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Background Notes: Pacific, July, 2006 [Secure eReader]
eBook by U.S. Department of State

eBook Category: Travel
eBook Description:

Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs country background notes for international travelers to Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. Each country’s brief, factual background note summarizes its geography, people (population, ethnic groups, languages, health, and religion), history, culture, government and political conditions (type, political parties and principal government officials), economy (GDP; land, climate, and demographics; agriculture and natural resources; trade, industry, and investment; and transportation), defense, human rights, and foreign relations. Each country’s background note also provides travel and business information, including principal U.S. officials (ambassador, public affairs officer, counselor for economic affairs, etc.); embassy location, telephone, and fax numbers; and passport information.

eBook Publisher: InfoStrategist.com
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2006

Background Note: Australia



Commonwealth of Australia


Area: 7.7 million sq. km. (3 million sq. mi.); about the size of the 48 contiguous United States. Cities: (2003) Capital – Canberra (pop. 323,000). Other cities – Sydney (4.2 million), Melbourne (3.6 million), Brisbane (1.7 million), Perth (1.4 million). Terrain: Varied, but generally low-lying. Climate: Relatively dry, ranging from temperate in the south to tropical in the north.


Nationality: Noun and adjective – Australian(s). Population (2005): 20.2 million. Annual population growth rate: 1.1%. Ethnic groups: European 92%, Asian 6%, Aboriginal 2%. Religions (2001): Anglican 21%, Roman Catholic 27%, other Christian 20%, other non-Christian 5%, no religion 16% and not stated 12%. Languages: English. Education: Years compulsory – to age 15 in all states except Tasmania, where it is 16. Literacy – over 99%. Health: Infant mortality rate – 5/1,000. Life expectancy – males 78 yrs., females 83 yrs. Work force (10.1 million): Agriculture – 4%; mining, manufacturing, construction, and utilities – 21%; services – 70%; public administration and defense – 5%.


Type: Democratic, federal-state system recognizing British monarch as sovereign. Constitution: July 9, 1900. Independence (federation): January 1, 1901. Branches: Head of state is the governor general, who is appointed by the Queen of Australia (the British Monarch). Legislative – bicameral Parliament (76-member Senate, 150-member House of Representatives). The House of Representatives selects as head of government the Prime Minister, who then appoints his cabinet. Judicial – independent judiciary. Administrative subdivisions: Six states and two territories. Political parties: Liberal, Nationals, Australian Labor, Australian Democrats, Australian Greens, and Family First. The Liberal Party and the Nationals form the governing coalition. Suffrage: Universal and compulsory over 18. Central government budget: FY 2004-05 $149.86 billion; FY 2005-06 $158.76 billion. Defense: 1.9% of GDP for FY 2005-06.


GDP: (2004) $587.3 billion. Inflation rate: (2004) 2.3% p.a. Trade: Exports ($112.6 billion, 2004) – coal, iron ore, non-monetary gold, crude petroleum and bovine meat. Major markets – Japan, U.S. ($10.3 billion), China, New Zealand, South Korea. Imports ($148.1 billion, 2004) – passenger motor vehicles, crude petroleum, computers, medicaments and telecommunications equipment. Major suppliers – U.S. ($19.8 billion), China, Japan, Germany, and Singapore.


Australia's aboriginal inhabitants, a hunting-gathering people generally referred to as Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders, arrived more than 40,000 years ago. Although their technical culture remained static – depending on wood, bone, and stone tools and weapons – their spiritual and social life was highly complex. Most spoke several languages, and confederacies sometimes linked widely scattered tribal groups. Aboriginal population density ranged from one person per square mile along the coasts to one person per 35 square miles in the arid interior. When Capt. James Cook claimed Australia for Great Britain in 1770, the native population may have numbered 300,000 in as many as 500 tribes speaking many different languages. The aboriginal population currently numbers more than 410,000, representing about 2.2% of the population. Since the end of World War II, the government and the public have made efforts to be more responsive to aboriginal rights and needs.

Immigration has been a key to Australia's development since the beginning of European settlement in 1788. For generations, most settlers came from the British Isles, and the people of Australia are still predominantly of British or Irish origin, with a culture and outlook similar to those of Americans. However, since the end of World War II, the population has more than doubled; non-European immigration, mostly from the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, has increased significantly since 1960 through an extensive, planned immigration program. From 1945 through 2000, nearly 5.9 million immigrants settled in Australia, and about 80% have remained; nearly two of every seven Australians is foreign-born. Britain and Ireland have been the largest sources of post-war immigrants, followed by Italy, Greece, New Zealand, and the former Yugoslavia.

Australia's humanitarian and refugee admissions of about 12,000 per year are in addition to the normal immigration program. In recent years, refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia have comprised the largest element in Australia's refugee program.

Although Australia has scarcely more than two people per square kilometer, it is one of the world's most urbanized countries. Less than 15% of the population lives in rural areas.

Cultural Achievements

Much of Australia's culture is derived from European roots, but distinctive Australian features have evolved from the environment, aboriginal culture, and the influence of Australia's neighbors. The vigor and originality of the arts in Australia – films, opera, music, painting, theater, dance, and crafts – are achieving international recognition.

Australian actors such as Nicole Kidman, Rachel Griffiths, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Hogan, Hugh Jackman, Heath Ledger, and children's entertainers, The Wiggles, have achieved enormous popularity in the United States. Australian movies and directors such as Peter Weir and Philip Noyes also are well known.

Australia has had a widely respected school of painting since the early days of European settlement, and Australians with international reputations include Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, and Pro Hart and Arthur Boyd. Writers who have achieved world recognition include Thomas Keneally, Colleen McCullough, Nevil Shute, Morris West, Jill Ker Conway, and Nobel Prize winner Patrick White.


Australia was uninhabited until stone-culture peoples arrived, perhaps by boat across the waters separating the island from the Indonesia archipelago more than 40,000 years ago. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English explorers observed the island before 1770, when Captain Cook explored the east coast and claimed it for Great Britain (three American colonists were crew members aboard Cook's ship, the Endeavour).

On January 26, 1788 (now celebrated as Australia Day), the First Fleet under Capt. Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney, and formal proclamation of the establishment of the Colony of New South Wales followed on February 7. Many but by no means all of the first settlers were convicts, many condemned for offenses that today would often be thought trivial. The mid-19th century saw the beginning of government policies to emancipate convicts and assist the immigration of free persons. The discovery of gold in 1851 led to increased population, wealth, and trade.

The six colonies that now constitute the states of the Australian Commonwealth were established in the following order: New South Wales, 1788; Tasmania, 1825; Western Australia, 1830; South Australia, 1836; Victoria, 1851; and Queensland, 1859. Settlement had preceded these dates in most cases. Discussions between Australian and British representatives led to adoption by the British Government of an act to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia in 1900. Since Federation, the Commonwealth Government has established two self-governing territories: the Northern Territory, 1978; and the Australian Capital Territory (where the national capital, Canberra, is located), 1989.

The first federal Parliament was opened at Melbourne in May 1901 by the Duke of York (later King George V). In May 1927, the seat of government was transferred to Canberra, a planned city designed by an American, Walter Burley Griffin. The first session of Parliament in that city was opened by another Duke of York (later King George VI). Australia passed the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act on October 9, 1942, which officially established Australia's complete autonomy in both internal and external affairs. Its passage formalized a situation that had existed for years. The Australia Act (1986) eliminated the last vestiges of British legal authority.


The Commonwealth government was created with a Constitution patterned partly on the U.S. Constitution, although it does not include a "bill of rights." The powers of the Commonwealth are specifically defined in the Constitution, and the residual powers remain with the states.

Australia is an independent nation within the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state and since 1973 has been officially styled "Queen of Australia." The Queen is represented throughout Australia by a governor general and in each state by a governor.

The federal Parliament is bicameral, consisting of a 76-member Senate and a 150-member House of Representatives. Twelve senators from each state are elected for 6-year terms, with half elected every 3 years. Each territory has two senators who are elected for 3-year terms. The members of the House of Representatives are allocated among the states and territories roughly in proportion to population. In ordinary legislation, the two chambers have coordinate powers, but all proposals for appropriating revenue or imposing taxes must be introduced in the House of Representatives. Under the prevailing Westminster parliamentary system, the leader of the political party or coalition of parties that wins a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives is named prime minister. The prime minister and the cabinet wield actual power and are responsible to the Parliament, of which they must be elected members. General elections are held at least once every 3 years; the last general election was in October 2004.

Each state is headed by a premier, who is the leader of the party with a majority or a working minority in the lower house of the state legislature. Australia's two self-governing territories have political systems similar to those of the states. The Territories are headed by Chief Ministers who are the leader of the party with a majority or a working minority in the territories' legislature.

At the apex of the court system is the High Court of Australia. It has general appellate jurisdiction over all other federal and state courts and possesses the power of constitutional review.

Copyright © 2006 by U.S. Department of State.

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