Template:Infobox Australia The Commonwealth of Australia is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the world's smallest continent and a number of islands in the Southern, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Australia's neighbouring countries are 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.
The continent of Australia has been inhabited for over 40,000 years by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. After sporadic visits by European explorers and merchants from the 17th century onwards, the eastern half of the continent was claimed by the British in 1770, and officially settled as the penal colony of New South Wales on 26 January 1788. As the population grew and new areas were explored, another five largely self-governing Crown Colonies were successively established over the course of the 19th century.
On 1 January 1901, the six colonies federated and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed. Since federation, Australia has maintained a stable liberal democratic political system and remains a Commonwealth Realm. The current population of around 20.4 million is concentrated mainly in the coastal cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth.
The date of the first human habitation of Australia is estimated to be between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago. The first Australians were the ancestors of the current Australian Aborigines, and arrived via land bridges and short sea-crossings from present-day south-east Asia. Most of these people 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, inhabited the Torres Strait Islands and parts of far-north Queensland; they practised subsistence agriculture and possess distinct cultural practices.
The first undisputed recorded European sighting of the Australian continent was made by the Dutch navigator Willem Jansz, who sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula in 1606. During the 17th century, the Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines of what they called New Holland, but made no attempt at settlement. In 1770, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast of Australia, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Britain. The expedition's discoveries provided impetus for the establishment of a penal colony there following the loss of the American colonies that had previously filled that role.
The British Crown Colony of New South Wales started with the establishment of a settlement at Port Jackson by Captain Arthur Phillip on 26 January 1788. This date was later to become Australia's national day, Australia Day. Van Diemen's Land, now known as Tasmania, was settled in 1803 and became a separate colony in 1825. Britain formally claimed the western part of Australia in 1829. Separate colonies were created from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory (NT) was founded in 1863 as part of the Province of South Australia. Victoria and South Australia were founded as "free colonies" — that is, they were never penal colonies, although the former did receive some convicts from Tasmania. Western Australia was also founded "free", but later accepted transported convicts due to an acute labour shortage. The transportation of convicts to Australia was phased out between 1840 and 1868.
The Indigenous Australian population, estimated at about 350,000 at the time of European settlement, declined steeply for 150 years following settlement, mainly because of infectious disease and because of forced migration, the removal of children, and other colonial government policies that by today's understanding could be considered to constitute genocide. Following the 1967 referendum, the Federal government gained the power to implement policies and make laws with respect to Aborigines. Traditional ownership of land — native title — was not recognised until the High Court case Mabo v Queensland overturned the notion of Australia as terra nullius (nobody's land) at the time of European occupation.
A gold rush began in Australia in the early 1850s, and the Eureka Stockade rebellion in 1854 was an early expression of nationalist sentiment. 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.
On 1 January 1901, federation of the colonies was achieved after a decade of planning, consultation, and voting, and the Commonwealth of Australia was born, as a Dominion of the British Empire. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was formed from New South Wales in 1911 to provide a location for the proposed new federal capital of Canberra (Melbourne was the capital from 1901 to 1927). The Northern Territory was transferred from the control of the South Australian government to the Commonwealth in 1911.
Australia willingly participated in World War I; 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 casualties suffered by Australia were the highest per capita of any Allied nation, and the war had a profound effect on the national character. Much like Gallipoli the Kokoda Track Campaign is regarded by many as a nation defining battle from World War II.
The Statute of Westminster 1931 formally ended most of the constitutional links between Australia and Britain, but Australia did not adopt the Statute until 1942. The shock of Britain'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 auspices of the ANZUS treaty.
After World War II, Australia encouraged mass immigration from Europe - and, since the 1970s and the abolition of the White Australia policy, from Asia and other parts of the world. This radically transformed Australia's demography, culture, and self-image. The final constitutional ties between Australia and Britain ended in 1986 with the passing of the Australia Act 1986, ending any British role in the Australian States, and ending judicial appeals to the UK Privy Council. Although Australian voters rejected a move to become a republic in 1999 by a 55% majority, Australia's links to its British past are increasingly tenuous. Since the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972, there has been an increasing focus on the nation's future as a part of the Asia-Pacific region.
The Commonwealth of Australia is a constitutional monarchy and has a parliamentary system of government. Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of Australia, a role that is distinct from her position as Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The Queen is nominally represented by the Governor-General; although the Constitution gives extensive executive powers to the Governor-General, these are normally exercised only on the advice of the Prime Minister. The most notable exercise of the Governor-General's reserve powers outside the Prime Minister's direction was the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in the constitutional crisis of 1975.
There are three branches of government.
- The legislature: the Commonwealth Parliament, comprising the Queen, the Senate, and the House of Representatives; the Queen is represented by the Governor-General, who in practice exercises little or no power over the Parliament.
- The executive: the Federal Executive Council (the Governor-General as advised by the executive councillors); in practice, the councillors are the prime minister and ministers of state, whose advice the Governor-General accepts, with rare exceptions.
- The judiciary: the High Court of Australia and other federal courts. The State courts became formally independent from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council when the Australia Act was passed in 1986.
The bicameral Commonwealth Parliament consists of the Senate (the upper house) of 76 senators, and a House of Representatives (the lower house) of 150 members. Members of the lower house are elected from single-member constituencies, commonly known as 'electorates' or 'seats'. Seats in the House of Representatives are allocated to states on the basis of population. In the Senate, each state, regardless of population, is represented by 12 senators, with the ACT and the NT each electing two. Elections for both chambers are held every three years; typically only half of the Senate seats are put to each election, because senators have overlapping six-year terms. The party with majority support in the House of Representatives forms Government, with its leader becoming Prime Minister.
States and territories
Australia consists of six states and several territories. The states are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. The two mainland territories are the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory; the federal government administers a separate area within New South Wales, the Jervis Bay Territory, as a naval base and sea port for the national capital.
In most respects, the territories function similarly to the states, but the Commonwealth Parliament can override any legislation of their parliaments. By contrast, federal legislation overrides state legislation only with respect to certain areas as set out in Section 51 of the Constitution; all residual legislative powers are retained by the state parliaments, including powers over hospitals, education, police, the judiciary, roads, public transport, and local government.
Each state and territory has its own bicameral parliament (unicameral in the case of Queensland and the mainland territories). The lower house is known as the Legislative Assembly (House of Assembly in South Australia and Tasmania) and the upper house the Legislative Council. The heads of the governments in each state and territory are called premiers and chief ministers, respectively. The Queen is represented in each state by a governor; an administrator in the Northern Territory, and the Governor-General in the ACT, have analogous roles.
Australia has several inhabited external territories: Norfolk Island, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and several largely uninhabited external territories: Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Coral Sea Islands, Heard Island and McDonald Islands and the Australian Antarctic Territory.
Most of the estimated 20.4 million Australians are descended from 19th- and 20th-century immigrants, the majority from Britain and Ireland. Australia's population has quadrupled since the end of World War I , spurred by an ambitious immigration program. In 2001, the five largest groups of the 27.4% of Australians who were born overseas were from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam, and China. Following the abolition of the White Australia policy, numerous government initiatives have been established to encourage and promote racial harmony based on a policy of multiculturalism. Australia’s population has multiplied by about 60 since European settlement.
The self-declared indigenous population — including Torres Strait Islanders, who are of Melanesian descent — was 410,003 (2.2% of the total population) in 2001, a significant increase from the 1977 census, which showed an indigenous population of 115,953. Indigenous Australians have higher rates of imprisonment and unemployment, lower levels of education and life expectancies for males and females that are 17 years lower than those of other Australians. Perceived racial inequality is an ongoing political and human rights issue for Australians.
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. A large number of Australians (759,849 for the period 2002–03) live outside their home country. Australia has maintained one of the most active immigration programs in the world to boost population growth. Most immigrants are skilled; the quota includes categories for family members and refugees.
English is the official language, and is spoken and written in a distinct variety known as Australian English. According to the 2001 census, English is the only language spoken in the home for around 80% of the population. The next most common languages spoken at home are Chinese (2.1%), Italian (1.9%) and Greek (1.4%). A considerable proportion of first- and second-generation migrants are bilingual. It is believed that there were between 200 and 300 Australian Aboriginal languages at the time of first European contact. Only about 70 of these languages have survived, and all but 20 of these are now endangered. An indigenous language remains the main language for about 50,000 people (0.02%). Australia has a sign language known as Auslan, which is the main language of about 6,500 deaf people.
The Australian Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state; there is no state religion. The 2001 census identified that 68% of Australians call themselves Christian: 21% identifying themselves as Anglican and 27% as Roman Catholic. Five per cent of Australians identify themselves as followers of non-Christian religions, and 26% as non-religious. Like many Western countries, the level of active participation in church worship is much lower than this; weekly attendance at church services is about 1.5 million, about 7.5% of the population.
School attendance is compulsory throughout Australia between the ages of 6–15 years (16 years in South Australia and Tasmania), contributing to an adult literacy rate that is assumed to be 99%. Government grants have supported the establishment of Australia's 38 universities, and although several private universities have been established, the majority receive government funding. There is a state-based system of vocational training colleges, known as "TAFE", and many trades conduct apprenticeships for training new tradespeople. Approximately 58% of Australians between the ages of 25 and 64 have vocational or tertiary qualifications.
The primary basis of Australian culture up until the mid-20th century was British, although distinctive Australian features had been evolving from the environment and indigenous culture. Over the past 50 years, Australian culture has been strongly influenced by American popular culture (particularly television and cinema), large-scale immigration from non-English-speaking countries, and Australia's Asian neighbours.
Australia has a long history of visual arts, starting with the cave and bark paintings of its indigenous peoples. From the time of European settlement, a common theme in Australian art has been the Australian landscape, seen in the works of Arthur Streeton, Arthur Boyd, and Albert Namatjira, among others. The traditions of indigenous Australians are largely transmitted orally and are closely tied to ceremony and the telling of the stories of the Dreamtime. Australian Aboriginal music, dance and art have a palpable influence on contemporary Australian visual and performing arts. Australia has an active tradition of music, ballet and theatre; many of its performing arts companies receive public funding through the federal government's Australia Council. There is a symphony orchestra in each capital city, and a national opera company, Opera Australia, first made prominent by the renowned diva Dame Joan Sutherland; Australian music includes classical, jazz, and many popular music genres.
Australian literature has also been influenced by the landscape; the works of writers such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson captured the experience of the Australian bush. The character of colonial Australia, as embodied in early literature, resonates with modern Australia and its perceived emphasis on egalitarianism, mateship, and anti-authoritarianism. In 1973, Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the only Australian to have achieved this; he is recognised as one of the great English-language writers of the 20th century. Australian English is a major variety of the language; its grammar and spelling are largely based on those of British English, overlaid with a rich vernacular of unique lexical items and phrases, some of which have found their way into standard English.
Sport is an important part of Australian culture, assisted by a climate that favours outdoor activities; 23.5% Australians over the age of 15 regularly participate in organised sporting activities. At national and international levels, Australia has particularly strong teams in Australian rules football, Rugby League, Rugby Union, cricket and netball and excels in cycling and swimming.
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