Australia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Australia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



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 about 4,000 km (about 2,500 mi) from east to west and about 3,700 km (about 2,300 mi) from north to south. The area of the commonwealth is 7,682,300 sq km (2,966,200 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 capital of Australia is Canberra, and the largest city is Sydney; both are located in the southeast.

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 inhabitants of Australia were the Aboriginal people, who migrated to the continent some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. The continent remained relatively unknown to most of the outside world until the 17th century. The first permanent European settlement was established in 1788 at Port Jackson, in southeastern Australia, as a British penal colony; it grew into the city of Sydney. Australia developed as a group of British colonies during the 19th century, and in 1901 the colonies federated to form a unified independent nation, the Commonwealth of Australia.


Australia lacks mountains of great height; it is one of the world’s flattest landmasses. The average elevation is about 300 m (about 1,000 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 about 1,200 m (about 4,000 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 Grampian Mountains, or by its Aboriginal name, Gariwerd. The highest peak in the Australian Alps, and the highest in Australia, is Mount Kosciusko (2,228 m/7,310 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 70 m (230 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 an enormous plateau, about 300 to 450 m (about 1,000 to 1,500 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-Kata Tjuta National Park, is one of the largest monoliths in the world. It is 9 km (6 mi) around its base and rises sharply to some 348 m (1,142 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 measures some 25,760 km (16,007 mi). It 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 2,010 km (some 1,250 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 along the coast for vessels of modest size but is sometimes hazardous for larger ships.

Geology of Australia

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 ago.

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 long, broad north-south depression, or 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. However, the volcanoes have long since become extinct, and as a result the mountain ranges are extremely eroded.

Rivers of Australia

The Great Dividing Range separates rivers that flow east to the coast from those that flow westerly across the plains through the interior. The most important of the rivers that flow toward the eastern coast are the Burdekin, Fitzroy, Hunter, and Nepean-Hawkesbury. The Fitzroy River forms a large drainage basin in Queensland. The Murray-Darling-Murrumbidgee network, which flows inland from the Great Dividing Range, drains an area of more than 1 million sq km (400,000 sq mi) in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. The Murray River and its main tributary, the Darling, total about 5,300 km (about 3,300 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 the 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 (different from the Fitzroy in Queensland), 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, ecologists, environmentalists, and agricultural scientists. Today the long-term environmental and economic viability of the scheme remains in question, while only a small fraction of the arable land that could receive irrigation water is being cultivated due to destructive crop pests and poor soil quality.

Lakes and Underground Water in Australia

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 one of Australia’s largest artificially created freshwater lakes.

Large 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, covers 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.

Climate in Australia

The climate of Australia varies greatly from region to region, with a tropical climate in the north, an arid or semiarid climate in much of the interior, and a temperate climate in the south. Despite these variations, the moderating influence of the surrounding oceans and the absence of extensive high mountain ranges help prevent marked extremes of weather. However, some areas occasionally experience extreme weather conditions, such as tropical cyclones, tornadoes, and severe drought.

Because Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, its seasons are the reverse of those in the Northern Hemisphere. Seasonal variations, on the whole, are small. Generally, coastal and highland areas, especially in the southeast, are cooler than interior locations, and the north, particularly the northwestern coast, is the hottest region. The temperate regions of southern Australia have four seasons, with cool winters and warm summers. January and February are the warmest months, with average temperatures of 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). In Alice Springs, one of the few population centers in the vast arid interior of the continent, January temperatures average a daily high of 36°C (97°F), and July temperatures average a daily high of 19°C (66°F). Seasonal variations are much less pronounced in northern Australia, which has a tropical climate. This region essentially has only two seasons: a hot, wet period with heavy rainfall mainly in February and March, when the northwestern monsoons prevail; and a warm, dry interval characterized by the prevalence of southeasterly winds. In Darwin, on the northern coast, January temperatures average a daily high of 32°C (90°F), and July temperatures average a daily high of 30°C (86°F).

Australia is the driest of the inhabited continents. The arid and semiarid deserts and plains of central and western Australia encompass more than two-thirds of the continent’s area. The deserts have an annual rainfall of less than 250 mm (10 in). In most years, extensive portions of the continent experience drought conditions. However, annual rainfall is much greater in the coastal regions of northern, eastern, and southern Australia. The northern coast of Australia has a tropical monsoonal climate. Many points on the northern and northeastern coast have average annual rainfall of 1,500 mm (60 in); in some areas of the northwestern coast in Queensland, average annual rainfall exceeds 2,500 mm (100 in). Between December and April the northern coastal regions are subject to tropical cyclones, which bring high winds and torrential rains that can be destructive.

The eastern coastal lowlands receive rain in all seasons, although mostly 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. 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 of Australia

Australia is rich in mineral resources, notably bauxite, coal, diamonds, gold, iron ore, mineral sands, natural gas, nickel, petroleum, and uranium. Readily cultivable 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.

Plants and Animals in Australia

The plant and animal life of Australia is biologically diverse and distinctive. Many of the native plant and animal species are endemic, meaning they do not naturally occur elsewhere. They developed only on the Australian continent because it was isolated from the wider world for more than 50 million years. In addition to its native species, Australia is home to many other plants and animals that humans introduced, mostly since the late 18th century. Many of the introduced species, such as European rabbits and the American prickly pear cactus, invade the habitats of native species and threaten their survival, as well as the delicate balance of the natural ecosystem.


Australia’s dominant natural vegetation is essentially evergreen, ranging from the dense bushland and eucalyptus forests of the coast, to the mulga and mallee scrub and saltbush of the inland plains. The tropical northeastern belt, with its abundant seasonal 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 pine forests. Pine 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 wildflowers 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 eucalyptuses, such as the stringybark, 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 floods, native grasses and desert wildflowers grow rapidly and luxuriantly, and water lilies dot the streams and lagoons.

The survival of more than 1,000 native plant species is considered threatened. Activities such as commercial agriculture, livestock grazing, and forestry have significantly altered or removed nearly all of the native vegetation in many areas of the continent. Fast-spreading introduced plants such as weeds and ornamentals pose an exceptional menace to native vegetation. The mimosa plant, capable of growing more than 6 m (20 ft) and doubling in area each year, has become a prime threat to the Kakadu World Heritage Area in the Northern Territory. Other widespread nonnative plants include blackberry and gorse from Europe; bridal creeper from South Africa; rubber vine from Madagascar; and paloverde, lantana, and mesquite from Central America. Most of these imports were associated with developments in commercial agriculture or were used as garden ornamentals; about 30 percent have been classified as “garden escapees.” The uncontrolled spread of these plants has caused financial losses in the billions of dollars.


A large proportion of Australia’s native animal species exist nowhere else in the world. Of Australia’s animal species, it is estimated that 84 percent of mammals, 89 percent of reptiles, 93 percent of frogs, and 45 percent of birds are endemic. Some archaic species, such as the Queensland lungfish, have changed little since Paleozoic or Mesozoic times. Scientists estimate that 19 land mammals and 20 birds have become extinct (that is, not sighted in the wild for at least 50 years) since European settlement. The World Conservation Monitoring Centre classifies 63 mammals, 60 birds, 38 reptiles, and 47 amphibians as threatened.

One striking aspect of the native mammal life in Australia is the absence of representatives of most of the orders found on other continents. In contrast to other continents, Australia has a preponderance of marsupials (mammals that raise their young in a marsupium, or abdominal pouch), with some 144 original species (10 became extinct after 1788). Australia is also noted for its comparatively abundant presence of monotremes, which are egg-laying mammals. Only two types of monotremes native to Australia are known to survive. The platypus, a zoological curiosity, is a semiaquatic, furred mammal with an elongated snout resembling a duck bill; the legs of the adult male platypus are equipped with poisonous bony spurs for defense. The platypus is found in eastern and southern Australia, including Tasmania. The other monotreme is the spiny anteater, or echidna, which is found throughout Australia as well as New Guinea.

The best-known marsupials of Australia are the kangaroos, which include about 50 species. Kangaroos are herbivores. They dwell in many areas of the country, and some have become so accustomed to humans they can be considered tame. 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, including the ringtail possum. The koala, also a tree-dwelling marsupial, is found in the wild only in the eucalyptus forests of eastern 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 belong to a different order of mammals. Scientists believe they were the earliest significant nonnative species, arriving from the Asian mainland and the string of islands to the north of Australia thousands of years ago. While rodents and bats migrated on their own, the doglike dingo was perhaps the first species to be introduced by humans. It is believed that dingoes were introduced into Australia about 4,000 years ago by seafarers from Southeast Asia and the Indonesian islands.

When Europeans settled in Australia, they brought many species of animals with them. Many of these originally domesticated animals have established large feral (wild) populations, including horses (locally known as brumbies), cattle, cats, camels, deer, dogs, donkeys, goats, pigs, rabbits, and water buffalo. These animals have spread throughout the country, most notably in the sparsely populated outback, causing serious ecological and economic damage. The most widespread damage has been caused by the European rabbit, which was brought to Australia in the mid-19th century mainly for sport. These rabbits quickly reached plague proportions on the continent, where they had no natural predators, and their total population reached as many as 500 million. The damage they cause includes soil erosion, the destruction of habitat for native species, and large agricultural losses. Rabbits, as well as foxes and feral cats, have been repeatedly targeted for massive national efforts in biological control and regional eradication programs.

Another introduced species, the South American cane toad, was imported in 1935 from Hawaii into Queensland’s sugarcane country in the hope of controlling beetles and other insect pests. However, it became a grotesquely successful pest in its own right. In the absence of serious predators, the toad has infested much of the state and is migrating into the northern tropics.

Australia’s indigenous amphibians are modest in number due to the prevailingly dry climate. However, some have developed ways to survive the harsh climate of the Australian outback. The burrowing bullfrog, for example, emerges from its underground home to feed and mate only during the brief, infrequent rains.

Australia contains a wide variety of reptile life. In fact, a majority of the land vertebrates are in this class. 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 the south, the copperhead, and the black snake are the best known of the poisonous snakes. Australia also has two species of freshwater crocodiles. The larger of these, found in the estuaries and coastal swamps along the northern coast, attains lengths of 6 m (20 ft).

The waters surrounding Australia support a wide variety of fish and aquatic mammals. Several species of whales populate southern waters, and seals inhabit parts of the southern coast, the islands in Bass Strait, and Tasmania. Dugong, trepang (sea cucumber), trochus, and pearl shell are found in northern waters. 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, breathes with its single lung when low river levels render its gills ineffective. Australia has about 3,000 species of marine and freshwater fish. Introduced species, most conspicuously the European carp, threaten the survival of many native species.

Most insect types are represented in Australia, including flies, beetles, butterflies, bees, mosquitoes, and ants. Several of the 260 or so types of mosquitoes are responsible for the transmission of disease to animals and humans in the country’s tropical and temperate regions. The giant termites of northern Australia build huge, hill-like nests up to 6 m (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, reportedly the longest in the world.

Australia is the home of 649 known species of birds, ranging from archaic 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 largest species of kookaburra has a raucous call for which it is nicknamed the “laughing jackass.” 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, mutton birds, albatrosses, and penguins are the most common seabirds. The mutton bird, found mainly on the islands of Bass Strait, is valued for its edible flesh.

Soils of Australia

All major soil types are present to varying degrees throughout the continent. The arid and semiarid regions provide the most extensive group of soils. These soils are mainly suitable only for light livestock grazing. Most useful for this purpose are some of the desert loam areas of South Australia and New South Wales and the arid red earths of south central Queensland, northern New South Wales, and northern South Australia. The vast areas of stony desert, sand plain, and sand hills that cover the bulk of central Australia are of very little or no use for livestock. Soils of the semiarid zones include heavy-textured gray and brown soils in northwestern Victoria that support productive farming of grains and other crops. Soils of the humid and seasonally humid zones occupy a much smaller portion of the land area, including the Great Dividing Range, east central Victoria, and Tasmania.

Only 6.4 percent of Australia’s total land area is arable. Because of extensive leaching of minerals, especially in areas of higher rainfall, most Australian soils are not particularly fertile. Phosphate and nitrogen are widely lacking, and large areas lack trace elements necessary for crop nutrition. To address these deficiencies, phosphate additives have been used extensively as soil fertilizers for many years, and leguminous plants such as subterranean clover are grown to add nitrogen to the soil. In addition, large areas of marginal land have been made more productive by the addition of trace elements, such as zinc, copper, and manganese. However, water runoff from fertilized soils has been linked to periodic outbreaks of toxic blue-green algal blooms in the Murray-Darling Basin, and the growing of subterranean clover has led to soil acidification through the leaching of nitrates.

Soil erosion and desertification due to poor farming practices have occurred in many areas, especially on overgrazed and logged land. Wind erosion in the semiarid pastoral and agricultural regions and water erosion in the wetter, deforested southeastern regions also pose major problems. Salinization and alkalization of soil is another common problem because Australia has few large, permanent rivers for irrigation. A large amount of irrigation water comes from wells that tap underground artesian basins, most of which supply somewhat saline water of poor to marginal quality.

A nationwide community-based movement called Landcare won significant government support, at federal and state levels, to address these problems, and the 1990s was officially declared the Decade of Landcare. The Landcare movement has harnessed local skills to tackle urgent problems such as soil erosion and salinization. Important gains include increased attention to the need for innovative, adaptive farming practices. In 2001 there were more than 4,500 community Landcare groups, all federally assisted under National Landcare Program funding as part of the Natural Heritage Trust.

Environmental Issues in Australia

Australia’s long global isolation and unique patterns of biological evolution were disrupted by the comparatively late and sudden settlement of ambitious, technologically advanced Europeans. From the start, the settlers’ optimistic aspirations collided with the continent’s environmental constraints on development, especially its arid or semiarid climatic conditions, low levels of soil fertility, chronic water shortages, and vulnerable native animal and plant species. The settlers, deluded in part by the sheer immensity of Australian space and low population densities, strove to adapt the land to their own purposes. Although there were important dissenting voices, even in colonial times, popular attitudes and government policies largely favored rapid development until the latter half of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1960s, vigorous environmental activism targeted high-profile and controversial issues, such as the damming of Tasmania’s Lake Pedder. This activism successfully stirred public awareness by articulating the environmental impacts of development. Attitudes gradually began to change, in response to grassroots environmentalism as well as in recognition of a much-depleted resource base.

Two major environmental goals became increasingly evident: the sustainable development of natural resources and the conservation of relatively undisturbed areas. At the regional and local levels, governments stepped up their policing of pollution and other abuses of the environment, while activists clashed periodically with developers over threats to forests and woodlands, native wildlife, water bodies, and natural recreational areas. Robust monitoring by environmentalists eventually produced more sensitive approaches to development planning in both urban and rural areas, including the standard incorporation of environmental-impact statements.

Since the 1990s the federal government has made efforts to better coordinate environmental policies at the national and regional levels. Under the commonwealth constitution, individual states retain control of environmental management within their own borders. Many natural regions span state borders, however, and they require coordination between federal and state authorities to be effectively managed. One prominent example of coordination between federal and state authorities on environmental issues is the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. This gigantic river basin in southeastern Australia extends over three-quarters of New South Wales, more than half of Victoria, significant portions of Queensland and South Australia, and the entire Australian Capital Territory. Due to past irrigation practices, land and water salinity now threaten the basin, which is the heartland of agricultural productivity in Australia. Legislation introduced in 1993 put the basin under the joint supervision of the federal and state governments to create an integrated catchment management program. Local communities have also been included in the decision-making process. Community concerns about increasing soil salinity and water shortages in certain hard-pressed rivers were important factors in the decision to cap water diversions in the basin beginning in the mid-1990s.

In 1999 comprehensive new environmental legislation, the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, extended federal rights and responsibilities for environmental matters of national significance. The legislation reflected rising concerns over the need to protect the rich biodiversity of Australia. It strengthened the federal role in the National Reserve System program, which aims to establish a network of protected areas that includes all types of ecosystems across the country. The Natural Heritage Trust was set up in 1997 specifically to fund the program. The system protects about 6.7 percent of Australia’s land area, including about 16 percent of the country’s forests. In addition to terrestrial parks and reserves, the system includes a number of marine and estuarine reserves, such as the massive Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The system encompasses 14 World Heritage Sites, which are places designated for their outstanding universal value by the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and a number of biosphere reserves, which are designated under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program. The National Reserve System also includes a number of Indigenous Protected Areas, which are established on a voluntary basis on lands held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This system is supplemented by the Australian National Estate, which includes more than 2,000 natural places that are considered significant components of the country’s environmental or cultural heritage.

Despite the growing number of protected areas, some of the most treasured areas in Australia continue to be environmentally threatened. Overuse by tourists and divers and increased industrial shipping in nearby waters threatens the health of the Great Barrier Reef. The lush, old-growth tropical forests of northern Queensland are coveted by the timber industry and tourist developments. These issues continue to be the focus of environmental activism in Australia. Environmental agencies, some of which are government funded, work to coordinate management of the coastal rain forests and reefs of northeastern Australia for multiple uses, including tourism, recreation, and conservation.

Although many of the environmental issues facing Australia are shared by other industrialized nations, certain aspects are uniquely Australian. For example, Australia has one of the lowest overall population densities of any country, but its per capita consumption levels and waste production are among the highest in the world. On a per capita basis, Australia is a leading contributor to the production of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that contribute to atmospheric pollution and global warming.

Australia has ratified some international agreements to protect the environment, including arrangements to preserve Antarctica’s pristine state. Regionally, Australia cooperates with other South Pacific nations in the protection of the marine environment. Agreements to protect migratory birds have been made with Japan and China.


Australia is the most sparsely populated of the inhabited continents. The estimated total population in 2007 was 20,434,176, giving the country an overall population density of 3 persons per sq km (7 per sq mi). Australia’s population grew at a relatively modest rate of about 1.3 percent annually from 1996 to 2001.

The country is heavily urbanized. Some 93 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 densely settled coastal plains that make up only about 3 percent of the country’s land area. The fastest-growing region is southeastern Queensland.

Political Divisions of Australia

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 capitals are the Australian Capital Territory (site of the national capital, Canberra) and the Northern Territory (Darwin).

Principal Cities of Australia

The major cities of Australia are Sydney, a seaport and commercial center; Melbourne, a cultural center; Brisbane, a seaport; Perth, a seaport on the western coast; and Adelaide, an agricultural center. Canberra, the national capital, is much smaller in population.

Ethnic Groups in Australia

The United Kingdom and Ireland were traditionally the principal countries of origin for the majority of immigrants to Australia, reflecting the colonial history of the country. Since World War II (1939-1945), however, Australia’s population has become more ethnically diverse as people have immigrated from a wider range of countries. The proportion of residents born in other countries increased from 10 percent in 1947 to 24 percent in 2000. In 1947, 81 percent of new arrivals came principally from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and to a lesser extent from New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and the United States. In 2000 only 39 percent of new arrivals came from those major English-speaking countries. From 1995 to 2000, people from New Zealand constituted 18 percent of total immigration; those from the United Kingdom, 11 percent; China, 8 percent; the former Yugoslavia (overwhelmingly refugees and asylum seekers), 7 percent; South Africa, 5 percent; and India, 4 percent. These six principal countries of birth represented about 53 percent of total immigration during those years. Since the early 1970s the countries of South, Southeast, and East Asia have become an increasingly important source of new arrivals, both settlers and long-term visitors (who are primarily in Australia for educational purposes). In 1999-2000 Asian-born arrivals made up 34 percent of all immigration to Australia.

People of European descent constitute about 91 percent of Australia’s population. Although most claim British or Irish heritage, there are also Italian, Dutch, Greek, German, and other European groups. People of Asian descent or birth constitute about 7 percent of the population; their countries of origin include China, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, and Malaysia. People of Middle Eastern origin make up an estimated 1.9 percent of the population. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constitute about 2.2 percent; their proportion of the total population rose strongly during the 1990s. Also known as Indigenous Australians, these two groups are the original inhabitants of the region. Torres Strait Islander people, who are a Melanesian people, are indigenous to the islands of the Torres Strait, which lies between the Cape York Peninsula of Queensland and the island of New Guinea.

Indigenous Australians

The Aboriginal people are indigenous to Australia, meaning their ancestors were the first humans to settle and populate the continent. Aboriginal folklore claims that they were always in Australia. However, most anthropologists believe that they migrated from Southeast Asia at least 50,000 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. They 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. Aboriginal people also may have harvested and dispersed selected seeds, perhaps creating extensive tracts of grassland in the process. There is evidence of careful damming and redirection of streams, and of swamp and lake outlets, possibly for fish farming.

Although the Aboriginal people were nomadic or seminomadic, their sense of place was exceptionally strong, and they had an intimate knowledge of the land. The most recent 3,000 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. Estimates for the total Aboriginal population in 1788 vary. Current estimates based on archaeological research range between 500,000 and 1 million. About 250 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 throughout Australia. The declines resulted from the introduction of diseases for which the Aboriginal people had little or no acquired immunity; social and cultural disruptions; brutal mistreatment; and reprisals for acts of organized resistance. By 1901 the Aboriginal population had declined to roughly 93,000. It then increased more than fourfold during the second half of the 20th century, partly in response to the wide acceptance of more relaxed interpretations of Aboriginal descent.

Until the 1960s the Aboriginal population was mainly rural. Over the next two decades Aboriginal people began moving in greater numbers to urban areas. In many small, rural towns, Aboriginal families were viewed negatively as fringe dwellers. In the larger cities, small, but highly volatile, ghetto-like concentrations of Aboriginal people led to demands for greater political rights.

In fact, the social and political status of Aboriginal Australians 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 them and to include them in the census count. At the 2001 census, 366,429 Australian residents were counted as Aboriginal people, 26,046 as Torres Strait Islander people, and 17,528 as belonging to both groups. The largest concentrations of Indigenous Australians were in New South Wales (with 29.2 percent of the national total), Queensland (27.5 percent), Western Australia (14.3 percent), and the Northern Territory (12.4 percent).

More than 70 percent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in urban areas. Traditional ways of life are still maintained in small enclaves in the more remote locations, especially in the northern and central areas 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 indigenous culture is now widely expressed in art, literature, and popular culture.

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, however, 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.

Religion in Australia

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 (29 percent of the population) and the Anglican Church of Australia (22 percent). Another 29 percent belong to other Christian denominations, such as the Protestant church (14 percent), the Uniting Church (founded in 1977 with the merging of the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists), the Baptist Union, the Lutheran Church of Australia, the Church of Christ, and the Greek Orthodox Church. Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim worshipers make up a small portion of the population. The number of Buddhists and Muslims is increasing, reflecting the changing immigration patterns since the 1960s. A significant share of Australia’s population say they are nonreligious.

Education in Australia

Education in Australia is primarily the responsibility of the individual states and territories, which provide most of the funding at the primary and secondary levels. In each state or territorial 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 and territories except Tasmania, where the upper age requirement is 16. Most children start school at age 5. About 70 percent of students attend government-funded, or public, schools, which provide free secular (nonreligious) education. There are also private schools, which are usually denominational and charge tuition fees. The majority of private schools are Catholic. Some private schools, which are sometimes called public schools as in Britain, accept day students and boarders. 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 of study designed to prepare students for university entrance. In 2000–2001 Australia had nearly 10,000 primary and secondary schools, with an annual enrollment of 1.9 million primary students and 2.6 million secondary students.

Preschool education is not required by national policy and varies widely among the states and territories. In 1999 almost half of all children aged four were receiving some form of preschool education. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation conducts broadcasts for children unable to attend preschool centers. For the compulsory grades, special provisions are made for children who live in remote 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.

The federal government has special responsibilities for the education and training of youths in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. A national education policy has been in place and evolving since 1990 to help improve attendance, retention, and completion rates in these communities, in part through federally funded, locally based initiatives and the development of more culturally sensitive curricula.

Universities and Colleges

In 1999 Australia had 42 public higher education institutions, together with two private institutions—the multicampus Australian Catholic University (known collectively as ACU National) and Bond University in Queensland—and a large number of public and private colleges offering advanced education in specific subject areas. Their combined annual enrollment in 2002–2003 was 1,012,210.

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). In addition, the commonwealth government maintains a number of specialized learning institutions, notably the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, the Australian Maritime College, and the National Institute of Dramatic Art.

The commonwealth government provides about 45 percent of the general funding for public institutions of higher education. It also assists with competitive research grants. Australian citizens studying at the country’s universities are obliged to pay a higher education contribution tax. This tax, which can be paid over time with interest, provided about 20 percent of universities’ operating revenue in 1999. Students from overseas pay sizable fees.

Way of Life in Australia

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 infrastructure 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 tastes, 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, rugby, cricket, tennis, baseball, basketball, volleyball, netball (a game similar to basketball, played by women), track and field, cycling, boating, swimming, horseback riding, and horse racing. Fishing and gardening are popular activities.

Culture of Australia

After European settlement, 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 vastly different 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 arts 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 have 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); and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (1852) in Hobart.

Museum Victoria (formerly the Museum of Victoria), a complex of museums in Melbourne, incorporates the collections of the former National Museum of Victoria (1854) and Science Museum of Victoria (1870). The Museum Victoria complex includes the Melbourne Museum, a cultural and natural history museum; Scienceworks, a science and technology museum; and the Immigration Museum and Hellenic Antiquities Museum. 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 National Gallery of Australia (1982), in Canberra, displays works by Australian and other artists; the National Museum of Australia (2001), also in the federal capital, features collections relating to Australia’s land, people, and history.

See Australian Literature.


Long before the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal Australians 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 included 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, found receptive audiences in Europe and North America in the late 20th century.

Music, Dance, and Film in Australia

The oldest music in Australia is the music of the Aboriginal people. In Aboriginal societies, music plays a central role in both social and spiritual 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 the Dreamtime. Aboriginal people 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 promoted the staging of 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 sopranos Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland, composer-pianist Percy Grainger, and composers Arthur Benjamin, John Henry Antill, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and Peter Sculthorpe. Classical ballet was brought to Australia by 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 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: 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 wool, meat, dairy products, and wheat. Wool has been a staple of the economy since the colonial period, and it was important to the development of agriculture as the country’s largest industry. Manufacturing grew rapidly between the 1940s and 1970s, and mining became a leading sector in the economy during the 1960s. In recent decades, the value of exports from the manufacturing and mining sectors has exceeded that of the agricultural sector. This is due in part to increased demand among Australia’s principal trading partners, particularly Japan, for mineral ores, to fluctuating demand on world markets for agricultural products, and to fierce competition from heavily subsidized agricultural producers in the United States and Europe. An increasing focus on services and high-tech industries has also helped to diversify and modernize the Australian economy.

In 2005 the estimated annual federal budget included US$181.8 billion in revenues and US$190.3 billion in expenditures. Gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of all goods and services produced, was US$732.5 billion in 2005 services contributed 70.9 percent of the GDP; industry (including mining and manufacturing) contributed 25.7 percent; manufacturing alone contributed 11.91 percent; and agriculture contributed 3.4 percent.

Labor in Australia

Under the Australian constitution, government regulates relations between employers and employees. 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 exists at both the federal and state level. Arbitration and conciliation courts or boards have the power to make awards binding on employer and employee. Trade unions had nearly 2 million members, representing 26 percent of all employees, in the late 1990s. Although their membership has declined in recent years, the unions are strongly organized at local, state, and federal levels and continue to be an economic and political power.

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 2005 the labor force in Australia was 10.3 million. The unemployment rate was 5.4 percent.

Agriculture of Australia

Despite the great expansion in mining and manufacturing after 1940, the prosperity of much of the country continues to reflect the historical importance of livestock raising and crop farming. Even in the late 1950s agricultural products accounted for some 80 percent of the value of Australia’s exports. This proportion declined markedly thereafter, principally because of the rapid diversification of the national economy. Unlike most of its closest international competitors, Australian agriculture does not rely on government subsidies and protection.

The livestock 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. The relentless decline since the 1970s has generally been in line with international trends. Nonetheless, Australia remains the world’s largest wool producer and exporter, particularly of fine merino types. Australia usually produces more than 25 percent of the world’s yearly output of wool. Income derived from wool exports has been eclipsed, however, by several other agricultural and nonagricultural products. In 2005 the annual production of wool was 519,660 metric tons. About half the country’s wool is produced in New South Wales and Western Australia.

In many areas, infestation by rabbits has hampered livestock grazing. 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 viral disease myxomatosis, which attacks rabbits, was introduced as part of an eradication program in the early 1950s; except for in the drier inland areas, it proved a reasonably effective control for decades. The rabbit population increased markedly beginning in the 1980s and again became an economic and environmental threat. Biological control efforts included the release of the rabbit calicivirus in the mid-1990s.

Queensland is the leading cattle-producing state, containing more than 40 percent of the estimated 28.6 million head of cattle in Australia in 2006. The country produces both beef and dairy cattle. Dairying is now mainly concentrated in Victoria and Tasmania.

Although only 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 50 percent of cultivated acreage, and barley, grain sorghum, oats, rice, maize, and grain lupines occupy about 27 percent. The bulk of the wheat crop is grown in the southeastern and southwestern regions of the country. Production in 2005 was 24.1 million metric tons. 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 mainly confined to the fertile coastal fringe of Queensland, the Ord River Irrigation Area in northwestern Western Australia, and the Richmond River district of northern New South Wales. Some 38.2 million metric tons of sugarcane were produced in 2005. Many types of fruit are grown, including grapes, oranges, apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, and a wide array of tropical fruits, including bananas and pineapples.

Australia has been an important wine producer for many years, and locally produced wines have captured many prestigious international awards. Major wine-producing areas are found in South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, and southwestern Western Australia. The Barossa Valley in South Australia and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales have many well-established vineyards and wineries. Special varieties of grapes are grown, especially in the Murray Valley of Victoria, for the production of raisins.

Many of the fruit-growing and dairying regions of Australia rely heavily on irrigation. Over wide areas, the rising incidence of soil salinization threatens production. Experiments with more adaptive farming practices and biotechnologies—including tree plantations to help stabilize water tables, the introduction of salt-tolerant plants, and the extraction of salt from saline water aquifers—may reduce the impact of salinization and the use of expensive water resources.

Forestry and Fishing in Australia

Forests cover 21 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. There are plans to triple the area of hardwood and softwood plantations by 2020 to help supply demands for timber and to reduce exploitation of native forests.

Although Australian waters contain a great variety of fish, the annual catch is relatively small—267,369 metric tons in 2004. Aquaculture, or fish farming, has grown rapidly in every state and territory since 1980, and income from this industry rose more than threefold during the 1990s. In 1998-1999 almost 70 percent of the yearly income from aquaculture came from various crustaceans and mollusks. The export trade is dominated by rock lobsters (called crayfish in Australia); Western Australia, the leading producer of rock lobsters, is the most important exporter overall. Other significant shellfish products include scallops, prawns, spring and green rock lobsters, oysters, and abalone. Marketed marine fish include orange roughy, sharks and rays, skipjack tuna, mullet, southern bluefin tuna, and 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.

Mining in Australia

The mining industry, long an important factor in the social and economic growth of Australia, continues to hold great promise for the future development of the country. The gold discoveries of the 1850s were responsible for the first big wave of free immigration and for the settlement of some inland areas. The mining sector has expanded significantly since the 1970s, with major discoveries of iron ore, petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Today, Australia is self-sufficient in most minerals of economic significance, and in several cases is among the world’s leading producers. The minerals industry in general is the country’s largest export earner, and the country is a leading supplier of mineral resources to international markets.

Australia boasts the world’s largest known recoverable resources of lead, mineral sands, tantalum, uranium, silver, and zinc. It is ranked in the world’s top six countries for recoverable deposits of black and brown coal, cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore, manganese ore, and nickel. This natural bounty reflects both Australia’s geological diversity and its comparatively recent exploitation of these resources. Western Australia traditionally has the largest share by value of total national mineral production, especially of the metallic minerals.

Australia is the world’s largest producer of both gem or near-gem and industrial-grade diamonds, producing about two-fifths of the global total. Production of gem-quality diamonds was 9,279,000 carats in 2004. Much of it came from the giant Argyle Diamond Mine in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The main export destinations in the late 1990s were Belgium and Luxembourg (which constitute a single trading entity) and the United Kingdom.

Of the metallic minerals, gold and iron ore are the most significant. Australia accounted for some 13 percent of the world’s gold production in 1998, placing it third in the world rankings after South Africa and the United States. About three-fourths of the nation’s output (259,000 kg/571,000 lb in 2004) is mined in Western Australia, notably near Kalgoorlie-Boulder. Most of the gold is exported to Singapore, Japan, Switzerland, and Hong Kong. About 96 percent of Australia’s iron-ore production also takes place in Western Australia, chiefly 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, mainly to Japan; Australia is now Japan’s major supplier of iron ore. Other markets include China, Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan.

In the late 1990s Australia was the world’s largest producer and second largest exporter of bauxite; it was the largest producer and exporter of alumina and the third largest exporter of aluminum. Japan was the main export market for aluminum. The major bauxite mines are located 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, Jabiluka, and Koongarra mines in the Alligator Rivers Region), Kintyre and Yeelirie in Western Australia, and at Olympic Dam in South Australia. Olympic Dam’s uranium-gold-silver deposit is described as the world’s largest deposit of low-cost uranium. All but a tiny fraction of Australia’s uranium is exported.

In the late 1990s coal was the country’s top export earner. The main market was Japan. Coal mining is heavily concentrated in New South Wales and Queensland. Mostly bituminous coal is mined, but hard, or black, coal (anthracite) is also found. The lignite, or brown coal, industry is located in Victoria, where this lower grade of coal is used to produce electricity. Other major minerals in Australia include nickel, mined near Kalgoorlie-Boulder; 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. Significant petroleum deposits have been exploited in Bass Strait, Barrow Island, and southern Queensland. Total production of petroleum in 2004 was 187 million barrels. Natural gas is also extracted, with annual production of 35.6 billion cu m (1,257 billion cu ft).

Manufacturing in Australia

After World War II ended in 1945, the introduction of new industries and the development of existing ones led to a substantial expansion of manufacturing activity in Australia. In 1950 manufacturing contributed about 30 percent of the country’s GDP. The expansion continued during the 1950s and 1960s, when factory employment rose by 70 percent. But in the 1970s the growth of manufacturing stalled, and the contribution of this sector to the economy, especially in terms of employment, declined substantially. At the same time, economic reforms that ended protectionist policies forced Australian industries to become more competitive. Manufacturing became increasingly export-oriented in the 1980s and 1990s, and by the end of the century the proportion of sales made to overseas markets approached 30 percent of the total. 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 printing, publishing, and recording media. Despite Australia’s wealth of mineral resources, mineral processing is limited.

Manufacturing facilities are concentrated in New South Wales (especially in Sydney and Newcastle), Victoria (primarily in the Melbourne metropolitan area), and secondarily in the state capitals and main provincial centers. 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 an important industrial center; manufactures include wool, motor vehicles, smelted aluminum, phosphate fertilizers, and petrochemicals. Traditionally a pastoral and agricultural state, South Australia developed several important manufacturing centers after 1950, 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 of Australia

Tourism grew rapidly in the late 20th century, and it now represents one of the most dynamic sectors in the Australian economy, accounting for more than 500,000 jobs in the late 1990s. International tourism received a major boost from the highly successful Summer Olympic Games hosted in Sydney in 2000. Australia had 5 million visitors in 2005, and they spent $16.9 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.

Energy in Australia

In 2003 some 91 percent of the electricity produced annually in Australia was generated in thermal facilities, the majority of which burned bituminous coal or lignite (brown coal). Perhaps because most of the huge coal reserves are located in or near the most densely populated regions, Australia has a heavy, well-established reliance on coal for energy production. Australia 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 annual generation of electricity was 216 billion kilowatt-hours in 2003. Natural gas is commonly used for domestic heating and cooking. Australian researchers are studying the prospects of increased efficiencies in fossil fuel usage and of solar and wind energy uses; several small pilot projects have been in operation for some time in various regions.

Currency and Banking of Australia

The unit of currency in Australia is the Australian dollar, divided into 100 cents and coined in 5¢, 10¢, 20¢, 50¢, $1, and $2 pieces (A$1.30 equals U.S.$1; 2005 average). The Australian dollar is freely traded on international currency markets.

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 many foreign banks. The Australian Stock Exchange conducts trading in six cities: Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney.

Foreign Trade in Australia

Under older Australian tariff policies, protection was afforded to those Australian industries considered essential, and preferential treatment was granted to imports from certain British Commonwealth countries. After World War II the foreign trade of Australia became primarily focused in Asia. Since the 1970s, economic reforms have reduced tariff protections and increased import quotas, removing many barriers to foreign competition. In the late 1990s, the value of imports regularly exceeded the value of exports. In 2004 imports were valued at $105.5 billion, exports at $97.1 billion.

The leading purchasers of Australia’s exports are Japan, the United States, South Korea, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These trading partners as well as Germany and Indonesia are also the major suppliers of imports. Principal exports include metal ores, coal, gold, nonferrous metals, meat and meat products, textile fibers (mainly wool), petroleum and petroleum products, and cereals. Leading imports are machinery and transportation equipment (including road vehicles), which together constituted 47 percent of total imports in 1999, as well as office equipment, petroleum and petroleum products, and textiles. Australia is also an important exporter of agricultural and medical research services, especially to the wider Asian and Pacific region. Australia is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Transportation in Australia

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 government-sponsored, Australia-wide program to standardize railroad gauges and privatize rail services was under way in the early 2000s. Construction also began on an extensive project to extend the central transcontinental line from Alice Springs to Darwin, thereby linking Adelaide in the far south with Darwin on the northern coast. Railroad lines total about 9,528 km (5,920 mi) of track.

Australia has about 811,601 km (about 504,305 mi) of roads. About 40 percent of the overall length is bitumen- or concrete-paved, including more than 16,000 km (more than 9,900 mi) of state highway. The capital cities are connected by inexpensive bus services. Some 601 motor vehicles are registered for every 1,000 people. A comprehensive network of airline services links major cities and even remote settlements. Domestic lines carry about 25 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., the country’s largest airline company, provides service to domestic and international locations. 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).

Communications in 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 2005 there were 564 telephone mainlines for every 1,000 people. Commercial radio and television stations operate under licenses granted by the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA). In 1997 about 260 private broadcasters offered radio services, and there were 48 private television broadcasters; each of these private operators relies on the sale of airtime, chiefly for advertising. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is the country’s only national noncommercial broadcaster. It operates one national television network and six national radio networks, including Radio National, ABC-FM, and the Triple-J youth network. In addition, it operates Radio Australia, an international service broadcast by shortwave radio to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific region, and by satellite to the wider Asia-Pacific region in English and other languages.

Australia has about 650 newspapers, including 65 dailies with a combined daily circulation of 5.4 million. The Australian is a national-circulation daily with simultaneous editions published in several major cities. The state capitals also support their own large-circulation dailies, including the Sydney Morning Herald; The Age and Herald Sun (both published in Melbourne); Courier-Mail (Brisbane); Advertiser (Adelaide); and West Australian (Perth). Local weekly newspapers are more popular in rural areas.


Australia’s system of government is a federal parliamentary democracy. The constitution of Australia, which became effective in 1901, is based on British parliamentary traditions, and includes elements of the United States system. Australia is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations that chooses to recognize the British monarch as its own sovereign and, as such, its head of state. 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 entrusted to the states. Australia is a founding member of the United Nations (UN).

Executive of Australia

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 governor-general officially represents the British monarch, who is also the sovereign of Australia and serves as its symbolic head of state. The governor-general acts only on the advice of the Federal Executive Council, made up of the ministers of state. Federal policy is determined by the ministers of state under the leadership of the prime minister. Together they form the cabinet, which meets without the governor-general. The prime minister 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.

Legislature of Australia

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 are popularly elected under a form of proportional representation; senators from states are elected to six-year terms and 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. As of the 2001 elections the House has 150 members, all of whom are directly elected to three-year terms. The prime minister can ask the governor-general to dissolve parliament and call new elections at any time; the prime minister also determines the date of parliamentary elections every three years. Australia has universal and compulsory suffrage for all citizens over the age of 18.

Political Parties of Australia

Three political parties dominate in the Australian parliament: the two-party ruling coalition of the Liberal Party of Australia (LP) and the smaller National Party of Australia (NP), and the leading opposition party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Numerous other parties include the Australian Democrats (DEM) and the Australian Greens (GRN). Traditionally, the ALP was associated with trade unions, the LP was aligned with business interests and supported free enterprise, the NP was more conservative, and the DEM and GRN were more progressive, but these differences have become increasingly blurred. In practice, the Liberal and National parties have so frequently combined in coalition governments and opposition, at both the federal and state levels, that they are sometimes only vaguely differentiated in the public eye; however, their traditional alliance occasionally breaks down. Recent trends suggest some disenchantment with the major parties and a drift toward minor groups and assorted independents.

Local Government of Australia

A bicameral system of government exists in each state except Queensland, which has a state legislature with 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 in Australia

The government of Australia has played an important role in advancing social services. The country has a comprehensive social-security system. Assistance programs exist for people who are sick, disabled, aged, widowed, or unemployed. Medical and hospital benefits are paid by the federal government. Family-assistance programs provide support to income-eligible parents or legal guardians, including benefits for dependent children and maternity care. Allowances for child-care services are available to most families.

The Flying Doctor Service, founded in 1928, provides health-care services for people in remote areas. It serves about two-thirds of the country. Air ambulances provide emergency transportation, and trained medical staff are stationed at a number of bases from where they communicate by radio or telephone with distant ranches and settlements. Australia has one physician for every 401 people and one hospital bed for every 135 people.

Judiciary in Australia

At the head of the judicial system of the commonwealth is the High Court of Australia, consisting of seven justices (including a chief justice) who are appointed by the governor-general on the advice of the Executive Council. The decisions of the High Court are binding on all other courts, including lesser federal courts and state supreme courts.

Defense of Australia

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 War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), the Vietnam War (1959-1975), the Persian Gulf War (1991), the UN engagement in East Timor (1999-2002), and the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan (2001-2002). 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 2004 the Australian armed forces totaled 52,872. The army numbered 26,035; the navy, 13,167; and the air force, 13,670. Although relatively small, the Australian armed forces possess some of the most modern weaponry in the world.

Given Australia’s relatively small and isolated population, the maintenance of good relationships globally and with its major trading partners is considered vital to its national security. Security in the Asia-Pacific region is a particularly high priority. Australia has therefore been regularly and intimately involved in international and regional forums, and is a signatory to a number of international agreements with defense-oriented implications. With the United States and New Zealand, Australia was a signatory of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951 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 that country. The Australia-United States alliance under ANZUS remains in full force, and Australia also maintains its own defense agreements with New Zealand.

Joseph M. Powell contributed the Introduction, Land and Resources, Population, Economy, and Government sections of this article.


The Aboriginal people were the first inhabitants of the Australian continent. Most anthropologists currently believe they migrated to the continent at least 50,000 years ago and occupied most of the continent by 30,000 years ago. Subsequently, rising sea levels separated Tasmania and other immediate offshore islands from the rest of the continent. Although Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Arab seafarers may have landed in northern Australia well before AD 1500, Australia was essentially unknown in the West until the 17th century. For the history of the indigenous people of Australia prior to European settlement, see Aboriginal Australians.

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 Europeans recorded no actual discoveries 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 navigation around Africa in pursuit of a trade route to India rekindled European interest in the region. Historians have long speculated that the Portuguese may have reached eastern Australia, but the evidence, mainly 16th-century French copies of Portuguese charts, is tenuous. The continent lay off the main trading routes, and the prevailing winds made it difficult to approach.

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, Spain, having established its empire in South and Central America, began a series of expeditions from Peru to the South Pacific. The most notable of these, by Luis Vaez de Torres in 1606, passed within sight of the Australian continent along the strait that now bears his name, between New Guinea and Australia. But Spanish interests were farther north in the Philippines, and the voyagers did not return.

Dutch Interest

During the 17th century The Netherlands established a string of trading centers from the Cape of Good Hope in Africa to the archipelago of present-day Indonesia. Stationed chiefly in the ports of Bantam and Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), the Dutch quickly made the discovery of Australia a reality. Helped by better sailing ships and greater knowledge of global wind systems, they were able to overcome the challenges in the southern Pacific. In 1606, some months before Torres’s voyage, Dutch seafarer Willem Jansz sighted the Cape York Peninsula on the continent’s northern coast, calling the land he saw New Holland; however, he mistakenly believed that Australia was a southern extension of New Guinea. In 1616 Dutch sailor Dirk Hartog followed a new southern route across the Indian Ocean to Batavia. Winds blew his ship, the Eendracht, too far to the east, and Hartog landed on an offshore island of Western Australia. Before sailing north to Batavia, he left a pewter plate on the island inscribed with a record of his visit.

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 he named Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Tasman then sailed farther east to explore New Zealand. Dutch ships sailing to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) often sailed off course, and their crews landed on the western and northern coasts of Australia. Despite their increasing knowledge of the continent, known to them as 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 British.

British Expeditions and Claims

At first British involvement in Australia appeared likely to go the way of the Spanish and Dutch. William Dampier, a crewman on the buccaneer ship Cygnet that briefly touched the northwestern coast in 1688, reported dismally on the land and the indigenous inhabitants. In 1699 Dampier returned as captain of his own expedition, further exploring the western and northern coasts of Australia. He failed to reach the eastern coast, however, and British interest in the continent subsequently waned.

The 18th century in Western Europe ushered in the Age of Enlightenment, when philosophers and scientists stressed the value of global exploration. British explorers voyaged far and wide in search of new fauna and flora, a mission that chimed well with Britain’s growing power as a maritime empire.

In 1768 Captain James Cook departed Britain in command of the ship Endeavour on a three-year expedition to the Pacific. Cook’s main objective was scientific—to make telescopic observations of the transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti. But he later sailed westward, first to New Zealand, which he circumnavigated, then to the eastern coast of Australia. He landed at Botany Bay (near present-day Sydney), charted the coast from south to north, and claimed British possession of the eastern part of the continent, which he named New South Wales. The botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied him on the voyage, later advocated the establishment of a permanent settlement at Botany Bay. Cook’s subsequent voyages (in 1772-1775 and 1776-1779) helped to cement British claims, although French explorers also surveyed the eastern coast, including Jean-Francois Marie de Surville in 1769 and Marion Dufresne in 1772.

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

Although its general boundaries were becoming known, Australia appeared to be a remote and unattractive land for European settlement. But Britain’s growing commercial and military ambitions in the Pacific, combined with its domestic social and political tensions, helped to draw Australia into the web of British strategic ambitions. British merchants and shipowners were looking for new trading opportunities in the East. Naval strategists were seeking fresh supplies of ship timbers and sailcloth. And as the Industrial Revolution got under way, the galloping crime rates in Britain’s crowded cities created a demand for more and harsher jails, or gaols. With the loss of its American colonies in 1783, Britain no longer had a convenient place to send its criminals. But Australia was a suitably distant and terrifying alternative destination for transportation (the British system of exiling convicts as punishment). In addition, nearby Norfolk Island, with its tall pine trees, offered a new supply of wood for ships’ masts and flax for rope and sailcloth. Although establishing a penal colony was probably the main motive, naval strategy reinforced the decision of the British government in 1786 to establish a permanent settlement at Botany Bay.

Sydney Founded

On May 13, 1787, retired Royal Navy captain Arthur Phillip set sail from Portsmouth, England, with the First Fleet. The 11 ships of the fleet arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788 with more than 1,450 passengers, including 736 convicts, more than 200 marines, 20 civil officials, and 443 seamen. Finding the bay a poor choice, Phillip moved the fleet north to Port Jackson, which he acclaimed as “the finest harbour in the world.” Here he founded the first permanent British 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. As the appointed governor of the New South Wales colony, Phillip was responsible for a large portion of Australia (from the eastern coast to as far west as the 135th meridian), but his human resources were limited. In particular, he lacked the horticulturists, 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 recurrent food shortages through the 1790s. Local food sources were largely limited to fish and kangaroo. Phillip encouraged the establishment of farms on the more fertile banks of the Hawkesbury River, a few miles northwest of Sydney, but floods often spoiled the crops. Starvation was averted only by the arrival of ships bearing supplies of grain from Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Norfolk Island, about 1,500 km (about 950 mi) east of Australia, had been claimed by Phillip in February 1788. Its soils, which were more fertile than those of the mainland, were extensively farmed and soon became depleted. The settlement there was abandoned in 1803, but in the 1830s the island was repopulated as a penal settlement for more hardened convicts.

The New South Wales Corps

In 1792 the Royal Marines were replaced with the New South Wales Corps, which had been specifically recruited in Britain. Given grants of land and convict labor, members of the corps became the colony’s best and largest farmers, but they also posed a serious threat to the governors through their power over the economy. With a sharp eye for enhancing their income, they specialized in controlling the price of rum (a term that denoted any kind of alcoholic drink), which served largely as a means of internal exchange. Originally sent to protect and help administer the colony, the corps soon gained control of almost all aspects of colonial life.

Captain John Hunter, who was named Phillip’s successor as governor of New South Wales in 1795, tried in vain to gain control of the rum traffic. He was recalled to Britain and replaced by Captain Philip G. King, who served from 1800 to 1806. King instituted reforms designed to weaken the corps’s virtual monopoly on trade and was partially successful in restoring power to the government. In 1804, however, he 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 now set his sights—and exercised his notoriously rough tongue—on the officers of the corps, challenging their monopoly of rum and their rapid accumulation of town and rural land. 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. For the time being, the leaders of the corps had won. One of their ringleaders, John Macarthur, had meanwhile helped to establish the foundations of a valuable export industry. In 1802 he had shown British manufacturers samples of Australian wool, and with his wife, Elizabeth, he was among the leading breeders of merino sheep, whose fine wool later became the foundation of a thriving local industry.

Macquarie’s Government

Bligh’s replacement, a Scottish-born military officer, Lachlan Macquarie, served from 1809 to 1821. The most talented governor since Phillip, he was also the most benevolently autocratic. The New South Wales Corps was disbanded, and the government gained stability. Macquarie began an extensive public works program and employed Francis Greenway to design churches, hospitals, and government buildings in Sydney.

The population, both convict and free, increased rapidly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Population pressures accentuated tensions already developing between convict and free colonists. As convicts completed their sentences or were given tickets-of-leave to work on their own account, they wanted land and opportunities. These freed convicts were known as the emancipists, and their leaders urged that they be given more rights. They also opposed convict transportation and lobbied for it to be abolished. The free settlers, like the corps before them, maintained that convicts, even after their release, should be kept in servitude and excluded from polite society. They were known as the exclusives. Macquarie, like Bligh, tended to support the emancipists, granting them land and appointing them to minor offices. Opinion among the exclusives gradually hardened against the governor.

Constitutional Reform

Macquarie’s government was expensive, and his policy of encouraging emancipists did little to deter British criminals or stem the flow of convicts. In 1819 the British government sent Judge John Thomas Bigge to inspect and report on Macquarie’s administration. He recommended cuts in expenditures and an increase in the severity of punishment. The effect of his report was to shift the balance of power from the autocratic governor toward the wealthy settlers, whose enterprises were sustained by the well-disciplined convict labor and lifted the burden of support from the British treasury. Bigge’s reports also brought a change in the constitution of New South Wales. An act of parliament in 1823 curbed the autocratic power of the governor by the appointment of a nominated legislative council.

In 1825 the island settlement of Van Diemen’s Land, until then part of New South Wales, became a separate colony. The island had first been settled in 1803 at Hobart on the Derwent River, partly out of fear that France might claim it. The lieutenant governor of the new colony, George Arthur, was faithful to Bigge’s policies. He strongly supported the continuation of convict transportation, and in the early 1830s he established a bleak penal settlement at the foot of the Tasman Peninsula. Named Port Arthur, it became the most notorious of Australia’s penal settlements.

Early Australian Society

The convicts, and those who ruled them, were the makers of early Australian history. More than 150,000 convicts were sent to Australia before the British government officially abolished transportation to all of the eastern colonies in 1852. Approximately 20 percent of the convicts were women, and about one-third were Irish; the majority came from the poorer classes of British towns, especially London. Many had been repeatedly convicted of petty crimes and many of the women had been prostitutes, but in other respects they were typical of the class from which they came. Probably no more than half could read or write, but this proportion was typical of the British working class. A minority, who came from well-to-do backgrounds and were serving sentences for crimes such as forgery, were able to use their training in business or government offices. Although convicts appeared to be unpromising material, economic historians argue that they formed a reasonably efficient labor force.

The majority of convicts worked as assigned laborers and could earn wages for work done on their own time. Some accumulated substantial wealth and a few founded prominent colonial families. Corporal punishment was rare when there were powerful monetary incentives to work. But colonial officials prescribed harsh punishments for those who committed crimes after their arrival in the colony. Flogging was common, with a penalty of up to 200 lashes for crimes of theft. The worst offenders were sent to places of secondary punishment such as Norfolk Island and Port Arthur.

Convict transportation reinforced a masculine and plebeian strand in Australian society. A code of solidarity known as mateship and a distrust of authority were common characteristics. The distinctive Australian nasal accent and slang also developed during this period.

Settlement of the continent proceeded gradually from the eastern coast toward the center. The first industries, such as sealing and whaling, were based on the rich waters of the Pacific and Bass Strait. Wool soon became the main export product, generating a rapid movement of men and flocks into the interior. In 1813 Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson, and William Charles Wentworth crossed the Blue Mountains west of Sydney into the rich grasslands of western New South Wales, probably following routes already known to Aboriginal people. Later, southward journeys by Hamilton Hume and William Hovell in 1824 and Thomas Mitchell in 1836 opened the way for the settlement of the Port Phillip District, later the colony of Victoria. Already the government had become concerned about squatters, settlers who illegally occupied government lands in order to graze sheep. The government had begun to phase out free land grants in the 1820s, just when the wool industry was rapidly expanding. Many sheep farmers, or graziers, simply ignored new land-purchasing regulations. Unable to check the movement, the government sought to regularize squatting by issuing licenses in return for the payment of annual license fees.

The drive to explore the interior of Australia was fueled by the hope that it, like the great inland plains of the United States, would be well watered and fertile. In 1828 Charles Sturt followed the course of Australia’s largest river system, the Murray-Darling, testing the hypothesis that it originated in a great inland sea. But that hope proved barren, a conclusion confirmed by Sturt’s 1844-1846 expedition into central Australia. The colonists often visualized the land as strange, hard, and unyielding—a graveyard of lost hopes. The fate of Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills, who died of malnutrition and exhaustion at Cooper Creek on their return from the first south-to-north crossing of the continent in 1861, tragically reinforced that conviction.

The temperament of Australian society was more secular than its American counterpart, and church attendance was probably less prevalent than in Britain. The Church of England (later renamed the Anglican Church of Australia) initially enjoyed a privileged position. However, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches were also well represented in the colonies. The early colonial governments gave financial support to all these churches for church building and denominational schools. The Anglican and Catholic churches were the main providers of education during the early colonial period.

Although the majority of Australians were illiterate, the press played an influential role in early colonial society. Freedom of the press was among the first liberties claimed by an increasingly vociferous body of free colonists. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser was published from 1803. Its editor, George Howe, also published the first books in Sydney, including a volume of poetry by Judge Barron Field in 1819. Earlier, David Collins, who had been with Arthur Phillip on the First Fleet, had published in London the first history of Australia, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (2 volumes, 1798-1802). In 1824 William C. Wentworth began publication of the Australian, a strongly opinionated newspaper that campaigned for the emancipists.

Expanding Colonization

Between the 1820s and the 1880s Australia gradually outgrew its convict origins, developing the institutions of a free, democratic, and capitalist society. From their beginnings in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, Australians established new colonies covering the continent, expanded pastoral and agricultural industries in the interior, and began the exploitation of gold and other minerals, especially in the eastern colonies. Each of the new colonies bore the imprint of its distinctive origins.

New Settlements

As a prelude to increased British interest, Captain James Stirling explored the Swan River on the western coast in 1827 and led a group of British investors in the establishment of Western Australia in 1829. Underfinanced, Stirling’s new settlement of free settlers at Perth stagnated. In 1850 the colony requested convicts to increase its labor supply and received about 10,000 by 1868. Only with the discovery of gold in the 1890s, however, was the fortune of Western Australia reversed.

In 1829 a convict outpost was established in the far north of New South Wales at Moreton Bay. The settlement later moved to a more favorable site on the Brisbane River, where the town of Brisbane was established. This was to become the capital of the new colony of Queensland, which separated from New South Wales in 1859.

By the 1830s settlers had taken up the best grazing land in Van Diemen’s Land. In 1835 rival syndicates of land-hungry speculators ventured across Bass Strait and took preemptive possession of land on the Yarra River at the head of Port Phillip Bay. The leader of one party, John Batman, negotiated unofficially with the Aboriginal people for possession of some 243,000 hectares (600,000 acres) of land. The bargain was considered fraudulent and not ratified by the colonial government, which followed the practice elsewhere on the continent of assuming possession of land for the British crown by declaring it a terra nullius (“no one’s land”). This practice was based on the assumption that Aboriginal people were nomads with no fixed place of abode. Government officials from Sydney arrived later and laid out the town of Melbourne, which soon received a steady flow of sheep and settlers, particularly lowland Scots.

South Australia, with its capital of Adelaide, was established in 1836. It was founded, under British government supervision, by the South Australian Company, a band of colonizers inspired by the writings of Edward Wakefield. Under Wakefield’s theory of systematic colonization, they endeavored to create a colony that avoided the use of convict labor. Wakefield believed that by selling land at a “sufficient price,” rather than giving it away as had been the British colonial practice, colonies could generate enough income to sponsor the immigration of laborers, who would then work the land for the colonial investors. By controlling land prices, Wakefield assumed he could also regulate the supply of labor, and reproduce, in an ideal form, the class and family structure of British society. South Australia was the only colony that never received convicts from Britain. It became a more urbanized and less deferential society than its founders had planned, but the Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists of the South Australian Company helped to make it the most respectable of the Australian colonies. Wheat farming and tin and copper mining became its principal industries.

Wool, Gold, and Economic Development

Australian soils and climate, with the recurrent droughts, were better suited for large-scale livestock grazing than for farming. During the 1830s and 1840s the continent was rapidly transformed as squatters established huge sheep runs. Paying only a minimal license fee, squatters could claim virtually as much land as they wanted. From 1830 to 1850 wool exports rose from 2 million to 41 million pounds while the population of the colonies increased from 70,000 to 334,000. With new immigrants and the growth of the capital cities, each of which served as the major port for its region, the Australian colonies were poised to enter a new phase of development.

In April 1851 Edward Hargraves found gold at Summer Hill Creek, near Bathurst in New South Wales. Hargraves had recently returned from the California gold rush, and his find precipitated a new rush to the other side of the Pacific. After additional finds, the rush quickly became centered in Victoria at Mount Alexander (focused on the town of Castlemaine), Ballarat, and Bendigo. These concentrations of rich minerals offset the dispersion of sheep farming settlements and created Australia’s largest inland towns. Gold was later found elsewhere in New South Wales and Queensland.

In the following ten years, Australia exported at least 30 million ounces (850 metric tons) of gold. In a single decade the Australian population trebled from 400,000 to 1.2 million, and Melbourne, the gateway to the new goldfields, overtook Sydney as the largest city in Australia. British and Irish immigrants led the rush, but Americans, Germans, Italians, and Canadians also arrived in unprecedented numbers. In Victoria miners quickly became irritated with the high cost of mining licenses and the regulation of their right to search for gold. After miners staged an uprising at the Eureka claim at Ballarat in December 1854, the license fee for miners was replaced with an export tariff on gold (see Eureka Rebellion). Miners thereafter held a miner’s right instead of a license; for the fee of one pound per year, the miner’s right also gave them the right to vote.

Both miners and colonists responded with alarm, and fierce racial hatred, to the influx of Chinese immigrants attracted by gold. In 1856 Victoria restricted the entry of Chinese. By the end of the century, exclusionary legislation in several colonies had established the foundations of the so-called White Australia Policy, which was made explicit by the new federal government in 1901. For a while it seemed that Queensland, which began to bring in Polynesian laborers for its sugarcane plantations in the 1860s, might remain at odds with the other colonies; it eventually conformed, however, and small-scale sugar farms run by whites replaced the plantations. For many decades thereafter, the White Australia Policy continued to limit the number of non-Europeans immigrating to Australia for purposes of permanent settlement.

Development of Political Institutions

Unlike most other British colonies, those in Australia were slow to attain a significant measure of self-government. The colonial wealth generated by gold hastened the movement toward colonial independence. The abolition of convict transportation was also a factor, as the colonies transformed into free settlements. In 1842 New South Wales was granted an enlarged legislative council, with two-thirds of its members to be elected. In 1852 New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Van Diemen’s Land (which changed its name to Tasmania in 1856) were allowed to draw up new constitutions, and these were all approved by the British Parliament by 1856. (Similar constitutions were approved for Queensland when it became a colony in 1859 and for Western Australia in 1890.) The constitutions provided for bicameral (two-chamber) parliaments, with most of the membership elected on a franchise based on property qualifications. Property qualifications were lower for elections to the lower houses, or assemblies, than to the upper houses, or councils. Executive power was held in each colony by a premier and a cabinet or council of ministers, who were required to maintain the support of the lower house. Voting by secret ballot (instead of by raising hands) and other innovations made the new colonial governments quite democratic. In general, the more property-based upper houses tended to counter the reformist leanings of the lower houses.

The colonies then set out to gain control over their land policies. The gold rush generation—the most skilled, best educated, and politically aware in Australia’s colonial history—led demands to break the squatters’ hold on the land. Several colonies passed acts to enable settlers to acquire land on credit and establish small farms.

In the 1860s the gold rush ebbed, although deep-shaft mining sustained the main centers into the 1890s, and new mineral fields continued to be discovered in western New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia. Although wool exports kept the colonies fairly prosperous, colonial debate soon centered on the role of government in the economy. In particular, railroad construction became a government activity because of the huge costs involved.

In 1866 Victoria, followed by South Australia and Tasmania, adopted a policy of high tariffs on imported goods in order to protect its own small industries and markets. New South Wales (and Queensland to a lesser extent) maintained a free-trade policy.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, arguments over free trade versus protection divided the press, the political parties, and the colonies. This, together with the continuing jealousies among them, hindered any significant attempts at cooperation and possible union among the six colonies until the 1890s.

Colonial-Aboriginal Conflict

Phillip’s initial settlement at Sydney brought him into contact with Aboriginal people, many of whom used the surrounding lands as their campsites and hunting domains. The governor had sought “to conciliate their affections,” and relatively few major confrontations took place between colonists and indigenous people in the first decade. As more settlers arrived, however, conflict intensified. On the mainland, the Aboriginal communities were forced to retreat into the drier interior as graziers sought lands for their sheep runs. In the early 1820s troops were deployed near Bathurst, northwest of Sydney, in response to reports of an “exterminating war” between graziers and Aboriginal people. Conflicts were deadliest in Van Diemen’s Land, where in 1828 Lieutenant Governor Arthur proclaimed martial law in an attempt to drive Aboriginal people from the settled districts. Unable to overcome colonial arms and fears, and despite the official British policy of protection, the 5,000 Aboriginal people of the island were quickly reduced to a tiny remnant confined to Flinders Island in Bass Strait. See also Colonial-Aboriginal Wars.

In principle, the official colonial policy throughout the 19th century was to treat the Aboriginal people as equals, with the intention of eventually converting them to Christianity and European civilization. Governor Macquarie even established a school for Aboriginal children. Although official policy stressed good intentions, such acts were frequently not supported and were sometimes even actively resisted.

In the 1830s and 1840s Christian missions and protectorates were established throughout Australia, and many Aboriginal people were sent to them. The protectorates were created under British legislation requiring the protection of indigenous peoples throughout the British Empire. They were often formed under religious auspices, although most later came under state control. Mission life had a profound and lasting impact on the lives of Aboriginal families. Many, if not most, Aboriginal people lived under the influence of the missions, which in the early 20th century became the main conduit for Aboriginal children being fostered or adopted into white families. (In recent years many of these adoptees, known as the Stolen Generation, have sought redress for the loss of parental contact and Aboriginal identity.)

The clash between whites and Aboriginal people was especially severe on the frontier. In the 1830s and 1840s, as settlers pushed inland, some Aboriginal people were employed on sheep stations, and others were used for police patrols, but even some active church efforts to serve and educate the Aboriginal people did not stabilize race relations. White settlers sometimes poisoned and hunted Aboriginal people and abused and exploited Aboriginal women and children. The primary causes of the catastrophic decline in Aboriginal population, however, were probably European-introduced diseases such as smallpox and measles, malnutrition, and alcoholism and its associated violence. Between 1788 and 1930 the Aboriginal population fell from as many as 500,000 to less than 100,000. By the 20th century Aboriginal people living in their traditional way were largely confined to remote areas of the Northern Territory, Queensland, and Western Australia. Not until the 1950s did the Aboriginal population begin to inch back to its level prior to European contact, and not until the 1970s did the federal government begin to review and correct past policies.

Cities and Suburbs

Between 1851 and 1891 the Australian population grew from 437,000 to 3.2 million. It became one of the fastest growing and most urbanized regions of the world. In 1891 more than one-third of Australians lived in the six capital cities. The largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, were as populous as all but the largest European and American cities. The colonial cities sprawled; Melbourne’s 473,000 people occupied as much area as London’s 4.7 million.

People gathered in the cities in part because the staple industry, grazing, employed relatively few people. Mining, the next most significant industry, was based on exhaustible resources in remote locations and usually did not produce permanent settlements. Increased urbanization was also a reflection of the high demand for urban goods and services in a prosperous and increasingly suburbanized society. Australian per capita incomes exceeded those of the United States and other developed countries. Australia was arguably the first suburban nation. Working people, who formed the bulk of colonial immigrants, were often able to aspire to homes and gardens of their own. However, many of their houses were cheap and flimsy shanties built on low-lying, badly drained allotments. Sydney and Melbourne had typhoid rates equal to the worst-hit European cities.

Each capital served as the major port and administrative center for its respective colony. Perceiving others as rivals, each tended to emphasize its own identity. Newspapers and colonial politicians talked up their differences. The rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney was especially intense. Until the 1890s contacts between individual colonies were secondary to their ties with Britain. Even when transport and communications links were established between the colonies, these did as much to divide as to unite them. In fact, each of the eastern colonies—Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland—built its railways to a different gauge.

The capital cities were also the center of political change. In the 1850s merchants and professionals agitated for political reform and the drafting of new colonial constitutions. Small-scale manufacturers and early trade union leaders aided the passage of tariff and industrial legislation favorable to the urban working class. In 1856 Victoria’s stonemasons successfully struck in support of an eight-hour working day, the beginning of a movement that rapidly secured support across all the colonies. All the colonies established systems of free, compulsory, and secular primary education by the 1880s, making education primarily a government responsibility. The power base for most reforms crossed class lines, although by 1890 trade unionists were moving steadily toward the formation of their own political party. By the 1890s Australia was widely regarded as a pacesetter in progressive social legislation.

The culture of the cities was essentially British. Many colonial Australians read, with a three-month delay due to distance, the books and newspapers being read and discussed in London. However, a small number of Australian writers began to command a wider public. Local themes took precedence in For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) by Marcus Clarke and Clara Morrison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever (1854) by Catherine Helen Spence. Despite the dominance of the cities, by the 1880s Australians had begun to fashion a national identity based on the romantic images of the sheep shearer, small farmer (known as a selector), and miner. Short-story writer Henry Lawson and balladist A. B. “Banjo” Paterson became the leaders of a literary movement based in Sydney that celebrated the rugged countryside—known as the bush or outback—as the original source of Australian ideals. The movement was associated with the Sydney weekly journal the Bulletin. The true bushman, as portrayed by the Bulletin writers, was both an individualist who was a natural rebel against authority and a collectivist who was a loyal comrade, or “mate.” The archetypal bushman struggled against his boss and the squatter, but his most implacable enemy was the harsh, waterless country of the outback. As distinctive as these writers’ outlook was their vernacular style, which echoed the laconic speech and sardonic humor of the people they characterized.

Movement Toward Federation

Federation of the Australian colonies came later than similar movements elsewhere. The idea of unification appeared as early as 1847 in proposals by Earl Grey, Britain’s colonial secretary. In the 1850s John Dunmore Lang, a Scottish Presbyterian cleric in New South Wales, formed the Australian League to campaign for a united Australia. Conferences among colonial governments in the 1860s also considered closer cooperation and unification. With the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, British officials began to expect a similar effort among Australians. No plan, however, received serious attention, due to the intense rivalries among the colonies.

In the 1880s the prospect of European—as distinct from British—colonization of the Pacific triggered fears of Australia’s lack of defense. Queensland, anticipating German moves, claimed Papua on New Guinea in 1883 but, unable to support this claim, had to urge Britain to rule the territory and to claim other islands. Concerned that they might not be able to direct British policy in their interests and aware of the emergence of new powers in Europe, the Australian colonies created a Federal Council in 1885, but it was merely a consultative body, with no legislative or executive powers. The refusal of New South Wales to participate in the council meetings doomed this effort at federalism.

Other developments during the 1880s, however, served to keep the idea of unification alive. As trade and communications between the colonies advanced, pressure mounted for the lowering of the customs barriers between them. Debate over the White Australia Policy demonstrated the need for uniform immigration rules. As more Australian workers unionized, trade unions became more centralized, suggesting the attractiveness of a single economic and political system. Unstable economic conditions and outright depression by 1892 contributed to the development of labor parties in each colony to represent worker interests.

In the early 1890s the long economic boom that had sustained the colonies’ progress since the 1860s came to an abrupt end. The crash hit Melbourne especially hard, and helped to shift the initiative in the federal movement from Victoria, where it had been strong during the 1880s, to New South Wales. In 1889 the premier of New South Wales, Henry Parkes, announced his support for a new form of federalism that was not based on the Federal Council model. In 1891 a convention of colonial delegates in Sydney began drafting a federal constitution, but political and regional rivalries slowed the process. It was 1897 before the policymakers agreed upon a draft constitution and 1899 before the Australian people finally approved it. The Commonwealth of Australia was accordingly approved by the British Parliament in 1900 and became a reality on January 1, 1901.

The federal constitution reflected both British and American constitutional models. It incorporated the British principle of parliamentary government, with cabinets responsible to a bicameral legislature, but, as in the United States, delegated only specific, limited powers to the federal government. The new House of Representatives, like the British House of Commons, was based on popular representation, but the Senate, like its American counterpart, preserved the representation of the six colonies, which now became states. As neither Sydney nor Melbourne was an acceptable federal capital, in 1911 the Australian Capital Territory was established for a new capital, Canberra—again based on the Washington, D.C., model.

The trade unions led the way in developing Australia’s political party system. Some larger unions of miners and sheep shearers were already federal in structure before 1901. The Labor Party, founded by the combined unions through the Trades Hall Councils, moved to adopt a national program and required its parliamentary representatives to carry out the party’s program by voting as a bloc. The effectiveness of this model of disciplined class-based party organization was demonstrated when Labor gained office nationally in 1904. Other parties quickly followed Labor’s lead.

Meanwhile, women in Australia were securing more political rights. In 1894 the women of South Australia won the right to vote, making them the first women of a British colony after New Zealand to do so. In 1902 the new commonwealth government extended that right to all Australian women.

The Commonwealth

Central to the history of Australia in the 20th century was the development of both a national government and a national culture. Commonwealth governments, led by architects of federation such as Alfred Deakin, quickly established a protective tariff to foster domestic development, introduced a system of arbitration for setting minimum wages in industry, and preserved the white immigration policy. Nevertheless, the old colonial political rivalries and factional alliances gave way only gradually.

Identity Forged by War

World War I (1914-1918), much more than federation itself, helped to create a sense of national identity in Australia. Responding to the allied call for troops, Australia sent more than 330,000 volunteers, who took part in some of the bloodiest battles. Suffering a casualty rate higher than that of many other participants, Australia became increasingly conscious of its contribution to the war effort. At Gallipoli an Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac), fighting alongside British and French troops, tried in vain to launch a drive on the Ottoman forces in the Dardanelles. The date of the fateful landing, April 25, 1915, became equated with Australia’s coming of age, and as Anzac Day it has remained the country’s most significant day of public homage. Through the writings of war correspondent and historian C. E. W. Bean, the Anzac legend became the basis for a new sense of national identity, one that united former servicemen and their families across class and geographical boundaries.

In 1915 William M. (“Billy”) Hughes became prime minister and leader of the Labor Party. Representing Australia at councils in London, Hughes personified Australian energies. When he failed to carry the electorate in the first of two attempts to institute the military draft, Hughes remained in power by joining his former conservative opponents and forming the Nationalist Party, much to the annoyance of his Labor colleagues. He attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, acquiring German New Guinea as a mandated territory and establishing Australia’s right to enter the League of Nations. The powers designated to the federal government in the constitution proved sufficient to allow a strong central government.

Interwar Years

After an internal backlash within the Nationalist Party forced the retirement of Hughes in 1923, Stanley M. Bruce became prime minister. The Country Party, founded in 1920 as a patriotic, conservative movement to protect the interests of farmers and graziers, joined the Nationalist coalition, although it kept its own identity. The chief opponent of the coalition was Labor, now committed to social-welfare objectives. To maintain wartime levels of production and expansion, the government sought to increase immigration, investment, and export industries (under the propaganda slogan “Men, Money, Markets”). However, the Great Depression that hit in 1929 cut deeply into the health of the Australian economy, increasing public and private debts at a time of massive unemployment.

Recovery from the economic depression, led from 1929 to early 1932 by James H. Scullin and the Labor Party, was extremely uneven. Deflationary economic policy contributed to economic effects that were far harsher than those felt elsewhere in the world. At its worst in 1932, unemployment reached almost one-third of the male workforce. Disagreement on government policy broke Labor again in 1931, and for the rest of the 1930s the United Australia Party, composed of former Nationalists and disenchanted Laborites, held the reins of power. The party was led by Joseph Aloysius Lyons.

Upon assuming responsibility for its own foreign affairs, Australia was guided by its cultural and political ties with Britain. Emphasis was therefore placed on following Britain’s leadership in solving the problems of the depression. Chief among these was an attempt to redirect more trade between Britain and the dominions. As early as the 1920s, however, Japan and the United States were among Australia’s best customers for its wool exports. Against its own interests, but motivated in part by fears of Japanese expansionism, Australia sought to reestablish British trade at the expense of its relations with Japan. In the League of Nations the Australian government tended to favor appeasement in order to avert war with the Fascist powers.

World War II

In April 1939 Lyons died in office and was succeeded by Robert Menzies. In September of that year Australia entered World War II, after Britain declared war on Germany. Menzies immediately placed Australia’s small armed forces at Britain’s disposal. The elections of 1941 returned the Labor Party to power for the first time since 1931, and John Curtin became prime minister. British Singapore, long regarded as one of the world’s strongest fortresses, fell to Japanese forces in February 1942, and shortly thereafter Britain’s Royal Navy suffered defeat in the Pacific. In March Japanese forces occupied the Dutch East Indies and landed on New Guinea. Japanese bombers raided Darwin several times, and Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour. However, Britain was no longer able to supply naval protection to Australia. Although Australian casualties were lighter than in World War I, Australians were more psychologically affected by World War II because of their fears of Japanese invasion. Curtin recognized that Australia relied more on the United States than on Britain for security, and he sought U.S. assistance to contain the Japanese advance. In May U.S. forces surrendered the Philippines; until the Allied liberation of the Philippines in 1945, U.S. general Douglas MacArthur and his staff used Australia for their base of operations.

Australian industry was again transformed by the needs of war. The economy was redirected toward manufacturing, and heavy industries ringed the capital cities. Drawing on wartime models of planning, Prime Minister Curtin’s administration laid the foundation for policies of postwar reconstruction. Curtin died in 1945, a few months before Allied victory in the Pacific. The new Labor government under Joseph B. Chifley continued the policies of full employment and state social welfare developed during the war years. It began a vigorous immigration program, drawing New Australians, as they were called, from continental Europe as well as from traditional sources in the British Isles. As the perils of war receded, however, Labor’s plans for the nationalization of key industries, such as banking, encountered growing opposition. As a charter member of the United Nations, Australia also agreed to the decolonization of the islands in the Pacific, including the preparation of Papua New Guinea for independence (achieved in 1975).

The Menzies Era

In 1949 Menzies became prime minister a second time, ushering in a long era of conservative rule. During the war, the old United Australian Party had disintegrated and Menzies was ousted as prime minister. In opposition he led the formation in 1944 of the new Liberal Party, which upheld principles of free enterprise against Labor’s inclination toward socialism. Menzies, who remained prime minister until 1966, dominated federal politics against an internally divided Labor Party. He stressed the sentimental link with the British crown but developed a strong relationship with the United States, formalized in the 1951 treaty that created the tripartite mutual-defense alliance known as ANZUS (acronym for Australia, New Zealand, and the United States); it led to greater policy coordination between the three countries. Beginning in the 1940s Australia took a more active interest in Pacific and Asian affairs. Under the Colombo Plan, Asians began studying at Australian institutions in the 1950s. Menzies maintained the White Australia Policy, but under his successors it was gradually discarded, and since the early 1970s the entry of immigrants has been based on criteria other than race.

The Liberals’ long rule (1949-1972) coincided with the most sustained period of economic prosperity since the 19th century. Despite the party’s devotion to free enterprise, however, government intervention in the form of assisted immigration, tariff protection, wage arbitration, state enterprises, and government assistance for health care and education, including university scholarships, remained important strands of policy. Foreign investment, especially from the United States, transformed the Australian manufacturing industry; “Australia’s Own Car,” the Holden, was designed and manufactured by a subsidiary of General Motors Corporation. The coastal cities and their sprawling suburbs were the main beneficiaries of this growth. Between 1901 and 1971 urbanization rapidly increased; the state capitals grew from 35 percent to 61 percent of the national population. By 1971 almost three-quarters of Australian house dwellers owned or were buying their own homes. “The Lucky Country”—a title applied ironically by social critic Donald Horne—was how Australians increasingly thought of themselves.

Menzies had clung to the British connection, but his government followed policies that were steadily weakening it. Between 1947 and 1970 more than 2 million immigrants arrived in Australia, more than 60 percent from countries outside the British Isles. In the inner suburbs of the cities Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, and Lebanese were creating their own distinctive ethnic enclaves. From the beginning, Australia stressed the goal of assimilation: New Australians were encouraged to quickly learn the English language and assume the Australian way of life. By the late 1960s, however, representatives of ethnic associations were winning increased support for more pluralistic policies based on multiculturalism.

After World War II Australia remained active in Western military alliances, contributing troops to the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1959-1975) as a staunch ally of the United States. Though not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Western military alliance formed in 1949, Australia participated in its Asian counterpart, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), from 1954 until its dissolution in 1977. Meanwhile, Australia adjusted its domestic and foreign policies, which included recognizing its growing ties with Japan.

Times of Change

After Menzies the Liberals’ fortunes began to wane. Beginning in the late 1960s, Australia experienced the waves of cultural change that swept through many of the Western democracies: the coming of political age of the postwar baby boomers, movements for women’s liberation and indigenous rights, and a growing awareness of environmental issues. A succession of lackluster prime ministers, public disenchantment with the Vietnam War (and Australia’s official support of U.S. policies in the war), and political exhaustion sapped the Liberals’ support.

In 1972, uniting after years of internal disputes, the Labor Party under Gough Whitlam again came to power. “It’s Time,” the party’s campaign slogan, caught the mood of change. Whitlam immediately announced the return of Australian troops from Vietnam. In 1973 the government established an inquiry into Aboriginal land rights, the first step in a process that later led to commonwealth legislation on the subject. Whitlam’s ambitious program of social reforms, however, encountered strong opposition from Liberal state governments. In November 1975 the conservative majority in the Senate, alarmed by the government’s financial imprudence, precipitated a constitutional crisis that culminated in the dismissal of the Whitlam government by governor-general Sir John Kerr. In the ensuing election the Liberal-Country coalition was returned to power under Malcolm Fraser. He reinstated the domestic and foreign policies followed by the earlier Liberal Party governments but maintained Labor’s new emphases on multiculturalism and the environment. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia began to arrive on Australia’s northern shores. In the 1980s and 1990s the flow of immigrants from other parts of Asia, including Hong Kong and mainland China, increased.

Fraser’s coalition survived the 1980 election with a much-reduced majority. Further shaken by defections from Liberal Party ranks and by foreign trade scandals, Fraser suffered a sharp defeat in the elections of March 1983. His Labor successor, the charismatic former trade union leader Bob Hawke, sought to promote cooperation between workers and management and took the first steps toward the deregulation of the economy by floating the Australian dollar. He maintained a staunchly pro-American foreign policy, sending a small military contingent in support of the United States in the Persian Gulf War. Labor retained its majorities in the elections of 1984, 1987, and 1990. In December 1991, with Australia mired in recession and Hawke’s popularity waning, Labor chose Hawke’s former treasury minister, Paul Keating, as party leader and prime minister. Pledging to change Australia to a federal republic and underlining the need for a reorientation toward Asia, Keating led Labor to victory in the March 1993 election.

Among the larger cultural issues with which Australia grappled in the 1980s and early 1990s was the question of Aboriginal land rights. Like other colonial countries such as Canada, Australia was challenged to address the land claims of the indigenous inhabitants of the country, who had been largely ignored for centuries. In 1992, in the historic Mabo v. Queensland case, the High Court of Australia ruled that the people of the Murray Islands, in the Torres Strait, held title to their land, thereby acknowledging that Australia was occupied at the time of European settlement. In 1993 the government passed an act allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to file land claims. See also Aboriginal Land Rights Acts.

By the early 1990s public opinion polls showed that most Australians favored the establishment of a federal republic, with an Australian president replacing the British monarch as head of state. Prime Minister Keating had placed himself at the head of the republican movement, but by the parliamentary elections of 1996 many Australians perceived him as arrogant and his government as out of touch with the electorate. Campaigning on a platform of economic reform, and directing its appeal to the “battlers”—disenchanted working class electors of the bush and outer suburbs—the Liberal-National coalition won a solid majority in the House of Representatives. (In the Senate, however, independents and minor parties held the balance of power until the 2004 elections.)

The Howard Government

The new prime minister, John Howard, a veteran of the Fraser government, was a longtime advocate of labor-market and taxation reform. On social and moral questions, however, he was considered to be the most conservative prime minister since Menzies. His government’s repeated attempts to curb the rights to native title of land won by Aboriginal people under the Mabo judgment drew international criticism. His attempt in 1998 to break the union power of dockworkers encountered bitter opposition by unionists. Howard narrowly retained power in the parliamentary elections of 1998.

In 1999 the authoritarian Suharto regime crumbled in Indonesia. Howard sent Australian troops under United Nations auspices to secure the independence of East Timor. His decision reversed 20 years of Australian complicity in Indonesian rule over the former Portuguese colony.

Domestic Issues

Meanwhile, a constitutional convention voted to change Australia’s government to a republic. Howard, a monarchist, advocated the status quo in the popular referendum required to change the constitution. While opinion polls continued to indicate that most Australians favored a republic, the referendum of November 1999 failed to secure a majority, largely because many voters wanted the president to be popularly elected, instead of appointed by parliament as the convention had recommended.

In September 2000 Australia hosted the Summer Olympic Games at Sydney. In the opening ceremony Australia’s Olympic heroine, Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman, became a central figure in a pageant celebrating a proudly multicultural Australia. The Olympics also turned national attention to many unresolved issues concerning Aboriginal Australians. However, the government chose to ignore these issues, and Howard drew criticism from religious leaders in May 2001 for failing to acknowledge the suffering of thousands of Aboriginal people under government-led assimilation policies of the past.

Meanwhile, Howard carried through his long-held ambition to reform the Australian taxation system by the introduction of a goods and services tax in 2000. The reforms were widely unpopular, and as the 2001 election approached Howard’s government seemed likely to be defeated. Two months before the election, however, Howard’s government won a surge of popular support for its stand against illegal immigration. The government refused a plea by the captain of a Norwegian cargo vessel, the Tampa, to land 450 asylum seekers from the Middle East, mostly from Iraq. In a process that drew international attention and criticism, but was soon repeated with other boatloads of would-be illegal entrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan, the refugees were transported to camps on remote Pacific islands to have their asylum claims processed. (Illegal entrants had previously been sent to detention centers in remote parts of the Australian continent.)

The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States further rallied support to the Howard government, with voters favoring stability over change in a time of crisis. In the November 2001 election the Liberal-National coalition won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, giving Howard a third term as prime minister.

War on Terrorism

Howard subsequently offered strong support for the war on terrorism declared by the United States. His offer took on new significance after 88 Australians were killed in a terrorist bombing in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002. Howard contributed Australian troops to the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, his decision to send about 2,000 Australian troops to Iraq failed to gain widespread public support. In February 2003 the Senate passed its first-ever vote of no confidence against an Australian prime minister to express its disapproval of Howard’s decision. Nevertheless, Howard positioned himself as a strong ally of U.S. president George W. Bush and pledged to keep Australian troops in Iraq for as long as necessary. (By late 2004, about 850 noncombat troops remained there.) See also U.S.-Iraq War.

2004 Elections

Meanwhile, the Howard government sustained a period of economic growth noted for low unemployment and inflation rates. The robust economy was widely credited with delivering a resounding victory for Howard’s Liberal-National coalition in the October 2004 parliamentary elections. The coalition won solid majorities in both houses of the Australian parliament, securing Howard’s fourth term as prime minister and giving the government control over the Senate for the first time in two decades.

However, the ruling coalition fared poorly in the 2007 elections. Voters gave an overwhelming victory to the Australian Labor Party, and ALP leader Kevin Rudd was named prime minister. Rudd had campaigned on the need for new leadership after 11 years of conservative government under Howard, promising major policy changes. Rudd also said he planned to increase the government’s expenditure on education, while maintaining a fiscally conservative budget, as a necessary step in preparing Australia for the future.

Among his first acts in office, Rudd signed the Kyōto Protocol on global warming, leaving the United States as the only developed country failing to ratify the international agreement. Rudd also issued the federal government’s first formal apology to Indigenous Australians for past laws and policies that had “inflicted profound grief, suffering, and loss.” His apology noted the so-called Stolen Generations, who as children had been forcibly removed from their families under ill-conceived assimilation policies. The long-awaited federal apology was seen as a necessary step toward national reconciliation. Nevertheless, the Rudd government ruled out any national reparations scheme, promising instead to increase funding in health, education, and counseling services for Indigenous Australians.

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