ôstrl´y, 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.
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 many as 350,000 at 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.
Australia is highly industrialized, and manufactured goods account for most of the gross domestic product. Its chief industries include mining (much of which is accomplished with the aid of Japanese capital), 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 metals, minerals, coal, wool, beef, mutton, cereals, and manufactured products. 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 Japan, China, 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.
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 isolated from outside influences until the arrival of the Europeans. 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.
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.
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. 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, but 2007 saw an improvement in the situation with widespread rainfall at the start of the growing season in SE Australia.