals.

Australia accounts for some 11 percent of the world's gold production; about three-fourths of the nation's output (240,000 kg/7,720,000 troy oz annually in the early 1990s) is mined in Western Australia, notably near Kalgoorlie. Most of the gold is exported to Singapore, Japan, Switzerland, and Hong Kong. Australia is also the world's largest producer of diamonds, producing about two-fifths of the global total. Annual production reached 42 million carats in the early 1990s, most of it from the giant Argyle Diamond Mine in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. About 95 percent of Australia's iron-ore production also takes place in Western Australia, in the Pilbara region. Iron-ore reserves also exist at Iron Knob in South Australia; on Cockatoo Island in Yampi Sound off Western Australia; in northwestern Tasmania; and in Gippsland, Victoria. Almost all of the iron ore is exported; Australia is now Japan's major supplier of iron ore. Other markets include China, Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Australia is the world's largest bauxite and alumina producer and the fourth largest aluminum producer. The major bauxite mines are located to the south of Perth in Western Australia; and in the Northern Territory on the Gove Peninsula. Important uranium mines are located in the Northern Territory (Ranger Mine) and at Olympic Dam in South Australia. All uranium is exported.

Hard, or black coal, mining is heavily concentrated in New South Wales and Queensland. The lignite, or brown coal, industry is located in Victoria, where it is used to produce electricity. Other major minerals in Australia include nickel, mined near Kalgoorlie; copper, mined at Mount Lyell in Tasmania, Mount Isa in Queensland, and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory; zinc, mined at Broken Hill in New South Wales; and manganese, mined at Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory. Titanium and zircon are recovered from the beach sands of southern Queensland, New South Wales, and Western Australia. Queensland, New South Wales, and Tasmania are the main tin-producing states, and tungsten concentrates are mined on King Island in the Bass Strait. Petroleum has been discovered in Western Australia, in southern Queensland, and offshore in Bass Strait. Total annual production in the early 1990s was about 190 million barrels. Natural gas is also extracted, with annual production of about 23.6 billion cu m (833 billion cu ft).


After World War II ended in 1945, the introduction of new industries and the development of existing ones caused substantial expansion of manufacturing activity in Australia. In the early 1990s manufacturing contributed about 15 percent of the country's yearly gross domestic product, and manufacturing firms together employed about 14 percent of the labor force. Principal branches of the manufacturing sector by value of production are metals and metal products, food products, transportation equipment, machinery, chemicals and chemical products, textiles and clothing, wood and paper products, and printed materials.

Manufacturing facilities are concentrated in New South Wales (especially in Sydney and Newcastle) and Victoria (primarily in the Melbourne metropolitan area). New South Wales is noted for the production of iron and steel, jet aircraft, construction equipment, synthetic fibers, electronic equipment, power cables, and petroleum and petrochemical products. In Melbourne, industrial activity includes the manufacture and assembly of machinery and motor vehicles and the production of food and clothing. Geelong, located near Melbourne, is known for its wool mills and motor works. South Australia, traditionally a pastoral and agricultural state, after 1950 developed several important manufacturing centers, including Adelaide and Whyalla. Brisbane and Townsville, in Queensland, have significant numbers of factories. Tasmanian industry, assisted by inexpensive hydroelectric power, includes electrolytic zinc mills, paper mills, and a large confectionery factory. Hobart and Launceston are the primary manufacturing centers in Tasmania.


Tourism has grown rapidly in the late 20th century, and it now represents one of the most dynamic sectors in the Australian economy, accounting for 500,000 jobs in the early 1990s. Australia had about 2.8 million visitors annually in the early 1990s, whose spending exceeded $3.1 billion.

The strong growth in domestic tourism has tapped the expanding range of attractions in each state and territory—amusement and theme parks, zoos, art galleries and museums, certain mines and factories, national parks, historic sites, and wineries. Some of the most popular attractions are Queensland's spectacular Great Barrier Reef, the Northern Territory's Kakadu National Park, and the famous beach resorts in the Brisbane, Cairns, and Sydney regions.


In the early 1990s about 90 percent of the electricity produced annually in Australia was generated in thermal facilities, the majority of which burned bituminous coal or lignite. The country also has several hydroelectric plants, notably the major Snowy Mountains Scheme (primarily serving Canberra, Melbourne, and Sydney) and a number of smaller facilities in Tasmania. Australia's total installed electricity-generating capacity was about 40 million kilowatts, and its annual production of electricity totaled some 150 billion kilowatt-hours. Natural gas is commonly used for domestic heating and cooking. Australian researchers are studying the prospects for solar and wind energy uses. In the early 1990s, domestic production of crude oil and concentrate was worth about $3 billion and the production of natural gas was valued at approximately $1.7 billion. Some $2 billion worth of petroleum refinery products and crude oil was imported.

Currency and Banking

The unit of currency in Australia is the Australian dollar, divided into 100 cents and coined in 1¢, 2¢, 5¢, 10¢, 20¢, 50¢, and $1 pieces. The value of the Australian dollar is now allowed to float against other currencies. (A$1.36 equals U.S.$1; 1995).

The first Australian bank was established in Sydney in 1817. The banking system now includes the Reserve Bank of Australia, established in 1911, which handles the functions of central banking, including note issuance; the components of the Commonwealth Banking Group, including the Commonwealth Development Bank and the Commonwealth Savings Bank; and three other major banks: the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, Westpac Banking Corporation, and the National Australia Bank. A number of privately owned or state-owned banks operate, as well as 17 foreign banks. The Australian Stock Exchange conducts trading in six cities: Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney.

Foreign Trade

Under Australian tariff policy, protection is afforded essential Australian industries, and preferential treatment is granted to imports from certain Commonwealth countries. Customs duty is levied also for revenue purposes. Some modification of the preferential-treatment policy has been made by Australia, as a member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. In the early 1990s, the value of goods exported exceeded the value of imports.

Japan and the United States are Australia's major trade partners. Other leading Australian export markets are South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Great Britain. In addition, new markets are being developed in Asia for Australian wheat and other surplus commodities. Besides the United States and Japan, major suppliers of imports are Great Britain, Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, China, and France. Principal exports included metal ores, coal, gold, nonferrous metals, meat and meat products, textile fibers (mainly wool), petroleum and petroleum products, and cereals. Leading imports were road vehicles and other transportation equipment, machinery, office equipment, petroleum and petroleum products, and textiles. In the early 1990s annual imports were valued at about $43.6 billion, exports at about $44.1 billion. Australia is also an important exporter of agricultural and medical research services, especially to the wider Asian region.


Each Australian colony established its own rail network prior to becoming a state within the federation; as a result, the gauge varies from one state to another. A general program for standardization of railroad gauges throughout Australia is in progress. Railroad lines total about 37,295 km (about 23,175 mi) of track, almost all of it owned and operated by both the federal and state governments.

Australia has approximately 837,900 km (about 520,700 mi) of roads. Some 30 percent are paved, including about 16,000 km (about 9900 mi) of state highway. The capital cities are connected by inexpensive bus services. Some 9.9 million motor vehicles (more than one vehicle for every two persons) are registered. A comprehensive network of airline service links major cities and even remote settlements. Domestic lines carry nearly 18 million passengers yearly. Because of the long distances between cities and the country's ideal flying conditions, Australians are especially accustomed to air travel. Qantas Airways, Ltd., an international line that is partially owned by the government, operates services to many world capitals. International airports are located near each of the mainland capitals and near Cairns and Townsville. Coastal and transoceanic shipping is vital to the Australian economy. Major ports include Melbourne, Sydney, and Fremantle, in Western Australia.


Australia maintains contact with the rest of the world by such means as satellite, submarine telegraph cable, radio-telephone, and phototelegraph services. Since 1975 the Australian Telecommunications Commission has been responsible for telecommunications services within Australia; the Australian Postal Commission manages the postal services. In the early 1990s more than 8 million telephones were in operation. Government and commercial radio and television systems operate concurrently. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is a statutory authority operating 108 medium-wave and 358 FM radio stations. Commercial stations number 149; unlike the national stations, these carry advertising. Television programs are transmitted within range of 99 percent of the population by the ABC's national television network and by some 45 commercial stations. Australia has about 530 newspapers, some 69 of which are dailies with a combined daily circulation of about 4.6 million. The Australian is the national general newspaper; among the other large-circulation metropolitan dailies are the Sydney Morning Herald; The Age and Herald-Sun News Pictorial (both published in Melbourne); Courier-Mail (Brisbane); Advertiser (Adelaide); and West Australian (Perth).


Under the Australian constitution, industrial controls on labor are divided between the commonwealth and the states. Federal power is confined to disputes extending beyond the limits of any one state, and it is exercised through the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and through arbitration and conciliation commissioners. Compulsory arbitration has been established at a federal and state level. Arbitration and conciliation courts or boards have the power to make awards binding on employer and employee. The trade union movement, with more than 3 million members, is strongly organized at local, state, and federal levels and is an economic and political power. About 53 percent of all Australian wage and salary workers belong to trade unions. Workers receive unemployment and sickness benefits, compensation for job-incurred injuries, basic wages and marginal awards, and general social and health benefits. A basic or minimum wage was established by law in 1907. Between 1921 and 1953 the basic wage was automatically adjusted to quarterly rises and falls in the cost of living. The commonwealth terminated this automatic adjustment in September 1953, but several states later reintroduced the procedure. In the early 1990s about 7.7 million people were employed in Australia, and the unemployment rate was approximately 11 percent.


Australia, a federal parliamentary democracy, is an independent self-governing state and a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The constitution of Australia, which became effective in 1901, is based on British parliamentary traditions, and includes elements of the U.S. system. The head of state is the British sovereign, and the head of government is the Australian prime minister, who is responsible to the Australian Parliament. All powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states. Australia is a founding member of the United Nations.


Formally, executive authority in Australia is vested in the governor-general, who is appointed by the British monarch in consultation with the Australian prime minister. The British monarch is also the royal head of Australia, but has no real power in the government and serves as a symbolic head of state. The governor-general acts only on the advice of the Executive Council, or cabinet, comprising all ministers of state. Federal policy in practice is determined by the cabinet, which is chaired by the prime minister, who is the head of the majority party in parliament. The ministers are responsible for the individual departments of the federal government, and these departments are administered by permanent civil servants.


National legislative power in Australia is vested in a bicameral parliament, made up of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The Senate consists of 76 members (12 from each state and 2 from each territory). Senators from states are popularly elected to six-year terms under a form of proportional representation; senators from territories are elected to three-year terms. According to the Australian constitution, the House should have about twice as many members as the Senate. The number of members from each state is proportional to its population, but must be at least five. In the early 1990s the House had 147 members, popularly elected to a term of up to three years. The prime minister can ask the governor-general to dissolve the House and call new elections at any time. Australia has universal and compulsory suffrage for all citizens over the age of 18.

Political Parties

There are four major political parties in Australia: the Australian Labor party, the Liberal party of Australia, the National party of Australia, and the Australian Democratic party. All are moderate social-democratic parties. Traditionally, the Labour party is associated with trade unions, the Liberal party is aligned with business interests and supports free enterprise, the National party is more conservative, and the Democratic party is more progressive.

Local Government

A bicameral system of government exists in each state except Queensland, which has only one house. The British sovereign is represented in each state by a governor. Governmental affairs are handled by a cabinet, the head of which is known as the premier. Within each Australian state, hundreds of local government authorities are responsible for traffic and building regulation; maintenance of streets, bridges, local roads, water and sewerage, parks, libraries, and hospitals; and similar functions. Among these authorities are shire councils, borough councils, and town and city councils. Legislation granting power to local authorities exists in each state.

Health and Welfare

The government of Australia has played an important role in advancing social services. Programs of assistance for people who are sick, aged, widowed, or unemployed exist. A maternity allowance is paid to mothers irrespective of income, and an endowment for all children under 16 years of age is payable to the parent or other person with custody. Medical and hospital benefits are paid by the federal government.

The Flying Doctor Service provides medical service for people in remote areas. The service covers two-thirds of Australia, with physicians operating from bases equipped with radio stations for communicating with distant ranches and settlements, and a hospital, air-ambulance, and nursing staff. Australia has nearly 1100 hospitals and some 36,600 physicians.


At the head of the judicial system of the commonwealth is the High Court of Australia, consisting of seven members appointed by the governor-general in council. There are lesser federal courts and state supreme courts.


The system of national defense employed by Australia dates from the integration of the separate colonial forces following the country's federation in 1901. A small amount of compulsory military service (strictly within Australia) was introduced in 1911. The Royal Australian Navy received its first ships in 1913. Australians were on active service with the Royal Flying Corps in World War I (1914-1918); the Royal Australian Air Force was not established until 1921. Australians twice rejected compulsory military service during World War I, yet volunteered in huge numbers out of proportion to the small population. The first enemy attack on Australian territory was the aerial bombing of Darwin by the Japanese early in World War II (1939-1945). Australian forces have taken part with distinction in the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Sudan campaign (1897-1899), the Boer War (1899-1902), World Wars I and II, the Korean War (1950-1953), the Malayan Emergency (1950-1962), the Vietnam War (1959-1975), and the Persian Gulf War (1991). Conscription was reintroduced for home defense during World War II, then in the postwar years until 1960, and again in 1965 to support the Vietnam effort. Public outrage over the Vietnam War caused conscription to be abolished once more in 1972.

In the early 1990s the Australian armed forces totaled 63,200. The army numbered about 28,600; the navy, 15,300; and the air force, 19,300. Although small, the armed forces are equipped with modern weapons.

With the United States and New Zealand, Australia was a signatory of the ANZUS Treaty (1952) for mutual defense and support in case of attack. When New Zealand refused in the mid-1980s to allow ships capable of nuclear attacks to use its ports, the United States suspended defense obligations with the country. The Australia-United States alliance under ANZUS remains in full force, and Australia also maintains its own defense agreements with New Zealand.


The Aborigines were the first inhabitants of Australia. Most anthropologists believe they migrated to the continent at least 40,000 years ago, and that most of the continent was occupied 30,000 years ago. Although Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Arab sea captains may have landed in northern Australia before AD 1000, Australia remained unexplored by the West until the 17th century.

Early European Exploration

Although Australia was not known to the Western world, it did exist in late medieval European logic and mythology: A great Southland, or Terra Australis, was thought necessary to balance the weight of the northern landmasses of Europe and Asia. Terra Australis often appeared on early European maps as a large, globe-shaped mass in about its correct location, although no actual discoveries were recorded by Europeans until much later. Indeed, the European exploration of Australia took more than three centuries to complete; thus, what is often considered the oldest continent, geologically, was the last to be discovered and colonized by Europeans.

Portuguese and Spanish Sailings

In the 15th century Portugal's systematic drive southward along the west coast of Africa, seeking trade with India, rekindled European interest in finding the as yet undiscovered Terra Australis. Portugal itself, however, soon successful in Indian and also East African trading, lost interest in moving any farther to the east and south. Australia remained undiscovered by the West for other reasons as well. One was that the continent's location was off the Oceanic-island trading corridor of the Indian and South Pacific oceans. In addition, the winds in the southern hemisphere tend to veer northward in the direction of the equator west of Australia, whereas east of the continent the strong head winds discourage sailing into them.

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, Spain, having established its empire in South and Central America, began a series of expeditions from Peru into the South Pacific. Encouraged by the discovery of the Solomon Islands (northeast of Australia) by Álvaro de Mendaña in 1567, Spanish New World officials launched several expeditions in hopes of finding gold. After the failure of these voyages to find either precious minerals or significant new landmasses, Spain abandoned its interest in Terra Australis after 1605.

Dutch Interest

Portugal's involvement in India, and Spain's discouragement, allowed the rising power of the Netherlands to establish a string of trading centers from the Cape of Good Hope to Indonesia in the 17th century. The Dutch, stationed chiefly in the Indonesian ports of Bantam and Batavia (Jakarta), quickly made the discovery of Australia a reality. Helped by better sailing ships, they were able to overcome the challenges in the southern Pacific. In 1606 Willem Jansz sailed into Torres Strait, between the Australian mainland and New Guinea. (The strait was later named for a Spanish explorer, Luis Vaez de Torres, who sailed into the same area in the same year and determined that New Guinea was an island.)

Encouraged by Jansz's voyages, Dutch governors-general at Batavia commissioned expeditions into the southern oceans. The most successful was that of Abel Tasman, who in 1642 moved into the waters of southern Australia, discovering the island now known as Tasmania. Tasman then sailed farther east and north to explore New Zealand. Dutch ships sailing to Indonesia often sailed off course, and their crews landed on the western and northern coasts of Australia. Despite their increasing knowledge of the continent, which they called New Holland, the Dutch did not follow up their oceanic discoveries with formal occupation; in their contacts, they found little of value for European trade. Thus, the way was open for the later arrival of the English.

British Expeditions and Claims

At first England's involvement in Australia appeared likely to go the way of the Spanish and Dutch, but in the late 17th century the English launched two expeditions. The first one, in 1687 to 1688, was led by a buccaneer, William Dampier, who landed in the northwest. When he returned to England, he urged further voyages in pursuit of the continent's supposed wealth. The second expedition—along the western coast in 1699—resulted in a rather dismal assessment of the land's potential. English interest in the continent declined accordingly.

The 18th century in Western Europe ushered in the Age of Reason, when philosophers and scientists stressed the value of global discovery, of learning more about the earth and in collecting unusual flora and fauna from around the world. These inquiries fit well with Britain's growing power as a maritime empire.

In 1768 Captain James Cook left England on a three-year expedition to the Pacific that also took him to Australia. Cook landed at Botany Bay on the eastern coast. He charted the region and named it New South Wales. It was he and his staff, including the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who later supported settlement in Australia. Cook's two additional voyages in the 1770s added information on the Australian landmass and cemented Britain's claims to the continent.

French interest was less sustained than that of the British. Marion Dufresne, on his 1772 voyage, concentrated upon charting and describing the less hospitable western coast and Tasmania, and later French explorers investigated Australia's southern coast. By then, however, the British had established their first settlement and had claimed the eastern half of the continent.

Even with Britain's sustained efforts, Australia's coasts were not fully explored until the 19th century. Matthew Flinders was the first to circumnavigate the continent from 1801 to 1803. He charted most of the coastline, but it was mid-century before the continent's major interior features were known.

Penal Settlements

Australia was portrayed as a remote and unattractive land for European settlement. However, it had some social and strategic value for a nation with rising crime rates and commercial interests in the Pacific and East Asia. Britain moved quickly after the American Revolution ended in 1783 to establish its first settlement in Australia, since it could no longer ship British convicts to America. Food shortages, harsh penal laws, and the general displacement of people during the early stages in the Industrial Revolution in Britain added to its criminal population. Leading social reformers of the day assumed that the best way to eliminate crime was to remove these criminals from society. In 1786 the British government announced its intention to establish a penal settlement at Botany Bay in Australia.

Sydney Founded

On May 13, 1787, Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy set sail from Portsmouth with the First Fleet. The 11 ships carried 759 convicts (568 males, 191 females); 13 children belonging to the convicts; 211 marines and officers to guard the convicts; 46 wives and children of the marines; and the governor with his staff of 9. Phillip arrived at Botany Bay on January 18, 1788. Finding the bay a poor choice, he moved north to Port Jackson, which he discovered to be one of the world's best natural harbors. Here he began the first permanent settlement on January 26, now known as Australia Day. The settlement was named Sydney for Britain's home secretary, Lord Sydney, who was responsible for the colony. Phillip's domain covered half of Australia (from the eastern oceanic waters to as far west as the 135th meridian), but his human resources were limited. In particular, he lacked the horticulturalists, skilled carpenters, and engineers needed to develop a self-supporting colony. His major concern, until his departure in 1792, was ruling virtually single-handedly over the small penal settlement.

Three major problems confronted the early governors: providing a sufficient supply of foodstuffs; developing an internal economic system; and producing exports to pay for the colony's imports from Britain. Land around Sydney was too sandy for suitable farming, and the colony faced perpetual food shortages through the 1790s. Natural food sources were largely limited to fish and kangaroo. Phillip established farms on the more fertile banks of the Hawkesbury River, a few miles northwest of Sydney, but this land was often flooded or still used by the Aborigines. Needed food supplies came mainly from Norfolk Island, nearly 1600 km (about 1000 mi) away, which Phillip had occupied in February 1788. The island later served as a jail for the more hardened criminals.

The New South Wales Corps

In 1792 the Royal Marines were replaced with the New South Wales Corps, which had been specifically recruited in Great Britain. Given grants of land, members of the corps became the colony's best and largest farmers, but they also posed a serious threat to the governors by their power over the economy. With a sharp eye for enhancing their income, they specialized in controlling the price of rum, which served largely as the colony's internal means of exchange.

Captain John Hunter, Phillip's successor as governor, who arrived in 1795, tried in vain to gain control of the rum traffic. The next governor, Captain Philip G. King, who served from 1800 to 1806, was no more successful. Both governors also had to house additional arrivals, and in 1804 King had to use the corps to put down a rebellion by Irish convicts.

In 1806 Captain William Bligh replaced King. The captain had gained notoriety earlier, when the crew of his ship, the Bounty, had mutinied in the Pacific. Bligh threatened the corps with the loss of their monopoly. He was met with the so-called Rum Rebellion, and on January 26, 1808, officers of the corps arrested him. Bligh was later sent to London, where he successfully defended his policies, but he was not restored to his governorship. The Rum Rebellion thus gave the leaders of the corps the immediate victory. Meanwhile, one of its ringleaders, John Macarthur, had found the solution to the colony's lack of valuable exports: in 1802 he had shown British manufacturers samples of Australian wool. It was only after 1810, however, with the breeding of the merino sheep, with its long staple wool, that sheep grazing gradually developed into a major economic activity.

Macquarie's Government

Bligh's replacement, Lachlan Macquarie, served as governor from 1809 to 1821. The most talented governor since Phillip, he also became the most powerful. The New South Wales Corps was sent home, and because the economy had improved, the government gained stability. Macquarie began an extensive public works program, employing the ex-convict Francis Greenway to design churches, hospitals, and government buildings in Sydney. The population of the colony also increased after Britain's defeat of Napoleon in 1814. The arrival of more free settlers brought more claims to farmland on which more convicts could serve as laborers.

These two new groups of colonists, however, reflected a growing tension within New South Wales. As convicts completed their sentences or were eligible for release due to good behavior, they wanted land and opportunities. They were known as the emancipists, and their leaders urged that they be given more rights. The free settlers, like the corps before them, maintained that convicts, even after their release, should not be treated as equals. They were known as the exclusives. Macquarie, as had Bligh, tended to support the emancipists, granting them land and appointing them to minor offices. The exclusives, therefore, became critical of both Macquarie and the emancipists.

Constitutional Reform

Macquarie's government was expensive, and most of the burden had to be carried by the British treasury. Overseas punishment, however, did not appear to have reduced the number of convicts, and many wondered if New South Wales was the proper solution to Britain's crime problems. In 1819, the British Colonial Office sent Judge John Thomas Bigge to inspect and report on Macquarie's administration. He recommended slashes in government expenses but assumed that New South Wales should continue as a convict settlement. He also, however, recognized the colony's growing importance to the British Empire as a home for wealthy free settlers, and he popularized the name Australia for the southern continent. Bigge's reports resulted in a major change in the constitution for New South Wales in 1823. By an act of Parliament the governor's autocratic powers were reduced with the appointment of a nominated legislative council.

In 1825, by an executive order of the British government, the island settlement of Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania) became a separate colony. A penal colony had been established there in 1803 out of fear that France was ready to claim the island. Although settlements south and north of Sydney had been attempted in the same period, only Van Diemen's Land became a large permanent settlement.