Australia, island continent located between the Indian and South Pacific oceans south-east of Asia and forming, with the nearby island of Tasmania, the Commonwealth of Australia, a self-governing member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The continent is bounded on the north by the Timor Sea, the Arafura Sea, and the Torres Strait; on the east by the Coral Sea and the Tasman Sea; on the south by the Bass Strait and the Indian Ocean; and on the west by the Indian Ocean. The Commonwealth of Australia extends about 4,000 km (2,485 mi) from Cape Byron in the east to Western Australia, and about 3,700 km (2,300 mi) from Cape York in the north to Tasmania in the south. Its coastline measures some 36,735 km (22,826 mi). The area of Australia, including Tasmania, is 7,682,300 sq km (2,966,151 sq mi). The area of the continent alone is 7,614,500 sq km (2,939,974 sq mi), making Australia the smallest continent and one of the largest countries in the world.
The Commonwealth of Australia is made up of six states—New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia—and two territories—the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. Australia’s external dependencies are the Australian Antarctic Territory, Christmas Island, the Cocos Islands, the Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands, Norfolk Island, the Ashmore and Cartier Islands, and the Coral Sea Islands Territory. Canberra is the capital of Australia.
Land and Resources
The remotest of the settled continents, Australia is also the flattest and, except for Antarctica, the driest. The average elevation is about 300 m (987 ft) and only 6 per cent of its area is above 610 m (2,000 ft). The vast interior of Australia, known to white Australians as the Outback, is made up of plains and low plateaux, which are generally higher in the north-east. Low-lying coastal plains, averaging about 65 km (40 mi) in width, fringe the continent. The coastal plains in the east, south-east, and south-west are the most densely populated areas of Australia.
In the east the coastal plains are separated from the interior by the Great Dividing Range, or Eastern Highlands. This mountainous region averages approximately 1,220 m (4,000 ft) in height and runs parallel to the eastern coast from the Cape York Peninsula in the north to Victoria State in the south-east. Subdivisions of the range have many names, including, from north to south, the New England Range, the Blue Mountains, and the Australian Alps, including the Snowy Mountains. In Victoria, where the range extends westward, it is known as the Grampians, or by the name given by the indigenous Aborigines, Gariwerd. The highest peak in the Australian Alps, and the loftiest in Australia, is Mount Kosciusko (2,228 m/7,310 ft), in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales. The Great Dividing Range continues into Tasmania, which was separated from the south-eastern tip of the continent by the shallow Bass Strait between 13,500 and 8,000 years ago when sea levels rose.
The Western Australian Shield occupies more than half of the continent, west of a line running north-south roughly from the eastern shore of Arnhem Land on the Bay or Gulf of Carpentaria to the Eyre Peninsula in the state of South Australia, and skirting to the west of the Simpson Desert in the interior. A huge plateau with an average elevation of between 305 and 460 m (1,000 and 1,500 ft), the shield is fractured into a number of distinct blocks. Some of the blocks have been raised to form uplands; others have been depressed, forming lowlands and basins. The lowlands include the Great Sandy Desert, the Gibson Desert, the Great Victoria Desert, and the Nullarbor Plain, which are located in the north-western, central, southern, and south-eastern shield areas respectively. The Nullarbor (from Latin, “no trees”) is an arid, virtually uninhabited limestone plateau. It is characterized by remarkable cave and tunnel systems which contain valuable geological information about ancient Australia.
The uplands include, in Western Australia state, the Hamersley and King Leopold ranges in the western and north-western coastal areas, and the Darling Range inland from Perth in the far south-west. The Macdonnell Ranges lie in the southern part of the Northern Territory, and the Stuart and Musgrave Ranges are located in the north of the state of South Australia. Erosion and weathering have created striking, isolated rock formations, called mesas or buttes, in many parts of the shield, including the Kimberleys and Pilbara districts of Western Australia and Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
Between the Western Australian Shield and the Great Dividing Range is the Great Artesian Basin region, an area of vast plains containing some of the most productive arable and range lands in Australia. It comprises three major basins: the Carpentaria, the Eyre, and the Murray basins. The rolling plains of the Carpentaria Basin form a narrow corridor running inland from the Bay of Carpentaria, between the Isa Highland on the north-eastern edge of the shield and the Great Dividing Range. The Eyre Basin lies to the south of the Carpentaria Basin, occupying almost 1.3 million sq km (500,000 sq mi) of the centre and north of the continent, in south-western Queensland, north-eastern South Australia, and north-western New South Wales. There are rolling plains in the north of the basin. Further into the arid interior, the land becomes flatter and changes into stony desert. There are sand dunes in the Simpson Desert, which lies to the north of Lake Eyre near the western edge of the basin. Lake Eyre, one of the largest of the salt lakes scattered through the interior, occupies the lowest part of the continent and many river systems drain into it. Uluru (Ayers Rock) lies to the west of Lake Eyre on the border between the Eyre Basin and the Western Australian Shield, in the centre of Australia. With a basal circumference of about 9 km (6 mi), and rising sharply from the surrounding plain to about 348 m (1,142 ft), Uluru is believed to be the largest monolith in the world.
The Murray Basin runs inland from the Indian Ocean coasts of South Australia and Victoria into western New South Wales. It is bordered on the west by the Flinders and Mount Lofty ranges in South Australia, and on the east by the Australian Alps of the Great Dividing Range. The Murray Basin contains large areas of fossil sand dunes, and is generally arid; the western Murray Plains are a stony desert. In the east of the basin, however, there are extensive alluvial plains associated with the major tributaries of the Murray, the only permanent river to cross the interior.
The coastline of continental Australia is generally regular, with few bays or capes. The largest inlets are the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north and the Great Australian Bight in the south. The several fine harbours include those of Sydney, Hobart, Port Lincoln, and Albany. Tasmania has a more indented coastline, particularly in the south-east, where postglacial submergence has produced one of the finest drowned coastlines in the world.
The Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage site, extends some 2,010 km (1,250 mi) along the eastern coast of Queensland from Cape York in the north to Bundaberg in the south. Made of coral, it is the world’s largest structure created by a living organism. The chain of reefs forms a natural breakwater for the passage of ships along the coast. See also Kosciusko National Park.
Australia was originally part of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland, which had earlier formed part of the supercontinent of Pangaea. Much of it is geologically ancient; the oldest known rock formations have been dated at between 3 and 4.3 billion years old. The great plateau of the Western Australian Shield is underlaid by a vast, stable shield of Precambrian metamorphic and igneous rocks, ranging in age from 570 million to 3.7 billion years. These form the core of the ancestral continent, which, with Antarctica, split off from Gondwanaland during the Jurassic period, less than 200 million years ago, and began to drift eastwards and northwards (see Plate Tectonics; Continent). Australia emerged as a separate continent about 100 million years ago, when Antarctica broke away and drifted southward. Australia is still moving, northward, away from Antarctica and is in the process of merging with Asia. Its life as a separate continent will be relatively short, in geological time.
The thick sedimentary rocks of the Great Dividing Range were deposited in a great north-south trending geosyncline during an interval that spanned most of the Palaeozoic era, ending some 245 million years ago. Compressive forces buckled these rocks at least twice during the era, forming mountain ranges and chains of volcanoes.
Rivers and Lakes
Two thirds of Australia is desert or semi-desert and experiences very high rates of evaporation; only about 10 per cent of rainfall survives as surface run-off to feed the rivers. As a result, permanent rivers are limited, with one exception, to the wetter eastern and south-western margins of the continent, and to Tasmania. The Great Dividing Range is the watershed for the eastern half of Australia. On its eastern flanks, permanent rivers flow to the Coral Sea and South Pacific Oceans; the most important are the Burdekin, the Fitzroy, and the Hunter. Of the rivers which flow westward from the Great Dividing Range across the interior, only the Murray is permanent. Fed by melting snow at its source in the Mount Kosciusko region, and by large tributaries like the Darling and Murrumbidgee rivers, the Murray gains enough volume to cross the dry plains which bear its name. It meets the sea on the south coast, east of Adelaide. The Murray-Darling-Murrumbidgee network is the most important river system in Australia. It drains more than 1.1 million sq km (415,000 sq mi) in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, and waters some of the country’s most important arable and grazing lands. Much of the network is also navigable during the wet season. The Murray forms most of the border between New South Wales and Victoria.
The other rivers of central Australia, like those of the western part of the continent, flood adjacent, low-lying land when it rains. At other times they are dry channels, or at best a series of water holes; the central plains region is sometimes known as the Channel Country. The Victoria, the Daly, and the Roper rivers drain a section of the Northern Territory. In Queensland the main rivers flowing north to the Gulf of Carpentaria are the Mitchell, the Flinders, the Gilbert, and the Leichhardt. Western Australia has few significant rivers. The most important are the Fitzroy, the Ashburton, the Gascoyne, the Murchison, and the Swan rivers.
The natural lakes of the interior of continental Australia are salinas, or salt lakes. Fed by ephemeral or intermittent streams and rivers, they receive water rarely and are normally reduced by evaporation to salt-encrusted swamp beds or salt pans. The large salinas in the centre and south of the Great Artesian Basin—lakes Eyre, Torrens, Frome, and Gairdner—are the remains of a vast inland sea which once extended south from the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Although the climate of Australia varies from tropical (monsoonal) in the north to cool temperate in Tasmania, the majority of the country is hot and dry; the sea exerts little moderating influence beyond the coast, and the highland area is too small and low to have more than local effect. More than two thirds of continental Australia, in the west and centre, receives less than 500 mm (20 in) of rain a year, and one third is desert with less than 250 mm (10 in) of rain annually. Only 10 per cent of the land, in the north, along the east and south-western coasts, and in Tasmania receives more than 1,000 mm (40 in) of rain a year. The tropical northern coastal region has two main seasons: a hot, wet season with summer rains falling mainly in February and March, when the north-western monsoons prevail; and a warm dry winter season characterized by the prevalence of south-easterly trade winds. The monsoon reaches inland for varying distances, extending furthest in Arnhem Land and the Cape York peninsula. Many points on the northern and north-eastern coast have an average annual rainfall of 1,524 mm (60 in); in northern Queensland, around Cairns, average annual rainfall exceeds 2,540 mm (100 in). On the fringe of the monsoonal region there are drier savannah grasslands, where low, unreliable rainfall is supplemented by artesian water. In western, central, and northern Australia average summer temperatures range between 26.7° and 29.4° C (80° and 85° F), but can frequently exceed 38° C (100ŗ F).
The warm, temperate regions of the southern coast of continental Australia have four seasons, with cool winters and hot summers. January and February are the hottest months, with average temperatures varying between 18.3° and 21.1° C (65° and 70° F). June and July are the coldest months, with an average July temperature of about 10° C (50° F), except in the Australian Alps, where temperatures of 1.7° C (35° F) occur; snowfields exist in the Mount Kosciusko area. The eastern coastal lowlands receive rain in all seasons, although mainly in summer. The warm, temperate western and southern coasts receive rain mainly in the winter months, usually from prevailing westerly winds. Tasmania, lying in the cool temperate zone, receives heavy rainfall from the prevailing westerly winds in summer and from cyclonic storms in winter. In addition to the Australian Alps in southern New South Wales, snow also falls during the winter in the northern part of Victoria, and in Tasmania. All of the southern states are exposed to hot, dry winds from the interior, which can suddenly raise the temperature considerably. In most years, drought affects some part of Australia, and localized floods and tropical cyclones are common. South-eastern Australia, including Tasmania, has the highest incidence of bushfires in the world, along with California in the United States and Mediterranean Europe. In 1994 bushfires swept through New South Wales, destroying hundreds of homes in suburban Sydney. In late December 1997 and early January 1998 a series of bushfires burnt out of control in New South Wales and Victoria causing an emergency to be declared. The fires in Victoria were the worst in over a decade. In the Northern Territory a state of emergency was declared in late January 1998 due to the severe flooding of the Katherine River, which passed its previous highest level, recorded in 1957, to reach 19.5 m (64 ft) in full flood.
Australia is rich in mineral resources. The most commercially notable include: bauxite (found in Queensland and Western Australia); bituminous coal (Queensland and New South Wales); iron ore (Western Australia and Tasmania); nickel and gold (Western Australia); lead, zinc, and silver (all found in Queensland, New South Wales, and Tasmania); brown coal, or lignite (Victoria); offshore oil (Victoria); and offshore natural gas (Western Australia and Victoria). Australia’s famous deposits of gem minerals include the white opals of Andamooka and Coober Pedy, South Australia, and White Cliffs, New South Wales; and the unique black opals of Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, and Mintabie, South Australia. Huge diamond deposits were first discovered in the Kimberleys in 1976 and have made Australia the world’s leading supplier by volume, and the sixth largest in terms of value. Topaz and sapphires are found in Queensland and New South Wales. Australia also has some of the world’s largest known uranium reserves, located in northern Queensland, the Northern Territory, New South Wales, and South Australia. However, they have been minimally developed because of the lack of domestic demand and strong objections from the environmental movement.
Australia has both fossil and renewable energy resources. The country’s coal reserves, which are used to generate about 75 per cent of electricity, are easily worked and enormous; known reserves are sufficient to last for almost 400 years at present production rates. Natural gas production is located mainly off Western Australia, and known reserves should last 55 years. However, oil production in the Bass Strait, which met about two thirds of domestic demand in the late 1980s, is expected to begin declining shortly. In terms of renewable resources, Tasmania, the most mountainous part of Australia, has used its considerable hydroelectric power potential to meet most of its electricity needs. Continental Australia has less hydroelectric power potential because of its generally low relief. However, a number of schemes have been built in the Great Dividing Range. In addition to the Snowy Mountains Scheme, they include the Burdekin Falls Dam in Queensland. Australia has considerable wind power potential, and windmills were widely used during the pioneering days of white settlement. However, today they tend to be used only on remote outback sheep stations.
Australia is thought to have up to 300,000 different species of animal life, of which only about 100,000 have been described. There are some 280 known species of mammals, more than 700 species of birds, 680 species of reptiles, more than 150 species of frogs, and almost 200 species of freshwater fish; the remainder are invertebrates. The fauna of Australia is distinctive, deriving mainly from the time when the continent formed part of Gondwanaland. It has most in common with the wildlife of New Guinea, which falls within the Australian faunal zone, and with that of South Africa, which also formed part of Gondwanaland. Many species are unique to Australia, however, reflecting its long isolation from other land masses. They include seven families of mammals, as well as four families of birds comprising about 70 per cent of known species. It is also estimated that about 88 per cent of reptile species and 94 per cent of frog species are unique to the continent.
The Gondwanan origins of Australia’s fauna are most striking among the mammals because of the absence of representatives of most of the orders found on other continents. The world’s only egg-laying mammals, the primitive monotremes—the platypus and echidna (which is also found in New Guinea)—are Gondwanan. The platypus, a zoological curiosity, is an aquatic, furred mammal with a bill like that of a duck and with poisonous spurs. It lives in the streams of south-eastern Australia. The echidna is also known as the spiny anteater.
The most characteristic native mammals are marsupials, the young of which are nourished in an external marsupium, or abdominal pouch. Although also found in South America, marsupials in Australia have evolved to virtually all mammalian niches. The best-known Australian marsupial is the kangaroo, of which there are about 50 species found in both the temperate and tropical zones. The kangaroo is vegetarian and can be tamed. The large red or grey kangaroos stand as high as 2.1 m (7 ft) and can leap 9 m (30 ft). Originally a creature of the forests and semi-arid shrublands, it is one of the few native animals to have benefited from the extension of pastureland. Numbers have exploded, and hunting is used as a control measure. The wallaby, kangaroo rat, and tree kangaroo are smaller members of the kangaroo family. The phalangers are herbivorous marsupials that live in trees; they include the possum and the koala. Feeding only on the leaves of certain species of eucalyptus, the koala has been endangered by loss of habitat and is protected throughout Australia. Other well-known marsupials are the burrowing wombat, bandicoot, and pouched mouse. Of the marsupial carnivores, the native cat or quoll (including the tiger cat) and the Tasmanian devil are found only in Tasmania, while the numbat is found in dwindling numbers in south-western Australia. The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, became extinct in the 1930s.
The only native placental mammals—rodents, bats, and the dingo, or warrigal—are Asian in origin, entering Australia by island hopping or accidental drifting. The Aborigines, however, probably introduced the dingo, a dog-like night hunter and sheep-killer; it does not bark, but howls dismally.
The continent’s reptiles include two species of crocodiles, the smaller of which is found in inland fresh waters. The larger, salt-water saurian crocodile has been known to eat people and is found in the northern coastal swamps and estuaries; it reaches 6 m (20 ft) in length. The many species of lizards include the gecko, skink, and the giant goanna. As many as 100 species of venomous snakes are found in Australia. The most dangerous are the taipan of the far north, the death adder, the smooth snake, and the brown snake. Other venomous species include the tiger snake of southern Australia, the copperhead, and the blacksnake.
The waters surrounding Australia support a wide variety of fish and aquatic mammals. Several species of whales are found in southern waters, and seals inhabit parts of the southern coast, the islands in Bass Strait, and Tasmania. The northern waters supply dugong, trepang, trochus, and pearl shell. Edible fish and shellfish are abundant, and the oyster, abalone, and crayfish of the warmer southern waters have been exploited commercially. Australian waters contain some 70 species of shark, several of which are dangerous to humans. The Queensland lungfish is among the most ancient Australian animal species, its evolution pre-dating the formation of Gondwanaland. Sometimes called a “living fossil”, it is a fish that breathes with a single lung instead of gills.
Pre-Gondwanan species are also well represented among the invertebrates, including some insects, spiders, and earthworms. Most insect types are represented in Australia, including flies, beetles, butterflies, bees, and ants. The giant termites of northern Australia build huge, hill-like nests up to 6 m (20 ft) in height. Australia has earthworms in abundance, including the giant earthworms of Victoria, which range from 0.9 to 3.7 m (3 to 12 ft) in length, the longest in the world. Many of Australia’s spiders are poisonous; the funnel-web and red-back spiders are the best known.
Australia’s birds range from primitive types, such as the giant, flightless emu and cassowary, to highly developed species. The fan-tailed lyrebird has great powers of mimicry. The male bowerbird builds intricate and decorative playgrounds to attract females. The kookaburra, or laughing jackass, is noted for its raucous laughter. Many varieties of cockatoos and parrots are found; the budgerigar is a favourite of bird fanciers. The white cockatoo, a clever mimic, is more common than the black cockatoo. Black swans, spoonbills, herons, and ducks frequent inland waters. Smaller birds include wrens, finches, titmice, larks, and swallows. Gulls, terns, gannets, muttonbirds, albatrosses, and penguins are the most common seabirds. The muttonbird, found mainly on the islands of Bass Strait, is valued for its flesh.
The future of many native species is a matter of growing concern. In all, 20 species of mammals and 16 bird species are known to have become extinct since European settlement. Another 15 species of birds and 38 species of mammals are endangered or vulnerable. They have been put at risk by the clearance of their habitat or by the introduction of foreign species, which compete for food with native species, destroy their habitat, or prey upon them. The main culprits include rabbits, foxes, feral cats, pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, horses, camels, and the Asian water buffalo.
Probably the most destructive has been the European rabbit. Rabbits accompanied the First Fleet to Australia in 1788, but their modern introduction is normally dated to 1859, when Thomas Austin shipped in 24 wild rabbits for hunting, and released them on his property near Geelong, Victoria. In Australia’s favourable environment, and with few native predators, the rabbit population quickly reached plague proportions; in the early 20th century the rabbit population was estimated at some 500 million. The virus myxomatosis, which kills rabbits, was deliberately introduced in 1951 as a control measure. It was effective for about 20 years, but the rabbits began to gain immunity and their numbers rapidly recovered; today the rabbit population is estimated at 300 million. In addition to destroying the habitat of native species, they also cause soil erosion and huge damage to commercial rangelands and crops. Foxes and cats have also been targeted for biological control programmes and regional eradication schemes. In the monsoonal areas of northern Australia there has been a large increase in the number of water buffalo. Their grazing is causing soil erosion and they are disrupting delicate swamp habitats.
The extinction of species is not something that has occurred solely since the arrival of Europeans, however. Australia was once home to a number of outsize animals, the megafauna. They included the giant wombat and kangaroo, the marsupial lion, and giant flightless birds. They became extinct over a period of up to 19,000 years, beginning some 27,000 years ago. Aboriginal hunting and burning of vegetation to encourage the growth of preferred plant species may have played a part in their demise. However, climatic changes between 22,000 and 18,000 years ago, when the deserts reached their maximum extent and the weather was cold, are considered to be equally, if not more, important causes of their extinction.
Australia’s indigenous Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders today make up less than 1 per cent of the country’s population. Almost 95 per cent of Australians are of European descent. The majority have British or Irish heritage but about 18 per cent have other European origins. Asians, including people from the Middle East, account for about 4 per cent of the population. There has been a significant change in population structure since 1945. Before World War II, more than 95 per cent of the population was of British or Irish origin. However, a post-war immigration drive brought not only a large number of immigrants from the British Isles, but also many from continental Europe. Since then more than 2 million other Europeans have migrated to Australia.
During the 1960s the “White Australia” policy, which had underpinned both colonial and federal immigration policies for 100 years (see History below), began to be relaxed, and was formally abandoned in 1973. Initially most non-European immigrants were from Latin America and the Middle East, notably Lebanon. However, since the late 1970s, there have been increasing numbers of immigrants from Asia, especially South East Asia and China; many early South East Asian arrivals were refugees. The 1991 census underlines the changes. Figures on Australians born overseas show 22.5 per cent were born in Great Britain or Ireland, 30 per cent were born in other European countries, and 21 per cent were born in Asia and the Middle East.
The first Australians were the Aborigines. Although the modern population shows considerable genetic diversity, Aborigines are quite distinct from any group outside the continent. Aboriginal traditions assert that they were always in Australia. However, anthropologists believe that they emigrated from somewhere in Asia and first arrived in Australia approximately 60,000 years ago, at a time of lowered sea levels which created an almost continuous land bridge between the two continents. Rising sea levels subsequently disrupted this relatively easy means of migration, and some 13,500 to 8,000 years ago separated Tasmania from the mainland. The island’s Aborigine population subsequently developed in a somewhat different cultural way from the Aborigines of continental Australia.
These original Australians were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers, who survived and multiplied through the development of an intimate knowledge of the location, distribution, and characteristics of Australia’s flora and fauna, and of its climatic conditions. Fire was used by the Aborigines as a tool to encourage the growth of grasses attractive to kangaroos and other game animals. There is also evidence that they harvested and dispersed seeds to encourage the development of grasslands, and dammed and redirected streams, swamps, and lake outlets for fishing.
Technologically, their life was simple; the main tools used were digging sticks, spears and spear throwers, boomerangs, needles, bobbins, wooden dishes, skin water carriers, and plaited grass mats and bags. Aborigines also used bark canoes and rafts, and dug-out log canoes, sometimes with woven grass sails. Division of labour tended to be gender-based: men and older boys hunted large game; women collected vegetable food and hunted small game. Notwithstanding this, the exigencies of the environment meant that all adults had all the skills required to make a living.
In contrast to the simplicity of their economic life and technology, Australia’s Aborigines developed a complex social organization and one of the world’s richest belief systems, which encompassed all aspects of their lives. Their world view centred on The Dreaming or dreamtime, a complex and all-embracing concept embodying the past, present, and future, including the creative era at the dawn of time when mythic beings shaped the land, populated it with plants, animals, and people, and laid down the blueprint of social life. These dream beings eventually withdrew from the physical to the spiritual world, where they retained control of fertility and other life-giving powers. These they would release to the physical world as long as humans followed the blueprint, including religious observances. The spirits communicated to humans through dreams and other altered states of consciousness, while special features in the landscape also confirmed their presence. A complex of myth, ritual, dance, and objects developed which bound the human, spiritual, and physical worlds tightly together, and gave the Aborigines a strong sense of self and a religiously based confidence in their ability to control their world.
Fundamental Aboriginal values were unselfishness and the dutiful discharge of kinship and religious obligations. Status was not linked to possessions, which were valued either for their sacred role, or kept for their practical usefulness. Trade was important, with networks stretching across the continent. The goods involved were normally scarce and of social or religious significance, the aim being mainly to promote inter-group harmony and alliance.
By the time of the first European settlement in 1788, the Aborigines had long occupied and utilized the entire continent, adapting to environments ranging from tropical rainforests, through wet temperate lands, to arid deserts. The population is estimated to have ranged between 300,000 and 1 million, and more than 200 different languages were spoken; most Aborigines were bilingual or multilingual. The largest entities recognized were some 50 land-associated, language-named groups. The Europeans often referred to them as “tribes”, but although they shared cultural traits, they were not economic or political entities and there was no consciousness of a shared national identity. Individual identity was grounded rather in family and local affiliations and groupings.
The arrival of the Europeans was an unmitigated disaster for the Aborigines. Communication between the two groups was minimal, and the culture gap almost total. From initial uneasy coexistence, the Aborigines were quickly forced off the more fertile coastal lands, into the interior. Attempts at resistance met with “pacification by force”, in which large numbers of Aborigines were killed. Many more died of introduced diseases. In Tasmania and the south-east the indigenous population rapidly became almost extinct, and there were dramatic declines in the number of Aborigines in all parts of the continent during the first century of white settlement. Those who survived were often subject to brutal mistreatment, or efforts to “civilize” them by missionaries and others. Put on to reserves and denied legal existence in their native land, the Aborigines were physically and spiritually impoverished. It was widely believed after the mid-19th century that, as a race, they were destined for quick cultural, if not physical, annihilation. This belief was supported by the figures: by 1920, there were estimated to be only 60,000 Aborigines surviving.
Until the 1960s, the Aboriginal population was mainly rural. Over the next two decades, Aborigines began moving in greater numbers to urban areas. The state capitals and larger provincial cities were particular magnets. Often viewed negatively by the European majority, the incomers tended to be concentrated in small, but highly volatile, ghetto-like communities, which were the breeding grounds of the more aggressive political awareness among the Aboriginal community that emerged in the 1960s. The social and political status of Aborigines was so low at this period that they were not even included in the national census until 1971; a 1967 referendum gave the federal government the power for the first time to legislate for the Aborigines and to include them in the census count. Initial concerns over wage and civic equality were quickly overtaken by demands for land rights over territories with special cultural and religious significance (see History below).
In the 1991 census, 238,492 Australian residents were counted as of Aboriginal descent; another 26,902 as Torres Strait Islanders, a group which is often not clearly distinguished from the Aborigines and subsumed within them. This spectacular recovery in numbers compared with the 1920s, is a result partly of higher birth rates but also of the rediscovery of Aboriginal pride. Only a small minority of those classified as Aborigines were of pure descent; most were of mixed origin reclaiming their heritage.
The greatest concentrations of people of Aboriginal descent today are in New South Wales and Queensland (26.4 per cent each of the national total population of Aborigines), Western Australia (15.7 per cent), and the Northern Territory (15 per cent). More than 70 per cent live in urban areas, and traditional ways of life are under threat, notwithstanding a resurgence of interest in the richness of Aboriginal life, and the teaching of Aboriginal culture in schools. In the early 1990s it was estimated that only about 10,000 Aborigines had had direct experience of traditional life, concentrated primarily in the Northern Territory where the rural population is still predominant.
Every region of Australia is represented by its own Aboriginal Land Council, and most regions run centres and festivals celebrating Aboriginal culture. Aboriginality is now widely expressed in art, popular music, literature, politics, and sport, and the community has won some important legal victories, particularly over land rights. Aborigines have regained ownership and control over large areas of northern and central Australia in recent years, but at the same time they still face significant social and economic disadvantages. It is not only in life expectancy that Aborigines fare much worse than the Australian population as a whole. Unemployment, family income, welfare dependence, and infant mortality levels are all still much worse than the average, despite positive action in recent years, giving additional funds to Aborigine education, training, and health services. However, the Mabo Judgement on native land title (see Aboriginal Land Rights below) and the legislation resulting from it seem likely to revolutionize the relationship between the Aboriginal community and the white population.
In terms of its urban communities, Australia is very much a country of suburbs. Its cities are extensive, and about 60 per cent of Australians live in the metropolitan areas of the six state capitals and Canberra. Sydney (1995 estimate; greater city, 3,772,700) was Australia’s first city and remains its largest. It is the country’s leading financial and commercial centre, and one of its most important ports. It also contains the world’s largest area of suburbs, and is twice the area of Beijing and six times that of Rome. Australia’s other major cities are (1995 estimate, greater city): Melbourne (3,218,100), Brisbane (1,489,100), Perth (1,262,600), and Adelaide (1,081,000). Canberra, the purpose-built national capital and the only one of Australia’s largest cities located inland, had a population of 303,700 in 1994.
Australia has no established Church and its constitution guarantees freedom of worship. Although the majority of the population characterizes itself as Christian, most individuals are not active in that faith and Australian society is predominantly secular. The largest Christian denominations are the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, each with 26 per cent of the total population. Approximately 24 per cent more belong to other Christian denominations, predominantly Nonconformist and Protestant, but also including Eastern Orthodox communities. There are small Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim communities. The number of Buddhists and Muslims has increased sharply since the 1970s, in keeping with changing immigration patterns.
English is the official language of Australia. Aboriginal and other languages are spoken in ethnic communities.
Australia is a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of the leading industrialized nations and its people generally enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living. In 1994 Australia’s gross national product (GNP) was US$320.7 billion (World Bank estimate; 1992-1994 prices), equivalent to US$17,980 per capita. At the same time, however, Australia’s trade profile is more akin to that of a developing nation. It exports predominantly primary products and imports mainly manufactured goods of various kinds. As a result, like many developing countries, Australia’s economy is vulnerable to price fluctuations in the world commodities markets and to inflation in its main supplier markets.
Agriculture and mining played a central role in the historical development of Australia, and the country is still one of the world’s outstanding producers of primary products. It is self-sufficient in almost all foodstuffs and is a major exporter of wheat, meat, dairy products, and wool. Australia usually produces about 29 per cent of the world’s yearly output of wool. It is also one of the world’s top producers and exporters of minerals, particularly coal. However, while primary production plays a central role in the country’s exports, in terms of the domestic economy it has grown far less significantly in recent years. Agriculture now accounts for only about 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), and mining about 4 per cent. In contrast, the manufacturing sector, which has grown rapidly since the 1940s, accounts for some 16 per cent of GDP. The service sector is even more important. In Australia, as in other OECD nations, services have grown since the 1970s; in 1994-1995 they accounted for around 14 per cent of Australia’s GDP. The financial services sector was the single most important economic sector, contributing almost 22 per cent of GDP.
In the 1995 fiscal year the estimated federal budget included about US$95.69 billion of revenue and about US$95.15 billion of expenditure.
Helped by faster and cheaper long-haul flights, and the growth of the Japanese market, tourism has grown very rapidly since 1970. It is now one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy, accounting for some 500,000 jobs, or 6 per cent of the workforce, in the early 1990s. Foreign exchange earnings were worth almost US$6 billion a year, equivalent to about 10 per cent of earnings on the current account of the balance of payments.
There has been a strong growth in domestic tourism during this period, which has tapped the expanding range of attractions in each state and territory—theme and amusement parks, zoos, art galleries and museums, certain mines and factories, national parks, historic sites, and wineries. Foreign visitors show broadly similar interests, but most come on standardized packages which focus on a few key attractions, notably Sydney; the Great Barrier Reef, in Queensland; the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park; and the beach resorts in the Brisbane, Cairns, and Sydney regions.
Australia shares with New Zealand the arbitration system, an attempt to fix wages and working conditions by law. The constitution allows the federal government to intervene to conciliate and arbitrate in industrial disputes. Federal power is confined to disputes extending beyond the limits of any one state. Compulsory arbitration has also been established at state level for internal disputes. Conciliation and arbitration is carried out by the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, its courts and conciliation commissioners. Where conciliation fails, the courts have the power to make awards binding on employer and employee. Failure to abide by the court’s ruling can result in a fine. In practice, the judges of the Commission fix the minimum wages and working conditions of most workers. In 1991 the Commission decided to allow direct employer-employee wage bargaining, provided resulting agreements are endorsed by the commission. Trade unions have a long tradition in Australia, and the movement, with just under 3 million members in some 157 unions, is strongly organized at local, state, and federal levels, and is an economic and political power. In the mid-1990s about 44 per cent of wage and salary earners were unionized. Workers receive unemployment and sickness benefits, compensation for job-incurred injuries, basic wages and marginal awards, and general social and health benefits. A basic or minimum wage was established by law in 1907. Between 1921 and 1953 the basic wage was automatically adjusted to quarterly rises and falls in the cost of living. The Commonwealth terminated this automatic adjustment in September 1953, but several states later reintroduced the procedure. Federal legislation in 1992 freed the wage for employers to negotiate enterprise-based awards and agreements. In the mid-1990s about 7.9 million people were employed in Australia, and the unemployment rate was approximately 8 per cent.
The Aborigines first arrived in Australia from somewhere in Asia at least 40,000 years ago, and probably up to 60,000 years ago. They had occupied most of the continent by 30,000 years ago, including the south-western and south-eastern corners. Tasmania at this point was still part of the mainland; it was only separated by rising sea levels some 16,500 to 22,000 years later. Their successful adaptation to a wide range of environments had enabled the population to grow to between 300,000 and 1 million by the time of the first European settlement. Macassan traders from what is now Indonesia are thought to have been visiting Arnhem Land well before the 17th century to harvest sea cucumbers for export to China. There were also contacts with New Guinea, and Chinese, Malaysian, and Arab sea captains may also have landed in northern Australia after the 15th century. Australia remained unexplored by the West, however, until the 17th century.