|Facts & Figures|
Map of Australia
Sovereign: Queen Elizabeth II (1952)
Governor-General: Michael Jeffery (2003)
Prime Minister: Kevin Rudd (2007)
Land area: 2,941,283 sq mi (7,617,931 sq km); total area: 2,967,893 sq mi (7,686,850 sq km)
Population (2009 est.): 21,262,641 (growth rate: 1.2%); birth rate: 12.4/1000; infant mortality rate: 4.75/1000; life expectancy: 81.6; density per sq km: 2.6
Capital (2003 est.): Canberra, 327,700
Largest cities: Sydney, 4,250,100; Melbourne, 3,610,800; Brisbane, 1,545,700; Perth, 1,375,200; Adelaide, 1,087,600
Monetary unit: Australian dollar
The continent of Australia, with the island state of Tasmania, is approximately equal in area to the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). Mountain ranges run from north to south along the east coast, reaching their highest point in Mount Kosciusko (7,308 ft.; 2,228 m). The western half of the continent is occupied by a desert plateau that rises into barren, rolling hills near the west coast. It includes the Great Victoria Desert to the south and the Great Sandy Desert to the north. The Great Barrier Reef, extending about 1,245 miles (2,000 km), lies along the northeast coast. The island of Tasmania (26,178 sq. mi.; 67,800 sq. km) is off the south-eastern coast.
Democracy. Symbolic executive power is vested in the British monarch, who is represented throughout Australia by the governor-general.
The first inhabitants of Australia were the Aborigines, who migrated there at least 40,000 years ago from Southeast Asia. There may have been between a half million to a full million Aborigines at the time of European settlement; today about 350,000 live in Australia.
Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish ships sighted Australia in the 17th century; the Dutch landed at the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1606. In 1616 the territory became known as New Holland. The British arrived in 1688, but it was not until Captain James Cook's voyage in 1770 that Great Britain claimed possession of the vast island, calling it New South Wales. A British penal colony was set up at Port Jackson (what is now Sydney) in 1788, and about 161,000 transported English convicts were settled there until the system was suspended in 1839.
Free settlers and former prisoners established six colonies: New South Wales (1786), Tasmania (then Van Diemen's Land) (1825), Western Australia (1829), South Australia (1834), Victoria (1851), and Queensland (1859). Various gold rushes attracted settlers, as did the mining of other minerals. Sheep farming and grain soon grew into important economic enterprises. The six colonies became states and in 1901 federated into the Commonwealth of Australia with a constitution that incorporated British parliamentary and U.S. federal traditions. Australia became known for its liberal legislation: free compulsory education, protected trade unionism with industrial conciliation and arbitration, the secret ballot, women's suffrage, maternity allowances, and sickness and old-age pensions.
Changes in Immigration Policy
Australia fought alongside Britain in World War I, notably with the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) in the Dardanelles campaign (1915). Participation in World War II helped Australia forge closer ties to the United States. Parliamentary power in the second half of the 20th century shifted between three political parties: the Australian Labour Party, the Liberal Party, and the National Party. Australia relaxed its discriminatory immigration laws in the 1960s and 1970s, which favored Northern Europeans. Thereafter, about 40% of its immigrants came from Asia, diversifying a population that was predominantly of English and Irish heritage. An Aboriginal movement that grew in the 1960s gained full citizenship and improved education for the country's poorest socioeconomic group. In 1967, more than 90% of Australians voted to change the Constitution to make laws for Aborigines and include them in the census. Aborigines also gained full voting rights in the 1960s. Native title came about in the early 1990s, when Australia common law was found to recognise indigenous rights to land and water according to customary native law.
In March 1996, the opposition Liberal Party–National Party coalition easily won the national elections, removing the Labour Party after 13 years in power. Pressure from the new, conservative One Nation Party threatened to reduce the gains made by Aborigines and to limit immigration.
In Sept. 1999, Australia led the international peacekeeping force sent to restore order in East Timor after pro-Indonesian militias began massacring civilians to thwart East Timor's referendum on independence.
John Howard won a third term in Nov. 2001, primarily as the result of his tough policy against illegal immigration. This policy has also brought him considerable criticism: refugees attempting to enter Australia—most of them from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq and numbering about 5,000 annually—have been imprisoned in bleak detention camps and subjected to a lengthy immigration process. Asylum-seekers have staged riots and hunger strikes. Howard has also dealt with refugees through the “Pacific solution,” which reroutes boat people from Australian shores to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. In 2004, however, the government began easing its policies on immigration.
Australia on the International Stage as Peacekeeper
Prime Minister Howard sent 2,000 Australian troops to fight alongside American and British troops in the 2003 Iraq war, despite strong opposition among Australians.
In July 2003, Australia successfully restored order to the Solomon Islands, which had descended into lawlessness during a brutal civil war.
Australian citizens have been the victims of two significant terrorist attacks in recent years: the 2002 Bali, Indonesia, bombings by a group with ties to al-Qaeda in which 202 died, many of whom were Australian, and the 2004 attack on the Australian embassy in Indonesia, which killed ten.
In Oct. 2004, Howard won a fourth term as prime minister. When rival security forces in East Timor began fighting each other in 2006, Australia sent 3,000 peacekeeping troops to stem the violence. Howard was defeated by the Labor Party's Kevin Rudd in elections in Nov. 2007. Rudd campaigned on a platform for change, and promised to focus on the environment, education, and healthcare. Observers predicted Rudd would maintain a close relationship with the United States. The military began withdrawing Australia’s 550 troops from Iraq in June 2008, following through on a promise made by Rudd.
The worst wildfires in Australian history killed at least 181 people in the state of Victoria, injured more than a hundred, and destroyed more than 900 houses in Feb. 2009. At least one of the fires was determined to be the work of arsonists. Australian officials were criticized for failing to evacuate those in danger. A government inquiry was requested to research the state's response to the fires.