Australia - A Country Overview

<em>A brief geographic and historic overview of Australia...</em>

Geography

Australia is the flattest and lowest continent in the world, and the second driest after Antarctica with nearly 20 percent of the country being desert. Much of the land is unsuitable for agriculture without intense irrigation. Coastal areas, particularly in the east of the country, are more hilly and fertile. The most substantial mountain range in the country is the Great Dividing Range, which forms a natural barrier between the eastern coastal areas and the dry plains and desert of the Australian Outback. Mount Kosciuszko, in the Snowy Mountains, attains a height of 2,228m and is the highest mountain in Australia.

Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is the world's largest free standing rock. It is a massive outcrop of red sandstone in the centre of the country. Many aboriginal people revere it as a sacred site. It is also an important tourist destination. The Great Barrier Reef runs for approximately 1,240 Km along the Queensland coast and is the largest area of coral islands and reefs in the world.

Population in Australia is focused in the southeast of the country. This region is the most economically stable, industrialised and ethnically diverse. 70 percent of the population lives in 27 percent of the land area, and 87 percent of the population live in urban areas. The centre and west of the country are sparsely populated. The major population centres are on the coasts: Perth on the west, Adelaide and Melbourne on the south and Sydney and Brisbane on the east.

Travelling around the country is easy despite its size. Flying is the quickest option and there are well developed air transport links. Prices are kept down by plenty of domestic competition. Australia also has a vast network of well-maintained roads and rail networks.

Climate

Australia has diverse climatic zones. It is tropical in the north, arid in the interior and temperate in the far south and Tasmania. Overall it is an arid country with half of the country receiving less than 300mm of rain per year. Tasmania is the exception experiencing abundant rainfall all year round.

The tropical north of the country is typically warm in all months. The Southern states are wetter with summers which are mostly hot and dry with sea-breezes along the coasts. The south coast experiences cold winters but rarely has temperatures below zero. Snow falls on the higher mountains during the winter months, enabling skiing in southern New South Wales and Tasmania.

When the wind blows hot dry air from the interior to the coast, almost anywhere in Australia can experience very high temperatures, often in excess of 40??C. Only Tasmania escapes extremes of temperature. Serious bush fires are a consequence of prolonged heat waves and drought.

The climate in Australia, as in the rest of the world, is changing. Temperatures have risen by about 1??C since the middle of the last century. There has been an increase in the frequency of heat waves and changes to rainfall patterns, with rainfalls increasing in the northwest of the country over the last 50 years, and decreasing in the east and far southwest.

Information on Australian climate and weather can be found from the Australian Government Bureau of Metrology website.

History

For more than 50,000 years Australia has been the native home of the Aboriginal people and the Torres Strait Islanders, who inhabited the islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea. The different Aboriginal clans spoke many distinctive languages and had different cultures and beliefs. Aboriginal society is believed to be one of the world's oldest civilisations. They used stone tools to grind edges and seeds much earlier than any other society. When the continent was discovered by Europeans the native aboriginal people numbered around one million.

Captain James Cook charted the east coast of Australia and claimed the land for Britain in 1770. Since then the history of the country has been dominated by immigration. New South Wales was settled as a penal colony. The jails in the United Kingdom were overflowing and Australia offered somewhere to send criminals, many of whom had committed very minor offences.

Many Aboriginal people were displaced by the new settlements. Much of their traditional way of life was disrupted by the loss of land as well as illness and death resulting from introduced diseases. News of Australia's cheap land and bountiful work brought numerous boatloads of adventurous migrants. This put continued pressure on indigenous ways of life as the newcomers moved deeper into Aboriginal territories. The migrant's enthusiasm and the gold rush of the mid 19th century continued to expand the new settlements. By the end of the 1850s there were six separate Australian colonies: New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland. Originally the colonies were governed independently.

The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901. The six states unified to become an independent nation under a single constitution, with Queen Victoria as the head of state.

For many years Australia was dominated by its colonial past. The two world wars of the 20th century had a huge impact on the country. In 1914 there were less than three million men in Australia and more than 60,000 were killed and many more injured in the First World War.

In World War Two, Australian forces made a significant contribution to the Allied victory. Post war Australia has seen the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In modern Australia, indigenous people make up 2.4 percent of the population.

Politics and Government

Australia is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy following the Westminster system of government and law inherited from the British. The centre of federal government is in Canberra.

There are two main and several minor political parties and each state and territory has its own government. The constitution states that the reigning British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is also the Australian monarch. She is represented in Australia by the Governor-General.

Economy

Australia has a free market economy which is the 13th biggest in the world. Despite the recent financial crisis, economic growth, which has been continuous since 1992, is forecast to continue for the next five years. The largest sector of the economy is the service sector, which accounted for 71 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2008.

Traditionally much of Australia's economic success was based on its abundant agricultural and mineral resources. While these sectors remain important Australia has increasingly become a knowledge-based economy driven by information and communications technology.

Australia is a member of the Group of Twenty (G-20) which was established in 1999 to bring together important industrialised and developing countries to discuss the key issues of the global economy.

Security

Australia is a safe place to live. Concern about crime is generally more widespread than the experience of it. Law enforcement is carried out by police who are responsible for criminal law enforcement, and bailiffs and sheriffs who enforce civil law court judgements. National statistics on major crimes are improving. Assault is the most common violent crime.

Information on crime statistics can be found on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website.

Foreigners Living in the Country

Since the end of World War Two more than six million people from around the world have moved to Australia. It has one of the most ethnically diverse societies in the world. People are attracted by the climate, high quality of life and robust economy. More than 20 percent of people living in Australia are foreign born. After English, the most widely spoken languages are Italian, Greek, Cantonese and Arabic.

Australia has a well-designed migration system. The government is aiming to expand immigration away from the main cities to outlying areas which are in need of people with certain skills. Immigration is managed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

  • Further information can be found on the Department of Immigration website: Click here

Tourism

Australia is an extremely popular tourist destination and the tourist industry makes a significant contribution to the national economy. The country is popular with young people who come to study, travel on a gap year or to take a career break. Many tourists visit for the climate and outdoor lifestyle; making the most of the beaches, exploring the ancient geology of the Outback, and diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Australia is a popular choice for water sports enthusiasts with more than 10,000 beaches along its coast and it has a global reputation for good surfing.

Australia has 17 World Heritage Properties, and the country is also home to famous buildings including the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, which are popular with tourists. Wildlife enthusiasts are drawn by the abundance of wildlife that is unique to the continent.

For further information on holidaying in the country, see Australia's official tourism website.

Further Information