Introduction to Australia

Australia, or Commonwealth of Australia, a country occupying its own continent in the Southern Hemisphere. It lies southeast of Asia between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Australia ranks sixth in size among the countries of the world. The continent of Australia is the world's smallest. Excluding dependencies, Australia has an area of 2,966,151 square miles (7,682,300 km2), nearly that of the United States without Hawaii and Alaska. Maximum dimensions, excluding the island of Tasmania, are about 2,450 miles (3,940 km) east-west and 1,950 miles (3,140 km) north-south. Making up the country are six states and two mainland territories. In addition, Australia governs numerous islands.

Australia in brief
General information
Capital: Canberra.
Official language: English.
Official name: Commonwealth of Australia.
Anthems: "Advance Australia Fair" (national); "God Save the Queen" (royal).
Largest cities: (2001 census) Sydney (3,997,321); Melbourne (3,366,542); Brisbane (1,627,535); Perth (1,339,993); Adelaide (1,072,585).
Symbols of Australia: Australia's flag has a British Union flag, five stars that represent the constellation Southern Cross, and a large star for the country's states and territories. The coat of arms features a kangaroo and an emu; golden wattle blossoms (the national floral emblem); a shield with the coats of arms of the six states of Australia; and a star for the states and territories.
Land and climate
Land: Australia is the only country that is also a continent. It lies between the South Pacific and Indian oceans. Australia is mostly flat, except for the Great Dividing Range in the east and several smaller mountainous regions. The major rivers include the Murray and the Darling.
Area: 2,988,902 mi2 (7,741,220 km2), including 26,000 mi2 (67,800 km2) for Tasmania. Greatest distances (mainland)--east-west 2,475 mi (3,983 km); north-south--1,950 mi (3,138 km). Coastline--37,118 mi (59,736 km), including 1,760 mi (2,833 km) for Tasmania and 14,825 mi (23,859 km) for offshore islands.
Elevation:Highest--Mount Kosciuszko, 7,310 ft (2,228 m) above sea level. Lowest--Lake Eyre, 52 ft (16 m) below sea level.
Climate: The northern third of Australia lies in the tropics and so is warm or hot the year around. The rest of the country lies south of the tropics and has warm summers and mild or cool winters. About a third of the country is desert. Australia lies south of the equator, and so its seasons are opposite those in the Northern Hemisphere.
Form of government: Constitutional monarchy; in practice, a parliamentary democracy.
Head of state: Queen of the United Kingdom, who is also queen of Australia. In practice, governor general performs functions in queen's absence.
Head of government: Prime minister, the leader of the party or coalition of parties holding a majority in the House of Representatives.
Parliament:Senate--76 members; House of Representatives--150 members.
Executive: Prime minister and Cabinet.
Political subdivisions: Six states, two mainland territories, and eight external territories.
Population:Current estimate--20,979,000. 2001 census--18,972,350.
Population density: 7 per mi2 (3 per km2)
Distribution: 91 percent urban, 9 percent rural.
Major ethnic/national groups: More than 80 percent of European descent, chiefly British and Irish, but also Italian, German, Greek, Dutch, and others. About 10 percent Asian. About 2 percent Aborigine (native Australian peoples).
Religion: About 25 percent Roman Catholic, 20 percent Anglican, and 7 percent Uniting Church, which consists of Methodist, Congregationalist, and some Presbyterian churches.
Chief products:Agriculture--apples, barley, beef cattle, chickens and eggs, grapes, milk, oats, oranges, rice, sheep and lambs, sugar cane, wheat, wool. Fishing--lobsters, oysters, shrimp. Forestry--eucalyptus and pine timber, wood pulp. Manufacturing--cars and other transportation equipment; iron, steel, and other metals; machinery; paper; petroleum, coal, and chemical products; processed foods. Mining--bauxite, coal, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, manganese, natural gas, nickel, opals, petroleum, silver, tin, titanium, uranium, zinc, zircon.
Money:Basic unit--Australian dollar. One hundred cents equal one dollar.
International trade:Major exports--alumina (processed aluminum ore), beef, coal, iron ore, petroleum products, wheat, wool. Major imports--electrical appliances, industrial machinery, office equipment, petroleum products, telecommunications equipment, yarns and fabrics. Major trading partners--China, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States.

Physical Geography

Australia Australia is the only country that is also a continent.

Australia is roughly crescent-shaped. It is lower and flatter than any other continent; three-fourths of the land lies 600 to 1,500 feet (180 to 460 m) above sea level.

Running along the east coast and increasing in height from north to south is the Great Dividing Range. At the range's southern end are the Australian Alps, which rise to 7,316 feet (2,230 m) at Mount Kosciusko, the highest peak in Australia. The mountains also occur in Tasmania, where most of the terrain is rugged.

Inland from the Great Dividing Range are the plains and basins of the central lowlands, a region extending north-south from Spencer Gulf to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The land is generally flat to rolling and only slightly above sea level. At Lake Eyre in the south it dips 52 feet (16 m) below sea level.

The western two-thirds of Australia consists of a low plateau. Several mountainous areas break the generally level terrain. The Macdonnell and Musgrave ranges in the heart of the continent rise to almost 5,000 feet (1,520 m); the Hamersley Range in the west to more than 4,000 feet (1,220 m). Deserts, such as the Great Sandy, Gibson, and Great Victoria, make up much of the region.


Numerous arms of the Pacific and Indian oceans border Australia's coast. Among them are the Timor Sea, the Arafura Sea, and the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north; the Coral Sea and the Tasman Sea in the east; and the Great Australian Bight in the south. In the Coral Sea, paralleling the shore for some 1,250 miles (2,000 km), is the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral formation.

Australia has only one major river system, the Murray-Darling, which flows westward from the Great Dividing Range. With a combined length of 2,310 miles (3,718 km) from the source of the Darling to the mouth of the Murray, it drains a huge area in the southeast. There are also permanently flowing streams along the eastern and southwestern coasts. Major rivers of the north occasionally turn into a mere series of waterholes during extremely dry weather. In the south and throughout much of the interior there are no rivers.

Australia has no large permanent lakes, only small ones in the southern part of the Great Dividing Range. The interior has shallow salt lakes that are usually dry, but periodically fill with water. Largest of these are Lakes Eyre, Gairdner, and Torrens.

Underlying about a third of Australia are artesian basins, areas with underground water-bearing rock. The Great Artesian Basin, the largest such basin in the world, covers an area of more than 600,000 square miles (1,500,000 km2).


Because of a latitudinal span of some 34 degrees (about 10º to 44º South), the climate varies from tropical and monsoonal in the north to temperate and oceanic in the south. Temperature differences between the warmest and coldest months are everywhere relatively small, much less than those in comparable latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. The climate in general is also marked by limited precipitation, abundant sunshine, low relative humidity, and moderate winds. Typhoons occasionally strike the north coast. Summer lasts from December to March; winter from June to September.

Except in the high mountains of the southeast and in Tasmania, summers are hot. Northwestern Australia is particularly torrid—maximum temperatures of 100º to 120º F. (38º to 49º C.) have been recorded for as many as 160 consecutive days. Winters are generally warm to mild. In tropical northern Australia, winter is hot, much like the rest of the year. Elsewhere, except in the extreme southeast, temperatures rarely, if ever, fall below freezing.

The total amount of rainfall in Australia is small, and it varies enormously from year to year. Devastating droughts occur periodically. In a broad belt extending from the west coast through the vast interior and curving down to the south coast, the annual precipitation is less than 20 inches (508 mm). Much of this region receives less than 10 inches (254 mm) a year. In areas along the northern, eastern, southeastern, and southwestern coasts, precipitation is more abundant, some 20 to 50 inches (508 to 1,270 mm) a year. Small areas along these coasts receive larger amounts—up to 160 inches (4,064 mm) of rain in northern Queensland, and 140 inches (3,556 mm) in western Tasmania. Snow falls in the high southern part of the Great Dividing Range and in Tasmania.


Desert or semidesert vegetation is found from the interior to the west coast. This vegetation is composed of tough, spiny grasses (such as spinifex and porcupine grass), such shrubs as saltbush, and other drought-resistant plants. As the rainfall increases, the vegetation pattern changes. Beyond the desert area are grasslands interspersed with trees, mostly acacias (wattles). There are more than 600 species of acacias in Australia.

Beyond the grasslands toward the east are subtropical and temperate woodlands and rain forests. Here eucalyptus trees predominate. In Australia there are about 550 species of these trees, many of which are widely used for hardwood timber. Tropical plant life, consisting of conifers, palms, tree ferns, lianas, and a great variety of orchids, is found around the northern coast. Mediterranean vegetation is found in the southwestern tip of Australia, and jarrah and karri trees are abundant. Tasmania's vegetation consists mainly of subtropical and temperate forests and woodlands, with eucalyptus trees, palms, tree ferns, conifers, and beeches predominating.


Australia has many species of wildlife that are not found anywhere else in the world. Among the most unusual of these species are the many Australian mammals, such as kangaroos, that carry their young in external pouches. Australia is interesting not only because of the uniqueness of its wildlife, but also because of the lack of many types of animals, such as hoofed animals, that are common elsewhere in the world. Australia's wildlife is unusual because it has evolved in isolation from the rest of the world, over a span of many millions of years.


Most species of Australia's land mammals are marsupials (so called from the mother's marsupium, an external pouch in which the young are carried and nourished). The best-known marsupials are the kangaroos. The red and the gray kangaroos are found in open grass country. Smaller kangaroos, called wallabies, are found in hilly, shrub-covered country. Another marsupial is the koala, of the eucalyptus-covered areas of the eastern part of Australia. The Tasmanian devil, found only in Tasmania, is also a marsupial. Other marsupials include pouched mice, opossums, wombats, bandicoots, and the banded anteater.

Among other land mammals are many species of rodents and bats and the dingo, a wild dog. During the latter half of the 18th century, the European, or common, rabbit was introduced to Australia. It thrived and multiplied and at times has been a serious pest. In Australia and New Guinea are found the only egg-laying mammals known—the duckbill platypus and the spiny ant-eaters, or echidnas. More than 20 species of whales, including the large sperm whale, and several species of seals are found in the ocean south of Australia. The dugong, or sea cow, is found in the warm waters of northern Australia.


Australia has a wide variety of birds. In the tropical forests of the north are large numbers of parrots, cockatoos, and other tropical birds. The emu and black swan are rare birds found only in Australia. Bowerbirds, Cape Barron and magpie geese, kookaburras, and cassowaries are some of the birds found only in Australia and New-Guinea. Among the most interesting of all Australian birds are the two species of lyrebirds, found in open woodlands. Hawks and falcons are quite numerous in the interior, while sea eagles inhabit the coastal lands. Little blue penguins, smallest of the penguins, are common along the eastern and southern coasts.

Reptiles and Amphibians

Reptiles are plentiful throughout Australia. One of the largest species is the saltwater crocodile, which inhabits the ocean and saltwater estuaries of the north. A smaller crocodile, the Johnston's, or Australian, is a freshwater species. Lizards are especially numerous. The largest, a monitor, can attain a length of more than eight feet (2.4 m). Snakes are quite abundant, and several species, including the tiger snake, the copperhead, and the taipan, are poisonous. A species of python found on the northeast coast grows up to 20 feet (6 m) in length; it is the largest nonpoisonous snake of Australia. Several species of turtles and tortoises live in the waters near the Gulf of Carpentaria. A few tortoises are found near inland waters. The only amphibians are frogs and toads.


Fish are well represented in Australian coastal and inland waters. Probably the most interesting Australian fish are found among the nearly 180 freshwater species. For example, there are the freshwater black-fish, which has no known living relative; the lungfish, which has a lung as well as gills; and the barramundi, which is believed to have existed in Australia for more than 100,000,000 years.

The Economy

Australia is one of the world's rich, developed countries. Most developed countries have become rich through the production and export of manufactured goods. Australia's wealth, however, has come chiefly from farming and mining.

Australia's economy was based largely on agriculture until World War II, when manufacturing began to develop rapidly. Since the latter part of the 20th century, manufacturing has provided the largest share of the national income. Workers engaged in manufacturing make up about 17 per cent of the labor force. Much of the post-war development of industry was made possible by large amounts of foreign capital, mainly from Great Britain and the United States.

Economic production in Australia
Economic activities% of GDP producedNumber of workers% of all workers
Finance, insurance, real estate, & business services291,486,50016
Community, government, & personal services202,639,70028
Trade, restaurants, & hotels142,363,00025
Transportation & communication8599,6006
Agriculture, forestry, & fishing3372,7004

Agriculture in Australia is highly mechanized, requiring minimal human labor. Only about 4 percent of the country's workers are farmers. However, they produce nearly all the food the people need. Agriculture provides only 3 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product.

Farmland covers about 60 percent of Australia. However, most of this land is dry grazing land. Farmers cultivate crops on only about 10 percent of the farmland. But they use modern agricultural methods to make the cropland highly productive. They irrigate about 5 percent of the cropland. Although much of Australia's land is too dry for cultivation, it is well suited to livestock raising.

Australia's leading farm products are cattle and calves and wheat. Other important products include dairy products, fruit and nuts, vegetables, and wool. Australia is the world's largest producer and exporter of wool and a leading producer and exporter of beef, sugar, and wheat. Another rapidly growing industry is winemaking. All the Australian states produce wine, but New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria produce the best vintages. Western Australia also has a developing wine industry In regions suitable for growing grapes, winemakers are turning old farms and orchards into vineyards to produce grapes for wine. The country's other major farm products include barley, chickens and eggs, cotton, nursery products, oats, rice, and sheep and lambs.(Roughly 60 per cent of the land is used for grazing; only about 2 per cent is devoted to crops.)

Sheep, the most numerous animals, are raised mainly for wool, though lamb, mutton, and skins are important. Australia is a world leader in number of sheep, in wool production, and in wool exports. New South Wales and Western Australia together raise more than half the country's sheep and produce more than half its wool. Normally, wool accounts for about one-tenth of the value of the nation's exports. Production occurs in many areas, but comes mainly from large farms, called stations, in the southeast.

Australia is also a leading producer of beef and dairy products, both of which, particularly beef, are exported in large amounts. The main beef-cattle area is a crescent-shaped belt west of the Great Dividing Range. Dairying is centered along parts of the east and southeast coasts, where rainfall is more plentiful. Queensland and New South Wales raise more than half of Australia's beef cattle. Victoria is the leading producer of dairy products.

Wheat is Australia's chief crop and a principal export. Farmers grow wheat in all areas of the country that have adequate rainfall and climate. But production is heavily concentrated in New South Wales and Western Australia. Oats and barley are also major grains. Because of the climatic range, many kinds of tropical and temperate fruits and vegetables are raised. Cane farming supplies the local market with sugar and yields a large surplus for export. Rice, tobacco, and cotton are also grown. Farms on the east coast of Queensland produce sugar cane, bananas, pineapples, and other crops that need a wet tropical climate. Fruit such as apples and pears are common in all the states. New South Wales and South Australia produce most of the country's oranges.

Irrigation has been developed in several regions; however, the irrigated area is small because of limited supplies of water. The most notable undertaking is the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme in the Great Dividing Range. In addition to creating power, the project diverts water for irrigation from eastward-flowing streams westward to the Murrumbidgee and Murray river valleys. Artesian wells, called boresin Australia, are used in some parts of the dry interior, mainly for watering livestock.


Australia's manufacturing industry is small by world standards, but well established and varied in output. Australia imports more manufactured goods than it exports. Consumer goods, such as processed foods, clothing, beverages, and household items, have long been produced in amounts sufficient to meet most of the nation's needs. But the nation has to import most of its producer goods—factory machinery, construction equipment, and other goods used in production.

Australia's technical and heavy industries developed rapidly after World War II, especially the late 20th century. Most of Australia's factories specialize in assembly work and light manufacturing. From these industries come such products as iron and steel, aluminum, heavy machinery, diesel locomotives, jet engines, motor vehicles, earthmoving machines, electronic equipment, plastics, drugs and other chemicals, metals, petroleum, coal, printed materials; wood and paper products; and transportation equipment. Many plants process farm products or minerals for export. New South Wales and Victoria are the chief manufacturing states, with about two-thirds of the country's factories and factory workers. Manufacturing is concentrated in or near Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Adelaide. Manufacturing provides about 10 percent of Australia’s gross domestic product. Many of Australia's manufacturing concerns have close financial and technical connections with leading corporations overseas, particularly in the United States and Great Britain.


Australia is rich in minerals, and mining plays a vital part in the economy. Most minerals of commercial significance are known to occur in Australia, and many are mined for domestic use. Some minerals are exported in large amounts. Since the mid 20th century, foreign corporations have greatly aided the development of mining. In 1975, the Australian federal government established a general rule that at least 50 percent of every major new mining operation in the country should be owned by Australian investors.

By the end of the 19th century, Australia was exporting large amounts of copper, gold, lead, silver, tin, and zinc. These minerals remained the chief products of the mining industry until the mid-20th century. During this time, geologists discovered huge deposits of bauxite, coal, and iron ore in Australia. They also discovered manganese, natural gas, nickel, and petroleum.

Australia has become one of the world's major mining countries. It ranks first in the production of bauxite, diamonds, lead, and zircon, and is a leading producer of coal, copper, gold, iron ore, manganese, nickel, silver, tin, titanium, and zinc. Nearly all the world's high-quality opals are mined in Australia.

By value, the leading minerals produced are coal, mostly bituminous coal; crude petroleum; iron ore; and bauxite. Coal, iron ore, and bauxite and alumina are major exports; Australia is the world's leading producer of bauxite and ranks among the leaders in the production of iron ore, coal, zinc, nickel, uranium, and gold. Most of the petroleum is both refined and consumed in Australia.

Other major minerals produced in Australia include lead, copper, silver, tin, and natural gas. Most of the world's titanium, zirconium, and thorium ores come from Australia. The country is a major producer of gemstones and leads the world in the production of diamonds, sapphires, and opals.

Western Australia, Queensland, and New South Wales are the leading mining states. Western Australia produces most of the nickel, iron ore, and gold and much of the bauxite. Queensland is the chief producer of bauxite, coal, copper, and silver. New South Wales leads in the production of lead and zinc. All the manganese comes from the Northern Territory. Most of Australia's tin comes from Tasmania.

Offshore fields along the northwest coast of Western Australia are Australia's main source of petroleum. Other petroleum producers include New South Wales and Victoria. Natural gas is produced in South Australia and the northwest coastal shelf of Western Australia. The country has the world's largest undeveloped deposits of uranium, which lie in the Northern Territory and South Australia.

Forestry and Fishing

Forests cover about 20 percent of Australia, mostly in the Eastern Highlands and moist coastal areas. The vast majority of Australia's forest trees are eucalyptuses. Industries use the wood of some eucalyptus species for making paper and such items as floorboards and furniture. But eucalyptus wood is too hard for most other purposes, including most types of housing construction. Therefore, tree farms plant imported species of softwoods. Monterey pines, which originally came from California, have become Australia's second most important timber trees, after eucalyptuses.

Although Australia is surrounded by water, its fishing resources are limited. Thousands of species of fishes live in the coastal waters, and Australia has developed a small but profitable fishing industry. The industry earns most of its income from the catch of shellfish, especially abalones, lobsters, oysters, prawns, and scallops. The fishing fleet also brings in a fairly large catch of mullet, salmon, trout, and tuna.


Australia has a variety of tourist attractions. They include wildlife sanctuaries, sandy beaches, the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian Alps, Uluru, and numerous points of historical interest. More than 4 million foreign tourists visit Australia each year. Tourism aids the economy, especially the service industries, such as retail trade, restaurants, and hotels.

About half of Australia's visitors come from New Zealand and other Pacific islands, Japan, and Southeast Asia.

Service industries provide about three-quarters of Australia's jobs and make up more than two-thirds of Australia's gross domestic product—the total value of goods and services produced within the country annually.

Hospitals, schools, government agencies, stores, hotels, and restaurants are service industries. Also included in this category are banking, trade, transportation, communication, education, and tourism activities. Television stations are operated by both private companies and independent government agencies.


Australia's railways are concentrated along the south and east coasts and link the principal cities. Few lines penetrate far into the interior, where settlement is sparse. Virtually all the trackage is owned and operated by the state and federal governments. Three different gauges (narrow, standard, and broad) make up the system. The transcontinental line is standard gauge—4 feet 8 inches (143.5 cm).

Roads and highways total about 500,000 miles (800,000 km). About a third of the system is hard-surfaced. Only one road and one railway cross the barren Nullarbor Plain in the south and connect eastern and western Australia.

Except for Fremantle, the port for Perth, the chief general-cargo shipping centers are state capitals—Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Adelaide. The busiest of these ports are those at Sydney and Melbourne. In addition to overseas trade, Australian ports handle a great deal of coastal shipping.

Several domestic airlines provide flights within Australia. Qantas Airways Ltd. is the main international carrier. Numerous foreign airlines also provide service to and from the continent through international airports, especially those at Sydney and Melbourne.


Farm products, minerals, and other raw materials are important to the nation's economy. They account for about half of export earnings. Manufactured goods account for about one-third of export earnings. More than three-fourths of Australia's imports are manufactured goods

Nearly 60 per cent of Australia's exports go to Asian countries, especially Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Countries that export the largest number of goods to Australia include the United States, Japan, and Great Britain. Australia exports minerals, wheat, and fruit to the United Kingdom and other western European countries, but Japan is Australia's biggest customer. It especially buys coal, iron ore, and other minerals. China, Japan, and other Asian countries are major purchasers of Australian farm products, especially wheat. Japan is the leading buyer of Australian wool.

Countries that export the largest number of goods to Australia include the United States, Japan, and United Kingdom. The United States and Japan are Australia's chief source of producer goods, machinery and other goods used in manufacturing. The United States, in turn, imports large amounts of Australian beef, alcoholic beverages, motor vehicles, petroleum, and seafood.

Australia's basic currency unit is the Australian dollar, which is divided into 100 cents.

The People

The Australian aborigines, or Koori, are the earliest known inhabitants of Australia. European settlement of Australia began in the late 18th century. The settlers, primarily from Great Britain, regarded Australia as an extension of Great Britain in the Southern Hemisphere. Culturally, economically, and politically, Australia was tied to Britain. Then came World War II and a shift in Australia's outlook. The postwar period brought an influx of immigrants from the European continent and an industrial boom. A growing sense of Australian identity and of the role Australia must play in the affairs of Asia developed.


In 2001, Australia had a population of 18,972,350. Most of the people are of European descent, especially British or Irish. Many are also of Asian descent. Aborigines account for about 2 per cent of the population.

Australia's population is heavily concentrated in the east, southeast, and southwest. More than 85 per cent of the people live in cities and towns, mainly in the state capitals. Sydney and Melbourne together account for about 35 per cent of the population. Much of the interior is uninhabited. The overall population density is about 6.4 persons per square mile (2.5 per km 2).


Separation of church and state is required under the constitution. Freedom of worship is granted to all. About 26 per cent are Roman Catholics, 24 per cent are Anglican, and 8 per cent belong to the Uniting Church in Australia (a union of Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches). Baptist, Lutheran, independent Presbyterian, and Greek Orthodox churches also have substantial memberships.


More than 99 per cent of the people speak English, without marked sectional differences in pronunciation. Australian English is somewhat similar in sound to the Cockney accent of East London. The spoken language of aboriginal Australians varies from tribe to tribe.


Throughout Australia, school attendance is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 15 (16 in Tasmania). Free education is provided in government primary and secondary schools. Correspondence schools are maintained for children in remote districts of the interior. Nearly three-fourths of the schoolchildren are enrolled in public school systems. The others attend private schools, most of which are conducted by religious denominations. The government of each state and that of the Northern Territory has the responsibility of providing primary and secondary education for the children in its area. The federal government provides primary and secondary education in the Australian Capital Territory and in the external territories.

The federal government is responsible for most higher education. The University of Sydney in New South Wales, established in 1850, is Australia's oldest university. Others include the Australian National University at Canberra and the universities of Melbourne, Queensland (in Brisbane), Adelaide, New South Wales (Kensington), Western Australia (Perth), and Tasmania (Hobart). There are also liberal arts, teachers, technical, and agricultural colleges, and schools of mines, architecture, and engineering. The federal government and individual states offer financial help to students.


Early Australian literature and art were strongly influenced by British traditions. Not until the late 19th century did a distinctly national poetry and prose gain prominence. It emphasized the Australian experience, particularly life in the bush country. A similar attempt to depict that which was characteristically Australian first appeared in the paintings of that period. Aboriginal art began to receive recognition in the 20th century.

Internationally famous Australians include the sopranos Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland, the actress Judith Anderson, the composer-pianist Percy Grainger, the poet Henry Kendall, and the novelist Patrick White (Nobel Prize, 1973).

Both federal and state governments take active interest in the arts and subsidize various art forms. In all states, there are symphony orchestras, art galleries and schools, theaters, and museums. Australian cultural life centers around the state capitals, especially Sydney and Melbourne.

Sports and Recreation

Sports are extremely popular in Australia. Cricket, the national game, attracts tens of thousands of spectators and participants. During the winter, Australian rules football, rugby, and soccer draw huge crowds.

Australia has produced an impressive number of world champion athletes, particularly in tennis and competitive swimming. Golf, surfing, various winter sports, yachting, and horse racing are also popular.


The Commonwealth of Australia is a federation of six states, two self-governing mainland territories, and eight additional territories. The six states, each with its own government, are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia. The two self-governing territories are the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory. Australia has governments at federal, state, and territory level. Each state and the two principal mainland territories are represented in the federal Parliament. It is a self-governing member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

From the beginning of European settlement in 1788, the colonies that make up modern Australia were ruled by the United Kingdom. The Australian constitution (1901) provides for a federal form of government. Today, Australia is an independent country, with the British monarch as the head of state, recognized as queen of Australia. As in the United States, all powers not specifically delegated to the federal (national) government are held by the state governments. The federal government, which consists of the Crown (executive), the Commonwealth Parliament, and the judiciary, deals with national affairs, such as defense, foreign relations, and interstate commerce. It also has concurrent authority with the state governments in certain areas—taxation and immigration, for example. The state governments are responsible for local matters, such as primary and secondary education, law enforcement, and health.

The Crown

The sovereign of Great Britain is the symbolic head of the federal and state governments. The Crown is represented by a governor-general, who is appointed by the British monarch after consultation with the prime minister of Australia. The governor-general acts only on the advice of the government. The governor-general acts only on the advice of the government. The governor general embodies the executive power of the federal government—that is, the power of putting laws into effect. The governor general’s functions in Australia resemble those of the monarch in the United Kingdom, with the power to summon, prorogue (discontinue without dissolving), and dissolve the federal Parliament. The governor general is the commander in chief of the armed forces. In addition, the governor general formally appoints the prime minister and other ministers, and can also dismiss them.

The governor general usually acts on the prime minister’s advice. However, the governor general can act without the advice of the prime minister in times of political uncertainty. There are some occasions when the governor general may have to make a personal decision. For example, the governor general may need to decide which party leader to ask to form a government, if no party commands a clear majority in Parliament. Such a situation may occur as a result of a party split or as a result of an indecisive election. The governor general might refuse a prime minister’s request to dissolve Parliament shortly after a general election, if the governor general has reason to believe that another leader may obtain a parliamentary majority.

The Prime Minister

The head of government is the prime minister. The governor general appoints as prime minister the leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives, or, if no party has a majority, the leader of a coalition (combination) of parties. The parliamentary parties elect their leaders by ballot. Prime ministers remain in office as long as their party has a majority in the House of Representatives, unless they retire, are replaced as party leader, or leave office for any other reason. The prime minister is the governor general’s chief adviser and takes sole responsibility for major matters, including advising the governor general when to dissolve Parliament.

The prime minister chooses from among members of Parliament of the majority party (or coalition) ministers to head the executive departments. The more important of these ministers make up the cabinet. One of the prime minister’s chief duties is to lead the federal Cabinet, a group of senior ministers. The prime minister plays a leading part in formulating general policy and acts as chief spokesperson of the government, both in Parliament and before the public. The prime minister and the cabinet hold power until their party or coalition loses its majority as the result of an election or is voted down in Parliament, in which case new elections are held.

Major political parties are the Liberal, National, and Labor parties.

The Commonwealth Parliament

The federal legislature is located in Canberra. The federal Cabinet is a group of government ministers who handle most of the policymaking in Australia. The department heads are called ministers. The implementation of government policy and programs is the personal responsibility of ministers. The heads of the major government departments and the prime minister make up the Cabinet.

The Cabinet plays a leading role in parliamentary debates and in passing bills through the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Cabinet or a Cabinet committee makes major decisions on government policy and programs. Cabinet members are responsible collectively for these decisions, and a minister resigns if unable to support them.

Officials known as secretaries, most of whom are professional administrators, administer the government departments. Secretaries of departments serve as the chief official advisers of ministers, and must carry out the policies set by the ministers.

The Cabinet usually establishes a number of standing committees to deal with a variety of matters.

Because there are no fixed guidelines for the Cabinet, it can conduct its business with flexibility, confidentiality, and informality. It concerns itself with policy rather than with the form of actions and legal documents. Cabinet decisions do not have legal force, however, until they are put into legal form. The legal form may be an act passed by Parliament, an Order in Council (decree issued by the sovereign), or a regulation requiring the assent (approval) of the governor general in the Federal Executive Council, a group of ministers who advise the governor general.

In appointing the ministers who make up the federal Cabinet, the governor general follows the advice of the prime minister. The Australian Labor Party elects prospective ministers at a party meeting. The party then leaves it to the prime minister to distribute portfolios (ministerial titles) and responsibilities to each of the individuals elected. Other parties that have formed governments, such as the Liberal Party of Australia, have given their leaders free choice in selecting ministers. It is normal for both houses of Parliament and every state to be represented in a ministry.

The Senate, the upper house, consists of 76 members, 12 from each state and 2 from each territory. The six states are divided into electorates on the basis of population. Each state has the same number of senators, regardless of population, so that the interests of states with fewer people will be protected. Each state forms a single electorate with preferential voting on a proportional system, in which each party gets a number of seats proportional to its share of the total votes cast.

Senators are chosen by direct election for six-year terms. The terms are staggered so that half the body stands for election every three years. Only half of the seats in the Senate are filled at each election. Voters of each state elect six senators for a term of six years. At the next election, they elect another six. If a senator resigns or dies, the Parliament of his or her state nominates a successor from the senator’s own party. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory each elect two senators for a three-year term at each House of Representatives election.

The House of Representatives is the lower house—that is, the branch of Parliament that more directly represents the people. General elections to the House of Representatives are held every three years unless Parliament is dissolved before its three-year term is over. Members are elected to single-member constituencies (voting districts) by a preferential voting system.

The House of Representatives has 150 members. The country is divided into constituencies based primarily on equal quotas, but with a margin of 10 percent for administrative purposes and to allow some grouping to preserve community interests. The Constitution also provides that none of the original six states—New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia—should have fewer than five members.

The Constitution further provides that the total number of members of the House of Representatives should number about twice the total number of senators. Two members of the House of Representatives are from the ACT, and two are from the Northern Territory. Since 1974, these two territories have had full voting rights. The ACT and Northern Territory members are not counted when calculating the required proportion between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Powers of Parliament

In general, the two houses of Parliament have similar powers—that is, either house can introduce legislation, express opinions, or carry resolutions on any subject. Both houses must give their assent to a bill before it becomes law. The two houses, however are not coequals. The House of Representatives is the controlling body; the Senate acts primarily as a house of review. If there is a prolonged disagreement between the Senate and the House of Representatives, however, both houses may be dissolved by the governor-general and an entirely new legislature elected.

If the majority party or ruling coalition in the House of Representatives lacks a majority in the Senate, then the Senate may try to block legislation passed by the lower house. If the Senate persists in its blockage, the governor general may dissolve both houses. If the deadlock continues after the subsequent elections, the houses hold a joint sitting to decide the issue. In practice, the Senate’s main work is revising rather than initiating legislation.

The monarch or governor general takes part in meetings of Parliament only at the opening of a session. The governor general reads a speech written by the prime minister that sets out the general policy of the government for that session.

The only way in which the monarch actually takes part in the work of Parliament is by assenting to bills that both houses have passed. The bills then become acts, also called statutes, forming part of the law of the country. The monarch or governor general always assents to bills, if advised to do so by the prime minister.

Statutory authorities are government agencies created by Acts of Parliament. They are not under the direct day-to-day control of ministers, but are subject to ministerial direction or advice concerning general policy. Many statutory authorities have a large degree of independence from government departments. Statutory authorities include the Australian Broadcasting Authority, which regulates television, radio, and the Internet, and the Australian Taxation Office, the national tax-collecting body.

The Judiciary

The High Court of Australia, consisting of a chief justice and six other justices, is the guardian and interpreter of the constitution. The High Court is the nation's court of final appeal. The other federal courts are the Federal Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia.

Division of Powers

The federal government exercises its constitutional power through Parliament. The Constitution specifies that Parliament has power to make laws on particular topics. These topics include overseas and interstate trade and commerce, taxation, telephone and postal services, defense, trading and financial corporations, and external affairs. Parliament has general control over public finance, tariffs, and aspects of commercial law that relate to bankruptcy, checks and money orders, patents, designs, trademarks, and copyrights. It has indirect powers in the areas of wages. The federal Parliament also has plenary (complete and unqualified) power in relation to the federal territories and Commonwealth places.

Each state government has the power to pass laws on almost any matter relevant to that state. Some of the powers of the federal government are exclusive—that is, only the federal government possesses them. Other federal powers are concurrent—that is, possessed by both the federal and the state governments. However, the Constitution provides that if a federal law conflicts with a state law, the federal law prevails, but only over the specific area of conflict.

The framers of the Constitution expected the federal and state governments to operate in largely independent areas, without much direct contact with each other. But the power of the federal government has increased for several reasons. Because the federal Parliament can impose forms of taxation that the states cannot, it quickly gained financial power over the states. The federal government collects nearly all the nation’s taxes and raises more than 70 percent of the total revenue. Each state receives a share of the federal tax income, and the states depend on such federal grants for the majority of their annual revenue. The federal government also gained much influence in deciding the size and distribution of government loans. Its power to arbitrate (act as a judge) in industrial disputes in more than one state has developed into a power to decide indirectly the basic wage standards for the whole country. In times of national emergency, as in war, the federal government controls nearly every feature of national life.

The federal government has exclusive powers concerning defense and foreign affairs, overseas trade, and finance. In some areas, the federal and state governments have concurrent powers—that is, both levels of government may act. The federal government prevails in case of a conflict. The states have only residual powers—that is, whatever powers are left. Even in their residual powers, the states could find federal actions overriding their powers. But generally, the states have powers in some important social areas that are little affected by federal activities. These areas include the basic civil law, which deals with the rights and obligations people have in their relations with one another. Civil law includes such matters as contracts, property, and civil wrongs, such as liability in vehicle accidents. The states control trade and commerce, except for aspects of commercial law regulated by the federal government, such as banking, insurance, copyright, and patents and trademarks. The states also control the general criminal law, urban planning, prevention of pollution, most forms of health services, and primary and secondary education. College and university education is a federal responsibility. Police and legal services, road maintenance, the regulation of most industrial and agricultural production, and the regulations of trade and professions also come under state control.

State and Territorial Government

Five of the six state parliaments consist of two houses. Queensland abolished its upper house in 1922 and has a single-chambered parliament called the Legislative Assembly. The upper house in each state is called the Legislative Council. The lower house in New South Wales, Victoria, and Western Australia is called the Legislative Assembly. In South Australia and Tasmania, the lower house is known as the House of Assembly. The Northern Territory and the ACT, like Queensland, have a single-chamber parliament called the Legislative Assembly. The government of each state has essentially the same structure as that of the Commonwealth. The representative of the Crown is called the governor and corresponds to the governor-general. The leader of the majority party or coalition in the legislature becomes the premier. Each state has a supreme court and a system of lower courts. In 1973, South Australia adopted a proportional voting system that uses the whole state as a single electorate for the election of its Legislative Council. New South Wales also adopted this system, phasing it in from 1978 to 1984, for its Legislative Council elections. Victoria, Western Australia, and Tasmania elect their legislatures from constituencies (voting districts within a state) by preferential voting. Tasmania elects its House of Assembly using a system of proportional representation in constituencies that send more than one member to the House. The lower houses of New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory—and the Legislative Assembly of Queensland—are elected from single-member constituencies by preferential voting. A form of proportional representation is used to elect the Legislative Assembly in the ACT.

Most of the territories are administered by the federal government. The Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory are self-governing.

Local Government

Vast areas of outback Australia are too thinly populated to have local government institutions. There are community councils for small Aboriginal groups living in the sparsely populated interior areas of the Northern Territory. Victoria, Tasmania, and the more densely settled areas of the other states are divided into local government areas.

In May 1989, self-government was established in the ACT. The ACT government is responsible for both state and local government functions and has its own parliament.

The local authorities have power to make local laws called bylaws and to carry on administrative services in relation to a wide range of matters of local concern. The main functions of local government are street building and maintenance; public works; regulation of building standards; public health and prevention of nuisances; garbage collection; local cultural activities; and the local aspects of town and country planning.


Beginning at age 18, citizens are required to vote in elections. Certain groups of people, such as those with mental incapacity or people, who are imprisoned for longer than a set period, are not allowed to vote. British citizens who enrolled as electors in Australia before January 1984 remain eligible voters. All eligible voters are required to register as electors and to vote. In every state except South Australia, those who do not vote may be fined. Women were given the right to vote by the federal government in 1902 and by all states by 1908. Australia originated the system of voting by official, secret ballot. This method was first put into effect by the Victoria legislature in 1856. By 1870 it was general in all Australian parliamentary elections, and it became known throughout the world as the Australian ballot.

Any citizen who is eligible to vote is also eligible to run for office, though citizens with dual nationality cannot become members of the federal Parliament. Candidates may be independents (members not belonging to a specific political party), but most belong to a political party, which gives its own candidates its endorsement and support. Parties receive some public funding to support their campaigns. The number of votes a party receives determines how much support it gets from public funds.

The period between one general election and the next is called a parliament. This use of the word is misleading because general elections affect only the House of Representatives and half the Senate. A parliament is usually divided into sessions, but the law does not require this division. Sessions vary greatly in length. Both houses must sit at least once a year. As a rule, the House of Representatives sits (is in session) from 15 to 40 weeks a year, in two main periods. These periods extend from February to March, May to June, and from August to December. The Senate sits at roughly the same times as the House of Representatives and often sits for slightly longer periods.


Australia maintains a regular army, navy, and air force. In addition, all three services have reserve forces. Compulsory military service was in effect until 1972, when conscription was ended.