The People of Australia - History

The People of Australia - History

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Australia is a land of immigrants. All but 300,000 Australians descended from immigrants who began arriving with the settlement of British convicts in 1788. Native Australians are called aborigines. Australia is a progressive western society with almost uniform literacy. As of 2016, Australia's est. population was24.21 million. Out of the population, 92 % are Caucasian, 7% are Asian, with only 1% aborigines and other ethnicities.

Population, total (millions)17.0719.1522.0324.21
Population growth (annual %)
Income share held by lowest 20%
Life expectancy at birth, total (years)77798283
Fertility rate, total (births per woman)
Adolescent fertility rate (births per 1,000 women ages 15-19)21181613
Contraceptive prevalence, any methods (% of women ages 15-49)..716267
Births attended by skilled health staff (% of total)100999999
Mortality rate, under-5 (per 1,000 live births)9654
Prevalence of underweight, weight for age (% of children under 5)....0.2..
Immunization, measles (% of children ages 12-23 months)86919495
Primary completion rate, total (% of relevant age group)........
School enrollment, primary (% gross)105.9100.4105.9101.3
School enrollment, secondary (% gross)134152..154
School enrollment, primary and secondary (gross), gender parity index (GPI)11..1
Prevalence of HIV, total (% of population ages 15-49)
Forest area (sq. km) (thousands)1,285.401,288.401,232.101,247.50
Terrestrial and marine protected areas (% of total territorial area)6.68.7..28.6
Annual freshwater withdrawals, total (% of internal resources)..
Urban population growth (annual %)
Energy use (kg of oil equivalent per capita)5,0625,6445,7935,476
CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita)15.4517.217.7415.37

Aboriginal Australians

Aboriginal Australians could be the oldest population of humans living outside of Africa, where one theory says they migrated from in boats 70,000 years ago.

Australia’s first people—known as Aboriginal Australians—have lived on the continent for over 50,000 years. Today, there are 250 distinct language groups spread throughout Australia. Aboriginal Australians are split into two groups: Aboriginal peoples, who are related to those who already inhabited Australia when Britain began colonizing the island in 1788, and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who descend from residents of the Torres Strait Islands, a group of islands that is part of modern-day Queensland, Australia.

All Aboriginal Australians are related to groups indigenous to Australia. However, the use of the term indigenous is controversial, since it can be claimed by people who descend from people who weren’t the original inhabitants of the island. Legally, “Aboriginal Australian” is recognized as “a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he [or she] lives.”

Convicts and colonisers: the early history of Australia

Booker Prize-winning author Thomas Keneally speaks to Rob Attar about the early history of his home country, Australia, discussing the remarkable progress of Britain's "sunstruck dungeon" at the end of the world

This competition is now closed

Published: December 26, 2010 at 10:24 am

Thomas Barrett was sentenced to death three times. His first capital offence was in 1782 when, as a young boy, he was found guilty of stealing a silver watch in London. Barrett’s sentence was commuted and he was despatched instead to the North American colonies. However before his ship had left Britain there was a convict uprising that enabled Barrett to escape. His freedom was short-lived. Barrett was recaptured and the death penalty was again handed down for his actions. But for a second time royal intervention saved him from the noose. And so it was that in 1787 Thomas Barrett found himself a passenger on the Charlotte, as part of the first fleet that shipped prisoners to the distant land of Australia. There his final sentence still awaited him.

Barrett’s story illustrates a key idea to emerge from Australians, the first part of Thomas Keneally’s epic history of a continent and its people. The nature of the early immigrants meant that this was a colony like no other. “If you’ll accept that we’re a sophisticated society (which is hard for the British to do) then you’d have to say that this is the only advanced country on earth that began as a purpose-designed penal colony,” says Keneally. “It didn’t begin as a place where there were settlers who used convicts. It began as a jail.”

Having been deprived of American colonies following the emergence of the United States, Britain in the 1780s was desperate to find an alternative territory for its miscreants. Australia, recently claimed for the empire by Captain Cook, seemed to fit the bill. It had been inhabited by Aborigines for millennia but, despite a few tentative voyages, no other European power had established a lasting settlement on the continent. Britain took the lead. The first fleet of convicts arrived in January 1788 and a fledgling penal colony was established in what is now Sydney.

Who were the people who landed on what Keneally describes as “a sunstruck dungeon at the end of the world”? They were prisoners, yes, but they weren’t just a group of common criminals. “One of the reasons early Australia survives was that there were many social protestors among the convicts,” explains Keneally. “These were people who did not consider themselves criminals. They were people like poachers who acted in protest against the enclosure of estates. Then there were Luddites, Swing rioters, Irish Ribbonmen and Jacobite martyrs. You had these fairly robust, stroppy people alongside the professional thieves and prostitutes.”

Land of the free

Within a few years, convicts were joined by free people from Britain and Ireland (and later other parts of Europe), attracted to dreams of a better life. These emigrants went out further than the areas the colonial authorities could control and squatted on huge tracts of land. Some were inspired by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who, while languishing in Newgate prison in the 1820s, wrote an influential pamphlet encouraging yeomen to settle Australia.

Nor was it just the poorer Britons who headed for Australia, according to Keneally. “Australia has always been the place to which Britain has sent unsatisfactory members of all its classes, including the gentry and bourgeoisie. It was a great place to send young men who had gambling debts or had been cashiered. It was also the sort of place where you sent bluff English lads who weren’t particularly good academically, or who had impregnated the maid. Charles Dickens, for example, sent his two dumbest sons to Australia and Trollope had a son there as well.”

In many ways the early history of Australia is hard to detach from the story of its mother country. The kinds of people, settler and convict, who came to the continent reflected the social and political situation in Britain at the time. “It provides,” says Keneally, “an acute focus on the problems of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.”

Whether they departed in fear or hope, the Britons and other Europeans who arrived in Australia faced a forbidding landscape. In a continent with little water and variable soil, the development of agriculture was extremely difficult. The interior in particular offered little bounty and despite several expeditions, no great river like the Mississippi could be found. Instead many explorers perished in the desert heat.

“The settlers brought with them their Eurocentrism and they didn’t realise how dry this continent was,” explains Keneally. “British yeomen tried to advance into South Australia and Western Australia but it was impossible because these places are deserts. It showed a great incomprehension of the country that they were coming to. These folk should have perished on the desert shores and in many cases they came close to doing so. They also went mad and committed suicide, but ultimately they stayed. They stayed and endured.”

In the perilous early days of New South Wales (as British Australia was originally known), food stocks frequently dwindled and rations fell. It was only the arrival of supply-laden ships from Britain that enabled the colony to continue. However, although farming was tricky, the settlers discovered that the climate was suitable for livestock and especially sheep. Useful for their meat and wool, sheep farming had become a mainstay of the Australian economy by the middle decades of the 19th century.

As settlements expanded they came into greater conflict with the Aboriginal people who had lived in Australia for at least 50,000 years. This was, Keneally believes, “the countervailing tragedy” of Australian history. “The Aborigines considered that the country was theirs and any animals on it were theirs as well. So they began killing the livestock of settlers, and maybe they would also kill a convict shepherd because he was messing with their women or had stolen stuff from them. This is when the carbines came out and, when it came to a showdown, our technology and firepower was greater.”

Through frontier wars, massacres and the introduction of diseases, the Aboriginal population was devastated. The settlers took over swathes of territory, effecting a cultural as well as physical dispossession. “We can lose our house in the suburbs that we’ve had for 20 years and we’ll sort of survive,” says Keneally. “But if you separate the Aboriginals from their traditional land, which is their source of food and social cohesion, then you are depriving them of more than real estate.”

The mistreatment of the indigenous people was not always applauded. Keneally: “There is a recent supposition that concern for Aboriginal rights is a modern chardonnay-supping, latte-drinking concern. But from the very beginning there were people who stood up for the Aboriginals. Their methods, however, were advocacy whereas the methods of the people trying to rid Aboriginals from their land were weaponry.”

In 1851 gold was discovered in New South Wales, sparking a gold rush similar to that taking place in California. This precious metal brought wealth to the country and hastened an influx of migrants. The gold rush sparked the beginning of the end for transportation, which was still under way, despite growing resentment from the Australian population. “This discovery made convictism ridiculous and irrelevant,” says Keneally. “Why would you ship people to a place when immigrants can’t wait to get there?”

Revolution averted

Gold also funded the development of the interior and prompted the growth of cities. Melbourne went from “virtually a village” in 1850 to what Keneally sees as “one of the great cities of the empire” 20 years later.

Yet the gold rush bred discontent as well and in 1854 it took Australia to the brink of revolution. Those hoping to prospect for gold had to pay fees to the authorities, or face retribution from the colonial police force. In Victoria the policenwere corrupt and brutal, regularly assaulting the miners or throwing them in jail. The miners responded with teeth, feeding an escalating cycle of violence. At the same time, inspired by the 1848 revolutions in Europe and the Chartist movement, they pressed for greater representation, including the right to vote.

The flashpoint occurred at the Eureka goldfield in Ballarat where a group of miners broke out in open rebellion, creating a republican flag and erecting their own stockade. In the short term the uprising was a dismal failure. British troops and colonial police surrounded the stockade and routed the miners. Yet the long-term implications were enormous. “The Eureka episode had an extraordinary impact,” explains Keneally. “Public opinion was very much on the side of the miners, so that, for example, those that were arrested were all acquitted. They couldn’t find a jury in Victoria to condemn them.”

The shock of Eureka accelerated the pace of democratic reform in Australia. Miners’ courts were established and there was soon universal male suffrage (excluding Aborigines) in New South Wales and Victoria. Some of the miners who were being hunted in 1854 were in parliament a couple of years later. The transformation from penal colony to democracy had been rapid.

However it was not entirely unexpected, for Australia had long had a progressive streak in it. That was partly because of the large number of social protestors among the convicts and partly because many of the colony’s rulers held progressive views. Lessons had been learned from the American revolution, meaning that many of the governors were, in Keneally’s words, “quite enlightened people”.

One such person was Lachlan Macquarie, a former Scottish soldier and man of the Enlightenment. He arrived in 1810 and made a conscious effort to integrate ex-convicts into society by, among other things, appointing them to leading roles such as magistrates and chief surgeons. “There was pressure from the grandees of society to make a two-tier community with non-convict settlers having greater rights than convicts or their children. It was due to the insistence of several governors but especially Macquarie that this divided community didn’t develop,” says Keneally. “Indeed my wife’s great-grandfather was a convict who died in the 1850s. Had he lived another 18 months he would have had the vote.”

Not everyone in Australia escaped the convict stain. In February 1788 Thomas Barrett faced death for the final time. Caught stealing butter, peas and pork from a storehouse, he was sentenced to be hanged from a tree. The final rites were read out and as he mounted the ladder to his place of execution, Barrett “turned very pale and seemed very much shocked”. Aged only 17, Barrett was the first man to be executed in the new colony.

He was one of the casualties of early Australia and stories such as his fill the pages of Keneally’s book. All the same, the author believes that despite the hardships, the Australian settlement was a remarkable achievement. “It’s astonishing that we went from being a purpose-designed penal colony to a liberal democracy in only 72 years. As a settler society Australia 1788–1860 was prodigiously successful. I don’t say this with a jingoistic glow in my cheeks because I don’t think I can say the same about the past 50 years, and ultimately I’m going to have to write about that period as well.”


c60,000 BC
The occupation of Australia begins when people from east Asia cross over via a land bridge or shallow sea. These are the Aboriginal Australians

AD 1770
Captain James Cook claims the eastern coast of Australia for Britain, naming it New South Wales

A fleet of British convicts arrives at Botany Bay and a penal colony is established close to Sydney. Convicts will be shipped to Australia until 1868

An Aborigine wounds colony governor Arthur Philip with a spear. As the colony expands settlers will come into greater conflict with the indigenous people

The first free British emigrants arrive and establish themselves in an area they name Liberty Plains

Merino sheep are imported from the Cape of Good Hope. Wool will go on to be a mainstay of the Australian economy

The British government begins to fund migration to Australia. The sale of land is used to finance the scheme

Small pieces of gold are discovered in New South Wales, triggering a gold rush that mirrors that of California

Protesting miners erect a stockade at the Eureka goldfield. They are swiftly defeated by British troops and colonial police

Legislative assemblies are opened in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania as Australia moves towards liberal democracy

Thomas Keneally won the Booker Prize for his novel Schindler’s Ark, the inspiration for Schindler’s List. He is also the author of Australians: Origins to Eureka by Thomas Keneally (Allen & Unwin, 2010).


The name Australia (pronounced / ə ˈ s t r eɪ l i ə / in Australian English [32] ) is derived from the Latin Terra Australis ("southern land"), a name used for a hypothetical continent in the Southern Hemisphere since ancient times. [33] When Europeans first began visiting and mapping Australia in the 17th century, the name Terra Australis was naturally applied to the new territories. [N 4]

Until the early 19th century, Australia was best known as "New Holland", a name first applied by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1644 (as Nieuw-Holland) and subsequently anglicised. Terra Australis still saw occasional usage, such as in scientific texts. [N 5] The name Australia was popularised by the explorer Matthew Flinders, who said it was "more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the Earth". [39] Several famous early cartographers also made use of the word Australia on maps. Gerardus Mercator used the phrase climata australia on his double cordiform map of the world of 1538, as did Gemma Frisius, who was Mercator's teacher and collaborator, on his own cordiform wall map in 1540. Australia appears in a book on astronomy by Cyriaco Jacob zum Barth published in Frankfurt am Main in 1545. [40]

The first time that Australia appears to have been officially used was in April 1817, when Governor Lachlan Macquarie acknowledged the receipt of Flinders' charts of Australia from Lord Bathurst. [41] In December 1817, Macquarie recommended to the Colonial Office that it be formally adopted. [42] In 1824, the Admiralty agreed that the continent should be known officially by that name. [43] The first official published use of the new name came with the publication in 1830 of The Australia Directory by the Hydrographic Office. [44]

Colloquial names for Australia include "Oz" and "the Land Down Under" (usually shortened to just "Down Under"). Other epithets include "the Great Southern Land", "the Lucky Country", "the Sunburnt Country", and "the Wide Brown Land". The latter two both derive from Dorothea Mackellar's 1908 poem "My Country". [45]


Human habitation of the Australian continent is known to have begun at least 65,000 years ago, [46] [47] with the migration of people by land bridges and short sea-crossings from what is now Southeast Asia. [48] The Madjedbebe rock shelter in Arnhem Land is recognised as the oldest site showing the presence of humans in Australia. [49] The oldest human remains found are the Lake Mungo remains, which have been dated to around 41,000 years ago. [50] [51] These people were the ancestors of modern Indigenous Australians. [52] Aboriginal Australian culture is one of the oldest continual cultures on Earth. [53]

At the time of first European contact, most Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers with complex economies and societies. [54] [55] Recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 750,000 could have been sustained. [56] [57] Indigenous Australians have an oral culture with spiritual values based on reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. [58] The Torres Strait Islanders, ethnically Melanesian, obtained their livelihood from seasonal horticulture and the resources of their reefs and seas. [59] The northern coasts and waters of Australia were visited sporadically by Makassan fishermen from what is now Indonesia. [60]

European arrival

The first recorded European sighting of the Australian mainland, and the first recorded European landfall on the Australian continent, are attributed to the Dutch. [61] The first ship and crew to chart the Australian coast and meet with Aboriginal people was the Duyfken captained by Dutch navigator, Willem Janszoon. [62] He sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula in early 1606, and made landfall on 26 February 1606 at the Pennefather River near the modern town of Weipa on Cape York. [63] Later that year, Spanish explorer Luís Vaz de Torres sailed through, and navigated, Torres Strait islands. [64] The Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines and named the island continent "New Holland" during the 17th century, and although no attempt at settlement was made, [63] a number of shipwrecks left men either stranded or, as in the case of the Batavia in 1629, marooned for mutiny and murder, thus becoming the first Europeans to permanently inhabit the continent. [65] William Dampier, an English explorer and privateer, landed on the north-west coast of New Holland in 1688 (while serving as a crewman under pirate Captain John Read [66] ) and again in 1699 on a return trip. [67] In 1770, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Great Britain. [68]

With the loss of its American colonies in 1783, the British Government sent a fleet of ships, the "First Fleet", under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, to establish a new penal colony in New South Wales. A camp was set up and the Union flag raised at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, on 26 January 1788, [69] [70] a date which later became Australia's national day, Australia Day. Most early convicts were transported for petty crimes and assigned as labourers or servants upon arrival. While the majority settled into colonial society once emancipated, convict rebellions and uprisings were also staged, but invariably suppressed under martial law. The 1808 Rum Rebellion, the only successful armed takeover of government in Australia, instigated a two-year period of military rule. [71]

The indigenous population declined for 150 years following settlement, mainly due to infectious disease. [72] Thousands more died as a result of frontier conflict with settlers. [73] A government policy of "assimilation" beginning with the Aboriginal Protection Act 1869 resulted in the removal of many Aboriginal children from their families and communities—referred to as the Stolen Generations — a practice which also contributed to the decline in the indigenous population. [74] As a result of the 1967 referendum, the Federal government's power to enact special laws with respect to a particular race was extended to enable the making of laws with respect to Aboriginals. [75] Traditional ownership of land ("native title") was not recognised in law until 1992, when the High Court of Australia held in Mabo v Queensland (No 2) that the legal doctrine that Australia had been terra nullius ("land belonging to no one") did not apply to Australia at the time of British settlement. [76]

Colonial expansion

The expansion of British control over other areas of the continent began in the early 19th century, initially confined to coastal regions. A settlement was established in Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania) in 1803, and it became a separate colony in 1825. [77] In 1813, Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Wentworth crossed the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, opening the interior to European settlement. [78] The British claim was extended to the whole Australian continent in 1827 when Major Edmund Lockyer established a settlement on King George Sound (modern-day Albany). [79] The Swan River Colony (present-day Perth) was established in 1829, evolving into the largest Australian colony by area, Western Australia. [80] In accordance with population growth, separate colonies were carved from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, New Zealand in 1841, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. [81] The Northern Territory was excised from South Australia in 1911. [82] South Australia was founded as a "free province" — it was never a penal colony. [83] Western Australia was also founded "free" but later accepted transported convicts, the last of which arrived in 1868, decades after transportation had ceased to the other colonies. [84] In the mid-19th century, explorers such as Burke and Wills went further inland to determine its agricultural potential and answer scientific questions. [85]

A series of gold rushes beginning in the early 1850s led to an influx of new migrants from China, North America and continental Europe, [86] and also spurred outbreaks of bushranging and civil unrest the latter peaked in 1854 when Ballarat miners launched the Eureka Rebellion against gold license fees. [87] Between 1855 and 1890, the six colonies individually gained responsible government, managing most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire. [88] The Colonial Office in London retained control of some matters, notably foreign affairs [89] and defence. [90]


On 1 January 1901, federation of the colonies was achieved after a decade of planning, consultation and voting. [91] After the 1907 Imperial Conference, Australia and the other self-governing British colonies were given the status of "dominion" within the British Empire. [92] [93] The Federal Capital Territory (later renamed the Australian Capital Territory) was formed in 1911 as the location for the future federal capital of Canberra. Melbourne was the temporary seat of government from 1901 to 1927 while Canberra was being constructed. [94] The Northern Territory was transferred from the control of the South Australian government to the federal parliament in 1911. [95] Australia became the colonial ruler of the Territory of Papua (which had initially been annexed by Queensland in 1883 [96] ) in 1902 and of the Territory of New Guinea (formerly German New Guinea) in 1920. The two were unified as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in 1949 and gained independence from Australia in 1975. [97] [98] [99]

In 1914, Australia joined Britain in fighting World War I, with support from both the outgoing Commonwealth Liberal Party and the incoming Australian Labor Party. [100] [101] Australians took part in many of the major battles fought on the Western Front. [102] Of about 416,000 who served, about 60,000 were killed and another 152,000 were wounded. [103] Many Australians regard the defeat of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) at Gallipoli as the birth of the nation — its first major military action. [104] [105] The Kokoda Track campaign is regarded by many as an analogous nation-defining event during World War II. [106]

Britain's Statute of Westminster 1931 formally ended most of the constitutional links between Australia and the United Kingdom. Australia adopted it in 1942, [107] but it was backdated to 1939 to confirm the validity of legislation passed by the Australian Parliament during World War II. [108] [109] The shock of Britain's defeat in Asia in 1942, followed soon after by the bombing of Darwin and other Japanese attacks, led to a widespread belief in Australia that an invasion was imminent, and a shift towards the United States as a new ally and protector. [110] Since 1951, Australia has been a formal military ally of the United States, under the ANZUS treaty. [111]

After World War II, Australia encouraged immigration from mainland Europe. Since the 1970s and following the abolition of the White Australia policy, immigration from Asia and elsewhere was also promoted. [112] As a result, Australia's demography, culture, and self-image were transformed. [113] The Australia Act 1986 severed the remaining constitutional ties between Australia and the United Kingdom. [114] In a 1999 referendum, 55% of voters and a majority in every state rejected a proposal to become a republic with a president appointed by a two-thirds vote in both Houses of the Australian Parliament. There has been an increasing focus in foreign policy on ties with other Pacific Rim nations while maintaining close ties with Australia's traditional allies and trading partners. [115]

General characteristics

Surrounded by the Indian and Pacific oceans, [N 6] Australia is separated from Asia by the Arafura and Timor seas, with the Coral Sea lying off the Queensland coast, and the Tasman Sea lying between Australia and New Zealand. The world's smallest continent [117] and sixth largest country by total area, [118] Australia—owing to its size and isolation—is often dubbed the "island continent" [119] and is sometimes considered the world's largest island. [120] Australia has 34,218 km (21,262 mi) of coastline (excluding all offshore islands), [121] and claims an extensive Exclusive Economic Zone of 8,148,250 square kilometres (3,146,060 sq mi). This exclusive economic zone does not include the Australian Antarctic Territory. [122]

Mainland Australia lies between latitudes 9° and 44° South, and longitudes 112° and 154° East. [123] Australia's size gives it a wide variety of landscapes, with tropical rainforests in the north-east, mountain ranges in the south-east, south-west and east, and desert in the centre. [124] The desert or semi-arid land commonly known as the outback makes up by far the largest portion of land. [125] Australia is the driest inhabited continent its annual rainfall averaged over continental area is less than 500 mm. [126] The population density is 3.2 inhabitants per square kilometre, although a large proportion of the population lives along the temperate south-eastern coastline. [127]

The Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef, [128] lies a short distance off the north-east coast and extends for over 2,000 km (1,200 mi). Mount Augustus, claimed to be the world's largest monolith, [129] is located in Western Australia. At 2,228 m (7,310 ft), Mount Kosciuszko is the highest mountain on the Australian mainland. Even taller are Mawson Peak (at 2,745 m (9,006 ft)), on the remote Australian external territory of Heard Island, and, in the Australian Antarctic Territory, Mount McClintock and Mount Menzies, at 3,492 m (11,457 ft) and 3,355 m (11,007 ft) respectively. [130]

Eastern Australia is marked by the Great Dividing Range, which runs parallel to the coast of Queensland, New South Wales and much of Victoria. The name is not strictly accurate, because parts of the range consist of low hills, and the highlands are typically no more than 1,600 m (5,200 ft) in height. [131] The coastal uplands and a belt of Brigalow grasslands lie between the coast and the mountains, while inland of the dividing range are large areas of grassland and shrubland. [131] [132] These include the western plains of New South Wales, and the Mitchell Grass Downs and Mulga Lands of inland Queensland. [133] [134] [135] [136] The northernmost point of the mainland is the tropical Cape York Peninsula. [123]

The landscapes of the Top End and the Gulf Country—with their tropical climate—include forest, woodland, wetland, grassland, rainforest and desert. [137] [138] [139] At the north-west corner of the continent are the sandstone cliffs and gorges of The Kimberley, and below that the Pilbara. The Victoria Plains tropical savanna lies south of the Kimberly and Arnhem Land savannas, forming a transition between the coastal savannas and the interior deserts. [140] [141] [142] At the heart of the country are the uplands of central Australia. Prominent features of the centre and south include Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock), the famous sandstone monolith, and the inland Simpson, Tirari and Sturt Stony, Gibson, Great Sandy, Tanami, and Great Victoria deserts, with the famous Nullarbor Plain on the southern coast. [143] [144] [145] [146] The Western Australian mulga shrublands lie between the interior deserts and Mediterranean-climate Southwest Australia. [145] [147]


Lying on the Indo-Australian Plate, the mainland of Australia is the lowest and most primordial landmass on Earth with a relatively stable geological history. [148] [149] The landmass includes virtually all known rock types and from all geological time periods spanning over 3.8 billion years of the Earth's history. The Pilbara Craton is one of only two pristine Archaean 3.6–2.7 Ga (billion years ago) crusts identified on the Earth. [150]

Having been part of all major supercontinents, the Australian continent began to form after the breakup of Gondwana in the Permian, with the separation of the continental landmass from the African continent and Indian subcontinent. It separated from Antarctica over a prolonged period beginning in the Permian and continuing through to the Cretaceous. [151] When the last glacial period ended in about 10,000 BC, rising sea levels formed Bass Strait, separating Tasmania from the mainland. Then between about 8,000 and 6,500 BC, the lowlands in the north were flooded by the sea, separating New Guinea, the Aru Islands, and the mainland of Australia. [152] The Australian continent is moving toward Eurasia at the rate of 6 to 7 centimetres a year. [153]

The Australian mainland's continental crust, excluding the thinned margins, has an average thickness of 38 km, with a range in thickness from 24 km to 59 km. [154] Australia's geology can be divided into several main sections, showcasing that the continent grew from west to east: the Archaean cratonic shields found mostly in the west, Proterozoic fold belts in the centre and Phanerozoic sedimentary basins, metamorphic and igneous rocks in the east. [155]

The Australian mainland and Tasmania are situated in the middle of the tectonic plate and have no active volcanoes, [156] but due to passing over the East Australia hotspot, recent volcanism has occurred during the Holocene, in the Newer Volcanics Province of western Victoria and southeastern South Australia. Volcanism also occurs in the island of New Guinea (considered geologically as part of the Australian continent), and in the Australian external territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands. [157] Seismic activity in the Australian mainland and Tasmania is also low, with the greatest number of fatalities having occurred in the 1989 Newcastle earthquake. [158]


The climate of Australia is significantly influenced by ocean currents, including the Indian Ocean Dipole and the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, which is correlated with periodic drought, and the seasonal tropical low-pressure system that produces cyclones in northern Australia. [160] [161] These factors cause rainfall to vary markedly from year to year. Much of the northern part of the country has a tropical, predominantly summer-rainfall (monsoon). [126] The south-west corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate. [162] The south-east ranges from oceanic (Tasmania and coastal Victoria) to humid subtropical (upper half of New South Wales), with the highlands featuring alpine and subpolar oceanic climates. The interior is arid to semi-arid. [126]

Driven by climate change, average temperatures have risen more than 1°C since 1960. Associated changes in rainfall patterns and climate extremes exacerbate existing issues such as drought and bushfires. 2019 was Australia's warmest recorded year, [163] and the 2019–2020 bushfire season was the country's worst on record. [164] Australia's greenhouse gas emissions per capita are among the highest in the world. [165]

Water restrictions are frequently in place in many regions and cities of Australia in response to chronic shortages due to urban population increases and localised drought. [166] [167] Throughout much of the continent, major flooding regularly follows extended periods of drought, flushing out inland river systems, overflowing dams and inundating large inland flood plains, as occurred throughout Eastern Australia in the early 2010s after the 2000s Australian drought. [168]


Although most of Australia is semi-arid or desert, the continent includes a diverse range of habitats from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests. Fungi typify that diversity—an estimated 250,000 species—of which only 5% have been described—occur in Australia. [169] Because of the continent's great age, extremely variable weather patterns, and long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia's biota is unique. About 85% of flowering plants, 84% of mammals, more than 45% of birds, and 89% of in-shore, temperate-zone fish are endemic. [170] Australia has at least 755 species of reptile, more than any other country in the world. [171] Besides Antarctica, Australia is the only continent that developed without feline species. Feral cats may have been introduced in the 17th century by Dutch shipwrecks, and later in the 18th century by European settlers. They are now considered a major factor in the decline and extinction of many vulnerable and endangered native species. [172] Australia is also one of 17 megadiverse countries. [173]

Australian forests are mostly made up of evergreen species, particularly eucalyptus trees in the less arid regions wattles replace them as the dominant species in drier regions and deserts. [174] Among well-known Australian animals are the monotremes (the platypus and echidna) a host of marsupials, including the kangaroo, koala, and wombat, and birds such as the emu and the kookaburra. [174] Australia is home to many dangerous animals including some of the most venomous snakes in the world. [175] The dingo was introduced by Austronesian people who traded with Indigenous Australians around 3000 BCE. [176] Many animal and plant species became extinct soon after first human settlement, [177] including the Australian megafauna others have disappeared since European settlement, among them the thylacine. [178] [179]

Many of Australia's ecoregions, and the species within those regions, are threatened by human activities and introduced animal, chromistan, fungal and plant species. [180] All these factors have led to Australia's having the highest mammal extinction rate of any country in the world. [181] The federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is the legal framework for the protection of threatened species. [182] Numerous protected areas have been created under the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity to protect and preserve unique ecosystems [183] [184] 65 wetlands are listed under the Ramsar Convention, [185] and 16 natural World Heritage Sites have been established. [186] Australia was ranked 21st out of 178 countries in the world on the 2018 Environmental Performance Index. [187] There are more than 1,800 animals and plants on Australia's threatened species list, including more than 500 animals. [188]

Australia is a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy. [189] The country has maintained a stable liberal democratic political system under its constitution, which is one of the world's oldest, since Federation in 1901. It is also one of the world's oldest federations, in which power is divided between the federal and state and territorial governments. The Australian system of government combines elements derived from the political systems of the United Kingdom (a fused executive, constitutional monarchy and strong party discipline) and the United States (federalism, a written constitution and strong bicameralism with an elected upper house), along with distinctive indigenous features. [190] [191]

The federal government is separated into three branches: [192]

  • Legislature: the bicameral Parliament, comprising the monarch (represented by the governor-general), the Senate, and the House of Representatives
  • Executive: the Federal Executive Council, which in practice gives legal effect to the decisions of the cabinet, comprising the prime minister and other ministers of state appointed by the governor-general on the advice of Parliament [193]
  • Judiciary: the High Court of Australia and other federal courts, whose judges are appointed by the governor-general on advice of Parliament

Elizabeth II reigns as Queen of Australia and is represented in Australia by the governor-general at the federal level and by the governors at the state level, who by convention act on the advice of her ministers. [194] [195] Thus, in practice the governor-general acts as a legal figurehead for the actions of the prime minister and the Federal Executive Council. The governor-general does have extraordinary reserve powers which may be exercised outside the prime minister's request in rare and limited circumstances, the most notable exercise of which was the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in the constitutional crisis of 1975. [196]

In the Senate (the upper house), there are 76 senators: twelve each from the states and two each from the mainland territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory). [197] The House of Representatives (the lower house) has 151 members elected from single-member electoral divisions, commonly known as "electorates" or "seats", allocated to states on the basis of population, [198] with each original state guaranteed a minimum of five seats. [199] Elections for both chambers are normally held every three years simultaneously senators have overlapping six-year terms except for those from the territories, whose terms are not fixed but are tied to the electoral cycle for the lower house thus only 40 of the 76 places in the Senate are put to each election unless the cycle is interrupted by a double dissolution. [197]

Australia's electoral system uses preferential voting for all lower house elections with the exception of Tasmania and the ACT which, along with the Senate and most state upper houses, combine it with proportional representation in a system known as the single transferable vote. Voting is compulsory for all enrolled citizens 18 years and over in every jurisdiction, [200] as is enrolment. [201] The party with majority support in the House of Representatives forms the government and its leader becomes Prime Minister. In cases where no party has majority support, the Governor-General has the constitutional power to appoint the Prime Minister and, if necessary, dismiss one that has lost the confidence of Parliament. [202] Due to the relatively unique position of Australia operating as a Westminster Parliamentary democracy with an elected upper house, the system has sometimes been referred to as having a "Washminster mutation", [203] or as a Semi-parliamentary system. [204]

There are two major political groups that usually form government, federally and in the states: the Australian Labor Party and the Coalition which is a formal grouping of the Liberal Party and its minor partner, the National Party. [205] [206] Within Australian political culture, the Coalition is considered centre-right and the Labor Party is considered centre-left. [207] Independent members and several minor parties have achieved representation in Australian parliaments, mostly in upper houses. The Australian Greens are often considered the "third force" in politics, being the third largest party by both vote and membership. [208]

The most recent federal election was held on 18 May 2019 and resulted in the Coalition, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, retaining government. [209]

States and territories

Australia has six states — New South Wales (NSW), Queensland (QLD), South Australia (SA), Tasmania (TAS), Victoria (VIC) and Western Australia (WA) — and two major mainland territories—the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory (NT). In most respects, these two territories function as states, except that the Commonwealth Parliament has the power to modify or repeal any legislation passed by the territory parliaments. [210]

Under the constitution, the states essentially have plenary legislative power to legislate on any subject, whereas the Commonwealth (federal) Parliament may legislate only within the subject areas enumerated under section 51. For example, state parliaments have the power to legislate with respect to education, criminal law and state police, health, transport, and local government, but the Commonwealth Parliament does not have any specific power to legislate in these areas. [211] However, Commonwealth laws prevail over state laws to the extent of the inconsistency. [212]

Each state and major mainland territory has its own parliament — unicameral in the Northern Territory, the ACT and Queensland, and bicameral in the other states. The states are sovereign entities, although subject to certain powers of the Commonwealth as defined by the Constitution. The lower houses are known as the Legislative Assembly (the House of Assembly in South Australia and Tasmania) the upper houses are known as the Legislative Council. The head of the government in each state is the Premier and in each territory the Chief Minister. The Queen is represented in each state by a governor and in the Northern Territory, the administrator. [213] In the Commonwealth, the Queen's representative is the governor-general. [214]

The Commonwealth Parliament also directly administers the external territories of Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the Coral Sea Islands, Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and the claimed region of Australian Antarctic Territory, as well as the internal Jervis Bay Territory, a naval base and sea port for the national capital in land that was formerly part of New South Wales. [193] The external territory of Norfolk Island previously exercised considerable autonomy under the Norfolk Island Act 1979 through its own legislative assembly and an Administrator to represent the Queen. [215] In 2015, the Commonwealth Parliament abolished self-government, integrating Norfolk Island into the Australian tax and welfare systems and replacing its legislative assembly with a council. [216] Macquarie Island is part of Tasmania, [217] and Lord Howe Island of New South Wales. [218]

Foreign relations

Over recent decades, Australia's foreign relations have been driven by a close association with the United States through the ANZUS pact, and by a desire to develop relationships with Asia and the Pacific, particularly through Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Pacific Islands Forum and the Pacific Community, of which Australia is a founding member. In 2005, Australia secured an inaugural seat at the East Asia Summit following its accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, and in 2011 attended the Sixth East Asia Summit in Indonesia. Australia is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, in which the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings provide the main forum for co-operation. [219] Australia has pursued the cause of international trade liberalisation. [220] It led the formation of the Cairns Group and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. [221] [222]

Australia is a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), [223] [224] and has pursued several major bilateral free trade agreements, most recently the Australia–United States Free Trade Agreement [225] and Closer Economic Relations with New Zealand, [226] with another free trade agreement being negotiated with China — the Australia–China Free Trade Agreement — and Japan, [227] South Korea in 2011, [228] [229] Australia–Chile Free Trade Agreement, and as of November 2015 [update] has put the Trans-Pacific Partnership before parliament for ratification. [230]

Australia maintains a deeply integrated relationship with neighbouring New Zealand, with free mobility of citizens between the two countries under the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement and free trade under the Australia–New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement. [231] New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom are the most favourably viewed countries in the world by Australian people. [232] [233]

Along with New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Singapore, Australia is party to the Five Power Defence Arrangements, a regional defence agreement. A founding member country of the United Nations, Australia is strongly committed to multilateralism [234] and maintains an international aid program under which some 60 countries receive assistance. The 2005–2006 budget provides AU$2.5 billion for development assistance. [235] Australia ranks fifteenth overall in the Center for Global Development's 2012 Commitment to Development Index. [236]


Australia's armed forces—the Australian Defence Force (ADF) — comprise the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), in total numbering 81,214 personnel (including 57,982 regulars and 23,232 reservists) as of November 2015 [update] . The titular role of Commander-in-Chief is vested in the Governor-General, who appoints a Chief of the Defence Force from one of the armed services on the advice of the government. [237] In a diarchy, the CDF serves as co-chairman of the Defence Committee, conjointly with the Secretary of Defence, in the command and control of the Australian Defence Organisation. [238]

In the 2016–2017 budget, defence spending comprised 2% of GDP, representing the world's 12th largest defence budget. [239] Australia has been involved in United Nations and regional peacekeeping, disaster relief and armed conflict, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq Australia currently has deployed about 2,241 personnel in varying capacities to 12 international operations in areas including Iraq and Afghanistan. [240]

A wealthy country, Australia has a market economy, a high GDP per capita, and a relatively low rate of poverty. In terms of average wealth, Australia ranked second in the world after Switzerland from 2013 until 2018. [241] In 2018, Australia overtook Switzerland and became the country with the highest average wealth. [241] Australia's relative poverty rate is 13.6%. [242] It was identified by the Credit Suisse Research Institute as the nation with the highest median wealth in the world and the second-highest average wealth per adult in 2013. [243]

The Australian dollar is the currency for the nation, including Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and Norfolk Island, as well as the independent Pacific Island states of Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu. With the 2006 merger of the Australian Stock Exchange and the Sydney Futures Exchange, the Australian Securities Exchange became the ninth largest in the world. [244]

Ranked fifth in the Index of Economic Freedom (2017), [245] Australia is the world's 13th largest economy and has the tenth highest per capita GDP (nominal) at US$55,692. [246] The country was ranked third in the United Nations 2017 Human Development Index. [247] Melbourne reached top spot for the fourth year in a row on The Economist ' s 2014 list of the world's most liveable cities, [248] followed by Adelaide, Sydney, and Perth in the fifth, seventh, and ninth places respectively. Total government debt in Australia is about A$190 billion [249] —20% of GDP in 2010. [250] Australia has among the highest house prices and some of the highest household debt levels in the world. [251]

An emphasis on exporting commodities rather than manufactured goods has underpinned a significant increase in Australia's terms of trade since the start of the 21st century, due to rising commodity prices. Australia has a balance of payments that is more than 7% of GDP negative, and has had persistently large current account deficits for more than 50 years. [253] Australia has grown at an average annual rate of 3.6% for over 15 years, in comparison to the OECD annual average of 2.5%. [253]

Australia was the only advanced economy not to experience a recession due to the global financial downturn in 2008–2009. [254] However, the economies of six of Australia's major trading partners were in recession, which in turn affected Australia, significantly hampering its economic growth. [255] [256] From 2012 to early 2013, Australia's national economy grew, but some non-mining states and Australia's non-mining economy experienced a recession. [257] [258] [259]

The Hawke Government floated the Australian dollar in 1983 and partially deregulated the financial system. [260] The Howard Government followed with a partial deregulation of the labour market and the further privatisation of state-owned businesses, most notably in the telecommunications industry. [261] The indirect tax system was substantially changed in July 2000 with the introduction of a 10% Goods and Services Tax (GST). [262] In Australia's tax system, personal and company income tax are the main sources of government revenue. [263]

As of September 2018 [update] , there were 12,640,800 people employed (either full- or part-time), with an unemployment rate of 5.2%. [264] Data released in mid-November 2013 showed that the number of welfare recipients had grown by 55%. In 2007 228,621 Newstart unemployment allowance recipients were registered, a total that increased to 646,414 in March 2013. [265] According to the Graduate Careers Survey, full-time employment for newly qualified professionals from various occupations has declined since 2011 but it increases for graduates three years after graduation. [266] [267]

As of 2020 [update] interest rates in Australia were set at a record low of 0.1%, targeting an inflation rate of 2 to 3%. [268] The service sector of the economy, including tourism, education, and financial services, accounts for about 70% of GDP. [269] Rich in natural resources, Australia is a major exporter of agricultural products, particularly wheat and wool, minerals such as iron-ore and gold, and energy in the forms of liquified natural gas and coal. Although agriculture and natural resources account for only 3% and 5% of GDP respectively, they contribute substantially to export performance. Australia's largest export markets are Japan, China, the United States, South Korea, and New Zealand. [270] Australia is the world's fourth largest exporter of wine, and the wine industry contributes A$5.5 billion per year to the nation's economy. [271]

Access to biocapacity in Australia is much higher than world average. In 2016, Australia had 12.3 global hectares [272] of biocapacity per person within its territory, much more than the world average of 1.6 global hectares per person. [273] In 2016 Australia used 6.6 global hectares of biocapacity per person – their ecological footprint of consumption. This means they use half as much biocapacity as Australia contains. As a result, Australia is running a biocapacity reserve. [272]

In 2020 the Australian Council of Social Service released a report stating that relative poverty was growing in Australia, with an estimated 3.2 million people, or 13.6% of the population, living below an internationally accepted relative poverty threshold of 50% of a country's median income. It also estimated that there were 774,000 (17.7%) children under the age of 15 in relative poverty. [274] [275]

Australia has an average population density of 3.4 persons per square kilometre of total land area, which makes it one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. The population is heavily concentrated on the east coast, and in particular in the south-eastern region between South East Queensland to the north-east and Adelaide to the south-west. [276]

Australia is highly urbanised, with 67% of the population living in the Greater Capital City Statistical Areas (metropolitan areas of the state and mainland territorial capital cities) in 2018. [277] Metropolitan areas with more than one million inhabitants are Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. [278]

In common with many other developed countries, Australia is experiencing a demographic shift towards an older population, with more retirees and fewer people of working age. In 2018 the average age of the Australian population was 38.8 years. [279] In 2015, 2.15% of the Australian population lived overseas, one of the lowest proportions worldwide. [280]

Ancestry and immigration

Country of birth (2020) [282]
Birthplace [N 7] Population
England 980,360
India 721,050
Mainland China 650,640
New Zealand 564,840
Philippines 310,050
Vietnam 270,340
South Africa 200,240
Italy 177,840
Malaysia 177,460
Sri Lanka 146,950
Scotland 132,590
Nepal 131,830
South Korea 111,530
Germany 111,030
United States 110,160
Hong Kong 104,760
Greece 103,710
Total Australian-born 18,043,310
Total foreign-born 7,653,990

Between 1788 and the Second World War, the vast majority of settlers and immigrants came from the British Isles (principally England, Ireland and Scotland), although there was significant immigration from China and Germany during the 19th century. In the decades immediately following the Second World War, Australia received a large wave of immigration from across Europe, with many more immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe than in previous decades. Since the end of the White Australia policy in 1973, Australia has pursued an official policy of multiculturalism, [283] and there has been a large and continuing wave of immigration from across the world, with Asia being the largest source of immigrants in the 21st century. [284]

Today, Australia has the world's eighth-largest immigrant population, with immigrants accounting for 30% of the population, the highest proportion among major Western nations. [28] [285] 160,323 permanent immigrants were admitted to Australia in 2018–2019 (excluding refugees), [284] whilst there was a net population gain of 239,600 people from all permanent and temporary immigration in that year. [286] The majority of immigrants are skilled, [284] but the immigration program includes categories for family members and refugees. [286] In 2019, the largest foreign-born populations were those born in England (3.9%), Mainland China (2.7%), India (2.6%), New Zealand (2.2%), the Philippines (1.2%) and Vietnam (1%). [28]

In the 2016 Australian census, the most commonly nominated ancestries were: [N 8] [287] [288]

At the 2016 census, 649,171 people (2.8% of the total population) identified as being Indigenous — Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. [N 11] [290] Indigenous Australians experience higher than average rates of imprisonment and unemployment, lower levels of education, and life expectancies for males and females that are, respectively, 11 and 17 years lower than those of non-indigenous Australians. [270] [291] [292] Some remote Indigenous communities have been described as having "failed state"-like conditions. [293]


Although Australia has no official language, English is the de facto national language. [2] Australian English is a major variety of the language with a distinctive accent and lexicon, [294] and differs slightly from other varieties of English in grammar and spelling. [295] General Australian serves as the standard dialect. [296]

According to the 2016 census, English is the only language spoken in the home for 72.7% of the population. The next most common languages spoken at home are Mandarin (2.5%), Arabic (1.4%), Cantonese (1.2%), Vietnamese (1.2%) and Italian (1.2%). [287] Over 250 Indigenous Australian languages are thought to have existed at the time of first European contact, [297] of which fewer than twenty are still in daily use by all age groups. [298] [299] About 110 others are spoken exclusively by older people. [299] At the time of the 2006 census, 52,000 Indigenous Australians, representing 12% of the Indigenous population, reported that they spoke an Indigenous language at home. [300] Australia has a sign language known as Auslan, which is the main language of about 10,112 deaf people who reported that they spoke Auslan language at home in the 2016 census. [301]


Australia has no state religion Section 116 of the Australian Constitution prohibits the federal government from making any law to establish any religion, impose any religious observance, or prohibit the free exercise of any religion. [303] In the 2016 census, 52.1% of Australians were counted as Christian, including 22.6% as Catholic and 13.3% as Anglican 30.1% of the population reported having "no religion" 8.2% identify with non-Christian religions, the largest of these being Islam (2.6%), followed by Buddhism (2.4%), Hinduism (1.9%), Sikhism (0.5%) and Judaism (0.4%). The remaining 9.7% of the population did not provide an adequate answer. Those who reported having no religion increased conspicuously from 19% in 2006 to 22% in 2011 to 30.1% in 2016. [302]

Before European settlement, the animist beliefs of Australia's indigenous people had been practised for many thousands of years. Mainland Aboriginal Australians' spirituality is known as the Dreaming and it places a heavy emphasis on belonging to the land. The collection of stories that it contains shaped Aboriginal law and customs. Aboriginal art, story and dance continue to draw on these spiritual traditions. The spirituality and customs of Torres Strait Islanders, who inhabit the islands between Australia and New Guinea, reflected their Melanesian origins and dependence on the sea. The 1996 Australian census counted more than 7000 respondents as followers of a traditional Aboriginal religion. [304]

Since the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships in 1788, Christianity has become the major religion practised in Australia. Christian churches have played an integral role in the development of education, health and welfare services in Australia. For much of Australian history, the Church of England (now known as the Anglican Church of Australia) was the largest religious denomination, with a large Roman Catholic minority. However, multicultural immigration has contributed to a steep decline in its relative position since the Second World War. Similarly, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism have all grown in Australia over the past half-century. [305]

Australia has one of the lowest levels of religious adherence in the world. [306] In 2018, 13% of women and 10% of men reported attending church at least weekly. [307]


Australia's life expectancy is the fourth highest in the world for males and the third highest for females. [308] Life expectancy in Australia in 2014–2016 was 80.4 years for males and 84.6 years for females. [309] Australia has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, [310] while cigarette smoking is the largest preventable cause of death and disease, responsible for 7.8% of the total mortality and disease. Ranked second in preventable causes is hypertension at 7.6%, with obesity third at 7.5%. [311] [312] Australia ranks 35th in the world [313] and near the top of developed nations for its proportion of obese adults [314] and nearly two thirds (63%) of its adult population is either overweight or obese. [315]

Total expenditure on health (including private sector spending) is around 9.8% of GDP. [316] Australia introduced universal health care in 1975. [317] Known as Medicare, it is now nominally funded by an income tax surcharge known as the Medicare levy, currently at 2%. [318] The states manage hospitals and attached outpatient services, while the Commonwealth funds the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (subsidising the costs of medicines) and general practice. [317]


School attendance, or registration for home schooling, [320] is compulsory throughout Australia. Education is the responsibility of the individual states and territories [321] so the rules vary between states, but in general children are required to attend school from the age of about 5 until about 16. [322] [323] In some states (e.g., Western Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales), children aged 16–17 are required to either attend school or participate in vocational training, such as an apprenticeship. [324] [325] [326] [327]

Australia has an adult literacy rate that was estimated to be 99% in 2003. [328] However, a 2011–2012 report for the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that Tasmania has a literacy and numeracy rate of only 50%. [329]

Australia has 37 government-funded universities and three private universities, as well as a number of other specialist institutions that provide approved courses at the higher education level. [330] The OECD places Australia among the most expensive nations to attend university. [331] There is a state-based system of vocational training, known as TAFE, and many trades conduct apprenticeships for training new tradespeople. [332] About 58% of Australians aged from 25 to 64 have vocational or tertiary qualifications, [270] and the tertiary graduation rate of 49% is the highest among OECD countries. 30.9% of Australia's population has attained a higher education qualification, which is among the highest percentages in the world. [333] [334] [335]

Australia has the highest ratio of international students per head of population in the world by a large margin, with 812,000 international students enrolled in the nation's universities and vocational institutions in 2019. [336] [337] Accordingly, in 2019, international students represented on average 26.7% of the student bodies of Australian universities. International education therefore represents one of the country's largest exports and has a pronounced influence on the country's demographics, with a significant proportion of international students remaining in Australia after graduation on various skill and employment visas. [338]


In 2003, Australia's energy sources were coal (58.4%), hydropower (19.1%), natural gas (13.5%), liquid/gas fossil fuel-switching plants (5.4%), oil (2.9%), and other renewable resources like wind power, solar energy, and bioenergy (0.7%). [339] During the 21st century, Australia has been trending to generate more energy using renewable resources and less energy using fossil fuels. In 2020, Australia used coal for 62% of all energy (3.6% increase compared to 2013), wind power for 9.9% (9.5% increase), natural gas for 9.9% (3.6% decrease), solar power for 9.9% (9.8% increase), hydropower for 6.4% (12.7% decrease), bioenergy for 1.4% (1.2% increase), and other sources like oil and waste coal mine gas for 0.5%. [340] [341]

In August 2009, Australia's government set a goal to achieve 20% of all energy in the country from renewable sources by 2020. [342] They achieved this goal, as renewable resources accounted for 27.7% of Australia's energy in 2020. [340]

Since 1788, the primary influence behind Australian culture has been Anglo-Celtic Western culture, with some Indigenous influences. [344] [345] The divergence and evolution that has occurred in the ensuing centuries has resulted in a distinctive Australian culture. [346] [347] The culture of the United States has served as a significant influence, particularly through television and cinema. Other cultural influences come from neighbouring Asian countries, and through large-scale immigration from non-English-speaking nations. [348]

Australia has over 100,000 Aboriginal rock art sites, [349] and traditional designs, patterns and stories infuse contemporary Indigenous Australian art, "the last great art movement of the 20th century" according to critic Robert Hughes [350] its exponents include Emily Kame Kngwarreye. [351] Early colonial artists showed a fascination with the unfamiliar land. [352] The impressionistic works of Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and other members of the 19th-century Heidelberg School—the first "distinctively Australian" movement in Western art—gave expression to nationalist sentiments in the lead-up to Federation. [352] While the school remained influential into the 1900s, modernists such as Margaret Preston, and, later, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, explored new artistic trends. [352] The landscape remained a central subject matter for Fred Williams, Brett Whiteley and other post-war artists whose works, eclectic in style yet uniquely Australian, moved between the figurative and the abstract. [352] [353] The national and state galleries maintain collections of local and international art. [354] Australia has one of the world's highest attendances of art galleries and museums per head of population. [355]

Australian literature grew slowly in the decades following European settlement though Indigenous oral traditions, many of which have since been recorded in writing, are much older. [357] In the 1870s, Adam Lindsay Gordon posthumously became the first Australian poet to attain a wide readership. Following in his footsteps, Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson captured the experience of the bush using a distinctive Australian vocabulary. [358] Their works are still popular Paterson's bush poem "Waltzing Matilda" (1895) is regarded as Australia's unofficial national anthem. [359] Miles Franklin is the namesake of Australia's most prestigious literary prize, awarded annually to the best novel about Australian life. [360] Its first recipient, Patrick White, went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. [361] Australian Booker Prize winners include Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally and Richard Flanagan. [362] Authors David Malouf, Germaine Greer, Helen Garner, playwright David Williamson and poet Les Murray are also renowned. [363] [364]

Many of Australia's performing arts companies receive funding through the federal government's Australia Council. [365] There is a symphony orchestra in each state, [366] and a national opera company, Opera Australia, [367] well known for its famous soprano Joan Sutherland. [368] At the beginning of the 20th century, Nellie Melba was one of the world's leading opera singers. [369] Ballet and dance are represented by The Australian Ballet and various state companies. Each state has a publicly funded theatre company. [370]


The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), the world's first feature-length narrative film, spurred a boom in Australian cinema during the silent film era. [371] After World War I, Hollywood monopolised the industry, [372] and by the 1960s Australian film production had effectively ceased. [373] With the benefit of government support, the Australian New Wave of the 1970s brought provocative and successful films, many exploring themes of national identity, such as Wake in Fright and Gallipoli, [374] while Crocodile Dundee and the Ozploitation movement's Mad Max series became international blockbusters. [375] In a film market flooded with foreign content, Australian films delivered a 7.7% share of the local box office in 2015. [376] The AACTAs are Australia's premier film and television awards, and notable Academy Award winners from Australia include Geoffrey Rush, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger. [377]

Australia has two public broadcasters (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the multicultural Special Broadcasting Service), three commercial television networks, several pay-TV services, [378] and numerous public, non-profit television and radio stations. Each major city has at least one daily newspaper, [378] and there are two national daily newspapers, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review. [378] In 2010, Reporters Without Borders placed Australia 18th on a list of 178 countries ranked by press freedom, behind New Zealand (8th) but ahead of the United Kingdom (19th) and United States (20th). [379] This relatively low ranking is primarily because of the limited diversity of commercial media ownership in Australia [380] most print media are under the control of News Corporation and, after Fairfax Media was merged with Nine, Nine Entertainment Co. [381]


Most Indigenous Australian groups subsisted on a simple hunter-gatherer diet of native fauna and flora, otherwise called bush tucker. [382] The first settlers introduced British food to the continent, much of which is now considered typical Australian food, such as the Sunday roast. [383] [384] Multicultural immigration transformed Australian cuisine post-World War II European migrants, particularly from the Mediterranean, helped to build a thriving Australian coffee culture, and the influence of Asian cultures has led to Australian variants of their staple foods, such as the Chinese-inspired dim sim and Chiko Roll. [385] Vegemite, pavlova, lamingtons and meat pies are regarded as iconic Australian foods. [386]

Australian wine is produced mainly in the southern, cooler parts of the country. [387] Australia is also known for its cafe and coffee culture in urban centres, which has influenced coffee culture abroad, including New York City. [388] Australia was responsible for the flat white coffee–purported to have originated in a Sydney cafe in the mid-1980s. [389]

Sport and recreation

Cricket and football are the predominate sports in Australia during the summer and winter months, respectively. Australia is unique in that it has professional leagues for four football codes. Originating in Melbourne in the 1850s, Australian rules football is the most popular code in all states except New South Wales and Queensland, where rugby league holds sway, followed by rugby union the imaginary border separating areas where Australian rules football dominates from those were the two rugby codes prevail is known as the Barassi Line. [391] Soccer, while ranked fourth in popularity and resources, has the highest overall participation rates. [392] Cricket is popular across all borders and has been regarded by many Australians as the national sport. The Australian national cricket team competed against England in the first Test match (1877) and the first One Day International (1971), and against New Zealand in the first Twenty20 International (2004), winning all three games. It has also participated in every edition of the Cricket World Cup, winning the tournament a record five times. [393]

Australia is also notable for water-based sports, such as swimming and surfing. [394] The surf lifesaving movement originated in Australia, and the volunteer lifesaver is one of the country's icons. [395] Nationally, other popular sports include horse racing, basketball, and motor racing. The annual Melbourne Cup horse race and the Sydney to Hobart yacht race attract intense interest. [396] In 2016, the Australian Sports Commission revealed that swimming, cycling and soccer are the three most popular participation sports. [397] [398]

Australia is one of five nations to have participated in every Summer Olympics of the modern era, [399] and has hosted the Games twice: 1956 in Melbourne and 2000 in Sydney. [400] Australia has also participated in every Commonwealth Games, [401] hosting the event in 1938, 1962, 1982, 2006 and 2018. [402] Australia made its inaugural appearance at the Pacific Games in 2015. As well as being a regular FIFA World Cup participant, Australia has won the OFC Nations Cup four times and the AFC Asian Cup once—the only country to have won championships in two different FIFA confederations. [403] In June 2020, Australia won its bid to co-host the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup with New Zealand. [404] [405] The country regularly competes among the world elite basketball teams as it is among the global top three teams in terms of qualifications to the Basketball Tournament at the Summer Olympics. Other major international events held in Australia include the Australian Open tennis grand slam tournament, international cricket matches, and the Australian Formula One Grand Prix. The highest-rating television programs include sports telecasts such as the Summer Olympics, FIFA World Cup, The Ashes, Rugby League State of Origin, and the grand finals of the National Rugby League and Australian Football League. [406] Skiing in Australia began in the 1860s and snow sports take place in the Australian Alps and parts of Tasmania. [407]

First Colonial Encounters and Frontier Conflict

The first contact between the Australian Aboriginals with British colonisers took place in1788 which quickly escalated into borderline fighting that lasted for more than 140 years and cultural differences that continue to split modern day Australia.

These divides began when Governor Arthur Phillip declared sovereignty on 26th January 1788. It is understood that Lieutenant James Cook was under ‘Secret Instructions’ and had been sent on each of his three travels to the South Pacific between 1768 and 1779 by the British Admiralty. The Secret Instructions in the Letterbook directed the Lieutenant to ‘take possession of the Convenient Situation Australia with the Consent of the Natives in the Name of the King of the Great Britain.’

James Cook had recorded indications that the coast was occupied during the journey north and he noted there was plenty of fires on the mainland and islands, denoting they were inhabited. In spite of Cook’s surveillance and the British Admiralty orders, Governor Arthur Phillip declared sovereignty and possession of the land through the legal notion of terra nullius – land belonging to nobody – over the locality that Cpt. James Cook had named New South Wales.

Supplement Edit

  • Begg, Ferdinand Faithfull
  • Berncastle, Julius
  • Boyce, Rev. William Binnington
  • Brennan, Louis
  • Byrnes, Hon. James
  • Campbell, Hon. Robert
  • Dobson, Hon. Henry
  • Fitzgerald, Thomas Henry
  • Flood, Hon. Edward
  • Forsaith, Rev. Thomas Spencer
  • Gorrie, Sir John
  • Grant, Hon. Charles Henry
  • Graves, John Woodcock
  • Hartnoll, Hon. William
  • Henry, Hon. John
  • Hervey, Hon. Matthew
  • Howitt, Richard
  • Knox, William
  • Larnach, Donald
  • Lewis, Hon. Neil Elliott
  • Loftus, Augustus Pelham Brooke
  • Loftus, The Right Hon. Lord Augustus William Frederick Spencer
  • Lyster, William Saurin
  • MᶜCombie, Hon. Thomas
  • Macgregor, Hon. John
  • Mewburn, William Richmond
  • O'Connor, Right Rev. Michael
  • Paton, Rev. John Gibson
  • Robertson, William
  • Romilly, Hugh Hastings
  • Ryan, Charles Snodgrass
  • Scott, Rear-Admiral Lord Charles Thomas Douglas Montagu
  • Sherbrooke, Viscount
  • Thakombau
  • Whitehead, Charles
  • Williams, His Honour Joshua Strange

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

Australia — History and Culture

The cities of Australia are renowned for their cultural diversity, however pockets of diaspora are becoming less obvious as Asian, European, Pacific Islander, and African cultures become more assimilated into the modern day melting pot. A strong indigenous heritage is preserved in most cities, but is far more pronounced in the Northern Territory. Of course, contemporary Australian culture is dominated by summer weather, beach life, partying, and outdoor get-togethers.


Indigenous Australians first emigrated onto the continent more than 40,000 years ago, while European influences didn’t start to show until the 17th century. With the colonization of Southeast Asia by European powers, Australia’s northern reaches were constantly visited by Dutch traders. However, the rest of Australia went largely untouched until 1770 when British explorer, Captain James Cook, navigated Australia’s east coast, naming it New South Wales under the British crown.

Eighteen years after James Cook’s discovery, Captain Arthur Phillip led a fleet in 1788 to begin a new British crown colony in New South Wales. He landed at Sydney Cove and immediately began developing the area. Eventually, expeditions of the Australian coastline led to more colonies in the following years, including Tasmania in 1825, South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859.

Despite popular belief, Australia’s population grew through the arrival of free settlers, not relocated British convicts. A population explosion occurred during the gold rush of the 1850’s, and by the turn of the century, the separate colonies voted to become a British dominion and Australia officially became a unified nation on January 1, 1901. After federation, Australia’s economy thrived with its abundance of natural resources, but was limited by lack of manpower.

Following WWII, in which Australia fought on several fronts, a large influx of Europeans immigrated into the country. This was the beginning of Australia’s modern wave of migrants, which also included Asians and Africans over the next 50 years.

Visitors can find out more about Australia’s short yet fascinating history at Sydney’s Australian Museum (6 College Street, Sydney) and the Australian National Maritime Museum (2 Murray Street, Darling Harbour, Sydney). Plenty of colonial remnants are found throughout Australia, including the spectacular Port Arthur Historical Site (Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, Tasmania), which is a well-preserved penal settlement complete with eerie convict quarters.


Australia’s modern culture has been shaped by a number of factors, including Americanization, immigration, ancient heritage, and climate. With much of the population living close to the coast, a strong beach culture dominates society. Even in major city centers, it is not uncommon to see locals wearing beach attire around town. The warm, sunny climate also permits an array of outdoor activities, happily lapped up by locals. A typical Aussie Saturday afternoon is spent at a barbecue with friends or family. Australians are very active yet laid-back people, and this certainly shows through their love of sports, whether they are participating or observing.

Indigenous culture is still prevalent in many parts of the country, and tourists can easily find package tours to learn more. The native Aboriginal people are a proud race, and still practice ancient cultural aspects of tribal life, including dancing, music, art, and even hunting. Arnhem Land is an Aboriginal region in the Northern Territory.

The People of Australia - History

Thousands of years before the arrival of the British, Australia was settled by the indigenous people of Australia called the Aborigines. This timeline begins when the Europeans first arrived.

  • 1606 - The first European to land at Australia is Dutch explorer Captain Willem Janszoon.
  • 1688 - English explorer William Dampier explores the western coast of Australia.
  • 1770 - Captain James Cook lands at Botany Bay with his ship, the HMS Endeavour. He then proceeds to map the eastern coast of Australia, claiming it for Great Britain.
  • 1788 - The first British settlement is established at Sydney by Captain Arthur Phillip. It is the start of the British penal colony which is made up of mostly prisoners.
  • 1803 - Australia is proven to be an island when English navigator Matthew Flinders completes his sail around the island.

Brief Overview of the History of Australia

Australia was first inhabited perhaps 40,000 years ago by aboriginal peoples. During the Age of Exploration, the land was discovered and mapped by many Europeans including the Spanish, Dutch and English. However, Australia wasn't really explored until 1770 when Captain James Cook explored the east coast and claimed it for Great Britain. He named it New South Wales.

The first colony was established at Sydney by Captain Arthur Phillip on January 26, 1788. It was initially considered a penal colony. This was because many of the first settlers were criminals. Britain would sometimes send their criminals to the penal colony rather than jail. Oftentimes, the crimes that people committed were small or even made up to get rid of unwanted citizens. Slowly, more and more of the settlers were not convicts. Sometimes you will still hear people refer to Australia as being started by a penal colony.

Six colonies were formed in Australia: New South Wales, 1788 Tasmania, 1825 Western Australia, 1829 South Australia, 1836 Victoria, 1851 and Queensland, 1859. These same colonies later became the states of the Australian Commonwealth.

On January 1, 1901 the British Government passed an act to create the Commonwealth of Australia. In 1911, the Northern Territory became part of the Commonwealth.

The first federal Parliament was opened at Melbourne in May 1901 by the Duke of York. Later, in 1927, the center of government and parliament moved to the city of Canberra. Australia took part in both World War I and World War II allied with Great Britain and the United States.

Fate of the Stolen Generation

Based on these figures and on notions of Darwinism, it was assumed that the Aboriginal population was dying out. ‘Protection’ policies for the survivors in the early 1900s amounted to segregation and restrictions on freedom. Since it was believed that the full-blooded race would soon disappear anyway, the government focussed on breeding out Aboriginal culture. “Assimilation“, as the policy was called, sanctioned the forcible removal of non full-blood children from their families. These children were placed in institutions where they were expected to learn European values and trades, integrate into white culture, breed with other “half-castes” or whites and ultimately eliminate the Aboriginal blood line. These Stolen Generations, as they come to be known, are to this day campaigning for recognition of what they suffered in being literally kidnapped from their families and often mistreated by their new guardians.

The banishing of adult Aborigines to camps and missions was intended to force the Aboriginal people to adopt the economic and cultural values of white society, while abandoning their own distinct cultural beliefs. Yet Aboriginal culture proved to be remarkably resilient, and this ‘herding’ together actually facilitated some form of organised resistance to be mounted against their treatment at the hands of the whites.

People and Culture of Australia

Although Australia is a predominantly Christian country with about 52% of all Australians identifying as Christian, there is no official state religion. People in Australia are free to practice any religion they choose, as long as they are not breaking the law. Religions from all over the world are practiced in Australia, demonstrating its cultural diversity. Most universities and communities in Australia have facilities and places of worship for all types of faith, so international students in Australia should contact their international student officer about facilities at their educational institution.


Australia has no official language, but the majority of the population speaks English as a first language. According to the 2016 census, 73% of people in Australia spoke only English at home, even including a large number of first- and second-generation migrants. Australian English has a distinctive accent and vocabulary. Because people from about 200 countries around the world have migrated to Australia, there is a vast collection of languages spoken in the country. Other languages spoken in Australia include Mandarin, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, and Greek. It is believed that at one time, there were almost 400 Australian Aboriginal languages, but now only 70 of these languages have survived, and all but 30 are endangered. One indigenous language is still the main language for about 50,000 Aboriginal people in Australia.


Indigenous Australians, or Aboriginals, are the original inhabitants of Australia. They migrated from Africa to Asia around 70,000 years ago, and from Asia to Australia 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. When the British arrived and began to settle in Australia, they brought with them diseases such as measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis, causing massive amounts of damage to the Aboriginal population. The British also appropriated land and water resources in Australia, and converted rural lands for sheep and cattle grazing.

Nowadays, there is a great amount of diversity between different Indigenous communities and societies in Australia. Each has its own customs, cultures, and languages. The Indigenous Australian population is mostly urbanized, but as of 2017, 22% live in remote settlements. These settlements are often located on the sire of former church missions.

Australian Art

Australian art dates back to prehistoric times. It includes Aboriginal, Colonial, Landscape, Atelier, early twentieth century painters, printmakers, photographers, sculptors, and contemporary art. Art in Australia has a long history. There is evidence of Aboriginal art that dates back at least 30,000 years. Examples of Aboriginal rock artwork can be found throughout the continent. Australia has produced many notable artists of both Western and Indigenous Australian schools throughout the course of its long and impressive history.

Australia has many major art museums and galleries, both supported by the national, state, and local government, and by university and privately owned museums. The more prominent of these museums include the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the Canberra Museum and Gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In addition, there are the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, the South Australian Art Gallery in Adelaide, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth. International students in Australia who are interested in the fine arts will certainly have plenty to keep them busy during their stay.

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