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Australia (ôstrālˈyə), smallest continent, between the Indian and Pacific oceans. With the island state of Tasmania to the south, the continent makes up the Commonwealth of Australia, a federal parliamentary state (2020 est. pop. 25,690,000), 2,967,877 sq mi (7,686,810 sq km). Australia's capital is Canberra. Its largest city is Sydney, closely followed in population by Melbourne. There are five continental states (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia, in addition to the aforementioned Tasmania) as well as the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (an enclave within New South Wales, containing Canberra). Australia's external territories include Norfolk Island, Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and the Australian Antarctic Territory.
The Australian continent extends from east to west some 2,400 mi (3,860 km) and from north to south nearly 2,000 mi (3,220 km). It is on the whole exceedingly flat and dry. Less than 20 in. (50.8 cm) of precipitation falls annually over 70% of the land area. From the narrow coastal plain in the west the land rises abruptly in what, from the sea, appear to be mountain ranges but are actually the escarpments of a rough plateau that occupies the western half of the continent. It is generally from 1,000 to 2,000 ft (305–610 m) high but several mountain ranges rise to nearly 5,000 ft (1,520 m); there are no permanent rivers or lakes in the region. In the southwest corner of the continent there is a small moist and fertile area, but the rest of Western Australia is arid, with large desert areas.
The northern region fronts partly on the Timor Sea, separating Australia from Indonesia and East Timor; it also belongs to the plateau, with tropical temperatures and a winter dry season. Its northernmost section, Arnhem Land (much of which is an aboriginal reserve), faces the Arafura Sea in the north and the huge Gulf of Carpentaria on the east. On the eastern side of the gulf is the Cape York Peninsula, which is largely covered by woodland. Off the coast of NE Queensland is the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef.
In E Australia are the mountain chains of the Eastern Highlands, which run down the entire east and southeast coasts. Mt. Kosciuszko, 7,310 ft (2,228 m), in the Australian Alps in the southeast, is the highest peak on the continent. The rivers on the eastern and southeastern slopes run to the Coral Sea and the Tasman Sea through narrow but rich coastal plains; the rivers on the western slopes flow either N to the Gulf of Carpentaria or W and SW to the Indian Ocean. The longest of all Australian river systems, the Murray River and its tributaries, drains the southern part of the interior basin that lies between the mountains and the great plateau. The rivers of this area are used extensively for irrigation and hydroelectric power.
Australia, remote from any other continent, has many distinctive forms of plant life—notably species of giant eucalyptus—and of animal life, including the kangaroo, the koala, the flying opossum, the wallaby, the wombat, the platypus, and the spiny anteater; it also has many unusual birds. Foreign animals, when introduced, have frequently done well. Rabbits, brought over in 1788, have done entirely too well, multiplying until by the middle of the 19th cent. they became a distinct menace to sheep raising. In 1907 a fence (still maintained) 1,000 mi (1,610 km) long was built from the north coast to the south to prevent the rabbits from invading Western Australia. Introduced red foxes and feral house cats have reduced many native land mammals through predation.
Most Australians are of British and Irish ancestry and the majority of the country lives in urban areas. The population has more than doubled since the end of World War II, spurred by an ambitious postwar immigration program. In the postwar years, immigration from Greece, Turkey, Italy, and other countries began to increase Australia's cultural diversity. When Australia officially ended (1973) discriminatory policies dating to the 19th cent. that were designed to prevent immigration by nonwhites, substantial Asian immigration followed. 01/06By 1988 about 40% of immigration to Australia was from Asia, and by 2005 Asians constituted 7% of the population. Also by 2005 roughly one fourth of all Australians had been born outside the country.
The indigenous population, the Australian aborigines, estimated to number as little as 300,000 and as many as 800,000 at the time of the Europeans' arrival, was numbered at 366,429 in 2001. Although still more rural than the general population, the aboriginal population has become more urbanized, with some two thirds living in cities. New South Wales and Queensland account for just over half of the Australian aboriginal population. In Tasmania the aboriginal population was virtually wiped out in the 19th cent.
There is no state religion in Australia. The largest religions are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other Christian groups. Although education is not a federal concern, government grants have aided in the establishment of state universities including the Univ. of Sydney (1852), the Univ. of Melbourne (1854), the Univ. of Adelaide (1874), and the Univ. of Queensland (in Brisbane, 1909).
Most of the rich farmland and good ports are in the east and particularly the southeast, except for the area around Perth in Western Australia. Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Adelaide are the leading industrial and commercial cities. There was considerable industrial development in the last two decades of the 20th cent. While the Australian economy fell into a severe recession in the late 1980s, it experienced an extended period of growth beginning in the 1990s that continued into the late 2010s. It suffered some from the Asian economic slump of the 1990s and from the “Big Dry” drought of the early 21st cent., but it also benefited from increased mineral exports to China during the same period.
Australia is highly industrialized, and manufactured goods account for most of the gross domestic product. Its chief industries include mining, food processing, and the manufacture of industrial and transportation equipment, chemicals, iron and steel, textiles, machinery, and motor vehicles. Australia has valuable mineral resources, including coal, iron, bauxite, copper, tin, gold, silver, uranium, nickel, tungsten, mineral sands, lead, zinc, natural gas, and petroleum; the country is an important producer of opals and diamonds.
The country is self-sufficient in food, and the raising of sheep and cattle and the production of grain have long been staple occupations. Tropical and subtropical produce—citrus fruits, sugarcane, and tropical fruits—are also important, and there are numerous vineyards and dairy and tobacco farms.
Australia maintains a favorable balance of trade. Its chief export commodities are coal, iron ore, gold, meat, wool, alumina, cereals, and machinery and transport equipment. The leading imports are machinery, transportation and telecommunications equipment, computers and office machines, crude oil, and petroleum products. Australia's economic ties with Asia and the Pacific Rim have become increasingly important, with China, Japan, and the United States being its main trading partners.
Early History and Colonization
The groups comprising the aborigines, Australia's first inhabitants, are thought to have migrated from Southeast Asia. Skeletal remains indicate that aborigines arrived in Australia more than 40,000 years ago. Some archaelogical evidence indicates that they were present at least about 55,000 years ago, and other evidence suggests that they were active there about 100,000 years ago. The aborigines spread throughout Australia and remained relatively isolated until the arrival of the Europeans. Genetic evidence suggests that c.4,000 years ago there may have been an additional migration of people related to those now found in India.
Australia may have sighted by a Portuguese, Manuel Godhino de Eredia, in 1601 and by a Spaniard, Luis Vaez de Torres, around 1605–6, but Dutchman Willem Janszoon is the first European confirmed to have seen (1606) and landed in Australia. Other Dutch navigators later visited the continent, and the Dutch named it New Holland. In 1688 the Englishman William Dampier landed at King Sound on the northwest coast. Little interest was aroused, however, until the fertile east coast was observed when Capt. James Cook reached Botany Bay in 1770 and sailed N to Cape York, claiming the coast for Great Britain.
In 1788 the first British settlement was made—a penal colony on the shores of Port Jackson, where Sydney now stands. By 1829 the whole continent was a British dependency. Exploration, begun before the first settlement was founded, was continued by such men as Matthew Flinders (1798), Count Paul Strzelecki (1839), Ludwig Leichhardt (1848), and John McDouall Stuart (first to cross the continent, 1862). Australia was long used as a dumping ground for criminals, bankrupts, and other undesirables from the British Isles. Sheep raising was introduced early, and before the middle of the 19th cent. wheat was being exported in large quantities to England. A gold strike in Victoria in 1851 brought a rush to that region. Other strikes were made later in the century in Western Australia. With minerals, sheep, and grain forming the base of the economy, Australia developed rapidly. By the mid-19th cent. systematic, permanent colonization had completely replaced the old penal settlements. Economic marginalization, disease, and killings by settlers devastated the aboriginal population in the century after settlement began.
Confederation of the separate Australian colonies did not come until a constitution, drafted in 1897–98, was approved by the British parliament in 1900. It was put into operation in 1901; under its terms, the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania, all of which had by then been granted self-government, were federated in the Commonwealth of Australia. The Northern Territory was added to the Commonwealth in 1911. The new federal government moved quickly to institute high protective tariffs (to restrain competition to Australian industry) and to initiate a strict anti-Asian “White Australia” immigration policy, which was not lifted until 1956. Under the policy the government deported (1906–8) many South Sea Islanders who had worked and lived (from the 1860s) in Australia as indentured laborers, sometimes under conditions resembling forced labor.
Australia fought alongside Great Britain in both world wars. During World War I, the nation was part of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac), which fought bravely in many battles, notably in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. During World War II, Darwin, Port Jackson, and Newcastle were bombed or shelled by the Japanese. The Allied victory in the battle of the Coral Sea (1942) probably averted a full-scale attack on Australia. After the war Australia became increasingly active in world affairs, particularly in defense and development projects with its Asian neighbors; it furnished troops to aid the U.S. war effort in South Vietnam. At home, from 1949 to 1972 the government was controlled by a Liberal-Country party coalition with, until 1966, Robert Menzies as prime minister. Gough Whitlam's subsequent Labor government (1972–75), though controversial at the time, introduced social reforms, including increasing nonwhite immigration and improving access to health care and university education, that subsequently transformed Australian society. When a budget crisis with the opposition-controlled senate led to Whitlam's dismissal by the governor-general, the Liberal–National Country coalition, led by Malcolm Fraser, returned to power. Legislation passed in 1976 permitted aboriginal peoples for the first time to claim land rights based their association with the land. Limited to the Northern Territory, it led to a series of land rights and native title laws that utlimately established aboriginal title to roughly a third of Australia.
In 1983, Bob Hawke won his first of four terms as prime minister against a coalition of the Liberal and National parties. In 1991, as Australia foundered in a deep recession, Hawke lost the prime ministership to fellow Laborite Paul Keating. Keating led Labor to its fifth consecutive electoral victory in 1993. In the Mar., 1996, elections, however, 13 years of Labor rule were ended by a Liberal-National party coalition led by John Howard, who promised deregulation, smaller government, and other conservative economic reforms. Howard's coalition was reelected, although by a smaller margin, in 1998.
In a 1999 referendum, voters rejected a plan to replace the British monarch as head of state with a president elected by the parliament. In Nov., 2001, after a campaign dominated by issues of nonwhite immigration and national security, Howard's government was returned to office for a third term. In 2002–3, Australia experienced one of the worst droughts of the past 100 years, and wildfires scorched some 7.4 million acres (3 million hectares) of the bush. After Great Britain, Australia was the most prominent supporter militarily of the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003, sending a force of about 2,000 to the Persian Gulf, and the country has taken an increasingly interventionist role in surrounding region, sending forces to the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor to restore law and order.
Benefiting from a prosperous economy, Howard led his coalition to a fourth consecutive term, winning a strong mandate in the Oct., 2004, national elections. In Jan., 2005, the country again experienced deadly bush fires, in South Australia. The Sydney area was stunned by several days of ethnically-based mob violence (between Australians of European and Middle Eastern descent) in Dec., 2005. A scandal involving kickbacks paid under the oil-for-food program to Saddam Hussein's Iraq by AWB Ltd. (the private Australian wheat-exporting monopoly that formerly was the Australian Wheat Board) threatened in 2006 to entangle Howard's government. The government admitted in March that, despite previous denials, it was aware there were charges that AWB was paying kickbacks, but said officials had received assurances from AWB that no payments had been made. Late in 2006 the commission investigating AWB cleared government officials (but not AWB officials) of criminal activity.
Relations with the Solomon Islands became tense in 2006 when Australia criticized a Solomons investigation into the post-election unrest there in April as a potential whitewash. The appointment as Solomons attorney general of Julian Moti, an Australian of Fijian descent who was wanted in Australia on child sex charges, further strained relations. Australia sought Moti's extradition from Papua New Guinea, where he was arrested (Sept., 2006) but managed to flee with apparent help from the Solomons embassy; Australia continued to seek Moti's extradition after he illegally entered the Solomons and was held there. Moti was ultimately deported (2007) to Australia, but in 2009 and 2011 the charges against him were permanently stayed and then the case's prosecution was ended.
By late 2006, Australia was experiencing its sixth dry year in a row, and many observers termed the worsening “Big Dry” as the worst in the nation's history; 2003 and 2006 were especially dry years. In 2007 and especially 2008 there was improved rainfall in parts of E Australia, but drought conditions continued in many areas. Parliamentary elections in Nov., 2007, brought the Labor party into office; party leader Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, became prime minister. The Rudd government embarked on significant reversals of Howard's policies, promising to withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq, moving to adopt the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, and apologizing to the aborigines for Australia's past mistreatment of them.
Australia experienced several severe natural disasters in early 2009. Queensland suffered from significant and widespread flooding due to cyclone rains in Jan. and Feb., 2009; additional significant coastal flooding occurred in Queensland and New South Wales in May. In Feb.–Mar., 2009, SE Australia suffered the worst outbreak of bushfires in the nation's history; more than 1 million acres (400,000 hectares) were burned and some 170 people died, with the worst devastation NE of Melbourne, Victoria. Rudd lost popularity in 2010 over his backdown on carbon trading and his support for increased mining taxes, and in June Julia Gillard, his deputy, mounted a leadership challenge, leading him to step aside. Gillard succeeded Rudd as Labor party leader and prime minister, becoming Australia's first woman prime minister.
In early elections that Gillard called for Aug., 2010, neither of the main parties won a majority. Although the Liberal-National coalition narrowly won a plurality of the seats, Gillard and Labor secured the support of enough independents in parliament to cling to power. In 2010 significant rains finally ended drought conditions in most areas of Australia (except SW Australia). Areas of E Australia were flooded in late 2010 and early 2011 due to heavy rains; the floods were especially devastating and extensive in E Queensland. In Feb., 2012, and again in Mar., 2013, Gillard survived leadership challenges from Rudd, but in June, 2013, she lost the party leadership to Rudd (who now was regarded as more popular than her) and he succeeded her as prime minister.
In the Sept., 2013, general election the Liberal-National coalition soundly defeated Labor, and Liberal leader Tony Abbott became prime minister. The country signed a free-trade agreement with China, its most important trade partner, in 2015. A series of unpopular policy decisions undermined the prime minister by 2015, and in September, the previous Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, successfully challenged Abbott for the leadership post and succeeded him as prime minister. In 2016, Turnbull called early elections in July after the senate failed to pass several bills the lower house had adopted. The ruling coalition narrowly retained control of the lower house and failed to secure a majority in the senate, where it also lost seats.
Turnbull's unpopularity led to a Liberal party leadership contest in 2018, and Scott Morrison succeeded him as party leader and prime minister. The Liberals subsequently lost Turnbull's seat but remained in power as a minority government. In the May, 2019, elections, Morrison led the Liberal-National coalition, which had been expected to lose, to a lower-house majority and an improved plurality in the senate. From Sept., 2019 into Feb., 2020, the country suffered its worst bushfire season on record; New South Wales was the worst-affected state. In the first half of 2020 the country experienced its first recession in three decades as a result of restrictions imposed to control the spread of COVID 19. During 2020, existing tensions with China were exacerbated by the COVID 19 pandemic and contentions over its origins in China, and led to Chinese restrictions on a range of imports from Australia, which further soured relations.
See Sir Archibald Price, Island Continent: Aspects of the Historical Geography of Australia and its Territories (1972); A. G. Shaw, The Story of Australia (4th ed. 1972); J. Bessett, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Australian History (1987); R. Hughes, The Fatal Shore (1987); B. Hofmeister, Australia and Its Urban Centres (1988); D. Money, Australia Today (1989); K. Hancock, ed., Australian Society (1989); S. L. Goldberg and F. B. Smith, Australian Cultural History (1989); K. Hancock, ed., Australian Society (1990); T. Keneally, Australia: Beyond the Dreamtime (1989) and A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia (2006).
The Australian Aborigines are divided into more than five hundred distinct tribal groups that have developed over a span of fifty thousand years. Although these groups are very different, they have much in common regarding their beliefs about the human race and nature.
The various tribes all believe in the mutual interdependence of humanity and nature, on the need each has for the other, and on the need to bring the latter into the historical and ceremonial life of the former. According to the Aborigines, each individual must do what the great heroes did in the “dream-time,” the mythical age of the past which is simultaneously the present. Humanity and nature exist and are as they are because of the personal actions of heroes in the past. A historical continuity with the heroic past is possible through rites of initiation that familiarize people with that past and thus make them vicarious participants in it. During these rights Aborigines reenact the doings of the hero or heroes concerned, and in so doing, act out the myth.
The common term used by Aborigines for the heroic past also means dreaming, and corresponds with a person’s totem, which in this case is a myth marking the feats of a particular hero (or heroes). Dreaming is a symbol of the long-past heroic age, as well as the means of access to it. The Aborigines believe that life and death are part of a cycle beginning and ending in dream-time: the cycle is sustained by totems, ancestral sacred spots, and rituals that keep the tribe linked to the ancestors. During the experience of dreaming, the limitations of space and time are nonexistent, and it is believed that dreams reveal events which have happened or are going to happen in the future, through the mythical and practical information given by dead ancestors and heroes.
Past, present, and future coexist, and the eternal dream-time was manifested in the past through the heroes, in the present through the initiated, and, if the links between past and present are not broken, it will continue to be manifested in the future. By reliving the dream-time experiences of their heroes, the Aborigines believe they can be connected to the time of the heroes’ creation and the power of their ancestors, who are still present in the world and protect people.
The dreams of Australian Aborigines represent the universe as it seems to them, and they often assert that in sleep they can see distant people, even those who are dead. A strong mutual interaction exists between dreaming and waking in the Aborigines’ life, and they frequently fail to distinguish between waking events and dream events. It has been remarked that many of the rituals performed in dreams are applied to activities in later life, and many ceremonies are adopted directly from what is seen in visions or in sleep by special individuals.
Diverse explanations of dreams are given by the different Australian tribes. For instance, the Dieri tribe believe that the spirit of a dead person can visit a sleeper. When this occurs, the dream is reported to the medicine man, who, if he considers it to he a vision, gives special instructions. The Narrang-ga say that the human spirit can leave the body in sleep and communicate with the spirits of others, or with the spirits of the dead who wander as ghosts in the bush.
The Jupagalk believe that a person in great pain can be helped by the dream visit of some dead friend. According to the Wurunjerri, who have the same belief, the spirit of each person, which they call Murup, can leave the body during sleep, particularly when the sleeper snores. The Murup, however, can also be sent out of the sleeper by means of evil magic. The human spirit is called Yambo by the Kurnai, who likewise believe that it can leave the body during sleep.
The Ngarigo believe that in dreams, which they call gung-ung-mura-nung-ya, they can see ghosts. The Yuin Gommeras believe in the possibility of receiving songs in dreams, as well as information about approaching enemies. They also think that relatives of a dead man can see who killed him in a dream. The same belief is shared by the Wiimbaio, who say that, when they dream such a thing, they have been to some other country, where a person has told them.
Official name: Commonwealth of Australia
Capital city: Canberra
Internet country code: .au
Flag description: Blue with the flag of the United Kingdom in the upper hoist-side quadrant and a large seven-pointed star in the lower hoist-side quadrant known as the Commonwealth or Federation Star, representing the federation of the colonies of Australia in 1901; the star depicts one point for each of the six original states and one representing all of Australia’s internal and external territories; on the fly half is a representation of the Southern Cross constellation in white with one small five-pointed star and four larger, seven-pointed stars
National anthem: “Advance Australia Fair” by Peter Dodds McCormick
National flower: Golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha Benth.)
National gemstone: Opal
Geographical description: Oceania, continent between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean
Total area: 3 million sq. mi. (7.7 million sq. km.)
Climate: Generally arid to semiarid; temperate in south and east; tropical in north
Nationality: noun: Australian(s); adjective: Australian
Population: 20,434,176 (July 2007 CIA est.)
Ethnic groups: European 92%, Asian 7%, Aboriginal and other 1%
Languages spoken: English 79.1%, Chinese 2.1%, Italian 1.9%, other 11.1%, unspecified 5.8%
Religions: Roman Catholic 26.4%, Anglican 20.5%, other Christian 20.5%, Buddhist 1.9%, Muslim 1.5%, other 1.2%, unspecified 12.7%, none 15.3%