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Commonwealth of Australia
A blue field with the Union Flag in the upper hoist quarter, a large white seven-pointed star in the lower hoist quarter, and constellation of five white stars in the fly – one small five-pointed star and four, larger, seven-pointed stars.
Flag Coat of arms
Anthem:  Advance Australia Fair
Royal anthem:  God Save the Queen
Capital Canberra
35°18.48′S 149°7.47′E
Largest city Sydney
Official languages None
National language English ( de facto)
  • Australian
  • " Aussie"
Government Federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy
 -  Monarch Elizabeth II
 -  Governor-General Quentin Bryce
 -  Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Legislature Parliament
 -  Upper house Senate
 -  Lower house House of Representatives
Independence from the United Kingdom
 -  Constitution 1 January 1901 
 -  Statute of Westminster 11 December 1931 
 -  Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 9 October 1942 (with effect
from 3 September 1939)
 -  Australia Act 3 March 1986 
 -  Total 7,692,024 km2 ( 6th)
2,969,907 sq mi 
 -  2013 estimate 23,049,452 ( 52nd)
 -  2011 census 21,507,717
 -  Density 2.8/km2 ( 233rd)
7.3/sq mi
GDP ( PPP) 2012 estimate
 -  Total $960.722 billion ( 18th)
 -  Per capita $42,354 ( 13th)
GDP (nominal) 2012 estimate
 -  Total $1.542 trillion ( 12th)
 -  Per capita $65,642 ( 5th)
Gini (2006) 30.5
HDI (2013) Increase 0.938
very high · 2nd
Currency Australian dollar ( AUD)
Time zone various ( UTC+8 to +10.5)
 -  Summer ( DST) various ( UTC+8 to +11.5)
Date format dd-mm-yyyy
Drives on the left
Calling code +61
ISO 3166 code AU
Internet TLD .au

Australia ( / ə ˈ s t r l j ə / ə-STRAYL-yə or / ɒ ˈ s t r l ɪ ə / or / ɒ ˈ s t r l j ə / o-STRAYL-yə), officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania and numerous smaller islands. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area. Neighbouring countries include Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea to the north; the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia to the north-east; and New Zealand to the south-east.

For at least 40,000 years before the first British settlement in the late 18th century, Australia was inhabited by indigenous Australians, who belonged to one or more of roughly 250 language groups. After discovery by Dutch explorers in 1606, Australia's eastern half was claimed by Great Britain in 1770 and settled through penal transportation to the colony of New South Wales from 26 January 1788. The population grew steadily in subsequent decades; the continent was explored and an additional five self-governing Crown Colonies were established.

On 1 January 1901, the six colonies federated, forming the Commonwealth of Australia. Since Federation, Australia has maintained a stable liberal democratic political system that functions as a federal parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The federation comprises six states and several territories. The population of 23 million is highly urbanised and heavily concentrated in the eastern states.

A highly developed country and one of the wealthiest, Australia is the world's 12th-largest economy and has the world's fifth-highest per capita income. Australia's military expenditure is the world's 13th-largest. With the second-highest human development index globally, Australia ranks highly in many international comparisons of national performance, such as quality of life, health, education, economic freedom, and the protection of civil liberties and political rights. Australia is a member of the G20, OECD, WTO, APEC, UN, Commonwealth of Nations, ANZUS and the Pacific Islands Forum.


Pronounced [əˈstɹæɪljə, -liə] in Australian English, the name Australia is derived from the Latin australis, meaning "southern". The country has been referred to colloquially as Oz since the early 20th century. Aussie is a common colloquial term for "Australian". In neighbouring New Zealand the term "Aussie" is sometimes applied as a noun to the nation as well as its residents.

Legends of Terra Australis Incognita—an "unknown land of the South"—date back to Roman times and were commonplace in medieval geography, although not based on any documented knowledge of the continent. Following European discovery, names for the Australian landmass were often references to the famed Terra Australis.

The earliest recorded use of the word Australia in English was in 1625 in "A note of Australia del Espíritu Santo, written by Sir Richard Hakluyt", published by Samuel Purchas in Hakluytus Posthumus, a corruption of the original Spanish name "Tierra Austral del Espíritu Santo" (Southern Land of the Holy Spirit) for an island in Vanuatu. The Dutch adjectival form Australische was used in a Dutch book in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1638, to refer to the newly discovered lands to the south. Australia was later used in a 1693 translation of Les Aventures de Jacques Sadeur dans la Découverte et le Voyage de la Terre Australe, a 1676 French novel by Gabriel de Foigny, under the pen-name Jacques Sadeur. Referring to the entire South Pacific region, Alexander Dalrymple used it in An Historical Collection of Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean in 1771. By the end of the 18th century, the name was being used to refer specifically to Australia, with the botanists George Shaw and Sir James Smith writing of "the vast island, or rather continent, of Australia, Australasia or New Holland" in their 1793 Zoology and Botany of New Holland, and James Wilson including it on a 1799 chart.

The name Australia was popularised by the explorer Matthew Flinders, who pushed for it to be formally adopted as early as 1804. When preparing his manuscript and charts for his 1814 A Voyage to Terra Australis, he was persuaded by his patron, Sir Joseph Banks, to use the term Terra Australis as this was the name most familiar to the public. Flinders did so, and published the following rationale:

There is no probability, that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southern latitude; the name Terra Australis will, therefore, remain descriptive of the geographical importance of this country, and of its situation on the globe: it has antiquity to recommend it; and, having no reference to either of the two claiming nations, appears to be less objectionable than any other which could have been selected.*

In the footnote Flinders wrote:

*  Had I permitted myself any innovation on the original term, it would have been to convert it to AUSTRALIA; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.

This is the only occurrence of the word Australia in that text; but in Appendix III, Robert Brown's General remarks, geographical and systematical, on the botany of Terra Australis, Brown makes use of the adjectival form Australian throughout,—the first known use of that form. Despite popular conception, the book was not instrumental in the adoption of the name: the name came gradually to be accepted over the following ten years.

The first time that the name Australia appears to have been officially used was in a despatch to Lord Bathurst of 4 April 1817 in which Governor Lachlan Macquarie acknowledges the receipt of Capt. Flinders' charts of Australia. On 12 December 1817, Macquarie recommended to the Colonial Office that it be formally adopted. In 1824, the Admiralty agreed that the continent should be known officially as Australia.

The first map on which the word Australia occurs was published in St Petersburg in 1824. It is in Krusenstern's Atlas de l'Océan Pacifique.


Map of Australia with coloured arrows showing the path of early explorers around the coast of Australia and surrounding islands
Exploration of what was then New Holland by Europeans until 1812
  1606 Willem Janszoon
  1606 Luis Váez de Torres
  1616 Dirk Hartog
  1619 Frederick de Houtman
  1644 Abel Tasman
  1696 Willem de Vlamingh
  1699 William Dampier
  1770 James Cook
  1797–1799 George Bass
  1801–1803 Matthew Flinders
Portrait of Captain James Cook, the first European to map the eastern coastline of Australia in 1770.

Human habitation of the Australian continent is estimated to have begun between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago, possibly with the migration of people by land bridges and short sea-crossings from what is now South-East Asia. These first inhabitants may have been ancestors of modern Indigenous Australians. At the time of European settlement in the late 18th century, most Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers, with a complex oral culture and spiritual values based on reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Torres Strait Islanders, ethnically Melanesian, were originally horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers. The northern coasts and waters of Australia were visited sporadically by fishermen from Maritime Southeast Asia.

The first recorded European sighting of the Australian mainland, and the first recorded European landfall on the Australian continent, are attributed to the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon. He sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula in early 1606, and made landfall on 26 February at the Pennefather River near the modern town of Weipa on Cape York. The Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines and named the island continent " New Holland" during the 17th century, but made no attempt at settlement. William Dampier, an English explorer and privateer, landed on the north-west coast of New Holland in 1688 and again in 1699 on a return trip. In 1770, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Great Britain. With the loss of its American colonies in 1780, 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 flag raised at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, on 26 January 1788, a date which became Australia's national day, Australia Day although the British Crown Colony of New South Wales was not formally promulgated until 7 February 1788. The first settlement led to the foundation of Sydney, the establishment of farming, industry and commerce; and the exploration and settlement of other regions.

Van Diemen's Land, now known as Tasmania, was settled in 1803 and became a separate colony in 1825. The United Kingdom formally claimed the western part of Western Australia (the Swan River Colony) in 1828. Separate colonies were carved from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory was founded in 1911 when it was excised from South Australia. South Australia was founded as a "free province"—it was never a penal colony. Victoria and Western Australia were also founded "free", but later accepted transported convicts. A campaign by the settlers of New South Wales led to the end of convict transportation to that colony; the last convict ship arrived in 1848.

A calm body of water is in the foreground. The shoreline is about 200 metres away. To the left, close to the shore, are three tall gum trees; behind them on an incline are ruins, including walls and watchtowers of light-coloured stone and brick, what appear to be the foundations of walls, and grassed areas. To the right lie the outer walls of a large rectangular four-storey building dotted with regularly spaced windows. Forested land rises gently to a peak several kilometres back from the shore.
Port Arthur, Tasmania was Australia's largest gaol for reoffending convicts.

The indigenous population, estimated to have been between 750,000 and 1,000,000 at the time European settlement began, declined for 150 years following settlement, mainly due to infectious disease. 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—often referred to as the Stolen Generations—a practice which may also have contributed to the decline in the indigenous population. The Federal government gained the power to make laws with respect to Aborigines following the 1967 referendum. Traditional ownership of land— aboriginal title—was not recognised until 1992, when the High Court case Mabo v Queensland (No 2)' overturned the legal doctrine that Australia had been terra nullius ("land belonging to no one") before the European occupation.

A gold rush began in Australia in the early 1850s and the Eureka Rebellion against mining licence fees in 1854 was an early expression of civil disobedience. Between 1855 and 1890, the six colonies individually gained responsible government, managing most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire. The Colonial Office in London retained control of some matters, notably foreign affairs, defence, and international shipping.

Photo of an ANZAC memorial with an elderly man playing a bugle. Rows of people are seated behind the memorial. Many small white crosses with red poppies have been stuck into the lawn in rows on either side of the memorial.
The Last Post is played at an Anzac Day ceremony in Port Melbourne, Victoria. Similar ceremonies are held in most suburbs and towns.

On 1 January 1901, federation of the colonies was achieved after a decade of planning, consultation and voting. The Commonwealth of Australia was established and it became a dominion of the British Empire in 1907. 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. The Northern Territory was transferred from the control of the South Australian government to the federal parliament in 1911. 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. Australians took part in many of the major battles fought on the Western Front. Of about 416,000 who served, about 60,000 were killed and another 152,000 were wounded. 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. The Kokoda Track campaign is regarded by many as an analogous nation-defining event during World War II.

Britain's Statute of Westminster 1931 formally ended most of the constitutional links between Australia and the UK. Australia adopted it in 1942, but it was backdated to 1939 to confirm the validity of legislation passed by the Australian Parliament during World War II. The shock of the United Kingdom's defeat in Asia in 1942 and the threat of Japanese invasion caused Australia to turn to the United States as a new ally and protector. Since 1951, Australia has been a formal military ally of the US, under the ANZUS treaty. After World War II Australia encouraged immigration from Europe. Since the 1970s and following the abolition of the White Australia policy, immigration from Asia and elsewhere was also promoted. As a result, Australia's demography, culture, and self-image were transformed. The final constitutional ties between Australia and the UK were severed with the passing of the Australia Act 1986, ending any British role in the government of the Australian States, and closing the option of judicial appeals to the Privy Council in London. In a 1999 referendum, 55 per cent 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. Since the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972, 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.


A large white and cream coloured building with grass on its roof. The building is topped with a large flagpole.
Parliament House, Canberra was opened in 1988, replacing the provisional Parliament House building opened in 1927.
Government House, Canberra, also known as "Yarralumla", is the official residence of the Governor-General.
Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia since 2010

Australia is a constitutional monarchy with a federal division of powers. It uses a parliamentary system of government with Queen Elizabeth II at its apex as the Queen of Australia, a role that is distinct from her position as monarch of the other Commonwealth realms. The Queen resides in the United Kingdom, and she is represented by her viceroys in Australia (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. Supreme executive authority is vested by the Constitution of Australia in the sovereign, but the power to exercise it is conferred by the Constitution specifically on the Governor-General. The most notable exercise to date of the Governor-General's reserve powers outside the Prime Minister's request was the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in the constitutional crisis of 1975.

The federal government is separated into three branches:

  • The legislature: the bicameral Parliament, defined in section 1 of the constitution as comprising the Queen (represented by the Governor-General), the Senate, and the House of Representatives;
  • The executive: the Federal Executive Council, in practice the Governor-General as advised by the Prime Minister and Ministers of State;
  • The judiciary: the High Court of Australia and other federal courts, whose judges are appointed by the Governor-General on advice of the Council.

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). The House of Representatives (the lower house) has 150 members elected from single-member electoral divisions, commonly known as "electorates" or "seats", allocated to states on the basis of population, with each original state guaranteed a minimum of five seats. 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.

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, as is enrolment (with the exception of South Australia). 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 power to appoint the Prime Minister and, if necessary, dismiss one that has lost the confidence of Parliament.

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. Independent members and several minor parties have achieved representation in Australian parliaments, mostly in upper houses.

Within Australian political culture, the Coalition is considered centre-right and the Labor Party is considered centre-left. Queensland in particular, along with Western Australia and the Northern Territory, are regarded as comparatively conservative. Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory are regarded as comparatively socially liberal. New South Wales has often been regarded as a politically moderate bellwether state.

Following a partyroom leadership challenge, Julia Gillard became the first female Prime Minister in June 2010. The most recent federal election was held on 21 August 2010 and resulted in the first hung parliament in over 50 years. Gillard was able to form a minority Labor government with the support of independents.

States and territories

Perth Adelaide Melbourne Canberra Sydney Brisbane Indian Ocean Indonesia Papua New Guinea East Timor Great Barrier Reef
A clickable map of Australia's states and mainland 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, but the Commonwealth Parliament can override any legislation of their parliaments. By contrast, federal legislation overrides state legislation only in areas that are set out in Section 51 of the Australian Constitution; state parliaments retain all residual legislative powers, including those over schools, state police, the state judiciary, roads, public transport and local government, since these do not fall under the provisions listed in Section 51.

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. In the Commonwealth, the Queen's representative is the Governor-General.

The federal parliament directly administers the following territories:

Norfolk Island is also technically an external territory; however, under the Norfolk Island Act 1979 it has been granted more autonomy and is governed locally by its own legislative assembly. The Queen is represented by an Administrator, currently Owen Walsh.

Foreign relations and military

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 ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum. 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.

A group of Australian soldiers with rifles moving along a path in a wooded area
Australian Army soldiers conducting a foot patrol during a joint training exercise with US forces in Shoalwater Bay (2007).

Australia has pursued the cause of international trade liberalisation. It led the formation of the Cairns Group and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Australia is a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Trade Organization, and has pursued several major bilateral free trade agreements, most recently the Australia – United States Free Trade Agreement and Closer Economic Relations with New Zealand, with another free trade agreement being negotiated with China—the Australia–China Free Trade Agreement—and Japan, South Korea in 2011, Australia–Chile Free Trade Agreement, ASEAN – Australia – New Zealand Free Trade Area, and the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership.

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 and maintains an international aid program under which some 60 countries receive assistance. The 2005–06 budget provides A$2.5 billion for development assistance. Australia ranks seventh overall in the Centre for Global Development's 2008 Commitment to Development Index.

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 80,561 personnel (including 55,068 regulars and 25,493 reservists). 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. Day-to-day force operations are under the command of the Chief, while broader administration and the formulation of defence policy is undertaken by the Minister and Department of Defence.

In the 2010–11 budget, defence spending was A$25.7 billion, representing the 13th largest defence budget. Australia has been involved in UN and regional peacekeeping, disaster relief and armed conflict; it currently has deployed approximately 3,330 defence force personnel in varying capacities to 12 international operations in areas including East Timor, Solomon Islands and Afghanistan.

Geography and climate

Australia divided into different colours indicating its climatic zones
Climatic zones in Australia, based on the Köppen climate classification.

Australia's landmass of 7,617,930 square kilometres (2,941,300 sq mi) is on the Indo-Australian Plate. Surrounded by the Indian and Pacific oceans, it 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 and sixth largest country by total area, Australia—owing to its size and isolation—is often dubbed the "island continent", and is sometimes considered the world's largest island. Australia has 34,218 kilometres (21,262 mi) of coastline (excluding all offshore islands), 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. Excluding Macquarie Island, Australia lies between latitudes 9° and 44°S, and longitudes 112° and 154°E.

The Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef, lies a short distance off the north-east coast and extends for over 2,000 kilometres (1,240 mi). Mount Augustus, claimed to be the world's largest monolith, is located in Western Australia. At 2,228 metres (7,310 ft), Mount Kosciuszko on the Great Dividing Range is the highest mountain on the Australian mainland. Even taller are Mawson Peak (at 2,745 metres or 9,006 feet), on the remote Australian territory of Heard Island, and, in the Australian Antarctic Territory, Mount McClintock and Mount Menzies, at 3,492 metres (11,457 ft) and 3,355 metres (11,007 ft) respectively.

Everlastings on Mount Hotham, located in Victoria

Australia's size gives it a wide variety of landscapes, with subtropical rainforests in the north-east, mountain ranges in the south-east, south-west and east, and dry desert in the centre. It is the flattest continent, with the oldest and least fertile soils; desert or semi-arid land commonly known as the outback makes up by far the largest portion of land. The driest inhabited continent, only its south-east and south-west corners have a temperate climate. The population density, 2.8 inhabitants per square kilometre, is among the lowest in the world, although a large proportion of the population lives along the temperate south-eastern coastline.

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 metres (5,249 ft) in height. 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. These include the western plains of New South Wales, and the Einasleigh Uplands, Barkly Tableland, and Mulga Lands of inland Queensland. The northernmost point of the east coast is the tropical-rainforested Cape York Peninsula.

Map showing the topography of Australia, showing some elevation in the west and very high elevation in mountains in the southeast
Topographic map of Australia

The landscapes of the northern part of the country—the Top End and the Gulf Country behind the Gulf of Carpentaria, with their tropical climate—consist of woodland, grassland, and desert. At the north-west corner of the continent are the sandstone cliffs and gorges of The Kimberley, and below that the Pilbara. To the south of these and inland, lie more areas of grassland: the Ord Victoria Plain and the Western Australian Mulga shrublands. At the heart of the country are the uplands of central Australia; prominent features of the centre and south include the inland Simpson, Tirari and Sturt Stony, Gibson, Great Sandy, Tanami, and Great Victoria deserts, with the famous Nullarbor Plain on the southern coast.

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. 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) climate. The southwest corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate. Much of the southeast (including Tasmania) is temperate.


Although most of Australia is semi-arid or desert, it includes a diverse range of habitats from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests, and is recognised as a megadiverse country. The fungi typify that diversity; the total number that occur in Australia, including those not yet discovered, has been estimated at around 250,000 species, of which roughly 5% have been described. Because of the continent's great age, extremely variable weather patterns, and long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia's biota is unique and diverse. About 85 per cent of flowering plants, 84 per cent of mammals, more than 45 per cent of birds, and 89 per cent of in-shore, temperate-zone fish are endemic. Australia has the greatest number of reptiles of any country, with 755 species.

A koala holding onto a eucalyptus tree with its head turned so both eyes are visible
The koala and the eucalyptus form an iconic Australian pair

Australian forests are mostly made up of evergreen species, particularly eucalyptus trees in the less arid regions, wattles replace them in drier regions and deserts as the most dominant species. 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. Australia is home to many dangerous animals including some of the most venomous snakes in the world. The dingo was introduced by Austronesian people who traded with Indigenous Australians around 3000 BCE. Many animal and plant species became extinct soon after first human settlement, including the Australian megafauna; others have disappeared since European settlement, among them the thylacine.

Many of Australia's ecoregions, and the species within those regions, are threatened by human activities and introduced animal, chromistan, fungal and plant species. The federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is the legal framework for the protection of threatened species. Numerous protected areas have been created under the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity to protect and preserve unique ecosystems; 65 wetlands are listed under the Ramsar Convention, and 16 natural World Heritage Sites have been established. Australia was ranked 51st of 163 countries in the world on the 2010 Environmental Performance Index.

Climate change has become an increasing concern in Australia in recent years, and protection of the environment is a major political issue. In 2007, the Rudd Government signed the instrument of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Nevertheless, Australia's carbon dioxide emissions per capita are among the highest in the world, lower than those of only a few other industrialised nations. Rainfall in Australia has slightly increased over the past century, both nationwide and for two quadrants of the nation, According to the Bureau of Meteorology's 2011 Australian Climate Statement, Australia had lower than average temperatures in 2011 as a consequence of a La Niña weather pattern, however, "the country's 10-year average continues to demonstrate the rising trend in temperatures, with 2002–2011 likely to rank in the top two warmest 10-year periods on record for Australia, at 0.52 °C above the long-term average". 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. 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 2010, 2011 and 2012 after the 2000s Australian drought.


A deep opencut mine in which some roads can be seen, the dirt is a rusty colour
The Super Pit gold mine in Kalgoorlie, Australia's largest open cut mine.

Australia is a wealthy country with a market economy, a relatively high GDP per capita, and a relatively low rate of poverty. 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.

Ranked third in the Index of Economic Freedom (2010), Australia is the world's thirteenth largest economy and has the fifth highest per capita GDP (nominal) at $66,984. The country was ranked second in the United Nations 2011 Human Development Index and first in Legatum's 2008 Prosperity Index. All of Australia's major cities fare well in global comparative livability surveys; Melbourne reached first place on The Economist's 2011 and 2012 world's most livable cities lists, followed by Sydney, Perth, and Adelaide in sixth, eighth, and ninth place respectively. Total government debt in Australia is about $190 billion – 20 per cent of GDP in 2010. Australia has among the highest house prices and some of the highest household-debt levels in the world.

World map showing the distribution of Australian goods
Destination and value of Australian exports in 2006

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 per cent of GDP negative, and has had persistently large current account deficits for more than 50 years. Australia has grown at an average annual rate of 3.6 per cent for over 15 years, in comparison to the OECD annual average of 2.5 per cent. Australia was the only advanced economy not to experience a recession due to the global financial downturn in 2008–2009. However, the economies of six of Australia's major trading partners have been in recession, which in turn has affected Australia, significantly hampering its economic growth in recent years. From 2012 to early 2013, Australia's national economy grew, but some non-mining states and Australia's non-mining economy experienced a recession.

The Hawke Government floated the Australian dollar in 1983 and partially deregulated the financial system. 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. The indirect tax system was substantially changed in July 2000 with the introduction of a 10 per cent Goods and Services Tax (GST). In Australia's tax system, personal and company income tax are the main sources of government revenue.

In May 2012, there were 11,537,900 people employed (either full- or part-time), with an unemployment rate of 5.1 per cent. Youth unemployment (15–24) stood at 11.2 per cent.

Over the past decade, inflation has typically been 2–3 per cent and the base interest rate 5–6 per cent. The service sector of the economy, including tourism, education, and financial services, accounts for about 70 per cent of GDP. 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 per cent and 5 per cent of GDP respectively, they contribute substantially to export performance. Australia's largest export markets are Japan, China, the US, South Korea, and New Zealand. Australia is the world's fourth largest exporter of wine, and the wine industry contributes $5.5 billion per year to the nation's economy.


A beach sloping down from a grassy area on the left to the sea on the right, a city can be seen in the horizon
Nearly three quarters of Australians live in metropolitan cities and coastal areas. The beach is an integral part of the Australian identity.

For almost two centuries the majority of settlers, and later immigrants, came from the British Isles. As a result the people of Australia are primarily of British and/or Irish ethnic origin. The 2011 Census asked respondents to provide a maximum of two ancestries with which they most closely identify. The most commonly nominated ancestry was English (36.1 per cent), followed by Australian (35.4 per cent), Irish (10.4 per cent), Scottish (8.9 per cent), Italian (4.6 per cent), German (4.5 per cent), Chinese (4.3 per cent), Indian (2.0 per cent), Greek (1.9 per cent), and Dutch (1.7 per cent). Asian Australians make up 12% of the population.

Australia's population has quadrupled since the end of World War I. Nevertheless, its population density, 2.8 inhabitants per square kilometre, remains among the lowest in the world. Much of the population increase came from immigration. Following World War II and through to 2000, almost 5.9 million of the total population settled in the country as new immigrants, meaning that nearly two out of every seven Australians were born in another country. Most immigrants are skilled, but the immigration quota includes categories for family members and refugees. By 2050, Australia's population is currently projected to reach around 42 million.

In 2011, 24.6% of Australians were born elsewhere and 43.1% of people had at least one overseas-born parent; the largest immigrant groups were those from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, China, India, Italy, Vietnam, and Philippines.

Over 80 percent of Australia's population is of European ancestry, and most of the rest are of Asian heritage, with a smaller minority of indigenous ( Aboriginal) background. Following the abolition of the White Australia policy in 1973, numerous government initiatives have been established to encourage and promote racial harmony based on a policy of multiculturalism. In 2005–06, more than 131,000 people emigrated to Australia, mainly from Asia and Oceania. The migration target for 2012–13 is 190,000, compared to 67,900 in 1998–99.

Aerial view of farming fields interspersed with roads, a small forest near the front of the photo
The Barossa Valley is a wine-producing region in South Australia. Fewer than 15 per cent of Australians live in rural areas.

The Indigenous population—mainland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders—was counted at 548,370 (2.5 per cent of the total population) in 2011, a significant increase from 115,953 in the 1976 census. The increase is partly due to many people with Indigenous heritage previously having been overlooked by the census due to undercount and cases where their Indigenous status had not been recorded on the form.

Indigenous Australians experience higher than average rates of imprisonment and unemployment, lower levels of education, and life expectancies for males and females that are 11–17 years lower than those of non-indigenous Australians. Some remote Indigenous communities have been described as having " failed state"-like conditions.

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 2004, the average age of the civilian population was 38.8 years. A large number of Australians (759,849 for the period 2002–03; 1 million or 5% of the total population in 2005) live outside their home country.


Although Australia has no official language, English has always been entrenched as the de facto national language. Australian English is a major variety of the language with a distinctive accent and lexicon, and differs slightly from other varieties of English in grammar and spelling. General Australian serves as the standard dialect. According to the 2011 census, English is the only language spoken in the home for close to 81% of the population. The next most common languages spoken at home are Mandarin (1.7%), Italian (1.5%), Arabic (1.4%), Cantonese (1.3%), Greek (1.3%), and Vietnamese (1.2%); a considerable proportion of first- and second-generation migrants are bilingual. A 2010–2011 study by the Australia Early Development Index found the most common language spoken by children after English was Arabic, followed by Vietnamese, Greek, Chinese, and Hindi.

Between 200 and 300 Indigenous Australian languages are thought to have existed at the time of first European contact, of which only about 70 have survived. Many of these are exclusively spoken by older people; only 18 Indigenous languages are still spoken by all age groups. At the time of the 2006 census, 52,000 Indigenous Australians, representing 12 per cent of the Indigenous population, reported that they spoke an Indigenous language at home. Australia has a sign language known as Auslan, which is the main language of about 5,500 deaf people.


WR Thomas, A South Australian Corroboree, 1864, Art Gallery of South Australia. Aboriginal Australians developed the animist religion of the Dreamtime.

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. In the 2011 census, 61.1 per cent of Australians were counted as Christian, including 25.3 per cent as Roman Catholic and 17.1 per cent as Anglican. 22.3 per cent of the population reported having " no religion" (which includes humanism, atheism, agnosticism and rationalism). 7.2 per cent identify with non-Christian religions, the largest of these being Buddhism (2.5 per cent), followed by Islam (2.2 per cent), Hinduism (1.3 per cent) and Judaism (0.5 per cent). The remaining 9.4 per cent of the population did not provide an answer.

St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, built to a design by William Wardell. About a quarter of Australians are Roman Catholic.

Prior to European settlement in Australia, the animist beliefs of Australia's indigenous people had been practised for millennia. In the case of mainland Aboriginal Australians, their spirituality is known as the Dreamtime 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. In the case of the Torres Strait Islanders who inhabit the islands between Australia and New Guinea, spirituality and customs 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.

Since the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships in 1788, Christianity has grown to be the major religion. Consequently, the Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter are public holidays, the skylines of Australian cities and towns are marked by church and cathedral spires, and the Christian churches have played an integral role in the development of education, health and welfare services in Australia. The Catholic education system operates as the largest non-government educator, accounting for about 21 per cent of all secondary enrolments as of 2010, with Catholic Health Australia similarly being the largest non-government provider. Christian welfare organisations also play a prominent role in national life, with organisations such as the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul Society and Anglicare having widespread support. Such contributions are recognised on Australia's currency, with the presence of Christian ministers such as Aboriginal writer David Unaipon ($50); founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, John Flynn ($20); and Catherine Helen Spence ($5) who was Australia's first female candidate for political office. Other significant Australian religious figures have included Mary MacKillop, who in 2010 became the first Australian to be recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and Church of Christ pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls who, like Martin Luther King in the United States, led a movement against racial inequality in Australia and was also the first indigenous Australian to be appointed as a state governor.

For much of Australian history the Church of England (now known as the Anglican Church of Australia) was the largest religious affiliation, however multicultural immigration has contributed to a decline in its relative position, with the Roman Catholic Church benefiting from the opening of post-war Australia to multicultural immigration and becoming the largest group. Similarly, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism have all been expanding in the post war decades. To a lesser extent, smaller affiliations including the Bahá'í Faith, Sikhism, Wicca and Paganism have also seen a significant increase in numbers. In the 2001 census there were, 17,381 Sikhs, 11,037 Bahá'ís, 10,632 Pagans and 8,755 Wiccans in Australia.

An international survey, made by the private and not-for profit German think-tank, the Bertelsmann Foundation, found that "Australia is one of the least religious nations in the western world, coming in 17th out of 21 [countries] surveyed" and that "Nearly three out of four Australians say they are either not at all religious or that religion does not play a central role in their lives." While weekly attendance at church services in 2001 was about 1.5 million (about 7.8 per cent of the population), a survey of 1,718 Australians by the Christian Research Association at the end of 2009 suggested that the number of people attending religious services per month in Australia has dropped from 23 per cent in 1993 to 16 per cent in 2009, and while 60 per cent of 15 to 29-year-old respondents in 1993 identified with Christian denominations, 33 per cent did in 2009.


School attendance is compulsory throughout Australia. Education is the responsibility of the individual states and territories so the rules vary between states, but in general children are required to attend school from the age of about 5 up until about 16. In at least some states (e.g., WA) children aged 16–17 are required to either attend school or participate in vocational training, such as an apprenticeship.

Australia has an adult literacy rate that is assumed to be 99 per cent. In the Programme for International Student Assessment, Australia regularly scores among the top five of thirty major developed countries (member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Catholic education accounts for the largest non-government sector.

Australia has 37 government-funded universities and two private universities, as well as a number of other specialist institutions that provide approved courses at the higher education level. The University of Sydney is Australia's oldest university, having been founded in 1850, followed by the University of Melbourne three years later. Other notable universities include those of the Group of Eight leading tertiary institutions, including the University of Adelaide (which boasts an association with five Nobel Laureates), the Australian National University located in the national capital of Canberra, Monash University and the University of New South Wales.

The OECD places Australia among the most expensive nations to attend university. There is a state-based system of vocational training, known as TAFE, and many trades conduct apprenticeships for training new tradespeople. Approximately 58 per cent of Australians aged from 25 to 64 have vocational or tertiary qualifications, and the tertiary graduation rate of 49 per cent is the highest among OECD countries. The ratio of international to local students in tertiary education in Australia is the highest in the OECD countries.


Australia has the fourth highest life expectancy in the world after Iceland, Japan and Hong Kong. Life expectancy in Australia in 2010 was 79.5 years for males and 84.0 years for females. Australia has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, while cigarette smoking is the largest preventable cause of death and disease, responsible for 7.8 per cent of the total mortality and disease. Ranked second in preventable causes is hypertension at 7.6 per cent, with obesity third at 7.5 per cent. Australia ranks 35th in the world and near the top of developed nations for its proportion of obese adults.

Total expenditure on health (including private sector spending) is around 9.8 per cent of GDP. Australia introduced universal health care in 1975. Known as Medicare, it is now nominally funded by an income tax surcharge known as the Medicare levy, currently set at 1.5 per cent. The states manage hospitals and attached outpatient services, while the Commonwealth funds the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (subsidising the costs of medicines) and general practice.


Ornate white building with an elevated dome in the middle, fronted by a golden fountain and orange flowers
The Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne was the first building in Australia to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Since 1788, the basis of Australian culture has been strongly influenced by Anglo-Celtic Western culture. Distinctive cultural features have also arisen from Australia's natural environment and Indigenous cultures. Since the mid-20th century, American popular culture has strongly influenced Australia, particularly through television and cinema. Other cultural influences come from neighbouring Asian countries, and through large-scale immigration from non-English-speaking nations.


A painting of a horse-drawn coach, by a steep, tree-covered hillside. A felled tree lies across its path. Several armed men are in the process of robbing the passengers and looting the rear trunk.
Bailed up by Tom Roberts depicts the robbing of a coach from the gold fields by bushrangers.

Australian visual arts are thought to have begun with the cave paintings, rock engravings and body painting of its Indigenous peoples. The traditions of Indigenous Australians are largely transmitted orally, through ceremony and the telling of Dreamtime stories. From the time of European settlement, a theme in Australian art has been the natural landscape, seen for example in the works of Albert Namatjira, Arthur Streeton and others associated with the Heidelberg School, and Arthur Boyd.

The country's landscape remains a source of inspiration for Australian modernist artists; it has been depicted in acclaimed works by the likes of Sidney Nolan, Fred Williams, Sydney Long, and Clifton Pugh. Australian artists influenced by modern American and European art include cubist Grace Crowley, surrealist James Gleeson, and pop artist Martin Sharp. Contemporary Indigenous Australian art is the only art movement of international significance to emerge from Australia and "the last great art movement of the 20th century"; its exponents have included Emily Kngwarreye. Art critic Robert Hughes has written several influential books about Australian history and art, and was described as the "world's most famous art critic" by The New York Times. The National Gallery of Australia and state galleries maintain Australian and overseas collections. Australia has one of the world's highest attendances of art galleries and museums per head of population—far more than Britain or America.

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

Aboriginal man performing on the Digeridoo indoors with 4 people watching, aboriginal paintings can be seen on the wall behind him
Performance of Aboriginal song and dance in the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney

Australian literature has also been influenced by the landscape; the works of writers such as Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, and Dorothea Mackellar captured the experience of the Australian bush. The character of the nation's colonial past, as represented in early literature, is popular with modern Australians. In 1973, Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Australian to have achieved this. Australian winners of the Man Booker Prize have included Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally; David Williamson, David Malouf, and J. M. Coetzee, who recently became an Australian citizen, are also renowned writers, and Les Murray is regarded as "one of the leading poets of his generation".


The Pavlova has been consumed in Australia since the 20th century.

The food of Indigenous Australians was largely influenced by the area in which they lived. Most tribal groups subsisted on a simple hunter-gatherer diet, hunting native game and fish and collecting native plants and fruit. The general term for native Australian flora and fauna used as a source of food is bush tucker. The first settlers introduced British food to the continent which much of what is now considered typical Australian food is based on the Sunday roast has become an enduring tradition for many Australians. Since the beginning of the 20th century, food in Australia has increasingly been influenced by immigrants to the nation, particularly from Southern European and Asian cultures. Australian wine is produced in 60 distinct production areas totalling approximately 160,000 hectares, mainly in the southern, cooler parts of the country. The wine regions in each of these states produce different wine varieties and styles that take advantage of local climates and soil types. The predominant varieties are Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sémillon, Pinot noir, Riesling, and Sauvignon blanc. In 1995, an Australian red wine, Penfolds Grange, won the Wine Spectator award for Wine of the Year, the first time a wine from outside France or California achieved this distinction.


Black and white photo of a cricket pitch
Cricket has been an important part of Australia's sporting culture since the 19th century.

Around 24 per cent of Australians over the age of 15 regularly participate in organised sporting activities in Australia. Australia has strong international teams in cricket, field hockey, netball, rugby league, and rugby union, having been Olympic or world champions at least twice in each sport in the last 25 years for both men and women where applicable. Australia is also powerful in track cycling, rowing, and swimming, having consistently been in the top-five medal-winners at Olympic or World Championship level since 2000. Swimming is the strongest of these sports; Australia is the second-most prolific medal winner in the sport in Olympic history.

Some of Australia's most internationally well-known and successful sportspeople are swimmers Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose, Shane Gould, and Ian Thorpe; sprinters Shirley Strickland, Betty Cuthbert, and Cathy Freeman; tennis players Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Evonne Goolagong, and Margaret Court; cricketers Donald Bradman and Shane Warne; three-time Formula One world champion Jack Brabham; five-time motorcycle grand prix world champion Mick Doohan; golfers Greg Norman and Karrie Webb; cyclist Hubert Opperman, prodigious billiards player Walter Lindrum and basketball players Andrew Bogut and Lauren Jackson. Nationally, other popular sports include Australian rules football, horse racing, squash, surfing, soccer, and motor racing. The annual Melbourne Cup horse race and the Sydney to Hobart yacht race attract intense interest.

Australia has participated in every summer Olympics of the modern era, and every Commonwealth Games. Australia hosted the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, and ranked among the top six medal-takers for the games of 2000, 2004 and 2008. In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Australia was placed 10th in the medal table. Australia has also hosted the 1938, 1962, 1982, 2006 Commonwealth Games and will host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. 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. Australia hosted the 2003 Rugby World Cup and the annual Australia–New Zealand Bledisloe Cup is keenly watched. The highest-rating television programs include sports telecasts such as the summer Olympics, FIFA World Cup, Rugby League State of Origin, and the grand finals of the National Rugby League and Australian Football League. Skiing in Australia began in the 1860s and snow sports take place in the Australian Alps and parts of Tasmania.

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