Australasia - Continent facts
The Commonwealth of Australia is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the world's smallest continent and a number of islands in the Southern, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Australia's neighbouring countries are Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea to the north, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia to the northeast, and New Zealand to the southeast.
The continent of Australia has been inhabited for over 40,000 years by Indigenous Australians. After sporadic visits by fishermen from the north and by European explorers and merchants starting in the 17th century, the eastern half of the continent was claimed by the British in 1770 and officially settled as the penal colony of New South Wales on 26 January 1788. As the population grew and new areas were explored, another five largely self-governing Crown Colonies were successively established over the course of the 19th century.
On 1 January 1901, the six colonies federated and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed. Since federation, Australia has maintained a stable liberal democratic political system and remains a Commonwealth Realm. The current population of around 20.4 million is concentrated mainly in the large coastal cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.
Origin & history of the name Australia:
The name Australia is derived from the Latin australis, meaning southern. Legends of an "unknown southern land" (terra australis incognita) date back to the Roman times and were commonplace in mediæval geography, but they were not based on any actual knowledge of the continent. The Dutch adjectival form Australische ("Australian," in the sense of "southern") was used by Dutch officials in Batavia to refer to the newly discovered land to the south as early as 1638. The first English language writer to use the word "Australia" was Alexander Dalrymple in An Historical Collection of Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean, published in 1771. He used the term to refer to the entire South Pacific region, not specifically to the Australian continent. In 1793, George Shaw and Sir James Smith published Zoology and Botany of New Holland, in which they wrote of "the vast island, or rather continent, of Australia, Australasia or New Holland." The name "Australia" was popularised by the 1814 work A Voyage to Terra Australis by the navigator Matthew Flinders. Despite its title, which reflected the view of the Admiralty, Flinders used the word "Australia" in the book, which was widely read and gave the term general currency. Governor Lachlan Macquarie of New South Wales subsequently used the word in his dispatches to England. In 1817 he recommended that it be officially adopted. In 1824, the British Admiralty agreed that the continent should be known officially as Australia.
Australia's 7,686,850 km² (2,967,909 mi²) landmass is on the Indo-Australian Plate. Surrounded by the Indian, Southern and Pacific oceans, Australia is separated from Asia by the Arafura and Timor seas. Australia has a total 25,760 km (16,007 mi) of coastline and claims an extensive Exclusive Economic Zone of 8,148,250 km² or 3,146,057 mi² (excluding the Australian Antarctic Territory). Climate is highly influenced by ocean currents, including the El Niño southern oscillation, which is correlated with periodic drought, and the seasonal tropical low pressure system that produces cyclones in northern Australia.
By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid. Australia is the driest inhabited continent, the flattest, and has the oldest and least fertile soils. Only the south-east and south-west corners of the continent have a temperate climate. The northern part of the country, with a tropical climate, has a vegetation consisting of rainforest, woodland, grassland and desert. The Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef, lies a short distance off the north-east coast and extends for over 2,000 km (1,250 mi). The world's two largest monoliths are located in Australia, Mount Augustus in Western Australia is the largest and Uluru in central Australia is the second largest. At 2,228 m (7,310 ft), Mount Kosciuszko on the Great Dividing Range is the highest mountain on the Australian mainland, although Mawson Peak on the remote Australian territory of Heard Island is taller at 2,745 m (9,006 ft).
The first human habitation of Australia is estimated to have occurred between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago. The first Australians were the ancestors of the current Indigenous Australians; they arrived via land bridges and short sea-crossings from present-day India or Southeast Asia. Most of these people were hunter-gatherers, with a complex oral culture and spiritual values based on reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Torres Strait Islanders, ethnically Melanesian, inhabited the Torres Strait Islands and parts of far-north Queensland; they possess distinct cultural practices and practised subsistence agriculture.
The first undisputed recorded European sighting of the Australian continent was made by the Dutch navigator Willem Jansz, who sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula in 1606. During the 17th century, the Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines of what they called New Holland, but made no attempt at settlement. In 1770, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast of Australia, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Britain. The expedition's discoveries provided impetus for the establishment of a penal colony there following the loss of the American colonies that had previously filled that role.The British Crown Colony of New South Wales started with the establishment of a settlement at Port Jackson by Captain Arthur Phillip on 26 January 1788. This date was later to become Australia's national day, Australia Day. Van Diemen's Land, now known as Tasmania, was settled in 1803 and became a separate colony in 1825. Britain formally claimed the western part of Australia in 1829. Separate colonies were created from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory (NT) was founded in 1863 as part of the Province of South Australia. Victoria and South Australia were founded as "free colonies"—that is, they were never penal colonies, although the former did receive some convicts from Tasmania. Western Australia was also founded "free", but later accepted transported convicts due to an acute labour shortage. The transportation of convicts to Australia was phased out between 1840 and 1868.
The Indigenous Australian population, estimated at about 350,000 at the time of European settlement, declined steeply for 150 years following settlement, mainly because of infectious disease, and forced migration, the removal of children and other colonial government policies, that some historians and Indigenous Australians have argued could be considered to constitute genocide by today's understanding. Such interpretations of Aboriginal history are disputed by some as being exaggerated or fabricated for political or ideological reasons.[3a] Following the 1967 referendum, the Federal government gained the power to implement policies and make laws with respect to Aborigines. Traditional ownership of land—native title—was not recognised until the High Court case Mabo v Queensland (No 2) overturned the notion of Australia as terra nullius at the time of European occupation.A gold rush began in Australia in the early 1850s, and the Eureka Stockade rebellion in 1854 was an early expression of nationalist sentiment. Between 1855 and 1890, the six colonies individually gained responsible government, managing most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire. The Colonial Office in London retained control of some matters, notably foreign affairs, defence and international shipping. On 1 January 1901, federation of the colonies was achieved after a decade of planning, consultation and voting, and the Commonwealth of Australia was born, as a Dominion of the British Empire. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was formed from New South Wales in 1911 to provide a location for the proposed new federal capital of Canberra (Melbourne was the capital from 1901 to 1927). The Northern Territory was transferred from the control of the South Australian government to the Commonwealth in 1911. Australia willingly participated in World War I; many Australians regard the defeat of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) at Gallipoli as the birth of the nation—its first major military action. Much like Gallipoli the Kokoda Track Campaign is regarded by many as a nation defining battle from World War II.
The Statute of Westminster 1931 formally ended most of the constitutional links between Australia and Britain, but Australia did not adopt the Statute until 1942. The shock of Britain's defeat in Asia in 1942 and the threat of Japanese invasion caused Australia to turn to the United States as a new ally and protector. Since 1951, Australia has been a formal military ally of the US under the auspices of the ANZUS treaty. After World War II, Australia encouraged mass immigration from Europe; since the 1970s and the abolition of the White Australia policy, immigration from Asia and other parts of the world was also encouraged. As a result, Australia's demography, culture and image of itself were radically transformed. The final constitutional ties between Australia and Britain ended in 1986 with the passing of the Australia Act 1986, ending any British role in the Australian States, and ending judicial appeals to the UK Privy Council. Although Australian voters rejected a move to become a republic in 1999 by a 55% majority, Australia's links to its British past are increasingly tenuous. Since the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972, there has been an increasing focus on the nation's future as a part of the Asia-Pacific region.
The Commonwealth of Australia is a constitutional monarchy and has a parliamentary system of government. Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of Australia, a role that is distinct from her position as Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The Queen is nominally represented by the Governor-General; although the Constitution gives extensive executive powers to the Governor-General, these are normally exercised only on the advice of the Prime Minister. The most notable exercise of the Governor-General's reserve powers outside the Prime Minister's direction was the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in the constitutional crisis of 1975.
There are three branches of government.
The legislature: the Commonwealth Parliament, comprising the Queen, the Senate, and the House of Representatives; the Queen is represented by the Governor-General, who in practice exercises little or no power over the Parliament.
The executive: the Federal Executive Council (the Governor-General as advised by the executive councillors); in practice, the councillors are the prime minister and ministers of state, whose advice the Governor-General accepts, with rare exceptions.
The judiciary: the High Court of Australia and other federal courts. The State courts became formally independent from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council when the Australia Act was passed in 1986.
The bicameral Commonwealth Parliament consists of the Queen, the Senate (the upper house) of 76 senators, and a House of Representatives (the lower house) of 150 members. Members of the lower house are elected from single-member constituencies, commonly known as 'electorates' or 'seats'. Seats in the House of Representatives are allocated to states on the basis of population. In the Senate, each state, regardless of population, is represented by 12 senators, with the ACT and the NT each electing two. Elections for both chambers are held every three years; typically only half of the Senate seats are put to each election, because senators have overlapping six-year terms. The party with majority support in the House of Representatives forms Government, with its leader becoming Prime Minister.
There are three major political parties: the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the National Party. Independent members and several minor parties—including the Greens, Family First and the Australian Democrats—have achieved representation in Australian parliaments, mostly in upper houses, although their influence has been marginal. Since the 1996 election, the Liberal/National Coalition led by the Prime Minister, John Howard, has been in power in Canberra. In the 2004 election, the Coalition won control of the Senate, the first time that a party (or coalition of governing parties) has done so while in government in more than 20 years. The Labor Party is in power in every state and territory. Voting is compulsory in each state and territory and at the federal level.
Australia has a prosperous, Western-style mixed economy, with a per capita GDP slightly higher than those of the UK, Germany and France. The country was ranked third in the United Nations' 2005 Human Development Index and sixth in The Economist worldwide quality-of-life index 2005. In recent years, the Australian economy has been resilient in the face of global economic downturn. Rising output in the domestic economy has been offsetting the global slump, and business and consumer confidence remains robust. Australia's emphasis on reform 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, started the process of modernising the Australian economy by floating the Australian dollar in 1983, and deregulating the financial system. Since 1996, the Howard government has continued the process of micro-economic reform, including the partial deregulation of the labour market and the privatisation of state-owned businesses, most notably in the telecommunications industry. Substantial reform of the indirect tax system was achieved in July 2000 with the introduction of a 10% Goods and Services Tax, which has slightly reduced the heavy reliance on personal and company income tax that still characterises Australia's tax system.
The Australian economy has not suffered a recession since the early 1990s. As of July 2005, unemployment was 5.0% with 10,030,300 persons employed. The service sector of the economy, including tourism, education, and financial services, comprises 69% of GDP. Agriculture and natural-resources represent only 3% and 5% of GDP, respectively, but contribute substantially to Australia's export performance. Australia's largest export markets include Japan, China, the United States, South Korea and New Zealand. Areas of concern to some economists include the chronically high current account deficit and also high levels of net foreign debt.
Most of the estimated 20.4 million Australians are descended from 19th- and 20th-century immigrants, the majority from Britain and Ireland. Australia's population has quadrupled since the end of World War I , spurred by an ambitious immigration program. In 2001, the five largest groups of the 27.4% of Australians who were born overseas were from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam and China. Following the abolition of the White Australia policy, numerous government initiatives have been established to encourage and promote racial harmony based on a policy of multiculturalism. Australia’s population has increased by about 60 times since European settlement.
The self-declared indigenous population—including Torres Strait Islanders, who are of Melanesian descent—was 410,003 (2.2% of the total population) in 2001, a significant increase from the 1977 census, which showed an indigenous population of 115,953. Indigenous Australians have higher rates of imprisonment and unemployment, lower levels of education and life expectancies for males and females that are 17 years lower than those of other Australians. Perceived racial inequality is an ongoing political and human rights issue for Australians.
Fewer than 15% of Australians live in rural areas. This picture shows the Barossa Valley wine producing region of South Australia.
Enlarge. Fewer than 15% of Australians live in rural areas. This picture shows the Barossa Valley wine producing region of South Australia.
In common with many other developed countries, Australia is experiencing a demographic shift towards an older population, with more retirees and fewer people of working age. A large number of Australians (759,849 for the period 2002–03) live outside their home country. Australia has maintained one of the most active immigration programs in the world to boost population growth. Most immigrants are skilled; the quota includes categories for family members and refugees.
English is the official language, and is spoken and written in a distinct variety known as Australian English. According to the 2001 census, English is the only language spoken in the home for around 80% of the population. The next most common languages spoken at home are Chinese (2.1%), Italian (1.9%) and Greek (1.4%). A considerable proportion of first- and second-generation migrants are bilingual. It is believed that there were between 200 and 300 Australian Aboriginal languages at the time of first European contact. Only about 70 of these languages have survived, and all but 20 of these are now endangered. An indigenous language remains the main language for about 50,000 (0.02%) people. Australia has a sign language known as Auslan, which is the main language of about 6,500 deaf people.
The Australian Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state; there is no state religion. The 2001 census identified that 68% of Australians call themselves Christian: 27% identifying themselves as Roman Catholic and 21% as Anglican. Five per cent of Australians identify themselves as followers of non-Christian religions, and 26% as non-religious. Like many Western countries, the level of active participation in church worship is much lower than this; weekly attendance at church services is about 1.5 million, about 7.5% of the population.
School attendance is compulsory throughout Australia between the ages of 6–15 years (16 years in South Australia and Tasmania), contributing to an adult literacy rate that is assumed to be 99%. Government grants have supported the establishment of Australia's 38 universities, and although several private universities have been established, the majority receive government funding. There is a state-based system of vocational training colleges, known as TAFE Institutes, and many trades conduct apprenticeships for training new tradespeople. Approximately 58% of Australians between the ages of 25 and 64 have vocational or tertiary qualifications.
English is the official langauge of communication
The primary basis of Australian culture up until the mid-20th century was Anglo-Celtic, although distinctive Australian features had been evolving from the environment and indigenous culture. Over the past 50 years, Australian culture has been strongly influenced by American popular culture (particularly television and cinema), large-scale immigration from non-English-speaking countries, and Australia's Asian neighbours.
Australia has a long history of visual arts, starting with the cave and bark paintings of its indigenous peoples. From the time of European settlement, a common theme in Australian art has been the Australian landscape, seen in the works of Arthur Streeton, Arthur Boyd and Albert Namatjira, among others. The traditions of indigenous Australians are largely transmitted orally and are closely tied to ceremony and the telling of the stories of the Dreamtime. Australian Aboriginal music, dance and art have a palpable influence on contemporary Australian visual and performing arts. Australia has an active tradition of music, ballet and theatre; many of its performing arts companies receive public funding through the federal government's Australia Council. There is a symphony orchestra in each capital city, and a national opera company, Opera Australia, first made prominent by the renowned diva Dame Joan Sutherland; Australian music includes classical, jazz, and many popular music genres.
Australian literature has also been influenced by the landscape; the works of writers such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson captured the experience of the Australian bush. The character of colonial Australia, as embodied in early literature, resonates with modern Australia and its perceived emphasis on egalitarianism, mateship, and anti-authoritarianism. In 1973, Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the only Australian to have achieved this; he is recognised as one of the great English-language writers of the 20th century. Australian English is a major variety of the language; its grammar and spelling are largely based on those of British English, overlaid with a rich vernacular of unique lexical items and phrases, some of which have found their way into standard English.
Australia has two public broadcasters (the ABC and SBS), three commercial television networks, three pay TV services, and numerous public, non-profit television and radio stations. Australia's film industry has achieved critical and commercial successes. Each major city has daily newspapers, and there are two national daily newspapers, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review. According to Reporters Without Borders in 2005, Australia is in 31st position on a list of countries ranked by press freedom, behind New Zealand (9th) and the United Kingdom (28th) but ahead of the United States. This ranking is primarily due to the limited diversity of commercial media ownership in Australia. Most Australian print media in particular is under the control of either News Corporation or John Fairfax Holdings.Sport is an important part of Australian culture, assisted by a climate that favours outdoor activities; 23.5% Australians over the age of 15 regularly participate in organised sporting activities. At an international level, Australia has particularly strong teams in cricket, field hockey, netball, rugby league, rugby union, and performs well in cycling and swimming. Australia has participated in every summer Olympic Games of the modern era, and every Commonwealth Games. Australia has hosted the 1956 and 2000 Summer Olympics, and has ranked among the top five medal-takers since 2000. It has also hosted the 1938, 1962 and 1982 Commonwealth Games, and will host the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Australian rules football is one of the most popular national sports, albeit it, one that is only played in Australia; players gain some international prominence through International Rules which is an annual meeting between the Australian code and Irish Gaelic Football. Corporate and government sponsorship of many sports and élite athletes is common in Australia.
Televised sport is popular; some of the highest rating television programs include the summer Olympic Games and the grand finals of local and international football competitions.
Australia is a secular society, with christianity being the most popular religion.