Australia is an island continent and nation in the southern hemisphere. It has a population of around 22 million people, mostly of British descent, with large minorities from central Europe and eastern Asia. A small aboriginal population has lived on the continent for thousands of years. Its capital is Canberra.
Aboriginal settlers arrived on the continent from Southeast Asia before the first Europeans began exploration in the 17th century. No formal territorial claims were made until 1770, when Captain James Cook took possession in the name of Great Britain. Six colonies were created in the late 18th and 19th centuries; they federated and became the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The new country took advantage of its natural resources to rapidly develop agricultural and manufacturing industries and to make a major contribution to the British Empire.
Australia was a major contributor of men and material in World Wars I and II. In World War II, Australian troops fought the Japanese in New Guinea, and the city of Darwin endured several bombing raids. Many Australians feared an invasion, and this was considered by the Japanese leadership, but was dropped in favor of other priorities. Australia later contributed thousands of troops to the UN forces in the Korean War.
In recent decades, Australia has transformed itself into an internationally competitive, advanced market economy. It boasted one of the OECD's fastest growing economies during the 1990s, a performance due in large part to economic reforms adopted in the 1980s. Long-term concerns include climate-change issues such as the depletion of the ozone layer and more frequent droughts, and management and conservation of coastal areas, especially the Great Barrier Reef.
With a land area of nearly 7,700,000 square kilometres, Australia is the largest island in the world, and the sixth largest nation. Australia has no land connections with other countries; its closest neighbours are Papua New Guinea to the north, East Timor and Indonesia to the northwest, and New Zealand to the southeast (though the last is over two thousand kilometres distant).
While much of Australia is desert or semi-arid, the eastern coastal area is much more equable, with a temperate zone in the south, a humid sub-tropical climate in New South Wales and southern Queensland, and rainforest in Northern Queensland and the Northern territory. These zones extend only a comparatively short distance inland to the Great Dividing Range, which creates a rain shadow in the interior - the hostile, dry outback.
Australia has an abundance of native animals, the majority of which are marsupials. Among the mammals unique to Australia are the only two monotremes, the platypus and echidna. Other native Australian wildlife includes the kangaroo, emu, wombat, koala and the Tasmanian devil.
States and territories
Australia is divided into six states, with a number of territories, most of which are small. The states and two territories have their own governments for internal affairs, while the remaining territories are administered by the federal government.
|New South Wales||1788||6,770,000|
|South Australia||December 1836||1,542,000|
Apart from the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and Jervis Bay Territory on the mainland, nearly all Australia's territories (listed below) are small islands; several are uninhabited.
- Ashmore and Cartier Islands
- Australian Antarctic Territory
- Australian Capital Territory
- Christmas Island
- Cocos (Keeling) Islands
- Coral Sea Islands Territory
- Heard Island and McDonald Islands
- Norfolk Island
- Northern Territory
Australia has three tiers of government.
The Federal government, located in the national capital, Canberra, comprises a two-house ("bicameral") parliament. The House of Representatives, or lower house, comprises one member from each of 150 electorates of approximately equal populations from all over Australia.
According to convention, the leader of the party with the most members in the House of Representatives becomes the Prime Minister.
The Senate, or upper house, comprises twelve members from each of the six states, plus two members from each of the mainland territories, a total of 76 in all. The senators are elected by a system of proportional representation, and each of the state senators serve two terms of government, with half retiring every three years. These 6-year terms commence on 1st July following a general election.
In particular cases, a "double dissolution" may be called, in which case all senators must retire and all positions are re-elected. In this case, half the senators serve terms ending six years and the other half ending three years from a nominal start date of 1st July before the election.
State and Territory governments
Each state and each of the two mainland territories have their own governments. All states except Queensland have a two-house parliament, similar to the Federal government. Queensland and the two mainland territories only have the one house.
The upper house is known as the Legislative Council, and the lower house is known as the Legislative Assembly, or the House of Assembly in South Australia and Tasmania.
Each local government municipality has an elected council, which serves under the authority of the various state and territory governments.
Most government elections in Australia have compulsory voting and preferential voting.