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 (ACT); 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, the Northern Territory and the ACT). 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.
Geography and Climate
Australia´s 7,686,850 km² landmass is on the Indo-Australian Plate. Surrounded by the Indian, Southern and Pacific oceans, Australia is separated from Asia by the Arafura and Timor seas. Australia has a total 25,760 km of coastline and claims an extensive Exclusive Economic Zone of 8,148,250 km² (excluding the Australian Antarctic Territory). Climate is highly influenced by ocean currents, including the El Niño southern oscillation, which causes periodic drought, and the seasonal tropical low pressure system that produces cyclones in northern Australia.
By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid—40% of the land mass is covered by sand dunes. Australia is the driest inhabited continent, the flattest, and has the oldest and least fertile soils. Only the south-east and south-west corners of the continent have a temperate climate. The northern part of the country has a tropical climate: part of this region is tropical rainforest, part is grassland, and part is desert. The Great Barrier Reef, the world´s largest coral reef, lies a short distance off the north-east coast and extends for over 1,200 km. The world´s two largest monoliths are located in Australia, Mount Augustus in Western Australia is the largest and Uluru in central Australia is the second largest. At 2,228 m, Mount Kosciuszko on the Great Dividing Range is the highest mountain on the Australian mainland, although Mawson Peak on the remote Australian territory of Heard Island is taller at 2,745 m.
Flora and Fauna
Although most of Australia is semi-arid or desert, it covers a diverse range of habitats, from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests. Because of the great age and consequent low levels of fertility of the continent, its extremely variable weather patterns, and its long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia´s biota is unique and diverse. About 85% of flowering plants, 84% of mammals, more than 45% of birds, and 89% of in-shore, temperate-zone fish are endemic. Many of Australia´s ecoregions, and the species within those regions, are threatened by human activities and introduced plant and animal species. The federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is used for the identification and protection of threatened species. Numerous protected areas have been created to protect and preserve Australia´s unique ecosystems, 64 wetlands are registered under the Ramsar Convention, and 16 World Heritage Sites have been established. Australia was ranked 13th in the World on the 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index.
Most Australian plant species are evergreen and many are adapted to fire and drought, including the eucalypts and acacias. Australia has a rich variety of endemic legume species that thrive in nutrient-poor soils because of their symbiosis with Rhizobia bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi. Well-known Australian fauna include monotremes (the platypus and echidna), and a host of marsupials, including the koala, kangaroo, wombat, and birds such as the emu, cockatoo, and kookaburra. The dingo was introduced by Austronesian people that traded with Indigenous Australians around 4000 BCE. Many plant and animal species became extinct soon after human settlement, including the Australian megafauna; many more have become extinct since European settlement, among them the Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger).
Australia has a prosperous, Western-style mixed economy, with a per capita GDP slightly higher than those of the UK, Germany and France. The country was ranked third in the 2004 Human Development Index and sixth in The Economist worldwide quality-of-life index 2005. In recent years, the Australian economy has been resilient in the face of global economic downturn. Rising output in the domestic economy has been offsetting the global slump, and business and consumer confidence remains robust. Australia´s emphasis on reform is another key factor behind the economy´s strength. In the 1980s, the Labor Party, led by Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating, started the process of modernising the Australian economy by floating the Australian dollar in 1983, and deregulating the financial system. Since 1996, the Howard government has continued the process of micro-economic reform, including the partial deregulation of the labour market and the privatisation of state-owned businesses, most notably in the telecommunications industry. Substantial reform of the indirect tax system was achieved in July 2000 with the introduction of a 10% Goods and Services Tax, which has slightly reduced the heavy reliance on personal and company income tax that still characterises Australia´s tax system.
The Australian economy has not suffered a recession since the early 1990s. As of July 2005, unemployment was 5.0% with 10,030,300 persons employed. The service sector of the economy, including tourism, education, and financial services, comprises 69% of GDP. Agriculture and natural-resources represent only 3% and 5% of GDP, respectively, but contribute substantially to Australia´s export performance. Australia´s largest export markets include Japan, China, the United States, South Korea and New Zealand. Areas of concern to some economists include the chronically high current account deficit and also high levels of net foreign debt.
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 increased by about 60 times 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 (0.02%) people. 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.
Australia has two public broadcasters (the ABC and SBS), three commercial television networks, three pay TV services, and numerous public, non-profit television and radio stations. Australia´s film industry has achieved critical and commercial successes. Each major city has daily newspapers, and there are two national daily newspapers, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review. According to Reporters Without Borders in 2004, Australia is in 41st position on a list of countries ranked by press freedom, well behind New Zealand (9th) and the United Kingdom (28th). This ranking is primarily due to the limited diversity of commercial media ownership in Australia. Most Australian print media in particular is under the control of either News Corporation or Publishing and Broadcasting Limited.
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. Australia has participated in every summer Olympic Games of the modern era, and every Commonwealth Games, and has hosted the 1956 and 2000 Summer Olympics; Australia has ranked among the top five medal-takers since 2000. Corporate and government sponsorship of many sports and élite athletes is common in Australia. Televised sport is popular; some of the highest rating television programs include the summer Olympic Games and the grand finals of local and international football competitions.