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Australia, Commonwealth of

Australia, Commonwealth of. A federation of six states, New South Wales (founded 1788), Western Australia (1829), Tasmania (formerly Van Diemen's Land, 1825), South Australia (1834), Victoria (1851), and Queensland (1859) and the self-governing Northern Territory (1863), together with Australian Capital Territory (1911), Norfolk (1856), Heard and McDonald (1947), Cocos (1955), Christmas (1958), and Coral Sea (1969) Islands, and the Australian Antarctic Territory (1933).

Australia is the smallest, most arid, and least populated of the world's continents. Its mainland, together with Tasmania, is nearly 3 million square miles—i.e. 35 times the size of Great Britain—and had a population of 19 million in 1998. Australia took its name from the mythical Southern Continent first postulated by classical geographers, Terra Australis Incognita. First sighted by Portuguese and Spanish navigators during the late 15th cent., it became known through 17th- and 18th-cent. Dutch, British, and later French voyages.

Australia's Aboriginal people entered the country more than 40,000 years ago across a land-bridge created during a low sea-level period. They greatly modified the Australian environment by the extensive use of fire and hunting to extinction of its mega-fauna, and developed a distinctive way of life centred around hunting and gathering, in which women and children played a key role. Aborigines gave animate and inanimate things quasi-religious properties and their cultures revolved round a seasonal cycle of life, whose origins were explained by a creation known (in translation) as the Dream Time. Completely isolated from the rest of the world, Aborigines developed a strong attachment to and intimate knowledge of the land (which they regarded as Mother). Although they appeared to have no socio-political system, they developed a complex web of social, lineal, and trade relations, which could extend over large areas. Estimates put their population at the time of the coming of the British at 500,000.

The modern era began with the arrival on 26 January 1788 of the 1st Fleet of eleven vessels under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN, who took formal possession of land already named New South Wales and claimed on Britain's behalf in 1770 by Captain James Cook. Extending westward as far as longitude east 135 degrees (extended to 129 degrees E. in 1834), New South Wales, with Sydney its capital, excluded New Holland, known to the Dutch East India Company from about 1610, but thought of little value. The British began to occupy New Holland in 1827, and with the formal possession and change of name to Western Australia and the founding of the Swan River Colony under Captain Stirling RN in 1829, Britain laid claim to the whole continent. New South Wales, the first colony, was subsequently divided into five separate colonies.

Britain's decision in 1786 to occupy New South Wales was partly to compensate for the loss of the American colonies to which unwanted convicts (some 50,000 before the Declaration of Independence in 1776) had been sent; and partly to protect Britain's control of the sea route to Asia via the Southern Ocean.

On arrival at Botany Bay on 18 January 1788, Captain Phillip, finding it less fertile than he had anticipated, sailed a few miles into Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour), where, on 26 January, he commenced landing 736 convicts (including 188 women) along with a military guard of 210 officers and men. He was followed by the commercially organized 2nd and 3rd Fleets, which embarked a further 3,100 convicts, of whom nearly 300 died from maltreatment during the voyage. The transportation of convicts to New South Wales ceased in 1840, to Van Diemen's Land in 1853 (shortly afterwards renamed Tasmania), and to Norfolk Island in 1855. Between 1850 and 1868, 10,000 convicts were shipped as a subsidy to poverty-stricken Western Australia, making a grand total of 160,000 convicts transported before 1868. Convictism's real legacy is Australia's distinctively authoritarian executive-style government. The Aborigines offered no effective resistance to the British who, presuming them to be ‘savages’, applied the principle of vacuum domicilium (or terra nullius).

The early days of New South Wales were under near famine conditions and the colony was not self-sufficient in wheat until 1797. Free settlers were loathe to emigrate to such a distant land because it lacked a staple product and was tainted by convictism. However, the crossing of the Blue Mountains behind Sydney in 1813 revealed a belt of millions of acres of rich savannah grasslands. Here, flocks of fine wool-bearing merino sheep (first imported from the Cape Colony in 1797) spread out and by 1880 it supported over 60 million sheep. The export of wool provided the staple upon which to found a viable economy, helped end convict transportation, and created a new class of politically powerful and capitalist large-landholding squatters (graziers).

Exploration by sea from Sydney had already established that Tasmania was an island ( George Bass, 1796) and a later circumnavigation ( Matthew Flinders, 1803) established the true extent of the Australian continent. Inland exploration was initially directed toward the discovery of a supposed inland sea and new grasslands ( Charles Sturt, 1830 and 1845; Hamilton Hume and William Hovell, 1824; and Thomas Mitchell, 1836). Later explorations culminated in a series of trans-Australian expeditions, the most famous of which were E. J. Eyre (1851), L. Leichhardt (1844–5), Augustus Gregory (1855–6), John McDouall Stuart (1860–2), R. O'H. Burke and W. J. Wills (1861), and John Forrest (1874).

The discovery of gold in 1851 caused a dramatic leap in immigration and the combined population of New South Wales and Victoria rose from 267,000 in 1850 to 886,000 in 1860; 538,000 were located in the newly proclaimed colony of Victoria. Melbourne, its capital, rapidly became Australia's financial and industrial centre. A miners' revolt at Eureka Stockade near Ballarat in 1854 eventually forced the introduction of democratic reforms far in advance of those in England. These included the adoption of secret ballot (1856), adult male franchise (1857), paid parliamentarians (1870), and eventually votes for women (1908). The electoral power of the surplus population created by the gold rushes led to the breakup of the squatters' vast landholdings into family-operated cereal, hay, and dairy farms 1869–91.

After the repeal of the British Corn Laws in 1846, South Australians began to develop ‘dry-land’ wheat farming technologies in the 1850s. These were later adopted by new-land farmers in Victoria and New South Wales. Land clearing boomed, using rollers (Mullenizing, invented 1868), the stump plough (1876), harvesters (strippers, 1835), and with the introduction of refrigerated shipping (1882) came the export of dairy products and fresh meat to Britain.

The gold rushes and the rise of agriculture encouraged commerce, finance, trade, and industry in Sydney and Melbourne, the latter growing to more than half a million by 1900. The spread of wage labour in mines, factories, ports, and shearing sheds saw the rise of trade unionism during the 1870s. The defeat of the great strikes of 1888–95 led to the setting-up of union-backed Labour parties. The first, but short-lived, minority Labour governments took office in Queensland in 1899, and federally in 1904.

The 1880s was an era of reckless bank lending, and even more reckless borrowing by the land boomers. The inevitable bank crash of 1893 caused great distress and unemployment and also brought to an end ‘marvellous Melbourne’. The discovery of gold in Western Australia (Coolgardie, 1892, and Kalgoorlie, 1893) partly alleviated the recession.

The latter part of the 19th cent. was also a highly formative period for Australian culture: the founding of universities (Sydney, 1850; Melbourne, 1853; Adelaide, 1874; Tasmania, 1890); the writing of Australian novels and poetry, among them works by Henry Lawson (1867–1922); the beginnings of Australian science and technology (Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Sydney, 1888); the development of Australian-rules football (first game 1858) and of Australian prowess in sport (the ‘Ashes’, 1882).

Following a series of meetings during the 1890s, six colonies agreed by referendum to become a federation. This was inaugurated on 1 January 1901 as the Commonwealth of Australia under a written constitution, based on that of the USA. One of the Commonwealth government's first acts was to introduce the so-called ‘White Australia policy’ to protect the Australian working man's standard of living. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 severely tested the new federation. An Australian Imperial Force (AIF) comprising 322,000 troops was sent overseas to fight alongside the allies, of whom 60,000 died or were killed in action. The period between the First and Second World Wars was at first prosperous with assisted British immigration until development was stopped by the Great Depression of the 1930s. At times, unemployment exceeded 25 per cent of the work-force. Australia's support for British empire preference helped maintain her exports to Britain. High gold prices, a devalued Australian currency, and the introduction of tariffs, subsidies, and marketing boards to protect local industry and primary producers may have staved off an even worse calamity, but Australia's dependence upon overseas capital and markets remained unchanged.

With the fall of Singapore in 1942, the withdrawal of the British to India, and the Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea, the Second World War came to the shores of Australia with the bombing of Darwin. Wartime Labour Prime Minister John Curtin turned to America for military help. Australian forces played an important part in the Pacific War and were the first to defeat the Japanese on land in the battle for New Guinea (Kokoda).

After 1945, the wartime industrialization of Australia was continued behind tariff walls. The nationalization and welfare state ambitions of the governing Australian Labour Party were brought to a halt with the Australian High Court's rejection of the ALP's Bank Nationalization Act (1948) as unconstitutional, and the electoral success of Robert Menzies and his conservative coalition government in 1949. The coalition governed in times of increasing prosperity until defeated by the ALP in 1972 under the leadership of Gough Whitlam in a revolt against the conservatism and alleged uniformity of the Menzies era. The Menzies era (he served as prime minister until 1966) was one of the embourgeoisement of urban Australia involving the spread of the suburban family owner-occupied house (the ‘quarter acre block’) and car ownership.

Post-war mass European immigration, assisted by the Labour government, was made possible by an assured British market, a high Australian tariff wall, a 1960s boom in mining, especially for bauxite and iron ore, and the discovery of new reserves of petroleum, natural gas, and coal. 500,000 European immigrants, one-third from the British Isles, came to Australia 1945–9. Immigration peaked at 170,000 in 1952. The balance shifted toward Asian migration after the end of the war in Vietnam in 1972, whence Australia had accepted more than 100,000 refugees. Australia's population, which had passed the million mark by 1860 and the 5 million mark by 1920, was by 1970 more than 12.5 million.

Under the Whitlam Labour government (1972–5) tariffs were reduced and some economic reforms introduced. But the government ended in turmoil, was dismissed by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, in 1975 and replaced after a general election by a coalition (Liberal and Country Party) under the leadership of Malcolm Fraser (1975–83). The Whitlam government's initiatives in Aboriginal affairs (already made full citizens by referendum in 1966), heritage, environment, family law, and health care were continued by the new government.

Despite massive majorities, the Fraser government was thought indecisive and, because of Kerr's action, regarded by some as lacking legitimacy. Labour was returned to power in 1983 under the leadership of former labour union leader, Robert Hawke. Replaced by his rival and federal treasurer Paul Keating in 1992, Hawke's government sought accord with the labour unions, introduced a programme of financial and industrial deregulation, improved health and welfare, superintended the 200th anniversary of the British settlement of Australia, and failed in its attempt to change the constitution.

The rise of a new nationalism, epitomized by Whitlam's recognition of China and North Vietnam, and his tour of Asian countries, the Fraser government's multi-cultural initiatives, and Hawke's celebration of the winning of the America's Cup in 1983, sought to include the new Asia-Pacific and multi-cultural horizon. Keating took the new nationalism further by forging closer links with Asia and pushing his republican ideas. He was returned to office in 1993 when coalition leader John Hewson failed to convince the people of the need to introduce a goods and services tax. Keating, with his self-proclaimed republican ‘big picture vision’ for Australia, his polemical style, and what was believed to be his arrogance, was roundly defeated in the 1996 election by a John Howard-led coalition. The 1996 election represented the third occasion (the others in 1949 and 1975) on which a reformist Labour government, often using ideas taken from the conservatives (deregulation and market economics being most recent), had been rejected by an electorate saturated with change.

Australia looks west to Europe, east to the USA, and north to her burgeoning Asian neighbours. Although now officially multi-cultural, Australia has still not resolved her relation with her own indigenous people, the Aborigines. The granting of native title by federal law in 1993 will in the long run markedly change the position of Aborigines, but unlike Australia's European and Asian immigrants, a high proportion of the nearly 300,000 Aboriginal people are still both culturally and geographically ‘fringe dwellers’.

With the rise of the new industrializing countries of east Asia, Australia's relative industrial and economic strength has dramatically declined. Australia has yet to face the fact, for example, that personal incomes in Singapore are on a par with those of an Australian worker. Furthermore, since Australia no longer has preferential access to European markets, it is now in direct competition with other primary raw material producers. Though retaining all the political, organizational, and governmental structures inherited from Britain, Australia is no longer the Anglo-Celtic culture that she was before 1945.

Martyn Webb


Blainey, G. , The Rush that Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining (Melbourne, 1963);
—— The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History (Melbourne, 1966);
Elder, B. (ed.), Great Events in Australia's History (Frenchs Forest, 1988);
Molony, J. , The Penguin History of Australia (Ringwood, 1987).

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Country statistics


7,686,850sq km (2,967,893sq mi)



capital (population):

Canberra (315,400)


Federal constitutional monarchy

ethnic groups:

European 93%, Asian 4%, Native Australian/Torres Strait Islander 2%


English (official)


Roman Catholic 27%, Anglican 22%, Uniting Church 7%, Presbyterian 4%, Baptist 2%, Lutheran 1%, Muslim 1%, Buddhism 1%


Australian dollar = 100 cents

Earth's smallest continent, between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.Combined with the island of Tasmania, it forms the independent Commonwealth country of Australia. See country feature Australia is the world's sixth-largest country. The huge Western Plateau makes up 66% of its land area, and is mainly flat and dry. Off the coast of ne Queensland lies the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Dividing Range extends down the entire e coast and into Victoria. The mountains of Tasmania are a southerly extension of the range. The highlands separate the e coastal plains from the Central Lowlands and include Australia's highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko, in New South Wales. The capital, Canberra, lies in the foothills. The se lowlands are drained by the Murray and Darling, Australia's two longest rivers. Lake Eyre is the continent's largest lake. It lies on the edge of the Simpson Desert and is a dry salt flat for most of the year. Alice Springs lies in the heart of the continent, close to Ayers Rock (Uluru).

Climate and Vegetation

Only 10% of Australia has an average annual rainfall greater than 1000mm (39in). These areas include some of the tropical n (where Darwin is situated), the ne coast, and the se. The coasts are usually warm and many parts of the s and sw, including Perth, enjoy a Mediterranean climate of dry summers and moist winters. The interior is dry and many rivers are only seasonal. Much of the Western Plateau is desert, although areas of grass and low shrubs are found on its margins. The grasslands of the Central Lowlands are used to raise livestock. The n has areas of savanna and rainforest. In dry areas, acacias are common. Eucalyptus grows in wetter regions.

History and Politics

Native Australians (Aborigines) entered the continent from Southeast Asia more than 50,000 years ago and they settled throughout the country. Their first contact with European explorers, the Dutch, was in the 17th century, though Dutch people did not settle. In 1770 the English explorer Captain James Cook reached Botany Bay and claimed the e coast for Great Britain. In 1788 the first British settlement was established (for convicts) on the site of present-day Sydney. The first free settlers arrived three years later. In the 19th century, the economy developed rapidly, based on mining and sheep-rearing. The continent was divided into colonies, which later became states. In 1901 the states of Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, federated to create the Commonwealth of Australia. Northern Territory joined the federation in 1911. A range of progressive social welfare policies were adopted, such as old-age pensions (1909). The federal capital was established (1927) at Canberra, Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Australia fought as a member of the Allies in both World Wars. The Battle of the Coral Sea (1942) prevented a full-scale attack on the continent. Post-1945 Australia steadily realigned itself with its Asian neighbours. Robert Menzies, Australia's longest-serving prime minister, oversaw many economic and social reforms and dispatched Australian troops to the Vietnam War. In 1977 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was removed from office by the British Governor General. He was succeeded by Malcolm Fraser. In 1983 elections, the Labor Party defeated Fraser's Liberal Party, and Bob Hawke became prime minister. His shrewd handling of industrial disputes and economic recession helped him win a record four terms in office. In 1991 Hawke was forced to resign as leader and was succeeded by Paul Keating, Paul John. Backed by a series of opinion polls, Keating proposed that Australia should become a republic by 2001. Keating won the 1993 general election and persevered with his free market reforms. In 1996 elections, Keating was defeated by a coalition led by John Howard. In 1998 Howard narrowly secured a second term in office. In a referendum (1999) Australia voted against becoming a republic. In 2000 Sydney hosted the 28th Summer Olympic Games. The historic maltreatment of Native Australians remains a contentious political issue. In 1993 the government passed the Native Title Act which restored to Native Australians land rights over their traditional hunting and sacred areas. Howard secured a third term in 2001 elections. In January 2002, eastern Australia suffered devastating bush fires.


Australia is a prosperous country (2000 GDP per capita, US$23,200). Its economy was originally based on agriculture, although crops can be grown on only 6% of the land. The country remains a major producer and exporter of farm products, particularly cattle, wheat and wool. Grapes grown for winemaking are also important. Australia is rich in natural resources and is a major producer of minerals, such as bauxite, coal, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore, manganese, nickel, silver, tin, tungsten and zinc. Australia also produces some oil and natural gas. The majority of Australia's imports are manufactured products. They include machinery and other capital goods required by factories. The country has a highly developed manufacturing sector; the major products include consumer goods, notably foodstuffs and household articles. Tourism is a vital industry (1998, 4.5% of total GDP).

Political map

Physical map


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Austral Islands

Austral Islands (ô´strəl), volcanic island group (2002 pop. 6,386), South Pacific, part of French Polynesia. They are sometimes known as the Tubuai Islands. The group comprises seven islands, plus islets, with a total land area of c.115 sq mi (300 sq km). Tubuai, the largest island (c.17 sq mi/44 sq km), was visited by Capt. James Cook in 1777 and was annexed by France in 1880. European diseases and slavers very nearly wiped out the native Polynesian population of the islands, especially on Rapa. In 1938, French authorities imposed strict regulations on immigration and tourism. Coffee, arrowroot, tobacco, and copra are produced on the islands.

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Australia (ôstrāl´yə), smallest continent, between the Indian and Pacific oceans. With the island state of Tasmania to the south, the continent makes up the Commonwealth of Australia, a federal parliamentary state (2005 est. pop. 20,090,000), 2,967,877 sq mi (7,686,810 sq km). Australia's capital is Canberra. Its largest city is Sydney, closely followed in population by Melbourne. There are five continental states (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia, in addition to the aforementioned Tasmania) as well as the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (an enclave within New South Wales, containing Canberra). Australia's external territories include Norfolk Island, Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and the Australian Antarctic Territory.


The Australian continent extends from east to west some 2,400 mi (3,860 km) and from north to south nearly 2,000 mi (3,220 km). It is on the whole exceedingly flat and dry. Less than 20 in. (50.8 cm) of precipitation falls annually over 70% of the land area. From the narrow coastal plain in the west the land rises abruptly in what, from the sea, appear to be mountain ranges but are actually the escarpments of a rough plateau that occupies the western half of the continent. It is generally from 1,000 to 2,000 ft (305–610 m) high but several mountain ranges rise to nearly 5,000 ft (1,520 m); there are no permanent rivers or lakes in the region. In the southwest corner of the continent there is a small moist and fertile area, but the rest of Western Australia is arid, with large desert areas.

The northern region fronts partly on the Timor Sea, separating Australia from Indonesia; it also belongs to the plateau, with tropical temperatures and a winter dry season. Its northernmost section, Arnhem Land (much of which is an aboriginal reserve), faces the Arafura Sea in the north and the huge Gulf of Carpentaria on the east. On the eastern side of the gulf is the Cape York Peninsula, which is largely covered by woodland. Off the coast of NE Queensland is the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef.

In E Australia are the mountains of the Eastern Highlands, which run down the entire east and southeast coasts. The rivers on the eastern and southeastern slopes run to the Coral Sea and the Tasman Sea through narrow but rich coastal plains; the rivers on the western slopes flow either N to the Gulf of Carpentaria or W and SW to the Indian Ocean. The longest of all Australian river systems, the Murray River and its tributaries, drains the southern part of the interior basin that lies between the mountains and the great plateau. The rivers of this area are used extensively for irrigation and hydroelectric power.

Australia, remote from any other continent, has many distinctive forms of plant life—notably species of giant eucalyptus—and of animal life, including the kangaroo, the koala, the flying opossum, the wallaby, the wombat, the platypus, and the spiny anteater; it also has many unusual birds. Foreign animals, when introduced, have frequently done well. Rabbits, brought over in 1788, have done entirely too well, multiplying until by the middle of the 19th cent. they became a distinct menace to sheep raising. In 1907 a fence (still maintained) 1,000 mi (1,610 km) long was built from the north coast to the south to prevent the rabbits from invading Western Australia. Introduced red foxes and feral house cats have reduced many native land mammals through predation.


Most Australians are of British and Irish ancestry and the majority of the country lives in urban areas. The population has more than doubled since the end of World War II, spurred by an ambitious postwar immigration program. In the postwar years, immigration from Greece, Turkey, Italy, and other countries began to increase Australia's cultural diversity. When Australia officially ended (1973) discriminatory policies dating to the 19th cent. that were designed to prevent immigration by nonwhites, substantial Asian immigration followed. By 1988 about 40% of immigration to Australia was from Asia, and by 2005 Asians constituted 7% of the population. Also by 2005 roughly one fourth of all Australians had been born outside the country.

The indigenous population, the Australian aborigines, estimated to number as little as 300,000 and as many as 800,000at the time of the Europeans' arrival, was numbered at 366,429 in 2001. Although still more rural than the general population, the aboriginal population has become more urbanized, with some two thirds living in cities. New South Wales and Queensland account for just over half of the Australian aboriginal population. In Tasmania the aboriginal population was virtually wiped out in the 19th cent.

There is no state religion in Australia. The largest religions are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other Christian groups. Although education is not a federal concern, government grants have aided in the establishment of state universities including the Univ. of Sydney (1852), the Univ. of Melbourne (1854), the Univ. of Adelaide (1874), and the Univ. of Queensland (in Brisbane, 1909).


Most of the rich farmland and good ports are in the east and particularly the southeast, except for the area around Perth in Western Australia. Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Adelaide are the leading industrial and commercial cities. There was considerable industrial development in the last two decades of the 20th cent. While the Australian economy fell into a severe recession in the late 1980s, it experienced an extended period of growth beginning in the 1990s. It then suffered somewhat from the Asian economic slump of the 1990s and from the "Big Dry" drought of the early 21st cent., while also benefiting from increased mineral exports to China during the same period.

Australia is highly industrialized, and manufactured goods account for most of the gross domestic product. Its chief industries include mining, food processing, and the manufacture of industrial and transportation equipment, chemicals, iron and steel, textiles, machinery, and motor vehicles. Australia has valuable mineral resources, including coal, iron, bauxite, copper, tin, gold, silver, uranium, nickel, tungsten, mineral sands, lead, zinc, natural gas, and petroleum; the country is an important producer of opals and diamonds.

The country is self-sufficient in food, and the raising of sheep and cattle and the production of grain have long been staple occupations. Tropical and subtropical produce—citrus fruits, sugarcane, and tropical fruits—are also important, and there are numerous vineyards and dairy and tobacco farms.

Australia maintains a favorable balance of trade. Its chief export commodities are coal, iron ore, gold, meat, wool, alumina, cereals, and machinery and transport equipment. The leading imports are machinery, transportation and telecommunications equipment, computers and office machines, crude oil, and petroleum products. Australia's economic ties with Asia and the Pacific Rim have become increasingly important, with China, Japan, and the United States being its main trading partners.


The executive power of the commonwealth is vested in a governor-general (representing the British sovereign) and a cabinet, presided over by the prime minister, which represents the party or coalition holding a majority in the lower house of parliament. The parliament consists of two houses, the Senate, whose 76 members are elected to six- or three-year terms, depending on whether they represent a state or territory, and the House of Representatives, whose 150 members are elected to three-year terms. The distribution of federal and state powers is roughly like that in the United States. British intervention in Australian affairs was formally abolished in 1986. From its early years the federal government has been noted for its liberal legislation, such as woman suffrage (1902), old-age pensions (1909), and maternity allowances (1912). There are four main political parties: Liberal, Labor, National, and Democratic.


Early History and Colonization

The groups comprising the aborigines are thought to have migrated from Southeast Asia. Skeletal remains indicate that aborigines arrived in Australia more than 40,000 years ago, and some evidence suggests that they were active there about 100,000 years ago. The aborigines spread throughout Australia and remained relatively isolated until the arrival of the Europeans. Genetic evidence suggests that c.4,000 years ago there may have been an additional migration of people related to those now found in India.

Australia may have sighted by a Portuguese, Manuel Godhino de Eredia, in 1601 and by a Spaniard, Luis Vaez de Torres, around 1605–6, but Dutchman Willem Janszoon is the first European confirmed to have seen (1606) and landed in Australia. Other Dutch navigators later visited the continent, and the Dutch named it New Holland. In 1688 the Englishman William Dampier landed at King Sound on the northwest coast. Little interest was aroused, however, until the fertile east coast was observed when Capt. James Cook reached Botany Bay in 1770 and sailed N to Cape York, claiming the coast for Great Britain.

In 1788 the first British settlement was made—a penal colony on the shores of Port Jackson, where Sydney now stands. By 1829 the whole continent was a British dependency. Exploration, begun before the first settlement was founded, was continued by such men as Matthew Flinders (1798), Count Paul Strzelecki (1839), Ludwig Leichhardt (1848), and John McDouall Stuart (first to cross the continent, 1862). Australia was long used as a dumping ground for criminals, bankrupts, and other undesirables from the British Isles. Sheep raising was introduced early, and before the middle of the 19th cent. wheat was being exported in large quantities to England. A gold strike in Victoria in 1851 brought a rush to that region. Other strikes were made later in the century in Western Australia. With minerals, sheep, and grain forming the base of the economy, Australia developed rapidly. By the mid-19th cent. systematic, permanent colonization had completely replaced the old penal settlements.

Modern Australia

Confederation of the separate Australian colonies did not come until a constitution, drafted in 1897–98, was approved by the British parliament in 1900. It was put into operation in 1901; under its terms, the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania, all of which had by then been granted self-government, were federated in the Commonwealth of Australia. The Northern Territory was added to the Commonwealth in 1911. The new federal government moved quickly to institute high protective tariffs (to restrain competition to Australian industry) and to initiate a strict anti-Asian "White Australia" immigration policy, which was not lifted until 1956.

Australia fought alongside Great Britain in both world wars. During World War I, the nation was part of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac), which fought bravely in many battles, notably in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. During World War II, Darwin, Port Jackson, and Newcastle were bombed or shelled by the Japanese. The Allied victory in the battle of the Coral Sea (1942) probably averted a full-scale attack on Australia. After the war Australia became increasingly active in world affairs, particularly in defense and development projects with its Asian neighbors; it furnished troops to aid the U.S. war effort in South Vietnam. At home, from 1949 to 1972 the government was controlled by a Liberal-Country party coalition with, until 1966, Robert Menzies as prime minister. Gough Whitlam's subsequent Labor government (1972–75), though controversial at the time, introduced social reforms, including increasing nonwhite immigration and improving access to health care and university education, that subsequently transformed Australian society. When a budget crisis with the opposition-controlled senate led to Whitlam's dismissal by the governor-general, the Liberal–National Country coalition, led by Malcolm Fraser, returned to power.

In 1983, Bob Hawke won his first of four terms as prime minister against a coalition of the Liberal and National parties. In 1991, as Australia foundered in a deep recession, Hawke lost the prime ministership to fellow Laborite Paul Keating. Keating led Labor to its fifth consecutive electoral victory in 1993. In the Mar., 1996, elections, however, 13 years of Labor rule were ended by a Liberal-National party coalition led by John Howard, who promised deregulation, smaller government, and other conservative economic reforms. Howard's coalition was reelected, although by a smaller margin, in 1998.

In a 1999 referendum, voters rejected a plan to replace the British monarch as head of state with a president elected by the parliament. In Nov., 2001, after a campaign dominated by issues of nonwhite immigration and national security, Howard's government was returned to office for a third term. In 2002–3, Australia experienced one of the worst droughts of the past 100 years, and wildfires scorched some 7.4 million acres (3 million hectares) of the bush. After Great Britain, Australia was the most prominent supporter militarily of the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003, sending a force of about 2,000 to the Persian Gulf, and the country has taken an increasingly interventionist role in surrounding region, sending forces to the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor to restore law and order.

Benefiting from a prosperous economy, Howard led his coalition to a fourth consecutive term, winning a strong mandate in the Oct., 2004, national elections. In Jan., 2005, the country again experienced deadly bush fires, in South Australia. The Sydney area was stunned by several days of ethnically-based mob violence (between Australians of European and Middle Eastern descent) in Dec., 2005. A scandal involving kickbacks paid under the oil-for-food program to Saddam Hussein's Iraq by AWB Ltd. (the private Australian wheat-exporting monopoly that formerly was the Australian Wheat Board) threatened in 2006 to entangle Howard's government. The government admitted in March that, despite previous denials, it was aware there were charges that AWB was paying kickbacks, but said officials had received assurances from AWB that no payments had been made. Late in 2006 the commission investigating AWB cleared government officials (but not AWB officials) of criminal activity.

Relations with the Solomon Islands became tense in 2006 when Australia criticized a Solomons investigation into the post-election unrest there in April as a potential whitewash. The appointment as Solomons attorney general of Julian Moti, an Australian of Fijian descent who was wanted in Australia on child sex charges, further strained relations. Australia sought Moti's extradition from Papua New Guinea, where he was arrested (Sept., 2006) but managed to flee with apparent help from the Solomons embassy; Australia continued to seek Moti's extradition after he illegally entered the Solomons and was held there. Moti was ultimately deported (2007) to Australia, but in 2009 the charges against him were permanently stayed.

By late 2006, Australia was experiencing its sixth dry year in a row, and many observers termed the worsening "Big Dry" as the worst in the nation's history; 2003 and 2006 were especially dry years. In 2007 and especially 2008 there was improved rainfall in parts of E Australia, but drought conditions continued in many areas. Parliamentary elections in Nov., 2007, brought the Labor party into office; party leader Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, became prime minister. The Rudd government embarked on significant reversals of Howard's policies, promising to withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq, moving to adopt the Kyoto Protocal on climate change, and apologizing to the aborigines for Australia's past mistreatment of them.

Australia experienced several severe natural disasters in early 2009. Queensland suffered from significant and widespread flooding due to cyclone rains in Jan. and Feb., 2009; additional significant coastal flooding occurred in Queensland and New South Wales in May. In Feb.–Mar., 2009, SE Australia suffered the worst outbreak of bushfires in the nation's history; more than 1 million acres (400,000 hectares) were burned and some 170 people died, with the worst devastation NE of Melbourne, Victoria. Rudd lost popularity in 2010 over his backdown on carbon trading and his support for increased mining taxes, and in June Julia Gillard, his deputy, mounted a leadership challenge, leading him to step aside. Gillard succeeded Rudd as Labor party leader and prime minister, becoming Australia's first woman prime minister.

In early elections that Gillard called for Aug., 2010, neither of the main parties won a majority. Although the Liberal-National coalition narrowly won a plurality of the seats, Gillard and Labor secured the support of enough independents in parliament to cling to power. In 2010 significant rains finally ended drought conditions in most areas of Australia (except SW Australia). Areas of E Australia were flooded in late 2010 and early 2011 due to heavy rains; the floods were especially devastating and extensive in E Queensland. In Feb., 2012, and again in Mar., 2013, Gillard survived leadership challenges from Rudd, but in June, 2013, she lost the party leadership to Rudd (who now was regarded as more popular than her) and he succeeded her as prime minister. In the Sept., 2013, general election the Liberal-National coalition soundly defeated Labor, and Liberal leader Tony Abbott became prime minister. The country signed a free-trade agreement with China, its most important trade partner, in 2015.


See Sir Archibald Price, Island Continent: Aspects of the Historical Geography of Australia and its Territories (1972); A. G. Shaw, The Story of Australia (4th ed. 1972); J. Bessett, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Australian History (1987); R. Hughes, The Fatal Shore (1987); B. Hofmeister, Australia and Its Urban Centres (1988); D. Money, Australia Today (1989); K. Hancock, ed., Australian Society (1989); S. L. Goldberg and F. B. Smith, Australian Cultural History (1989); K. Hancock, ed., Australian Society (1990); T. Keneally, Australia: Beyond the Dreamtime (1989) and A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia (2006).

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Commonwealth of Australia

Commonwealth of Australia: see Australia.

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