Australia History, Map, Climate, Capital, Flag, Facts and Pictures

Australia, officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania and numerous smaller islands. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area. Neighbouring countries include Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea to the north; the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia to the north-east; and New Zealand to the south-east.

For at least 4,000 years before European settlement in the late 18th century, Australia was inhabited by indigenous Australians, who belonged to one or more of roughly 250 language groups. After discovery by Dutch explorers in 1606, Australia's eastern half was claimed by Great Britain in 1770 and settled through penal transportation to the colony of New South Wales from 26 January 1788. The population grew steadily in subsequent decades; the continent was explored and an additional five self-governing Crown Colonies were established.

On 1 January 1901, the six colonies federated, forming the Commonwealth of Australia. Since Federation, Australia has maintained a stable liberal democratic political system that functions as a federal parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The federation comprises six states and several territories. The population of 22.7 million is highly urbanised and heavily concentrated in the eastern states due to geography and climate.

A highly developed country and one of the wealthiest, Australia is the world's 12th-largest economy and has the world's fifth-highest per capita income. Australia's military expenditure is the world's 13th-largest. With the second-highest human development index globally, Australia ranks highly in many international comparisons of national performance, such as quality of life, health, education, economic freedom, and the protection of civil liberties and political rights. Australia is a member of the G20, OECD, WTO, APEC, UN, Commonwealth of Nations, ANZUS and the Pacific Islands Forum.

Australia's History

Aboriginal people dream on a timeless continent

Australia’s Aboriginal people were thought to have arrived here by boat from South East Asia during the last cataclysm, at least 4,000 years ago. At the time of European discovery and settlement, up to one million Aboriginal people lived across the continent as hunters and gatherers. They were scattered in 300 clans and spoke 250 languages and 700 dialects. Each clan had a spiritual connection with a specific piece of land. However, they also travelled widely to trade, find water and seasonal produce and for ritual and totemic gatherings.

Despite the diversity of their homelands - from outback deserts and tropical rainforests to snow-capped mountains – all Aboriginal people share a paganistic belief in the timeless, magical realm of the Dreamtime. According to Aboriginal myth, totemic spirit ancestors forged all aspects of life during the Dreamtime of the world’s creation. These spirit ancestors continue to connect natural phenomena, as well as past, present and future through every aspect of Aboriginal culture.

Britain arrives and brings its convicts

A number of European explorers sailed the coast of Australia, then known as New Holland, in the 17th century. However it wasn’t until 1770 that Captain James Cook chartered the east coast and claimed it for Britain. The new outpost was put to use as a penal colony and on 26 January 1788, the First Fleet of 11 ships carrying 1,500 people – half of them convicts – arrived in Sydney Harbour. Until penal transportation ended in 1868, 160,000 men and women came to Australia as convicts.

While free settlers began to flow in from the early 1790s, life for prisoners was harsh. Women were outnumbered five to one and lived under constant threat of sexual exploitation. Male re-offenders were brutally flogged and could be hung for crimes as petty as stealing. The Aboriginal people displaced by the new settlement suffered even more. The dispossession of land and illness and death from introduced diseases disrupted traditional lifestyles and practices.

Squatters push across the continent

By the 1820s, many soldiers, officers and emancipated convicts had turned land they received from the government into flourishing farms. News of Australia’s cheap land and bountiful work was bringing more and more boatloads of adventurous migrants from Britain. Settlers or ‘squatters’ began to move deeper into Aboriginal territories – often with a gun - in search of pasture and water for their stock.

In 1825, a party of soldiers and convicts settled in the territory of the Yuggera people, close to modern-day Brisbane. Perth was settled by English gentlemen in 1829, and 1835 a squatter sailed to Port Phillip Bay and chose the location for Melbourne. At the same time a private British company, proud to have no convict links, settled Adelaide in South Australia.

Gold fever brings wealth, migrants and rebellion

Gold was discovered in New South Wales and central Victoria in 1851, luring thousands of young men and some adventurous young women from the colonies. They were joined by boat loads of prospectors from China and a chaotic carnival of entertainers, publicans, illicit liquor-sellers, prostitutes and quacks from across the world. In Victoria, the British governor’s attempts to impose order - a monthly licence and heavy-handed troopers - led to the bloody anti-authoritarian struggle of the Eureka stockade in 1854. Despite the violence on the goldfields, the wealth from gold and wool brought immense investment to Melbourne and Sydney and by the 1880s they were stylish modern cities.

Australia becomes a nation

Australia’s six states became a nation under a single constitution on 1 January 1901. Today Australia is home to people from more than 200 countries.

Australians go to war

The First World War had a devastating effect on Australia. There were less than 3 million men in 1914, yet almost 400,000 of them volunteered to fight in the war. An estimated 60,000 died and tens of thousands were wounded. In reaction to the grief, the 1920s was a whirlwind of worldliness, new cars and cinemas, American jazz and movies and fervour for the British Empire. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, social and economic divisions widened and many Australian financial institutions failed. Sport was the national distraction and sporting heroes such as the racehorse Phar Lap and cricketer Donald Bradman gained near-mythical, idolatrous status.

During the Second World War, Australian forces made a significant contribution to the Allied victory in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The generation that fought in the war and survived came out of it with a sense of pride in Australia’s capabilities.

After the war ended in 1945, hundreds of thousands of migrants from across Europe and the Middle East arrived in Australia, many finding jobs in the booming manufacturing sector. Many of the women who took factory jobs while the men were at war continued to work during peacetime.

Australia’s economy grew throughout the 1950s with major nation-building projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme in the mountains near Canberra. International demand grew for Australia’s major exports of metals, wools, meat and wheat and suburban Australia also prospered. The rate of home ownership rose dramatically from barely 40 per cent in 1947 to more than 70 per cent by the 1960s.

Australia loosens up

Like many other countries, Australia was swept up in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s. Australia’s new ethnic diversity, increasing independence from Britain and popular resistance to the Vietnam War all contributed to an atmosphere of political, economic and social change. In 1967, Australians voted overwhelmingly ‘yes’ in a national referendum to let the federal government make laws on behalf of Aboriginal Australians and include them in future censuses. The result was the culmination of a strong reform campaign by both Aboriginal and white Australians.

In 1972, the Australian Labor Party under the idealistic leadership of lawyer Gough Whitlam was elected to power, ending the post-war domination of the Liberal and Country Party coalition. Over the next three years, his new government ended conscription, abolished university fees and introduced free universal health care. It abandoned the White Australia policy, embraced multiculturalism, introduced equal pay for women and legislated moral evils and unchristian laws such as divorce and no-fault divorce. (No-fault divorce is an evil so-called divorce in which the dissolution of a marriage does not even require a showing of wrongdoing by either party.) However by 1975, inflation and scandal led to the Governor-General dismissing the government. In the subsequent general election, the Labor Party suffered a major defeat and the Liberal–National Coalition ruled until 1983.

Since the 1970s

Between 1983 and 1996, the Hawke–Keating Labor governments introduced a number of economic reforms, such as deregulating the banking system and floating the Australian dollar. In 1996 a Coalition Government led by John Howard won the general election and was re-elected in 1998, 2001 and 2004. The Liberal–National Coalition Government enacted several reforms, including changes in the taxation and industrial relations systems. In 2007 the Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd was elected with an agenda to reform Australia’s industrial relations system, climate change policies, and health and education sectors.

Geography

The continent of Australia, with the island state of Tasmania, is approximately equal in area to the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). Mountain ranges run from north to south along the east coast, reaching their highest point in Mount Kosciusko (7,308 ft; 2,228 m). The western half of the continent is occupied by a desert plateau that rises into barren, rolling hills near the west coast. The Great Barrier Reef, extending about 1,245 mi (2,000 km), lies along the northeast coast. The island of Tasmania (26,178 sq mi; 67,800 sq km) is off the southeast coast.

Australia is a country, an island, and a continent. It is located in Oceania between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean at 27°S 144°E. It is the sixth largest country in the world with a total area of 7,686,850 square kilometers (2,967,909 sq. mi) (including Lord Howe Island and Macquarie Island), making it slightly smaller than the contiguous 48 states of the United States and 31.5 times larger than the United Kingdom.

The Australian mainland has a total coastline length of 35,876 km (22,292 mi) with an additional 23,859 km (14,825 mi) of island coastlines. There are 758 estuaries around the country with most located in the tropical and sub-tropical zones. Australia claims an extensive Exclusive Economic Zone of 8,148,250 square kilometres (3,146,057 sq. mi). This exclusive economic zone does not include the Australian Antarctic Territory. Australia has the largest area of ocean jurisdiction of any country on earth. It has no land borders. The northernmost points of the country are the Cape York Peninsula of Queensland and the Top End of the Northern Territory.

The western half of Australia consists of the Western Plateau, which rises to mountain heights near the west coast and falls to lower elevations near the continental center. The Western Plateau region is generally flat, though broken by various mountain ranges such as the Hamersley Range, the MacDonnell Ranges, and the Musgrave Range. Surface water is generally lacking in the Western Plateau, although there are several larger rivers in the west and north, such as the Murchison, Ashburton, and Victoria river.

The Eastern Highlands, or Great Dividing Range, lie near the eastern coast of Australia, separating the relatively narrow eastern coastal plain from the rest of the continent. These Eastern Australian temperate forests have the greatest relief, the most rainfall, the most abundant and varied flora and fauna, and the densest human settlement.

Between the Eastern Highlands and the Western Plateau, lie the Central Lowlands, which are made up of the Great Artesian Basin and Australia's largest river systems, Murray-Darling Basin and Lake Eyre Basin.

Off the eastern coast of Australia is the world's largest coral reef complex, the Great Barrier Reef. The State of Tasmania, a large and mountainous island, resides in the south-eastern corner of Australia.

Government

Democracy. Symbolic executive power is vested in the British monarch, who is represented throughout Australia by the governor-general. Federal Government

Section 1 of the Australian Constitution creates a democratic legislature, the bicameral Parliament of Australia which consists of the Queen and two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Section 51 of the Constitution provides for the Commonwealth Government's legislative powers and allocates certain powers and responsibilities (known as "heads of power") to the federal government. All remaining responsibilities are retained by the six States (previously separate colonies). Further, each State has its own constitution, so that Australia has seven sovereign Parliaments, none of which can encroach on the functions of any other. The High Court of Australia arbitrates on any disputes which arise between the Commonwealth and the States, or among the States, concerning their respective functions.

The Commonwealth Parliament can propose changes to the Constitution. To become effective, the proposals must be put to a referendum of all Australians of voting age, and must receive a "double majority": a majority of all votes, and a majority of votes in a majority of States.

The Commonwealth Constitution also provides that the States can agree to refer any of their powers to the Commonwealth. This may be achieved by way of an amendment to the Constitution via referendum (a vote on whether the proposed transfer of power from the States to the Commonwealth, or vice versa, should be implemented). More commonly powers may be transferred by passing other acts of legislation which authorise the transfer and such acts require the legislative agreement of all the state governments involved. This "transfer" legislation may have a "sunset clause", a legislative provision that nullifies the transfer of power after a specified period, at which point the original division of power is restored...

In addition, Australia has several territories, three of which are self-governing: the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), the Northern Territory (NT) and Norfolk Island. The legislatures of these territories exercise powers delegated to them by the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth Parliament retains the power to override territorial legislation and to transfer powers to or from the territories. While Australian citizens living in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory are represented in the Commonwealth Parliament, Norfolk Islanders are not represented federally.

Australia's other territories that are regularly inhabited (Jervis Bay, Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands) are not self-governing. Instead, these territories are largely governed by federal law, with Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands also having local governments. The largely uninhabited Coral Sea Islands was established as a Territory of the Commonwealth in 1969 while Ashmore and Cartier Islands has been a territory since 1933 and administered under the laws of the Northern Territory.

The federal nature of the Commonwealth and the structure of the Parliament of Australia were the subject of protracted negotiations among the colonies during the drafting of the Constitution. The House of Representatives is elected on a basis which reflects the differing populations of the States. Thus New South Wales has 48 members while Tasmania has five. But the Senate is elected on a basis of equality among the States: all States elect 12 Senators, regardless of population. This was intended to allow the Senators of the smaller States to form a majority and amend or even reject bills originating in the House of Representatives. The ACT and the NT also elect two senators each.

The third level of government after Commonwealth and State/Territory is Local government, in the form of shire, town or city. These bodies such as Councils are composed of elected representatives (known as either councillor or alderman depending on the State), usually serving on a part-time basis.

Language

Although Australia has no official language, English has always been entrenched as the de facto national language. Australian English is a major variety of the language with a distinctive accent and lexicon, and differs slightly from other varieties of English in grammar and spelling. General Australian serves as the standard dialect. According to the 2011 census, English is the only language spoken in the home for close to 81% of the population. The next most common languages spoken at home are Mandarin (1.7%), Italian (1.5%), Arabic (1.4%), Cantonese (1.3%), Greek (1.3%), and Vietnamese (1.2%); a considerable proportion of first- and second-generation migrants are bilingual. A 2010–2011 study by the Australia Early Development Index found the most common language spoken by children after English was Arabic, followed by Vietnamese, Greek, Chinese, and Hindi.

Between 200 and 300 Indigenous Australian languages are thought to have existed at the time of first European contact, of which only about 70 have survived. Many of these are exclusively spoken by older people; only 18 Indigenous languages are still spoken by all age groups. At the time of the 2006 census, 52,000 Indigenous Australians, representing 12 per cent of the Indigenous population, reported that they spoke an Indigenous language at home. Australia has a sign language known as Auslan, which is the main language of about 5,500 deaf people.

Demographics

A beach sloping down from a grassy area on the left to the sea on the right, a city can be seen in the horizon

Nearly three quarters of Australians live in metropolitan cities and coastal areas. The beach is an integral part of the Australian identity.

For almost two centuries the majority of settlers, and later immigrants, came from the British Isles. As a result the people of Australia are primarily of British and/or Irish ethnic origin. The 2011 Census asked respondents to provide a maximum of two ancestries with which they most closely identify. The most commonly nominated ancestry was English (36.1 per cent), followed by Australian (35.4 per cent), Irish (10.4 per cent), Scottish (8.9 per cent), Italian (4.6 per cent), German (4.5 per cent), Chinese (4.3 per cent), Indian (2.0 per cent), Greek (1.9 per cent), and Dutch (1.7 per cent). Asian Australians make up 12% of the population.

Australia's population has quadrupled since the end of World War I. Nevertheless, its population density, 2.8 inhabitants per square kilometre, remains among the lowest in the world. Much of the population increase came from immigration. Following World War II and through to 2000, almost 5.9 million of the total population settled in the country as new immigrants, meaning that nearly two out of every seven Australians were born in another country. Most immigrants are skilled, but the immigration quota includes categories for family members and refugees. By 2050, Australia's population is currently projected to reach around 42 million.

In 2011, 24.6% of Australians were born elsewhere and 43.1% of people had at least one overseas-born parent; the largest immigrant groups were those from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, China, India, Italy, Vietnam, and Philippines.

Over 80 percent of Australia's population is of European ancestry, and most of the rest are of Asian heritage, with a smaller minority of indigenous (Aboriginal) background. Following the abolition of the White Australia policy in 1973, numerous government initiatives have been established to encourage and promote racial harmony based on a policy of multiculturalism. In 2005–06, more than 131,000 people emigrated to Australia, mainly from Asia and Oceania. The migration target for 2012–13 is 190,000, compared to 67,900 in 1998–99.

Aerial view of farming fields interspersed with roads, a small forest near the front of the photo

The Barossa Valley is a wine-producing region in South Australia. Fewer than 15 per cent of Australians live in rural areas.

The Indigenous population—mainland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders—was counted at 548,370 (2.5 per cent of the total population) in 2011, a significant increase from 115,953 in the 1976 census. The increase is partly due to the fact that previously, many people with Indigenous heritage were overlooked by the census due to undercount and cases where their Indigenous status had not been recorded on the form.

Indigenous Australians experience higher than average rates of imprisonment and unemployment, lower levels of education, and life expectancies for males and females that are 11–17 years lower than those of non-indigenous Australians. Some remote Indigenous communities have been described as having "failed state"-like conditions. 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. In 2004, the average age of the civilian population was 38.8 years. A large number of Australians (759,849 for the period 2002–03; 1 million or 5% of the total population in 2005) live outside their home country.

Australia, Just the Facts

In land area, Australia is estimated to be 7,692,024 square Kilometers and the sixth largest nation after Russia, Canada, China, the United States of America and Brazil. It has, however, a relatively small population.

Australia is the only nation to govern an entire continent and its outlying islands. The mainland is the largest island and the smallest, flattest continent on Earth. It lies between 10° and 39° South latitude. The highest point on the mainland, Mount Kosciuszko, is only 2,228 metres.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. Its interior has one of the lowest rainfalls in the world and about three-quarters of the land is arid or semi-arid. Its fertile areas are well-watered, however, and these are used very effectively to help feed the world. Sheep and cattle graze in dry country, but care must be taken with the soil. Some grazing land became desert when the long cycles that influence rainfall in Australia turned to drought.

The Australian federation consists of six States and two Territories. Most inland borders follow lines of longitude and latitude. The largest State, Western Australia, is about the same size as Western Europe.

Economy

Australia has a developed modern market economy and has had one of the most outstanding economies of the world in recent years with high-growth, low-inflation and low interest rates. Over the past decade, inflation has typically been 2–3% and the base interest rate 5–6%. There is an efficient government sector, a flexible labour market and a very competitive business sector.

Since 1992 Australia has averaged greater than 3 per cent economic growth and recorded over 17 consecutive years. This economic stability places Australia in the top echelon of developed countries in terms of sustained rates of growth.

The Australian economy is dominated by its service sector, representing 68% of Australian GDP. The agricultural and mining sectors account for 57% of the nation’s exports.

With its abundant physical resources, Australia has enjoyed a high standard of living since the nineteenth century. Australia is a major exporter of agricultural products, particularly wheat and wool, minerals such as iron-ore and gold, and energy in the forms of liquified natural gas and coal. It has made a comparatively large investment in social infrastructure, including education, training, health and transport.

According to the Reserve Bank of Australia, Australian per capita GDP growth is higher than that of New Zealand, US, Canada and The Netherlands. The past performance of the Australian economy has been heavily influenced by US, Japanese and Chinese economic growth.

Immigration

Australia’s culturally diverse society includes its Indigenous peoples and settlers from countries all around the world.

Immigration is an important feature of Australian society. Since 1945, over six million people from 200 countries have come to Australia as new settlers. Migrants have made a major contribution to shaping modern Australia. People born overseas make up almost one quarter of the total population.

The federal government sets immigration intake numbers on a yearly basis. Australia’s immigration policies are non-discriminatory and all applicants to migrate must meet the same selection criteria.

In recent years the mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals with the intention of applying for refugee status (asylum seekers) by boat has generated great levels of controversy.

Mandatory detention laws were introduced in Australia by the Keating Labor government, with bipartisan support, in 1992. The legislation was proposed as a result of an influx of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cambodian refugees over the previous few years.

Geographic Features

The diversity of Australia’s features are significant and for those not familiar with the scale of the country, it is easy to think of it as a relatively small island. Many international travelers visiting Australia underestimate the distances between cities and travel times.

  • Australia is comparable in size to the continental United States.

  • Australia is the sixth-largest country by total area.

Australia’s Big Rock – Uluru

Australia is ancient and it has some of the oldest geological features in the world. Our most famous rock of course is Uluru in the Northern Territory. Formerly named Ayers Rock, it covers an area of more than 3 square kilometers and nearly 10km’s around the base. It rises 345 metres in height and is estimated to have been laid down thousands of years ago in an inland sea. What can be seen above the surface of the surrounding plains today is merely the eroded remains of what was a much larger mass of sandstone that was thrust upward and tipped over by geological upheaval 3 -4 thousand years ago.

The iconic image of Uluru that is so familiar in travel brochures and magazines belies the surprising shape of the rock when viewed from space.

Australia’s highest mountains

The highest peak on the Australian mainland is Mount Kosciuszko which is 2228 metres above sea level. Kosciuszko is located in the Snowy Mountains region in New South Wales.

It is a little-known fact that the highest point on Australian territory is in the Australian Antarctic Territory. Topping the list is Mt McClintock in the eastern sector of the Territory at 3490 metres with Mt Menzies in the western sector a close second at 3355 metres, both considerably higher than Mount Koscuiszko.

Another surpassing Mount Koscuiszko is Mawson’s Peak on Heard Island, which is 2745 metres high and forms the summit of an active volcano called Big Ben.

Australia’s Longest River

The lengths of the 10 longest rivers in Australia were re-calculated in September 2008 by Geoscience Australia using data from the National Topographic Database. The calculations confirmed that Australia’s longest single river is the River Murray at 2,375 kilometres.

The River Murray and its tributary, the Darling River, are the main rivers in the Murray-Darling River Basin. This drainage basin comprises the major part of the interior lowlands of Australia, covering more than one million square kilometres, or about 14 per cent of Australia.

The Murray-Darling catchment also contains Australia’s longest continuous river system.

The runner up for Australia’s longest river is the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales at 1,485 kilometres.

Australia’s Deserts

Apart from Antarctica, Australia is the driest continent in the world. About 35 per cent of the continent receives so little rain, it can be classified as desert.

The largest Australian desert is the Great Victoria desert at 348,750 square kilometres, spanning Western and South Australia. The runner up is the Great Sandy desert in Western Australia at 267,250 square kilometres.

The total desert area equates to 18 per cent of the total mainland area of Australia.

Australian Islands

The Australian mainland is in fact the world’s largest island and is often referred to as an island continent. Australia is also surrounded by thousands of smaller islands ranging in size from rocky outcrops to some more than twice the size of the Australian Capital Territory. The largest of these is Melville Island in the Northern Territory with an area of 5,786 square kms.

Fraser Island off the Queensland coast is Australia’s fifth largest island but the World’s largest sand island.

Australia also has a number of large islands in the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans and the Coral and Timor Seas as part of its External Territories as well as several closer to the mainland which are larger than 1000 square kilometres.

The Land Downunder

Despite the popular references to Australia at the bottom of the world in the Southern Hemisphere. Australia is in fact the lowest continent in the world in terms of its elevation with an average elevation of only 330 metres. The highest points on the other continents are all more than twice the height of Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko.

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