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 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.