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The Commonwealth of Australia is the sixth largest country in the world (geographically), the only one to occupy an entire continent, and the largest in Australasia. Australia includes the island of Tasmania, which is an Australian State. New Zealand is to the southeast; and Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and East Timor to its north. The name 'Australia' comes from the Latin phrase terra australis incognita ("unknown southern land", see Terra Australis).
|Commonwealth of Australia|
|Anthem: Advance Australia Fair N1
|Official languages||None N2|
|National language||English (de facto) N2|
|Government||Parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, see Government of Australia|
|Monarch||Queen Elizabeth II|
|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||7,741,220 km² (6th)
2,988,902 sq mi
|2008 estimate||21,370,000 (53rd)|
|GDP (PPP)||2007 estimate|
|Total||US$718.4 billion (IMF) (17th)|
|Per capita||US$34,359 (IMF) (14th)|
|GDP (nominal)||2008 estimate|
|Total||US$1046.8 billion (13th)|
|Per capita||US$49,271 (DFAT) (16th)|
|HDI (2007)||▬ 0.962 (high) (3rd)|
|Currency||Australian dollar (
|Time zone||various N3 (UTC+8 to +10.5)|
|Summer (DST)||various N3 (UTC+9 to +11.5)|
Australia is thought to have been inhabited for at least 50,000 years, since the remote ancestors of the current Australian Aborigines arrived from present-day Southeast Asia.
The land was not discovered by Europeans until the 17th century, when it was sighted and visited by several expeditions: the Spanish Luis Vaez de Torres (1606) and the Dutch explorers Willem Jaszoom (1606), Jan Carstensz (1623), Dirck Hartog and Abel Tasman. The Dutch called the continent New Holland.
The first English explorers were Willem Dampier in 1688 and James Cook, who claimed eastern two-thirds of the continent for Britain in 1770 despite orders from King George III to first conclude a treaty with the indigenous population. His report to London that Australia was uninhabited provided impetus for the establishment of a penal colony there following the loss of the American colonies. The colony of New South Wales was established in Sydney by captain and governor Arthur Phillip on January 26, 1788 as a British Crown Colony. The date of arrival of the First Fleet later became the date of Australia Day. The Colony of Van Diemen's Land (i.e. the present day Tasmania) was founded in 1803. The rest of the continent, that is Western Australia, was formally claimed by the United Kingdom in 1829. Following the spread of British settlement, separate Colonies were created from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851 and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory was founded, as part of the Colony of South Australia, in 1863.
During the period of 1855-1890, the six Crown Colonies each successively became self-governing colonies, which managed most of their own affairs. The British government retained control of some matters, especially foreign affairs, defence, international shipping. Despite its heavily rural based economy Australia remained highly urbanised, centred particularly around the cities of Melbourne and Sydney. In the 1880s 'Marvellous Melbourne' was the second largest city in the British Empire It also gained a reputation as a 'working man's paradise' and as a laboratory for social reform, with the world's first secret ballot and first national labour party government.
On 1 January 1901, federation of the Colonies occurred and the Commonwealth of Australia was born, as a dominion of the British Empire. The Australian Capital Territory, centred on the new federal capital of Canberra, was separated from New South Wales in 1911. Although Australia had become independent, the British government retained some powers over Australia until the Statute of Westminster in 1931, and the authority of the UK parliament was not completely severed until 1986). Aboriginal Australians were also denied the vote until a referendum in 1967 conferred citizenship on indigenous people.
Australia is a Constitutional monarchy, with Elizabeth II reigning as 'Queen of Australia'. In 1999, a referendum was held on constitutional change to a republic, with an appointed President replacing the Queen as head of state, but this was rejected.
The Commonwealth of Australia is a constitutional monarchy: the Queen of Australia is the official head of state and is represented by the Governor General. Under the Australian Constitution the role of the monarch is almost entirely ceremonial. Although the constitution gives significant executive power to the Governor General, these powers are rarely used and are usually delegated to the cabinet, elected by the Commonwealth Parliament and headed by a prime minister.
Government is undertaken by three inter-connected arms of government:
Legislature - Commonwealth Parliament
Executive - Ministers and their Departments
Judiciary - High Court of Australia and subsidiary Federal courts
Separation of Powers is the principle whereby the three arms of government undertake their activities separate from the others:
the Legislature makes the laws, and supervises the activities of the other two arms with a view to changing the laws when appropriate;
the Executive enacts the laws;
the Judiciary interprets the laws, using as a basis the laws as enacted and explanatory statements made in the Legislature during the enactment;
the other arms can not influence the Judiciary;
The legal basis for the nation changed with the passage of the Australia Act 1986, and associated legislation in the parliament of Great Britain. Until the passage of this act, Australian cases could be referred to the highest courts of Great Britain for final appeal. With this act of parliament, Australian law was made unequivocally the law in the nation, and the High Court of Australia was confirmed as the single highest court in the country.
The prime minister is almost always the leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives, the 150-seat lower house of the bicameral parliament. Members of the House of Representatives, (usually referred to as MP's - members of Parliament - or just members) are elected from single-member constituencies, known as divisions. The upper house is the 76-seat Senate, in which each state is represented by twelve Senators, regardless of population size, and each mainland territory by two. Elections for both chambers are held every three years, usually with one half of the Senate being eligible for re-election.
An exception to the constitutional conventions occurred on November 11, 1975, when Governor General John Kerr dismissed the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, one of the most controversial events in Australian history.
Australia is divided into six states and several territories. The states are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia; the two major territories are the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.
Australia also has an additional minor internal territory, Jervis Bay Territory (a naval base in New South Wales), several inhabited external territories (Norfolk Island, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands) and several largely uninhabited external territories: Coral Sea Islands Territory, Heard Island and McDonald Islands and the Australian Antarctic Territory.
The Australian Capital Territory was created at the chosen site of the capital city Canberra. Canberra was founded as a compromise between the two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney. The name is based on an old Aboriginal word.
By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid — 40% of the landmass is covered by sand dunes. Only the south-east and south-west corners have a temperate climate and moderately fertile soil. The northern part of the country has a tropical climate: part is tropical rainforests, part grasslands, and part desert. The Great Barrier Reef, by far the world's largest coral reef, lies a short distance off the north-east coast. Uluru, in central Australia, is the largest monolith in the world.
Although most of the continent is desert or semi-arid, Australia nevertheless includes a diverse range of habitats, from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests. Because of the great age of the continent, its very variable weather patterns, and its long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia's biota is unique.
Australia's economic development was slow at first and based on the export of wool. This all changed with the discovery of gold in 1851 and mining has, overall, been the most important sector of the Australian economy. By the late 20th Century, Australia had a prosperous Western-style mixed economy, with a per capita GDP on par with the four dominant Western European economies. In recent years, the Australian economy has been resilient in the face of global economic downturn, with steady growth. Rising output in the domestic economy has been offsetting the global slump, and business and consumer confidence remains robust. Australia's emphasis on reforms is another key factor behind the economy's strength.
The Australian economy has not suffered a recession or "trough" in the business cycle in 13 years. Even the downturn of the early 2000s did not affected its consistent GDP growth.
Many raw materials (including resources postulated to exist but yet to be discovered) remain mostly unexploited. Australia is often referred to by economists as the "world's farm", but despite this emphasis on the agriculture sector, in recent years the Australian government has been focusing on the tourism, education and technology markets.
Most of the Australian population descends from 19th and 20th century immigrants, most from Britain and Ireland to begin with, but from other sources in later years. Although Australia was founded as a penal colony, the transportation of British convicts to Australian Colonies was gradually phased out between 1840 and 1868. During the "gold rush" of the late 19th century, the convicts and their descendants were rapidly overshadowed by hundreds of thousands of free settlers from many different countries: for example, in the 1850s about two per cent of the combined populations of Britain and Ireland emigrated to New South Wales and Victoria.
By the late 20th century many inhabitants were of Greek, Italian or Asian descent. Descendants of the indigenous population, the Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, make up 2.2% of the population, according to the 2001 Census. In common with many other developed countries, Australia is currently experiencing a demographic shift towards an older population, with more people retiring and fewer people of working age.
Because of the ageing population, Australia maintains one of the most active immigration programs in the world, absorbing tens of thousands of immigrants from all over the world every year. Most permanent resident visas are granted on the basis of professional skills or family associations.
New Zealanders are granted Special Category Visas on arrival in Australia, which allow them to remain in Australia to live or work indefinitely. However, New Zealand citizens are excluded from government subsidised tertiary education or other advantages granted to Australian citizens and permanent residents. Until 2001, New Zealanders were entitled to unemployment benefits in Australia on arrival in the country, but now they may only claim these after two years, as is the norm for permanent residents of other nationalities.
English is the spoken language in Australia, although some of the surviving Aboriginal communities maintain their native languages, and a considerable number of first and sometimes second-generation migrants are bilingual. Although the nation is broadly secular and few are church-goers, three-quarters of Australians are nominally Christian, mostly Catholic or Anglican. A diverse range of other religions are practised.