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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.
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 m
arket 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.
Australia’s culturally diverse society includes its Indigenous peoples who arrived more than 50,000 years ago, 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.
Australia in Brief
Australia is an independent Western democracy with a population of more than 22 million. It is one of the world’s most urbanised countries, with about 70 per cent of the population living in the 10 largest cities. Most of the population is concentrated along the eastern seaboard and the south-eastern corner of the continent.
Australia’s lifestyle reflects its mainly Western origins, but Australia is also a multicultural society which has been enriched by over six million settlers from almost 200 nations. Four out of ten Australians are migrants or the first-generation children of migrants, half of them from non-English speaking backgrounds.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people totalled 410 003 at the last census, nearly 2.2 per cent of the population. Two thirds of the indigenous people live in towns and cities. Many others live in rural and remote areas, and some still have a broadly traditional way of life. It is generally thought that Aboriginal people began living on the continent 50,000 to 60 000 years ago, and some authorities believe their occupation may date back 100,000 years.
Australia is the only nation to occupy an entire continent. Its land mass of nearly 7.7 million square kms is the flattest and (after Antarctica) driest of continents, yet it has extremes of climate and topography. There are rainforests and vast plains in the north, snowfields in the south east, desert in the centre and fertile croplands in the east, south and south west. About one third of the country lies in the tropics. Australia has a coastline of 36,735km.
Isolation of the Australian island-continent for 55 million years created a sanctuary for the flora and fauna. Marsupials were saved from competition with more highly developed mammals. Birds unique to Australia also survived, and distinctive trees and plants developed. Australia’s best-known animals are the kangaroo, koala, platypus and spiny anteater. Of more than 700 bird species listed in Australia, 400 – including the large, flightless emu – are found nowhere else. Australia has 20,000 species of plants, including living fossils such as the cycad palm and the grass tree, and brilliant wildflowers such as the waratah, Sturt’s desert pea, the flowering cones of banksia trees, and the red and green kangaroo paw. The continent has 700 species of acacia, which Australians call wattle, and 1,200 species in the Myrtaceae family which includes eucalypts or gum trees.
Australia’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, is a revised version of a late 19th-century patriotic song. It was declared the national anthem in April 1984, replacing God Save the Queen, which was designated the royal anthem. In the same year, Australia officially adopted green and gold as its national colours.
Australia’s official language is English, by common usage rather than law. Australian English does not differ significantly from other forms of English, although some colloquial and slang expressions are unique.
The Australian National Flag
The flag of Australia is the only one to fly over a whole continent. The small Union Jack represents the historical link with Britain, the large seven-pointed star represents the six States and the Territories, and the small stars form the Southern Cross – a prominent feature of the southern hemisphere night sky.
Australia’s coat of arms – the official emblem of the Australian Government – was granted by King George V in 1912. The arms consist of a shield containing the badges of the six States. The supporters are native Australian fauna – a kangaroo and an emu. A yellow-flowered native plant, wattle, also appears in the design.
Australia’s national day, Australia Day, on 26 January, marks the date in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip, of the British Royal Navy, commanding a fleet of 11 ships, sailed into Port Jackson (Sydney Cove). Phillip formally took possession of the eastern part of the continent for England and established a settlement, now Australia’s largest city, Sydney.
Air travel and the great variety of Australia’s attractions are combining to bring more international tourists to Australia every year. Overseas tourists are drawn by Australia’s sunshine, sandy beaches, the vast outback, rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef, unique flora and fauna, the Gold Coast of Queensland, and the attractions of the cities, Australia’s friendly, multicultural society, and the safe and welcoming environment. Tourism is one of Australia’s largest and fastest-growing industries. In 2007, 5.6 million international tourists visited Australia, tourism is an $81 billion industry that employs around 500,000 people.
One of the earliest exports was wool, from which the expression ‘Australia riding on the sheep’s back’ was born. Today, a more diverse export industry has grown incorporating manufacturing products, services such as education and tourism, and high quality food and wine
In 2007, Australia’s largest export markets were Japan, China, the United States, Republic of Korea and New Zealand.
Australia’s exports of goods and services grew by 3.8 per cent to $218 billion in 2007, about 20 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). On average, Australia’s exports have grown by 8.7 per cent per annum over the past five years.
While Australia’s largest export sector is minerals and fuels, manufacturing is also a major part of the economy. Advanced manufactured items accounted for around 60% of Australia’s total manufactured exports. Many of the companies producing these goods
are integrated into global supply chains, one of the key manufacturing trends of the new millennium.
The Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) is the Australian Government’s international trade promotion and facilitation agency. Austrade assists international buyers of goods and services to develop trade connections with Australia and assists Australian businesses to increase their exports. Austrade also helps companies to reduce the time, cost and risk involved in doing business internationally. Austrade is represented in Australia and in more than 140 overseas locations in over 60 countries.
Australia welcomes foreign investment. It recognises the important role foreign investment plays in boosting economic growth, developing competitive industries, creating jobs and increasing exports. The stock of foreign investment in Australia at 31 December 2007 totalled $1.6 trillion.
Similarly, investment offshore is vital to the development of regional and international marketing strategies of Australian firms and enables access to global business networks. The stock of Australian investment abroad was worth $884 billion.
Australia’s estimated resident population at March 2011 was just over 22.5 million, an increase of 1.4% over the previous year. The growth of Australia’s population has two components: natural increase (the number of births minus the number of deaths) and net overseas migration. The growth rate has been declining since the peak of 2.2% for the year ended 31 December 2008 and was the lowest growth rate since the year ended 30 September 2005. All states and territories experienced positive population growth for the year ended 31 March 2011. Western Australia recorded the fastest growth (2.2%) and the Northern Territory the slowest (0.4%).
The estimated resident population for each state and territory at 31 March 2011 was as follows:
- New South Wales 7,287,600;
- Victoria 5,605,600;
- Queensland 4,561,700;
- South Australia 1,654,200;
- Western Australia 2,331,500;
- Tasmania 510,200;
- Northern Territory 229,200; and
- Australian Capital Territory 363,800.
Australia’s Ageing Population
Australia’s population, like that of most developed countries, is ageing as a result of sustained low fertility and increasing life expectancy. This is resulting in proportionally fewer children (under 15 years of age) in the population. The median age (the age at which half the population is older and half is younger) of the Australian population has increased by 4.8 years over the last two decades, from 32.1 years at 30 June 1990 to 36.9 years at 30 June 2010. Between 30 June 2009 and 2010 the median age remained relatively steady at 36.8 years. Over the next several decades, population ageing is projected to have significant implications for Australia, including for health, labour force participation, housing and demand for skilled labour.
The ageing of Australia’s population, already evident in the current age structure, is expected to continue. The median age of Australia’s population is projected to increase to between 38.7 years and 40.7 years in 2026 and to between 41.9 years and 45.2 years in 2056 .
At 30 June 2010, Tasmania had the oldest population of all the states and territories with a median age of 39.9 years. The second oldest was South Australia with a median age of 39.2 years, followed by New South Wales (37.2 years), Victoria (36.9 years), Western Australia and Queensland (36.2 years), the Australian Capital Territory (34.7 years) and the Northern Territory (31.3 years).
Most of Australia’s population is concentrated in two widely separated coastal regions. By far the larger of these, in terms of area and population, lies in the south-east and east. The smaller of the two regions is in the south-west of the continent. In both coastal regions the population is concentrated in urban centres, particularly the state and territory capital cities.
Australia’s Population density
Population density varies greatly across Australia. Australia’s total population density at June 2008 was 2.8 people per square kilometre. Among the states and territories, the Australian Capital Territory had the highest population density at 147 people per square kilometre and the Northern Territory had the lowest population density at just 0.2 people per square kilometre.
At 30 June 2008, population density was highest in the capital cities of Australia’s states and territories. With the exception of Canberra, all these capital cities are located on the coast.
Population density in other coastal and surrounding areas was also relatively high, particularly in the southeast corner of the country. On the other hand, most of central and western Australia had a population density of less than one person/km2.
Five of the top ten most densely-populated statistical local areas (SLAs) were located in Sydney, which is currently the most populous city in Australia. At 30 June 2008, the Sydney statistical division had a population of 4.4 million people.
Australia’s Indigenous population
Over recent decades, changing social attitudes, political developments, improved statistical coverage and a broader definition of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin have all contributed to the increased likelihood of people identifying as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of Australia was estimated to be 517,000 people at 30 June 2006, or 2.5% of the total Australian population. In 2006, around 90% of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples identified as being of Aboriginal origin, 6% identified as being of Torres Strait Islander origin and 4% identified as being of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is relatively young, with a median age of 21 years compared to 37 years for the non-Indigenous population in 2006.
In 2006, around one-third (32%) of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lived in major cities of Australia, 43% in regional areas and 25% in remote areas. The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live in New South Wales (30% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lived in this state), Queensland (28%) and Western Australia (14%). While 12% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live in the Northern Territory, they do make up almost a third (30%) of the total Northern Territory population. In all of the other states and territory Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up less than 4% of the total population.
The latest ABS projections of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population show an increase from 517,000 people in 2006 to between 713,300 and 721,100 people in 2021. The projected average annual growth rate of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population between 2006 and 2021 is 2.2%, much higher than the same rate for the total Australian population (1.4%) (ABS 2010).
Australia’s population has increased each year since the end of World War II, due to a combination of high post-war fertility and high levels of migration. In 1901, 23% of Australia’s population was overseas-born. In 1947 the proportion of the population born overseas had declined to 10%. The creation of a national government immigration portfolio in 1945 accompanied a gradual increase in the proportion of overseas-born Australians and by 1992 this proportion had increased to 23%. In 2002 the number of overseas-born Australians had passed 4.5 million or at 23% of the total population and in 2007 this increased to 25%.
The diversity of coun
tries of birth has increased substantially over the years. Patterns of immigration have also changed. For the last few decades, the Italy, Greece and Netherlands-born populations in Australia have been declining. The major migration flows from these countries occurred immediately after World War II and there has been relatively little migration from these countries more recently.
Migration to Australia
Almost 6 million migrants, born in over 200 countries, live in Australia.
People born in the United Kingdom continued to be the largest group of overseas-born residents, accounting for 1.2 million people. The next largest group was born in New Zealand with 544,000 people, followed by China (380,000 people), India (341,000) and Italy (216,000).
Over the last decade, the proportion of those born in the UK declined from 5.9% of Australia’s population in 2000 to 5.3% in 2010. In contrast, the proportions increased for people born in New Zealand (from 1.9% to 2.4%), China (from 0.8% to 1.7%) and India (from 0.5% to 1.5%).
The majority (76%) of overseas-born residents were of working age, 15–64 years at June 2010. Migrants born in Asia, America and Africa had proportionally larger young (0–14 years) and working age (15–64 years) populations compared to those from Europe.
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 Ice Age, at least 50,000 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 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.
Before the arrival of European settlers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples inhabited most areas of the Australian continent. Each people spoke one or more of hundreds of separate languages, with lifestyles and cultural traditions that differed according to the region in which they lived. Their complex social systems and highly developed traditions reflect a deep connection with the land and environment.
Asian and Oceanic mariners and traders were in contact with Indigenous Australians for many centuries before the European expansion into the Eastern Hemisphere. Some formed substantial relationships with communities in northern Australia.
The first recorded European contact with Australia was in March 1606, when Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon (c.1570 – 1630) charted the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland. Later that year, the Spanish explorer Luis Vaez de Torres sailed through the strait separating Australia and Papua New Guinea. Over the next two centuries, European explorers and traders continued to chart the coastline of Australia, then known as New Holland. In 1688, William Dampier became the first British explorer to land on the Australian coast. It was not until 1770 that another Englishman, Captain James Cook, aboard the Endeavour, extended a scientific voyage to the South Pacific in order to further chart the east coast of Australia and claim it for the British Crown.
Britain decided to use its new outpost as a penal colony; the First Fleet of 11 ships carried about 1500 people—half of them convicts. The fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour on 26 January 1788, and it is on this day every year that Australia Day is celebrated.
In all, about 160 000 men and women were brought to Australia as convicts from 1788 until penal transportation ended in 1868. The convicts were joined by free immigrants from the early 1790s. The wool industry and the gold rushes of the 1850s provided an impetus for free settlers to come to Australia.
Scarcity of labour, the vastness of the land and new wealth based on farming, mining and trade made Australia a land of opportunity. Yet during this period, Indigenous Australians suffered enormously. Death, illness, displacement and dispossession disrupted traditional lifestyles and practices.
A Nation is Born
The Commonwealth of Australia was formed in 1901 through the federation of six states under a single constitution. The non-Indigenous population at the time of Federation was 3.8 million. Half of these lived in cities, three-quarters were born in Australia, and the majority were of English, Scottish or Irish descent.
The founders of the new nation believed they were creating something new and were concerned to avoid the pitfalls of the old world. They wanted Australia to be harmonious, united and egalitarian, and had progressive ideas about human rights, the observance of democratic procedures and the value of a secret ballot.
While one of the first acts of the new Commonwealth Parliament was to pass the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which restricted migration to people of primarily European origin, this was dismantled after the Second World War. Today Australia has a global, non-discriminatory policy and is home to people from more than 200 countries.
From 1900 to 1914 great progress was made in developing Australia’s agricultural and manufacturing capacities, and in setting up institutions for government and social services.
The impact of war
The First World War had a devastating impact on Australia. In 1914 the male population of Australia was less than 3 million, yet almost 400 000 of them volunteered to fight in the war. As many as 60 000 died and tens of thousands more were wounded.
Out of this experience was born one of Australia’s most enduring values: the ‘Anzac’ ethos of courage and spirit. Every year on 25 April, Australia commemorates the brave but devastating battle fought by the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps—Anzacs—at Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915. The day also commemorates all Australian soldiers who have fought in wars since then.
‘In the end ANZAC stood and still stands for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never admit defeat.’
—Charles Bean, historian of the First World War
The period between the two world wars was marked by instability. Social and economic divisions widened during the Depression years when many Australian financial institutions failed.
During the Second World War Australian forces made a significant contribution to the Allied victory in Europe and in Asia and the Pacific. The generation that fought in the war and survived came out of the war with a sense of pride in Australia’s capabilities.
After the war Australia entered a boom period. Millions of refugees and migrants arrived in Australia, many of them young people happy to embrace their new lives with energy and vigour. The number of Australians employed in the manufacturing industry had grown steadily since the beginning of the century. Many women who had taken over factory work while men were away at war were able to continue working in peacetime.
The economy developed strongly in the 1950s with major nation-building projects such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme, a h
ydro-electric power scheme located in Australia’s southern alps. 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 1960.
Other developments included the expansion of the social security net and the arrival of television. Melbourne hosted the Olympic Games of 1956, shining the international spotlight on Australia. (In 2000, the Olympic Games came to Australia a second time, hosted by Sydney.)
A changing society
The 1960s was a period of change for Australia. The ethnic diversity produced by post-war immigration, the decline of the United Kingdom and the Vietnam War (to which Australia sent troops) all contributed to an atmosphere of political, economic and social change.
In 1967 the Australian people voted overwhelmingly in a national referendum to give the federal government the power to pass legislation on behalf of Indigenous Australians and to include Indigenous Australians in future censuses. The referendum result was the culmination of a strong campaign by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It was widely seen as a strong affirmation of the Australian people’s wish to see its government take direct action to improve the living conditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The long post-war domination of national politics by the coalition of the Liberal and Country (now National) parties ended in 1972, when the Australian Labor Party was elected. The next three years saw major changes in Australia’s social and economic policy agenda and a heavy legislative program of reforms in health, education, foreign affairs, social security and industrial relations. However, in 1975 a constitutional crisis resulted in Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam being dismissed by the then Governor-General. In the subsequent general election the Labor Party suffered a major defeat and the Liberal–National Coalition ruled until 1983, when Labor again won office.
The Hawke-Keating Labor governments were in office from 1983 till 1996. They 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 Mr Kevin Rudd led the Australian Labor Party to government with policies designed to build a modern Australia equipped to meet the challenges of the future – including tackling climate change, reforming Australia’s health and hospital system, investing in education and skills training and reforming Australia’s workplace laws.
Today Australia is one of the most cosmopolitan and dynamic societies in the world. Over 200 languages are spoken, with English the common language. The nation has thriving ethnic media, an international business reputation, an innovative artistic community, diverse religious and cultural activities and variety in foods, restaurants, fashion and architecture.
Australian culture is founded on stories of battlers, bushrangers and brave soldiers. Of sporting heroes, working heroes and plucky migrants. It’s all about a fair go, the great outdoors and a healthy helping of irony. Today Australia also defines itself by its Aboriginal heritage, vibrant mix of cultures, innovative ideas and a thriving arts scene.
Aboriginal culture: a rich and timeless tradition
The Dreamtime is the sacred ‘time before time’ of the world’s creation. According to Aboriginal belief, totemic spirit ancestors emerged from the earth and descended from the sky to awaken a dark and silent world. They created the sun, moon and stars, forged mountains, rivers, trees and waterholes and changed into human and animal forms. Spirit ancestors connect this ancient past with the present and future through every aspect of Aboriginal culture. Rock art, craft and bark painting reveal Dreamtime stories, mark territory and record history, while songs tell of Dreamtime journeys, verbally mapping water sources and other essential landmarks. Their special lyrics have been passed down virtually unchanged for at least 50,000 years, and are often accompanied by clapsticks or the deep throb of the didgeridoo. Similarly, traditional dances reveal creation myths, enact the deeds of Dreamtime heroes and even recent historical events.
Colonial myths: battlers, bushrangers and brave soldiers
Australians believe in mateship and a ‘fair go’ and have a strong affection for the underdog or ‘battler’. These values stem from convicts and early colonialists who struggled against a harsh and unfamiliar land and often unjust authority. Australia’s most famous bushranger Ned Kelly protested against the poverty and injustice of a British class system shipped here along with the convicts. This flawed hero’s fight for ‘justice and liberty’ and ‘innocent people’ has been embraced as part of the national culture and inspired countless books and movies. On the goldfields of the mid-1850s, diggers were portrayed in stories and songs as romantic heroes, larrikins and villains who embraced democracy. The bloody 1854 Eureka Stockade, where Victorian miners rose up against an authoritarian licensing system, came to symbolise a triumph of social equality. Later, during World War I, the courageous ANZAC soldiers who served in Gallipoli gave new meaning to the term ‘tough Aussie’.
Australian English: speaking ‘Strine’
Australians have a unique colloquial language, coined ‘strine’ by linguist Alastair Morrison (imagine saying Australian with your teeth gritted to keep out the flies) in 1966. This combines many long lost cockney and Irish sayings of the early convicts with words from Aboriginal languages. We often abbreviate words and then add an ‘o’ or ‘ie’ on the end as in ‘bring your cossie to the barbie this arvo’. We also like reverse nicknames, calling people with red hair ‘bluey’, saying ‘snowy’ to someone with dark hair, and tagging ‘lofty’ to someone who is small in stature. We tend to flatten our vowels and end sentences with a slightly upward inflection.
Sporting heroes: the glory of green and gold
It’s no secret that Australians are sports mad. With more than 120 national and thousands of local, regional and state sporting organisations, it’s estimated that six-and-a-half million people in Australia are registered sport participants. Not bad from a population of just over 21 million! The number one watched sport in Australia is Australian Rules Football (AFL) with its high kicks and balletic leaps, while the brute force and tackling tactics of National Rugby League (NRL) reign supreme in New South Wales and Queensland. Australia’s national Rugby Union team, the Wallabies play on the international circuit and in the Bledisloe Cup, part of a Tri Nations tournament with South Africa. Australia is a nation of swimmers and Olympic medals attest to our performance in the pool. All summer we watch the Australian cricket team in their whites and in January, we flick channels to see the tennis Australian Open. Held in Melbourne, this attracts more people to Australia than any other sporting event. Football is a growth sport, we draw world-class surfers for the Bells Beach Surf Classic and on Boxing Day crowds gather to watch the boats sail out of Sydney Harbour for the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. On the first Tuesday in November, the nation stops for the famous horse race, the Melbourne Cup while and in March rev heads converge in Melbourne for the Formula One Grand Prix. The list of sports we love goes on, and if in doubt about the rules just ask a passionate punter.
An outdoor lifestyle: beach and barbeques
With more than 80 per cent of Australians living within 50 kilometres of the coast, the beach has become an integral part of our famous laid-back lifestyle. From Saturday morning surf-club training for young ‘nippers’ to a game of beach cricket after a barbeque, we love life on our sandy shores. We jostle for a spot on packed city beaches, relax at popular holiday spots and drive to secret, secluded beaches in coastal national parks. We go to the beach to enjoy the sun and surf or to sail, parasail, fish, snorkel, scuba dive and beach comb. It’s where we socialise and play sport, relax and enjoy romance. It’s also the site for celebration. On New Year’s Eve, revellers dance in the sand and watch fireworks at Manly and Bondi beaches in Sydney and Glenelg in Adelaide. Many beaches host citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day and on Christmas Day up to 40,000 international visitors converge on Bondi Beach wearing Santa hats and swimming costumes. Australia’s most famous beaches – Bondi and Manly in Sydney, St Kilda in Melbourne, Surfers Paradise on the Queensland Gold Coast, Cottesloe in Perth and Glenelg in Adelaide – attract locals as well as international tourists.
Multiculturalism: diverse food, festivals and faith
Since 1945 more than six million people from across the world have come to Australia to live. Today, more than 20 per cent of Australians are foreign born and more than 40 per cent are of mixed cultural origin. In our homes we speak 226 languages – after English, the most popular are Italian, Greek, Cantonese and Arabic. Our rich cultural diversity is reflected in our food, which embraces most of the world’s cuisines and artfully fuses quite a few of them. You’ll find European flavours, the tantalising spices of Asia, Africa and the Middle East and bush tucker from our backyard on offer everywhere from street stalls to five star restaurants. Tuck into Thai takeaway, dine out on perfect Italian pasta, do tapas in our city’s Spanish strips and feast on dumplings in Chinatown. You can also embrace our melting pot of cultures in the many colourful festivals. See samba and capoeira at Bondi’s Brazilian South American festival, dance behind the dragon parade during Chinese New Year or stroll through streets transformed into a lively piazza during the annual Italian celebrations. As a nation, we embrace a rainbow of religious belief and you’ll find Catholic and Anglican churches, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist temples, mosques and synagogues lining our streets.
Australian innovations: from the Hills Hoist to Penicillin
Australia’s unique geography and relative isolation has made it a fertile ground for new ideas. In 1879, Australians developed a way for ice to be manufactured artificially, allowing us to export meat to Great Britain on refrigerated ships. In 1906, the surf lifesaving reel was designed so lifesavers could reach distressed swimmers with a rope attached to their vests. In 1929, Alfred Traeger built a pedal-powered radio as the communications for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Australians were also responsible for more everyday inventions such as notepads (1902), aspirin (1915), the pacemaker (1926), penicillin (1940) the Hills Hoist clothesline (1946), the plastic disposable syringe (1949), the wine cask (1965), the bionic ear (1978), dual-flush toilet flush (1980), anti-counterfeiting technology for banknotes (1992) and long-wearing contact lenses (1999).
Long before European colonisation, the Aboriginal people were already leading the world. They invented the aerodynamic boomerang and a type of spear thrower called the woomera. They were also the first society to use ground edges on stone cutting tools and the first to use stone tools to grind seeds, everyday tools which were developed only much later by other societies.
Culture cravings: theatre, film, books and visual art
From theatre to literature, Australians have a quiet love affair with the arts. We flock to the movies and our attendance at galleries and performing arts is almost double that for all football codes. Our cities play host to a huge array of cutting-edge cultural festivals, and offer music, theatre and dance performances and art exhibitions every day of the week. See traditional Aboriginal dance performance by the Bangarra Dance Theatre, throw yourself into the WOMADelaide international music festival in Adelaide and soak up theatre, ballet, opera and painting in Brisbane’s huge cultural centre on South Bank. In smaller towns you can catch performances by local musicians and see hand-made art and craft.
A wide, brown land
Australia is the sixth largest country in the world. It’s about the same size as the 48 mainland states of the USA and 50 per cent larger than Europe, but has the lowest population density in the world – only two people per square kilometre.
Australia’s coastline stretches almost 50,000 kilometres and is linked by over 10,000 beaches, more than any other country in the world. More than 85 per cent of Australians live within 50 kilometres of the coast, making it an integral part of our laid-back lifestyle.
Our island home
Australia is the only nation to govern an entire continent and its outlying islands. The mainland is the largest island and the world’s smallest, flattest continent.
Opals in our eyes
Australia produces 95 per cent of the world’s precious opals and 99 per cent of its black opals. The world’s opal capital is the quirky underground town of Coober Pedy in South Australia. The world’s largest opal, weighing 5.27 kilograms, was found here in 1990.
Kalgoorlie in Western Australia is Australia’s largest producer of gold. It also embraces the world’s largest political electorate, covering a mammoth 2.2 million square kilometres.
Merinos and cattle calls
Australia’s 85.7 million sheep (mostly merinos) produce most of the world’s wool. With 25.4 million head of cattle, Australia is also the world’s largest exporter of beef.
Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is home to the world’s largest oyster, weighing up to 3 kilograms, while the world’s longest earthworm, stretching up to 4 metres, is found in Gippsland in Victoria. The heaviest crab, weighing up to 14 kilograms, is found in Bass Strait near Tasmania. Australia’s tallest mountain is Mt Kosciuszko, which is 2,228 metres above sea level.
Longest road, rail and fence
The world’s longest piece of straight railway track stretches 478 kilometres across South Australia’s vast, treeless Nullarbor Plain. Australia’s longest stretch of straight road – 148 kilometres – is on the Eyre Highway in Western Australia. It’s just a tiny portion of the 2,700 kilometre sealed road that takes travellers from Perth to Adelaide. The world’s longest continuous fence – the dingo fence – was built to keep sheep safe from Australia’s native dog and runs for 5,531 kilometres through central Queensland and South Australia.
Our Flora and Fauna
A hopping icon
The iconic kangaroo is unique to Australia and one of our most easily recognised mammals. There are an estimated 40 million kangaroos
in Australia, more than when Australia was first settled.
Australia developed a unique fauna when it broke away from the super-continent Gondwana more than 50 million years ago. Today Australia is home to a wealth of wildlife not found anywhere else in the world. We have around 800 species of birds, half of which are unique to this country. Our marine environments contain more than 4,000 fish varieties and tens of thousands of species of invertebrates, plants and micro-organisms. About 80 per cent of Australia’s southern marine species are found nowhere else in the world.
Australia also supports at least 25,000 species of plants, compared to 17,500 in Europe. That includes living fossils like the Wollemi pine and the grass tree, and brilliant wildflowers. There are over 12,000 species in Western Australia alone!
Our People and Culture
An ethnic melting pot
Since 1945 more than six million people from across the world have come to Australia to live. Today, more than 20 per cent of Australians are foreign born and more than 40 per cent are of mixed cultural origin. In our homes we speak 226 languages – after English, the most popular are Italian, Greek, Cantonese and Arabic.
Big country, big ideas
Australians invented notepads (1902), the surf lifesaving reel (1906), aspirin (1915), the pacemaker (1926), penicillin (1940) the Hills Hoist clothesline (1946), the plastic disposable syringe (1949), the wine cask (1965), the bionic ear (1978), dual-flush toilet flush (1980) anti-counterfeiting technology for banknotes (1992) and long-wearing contact lenses (1999).
Believed to be the world’s oldest civilization, Aboriginal people have lived and thrived on this continent for more than 50,000 years. Aboriginal societies made many unique advances long before the Europeans arrived. They invented the aerodynamic boomerang and a type of spear thrower called the woomera. They were also the first society to ground edges on stone cutting tools and the first to use stone tools to grind seeds, everyday tools developed only much later by other societies.
Australia teems with native animals, many which are found only here. We have more mammals than anywhere else on earth and plenty of marsupials, from carnivorous Tasmanian devils to short-legged possums, sleepy koalas to powerful kangaroos. We’re home to 350 species of unique birds, including the iconic kookaburra and emu. See Australia’s native animals in zoos and wildlife parks across our major cities and tourist centres – Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, the Rainforest Habitat in Port Douglas, Victoria’s Healesville Sanctuary and South Australia’s Cleland Wildlife Park to name a few. Or observe them in their natural habitat, on your own or on a specialised tour with expert commentary.
The koala is a unique Australian marsupial. It is sometimes referred to as a koala bear because of its similarity in appearance to a teddy bear. It also looks like the wombat, its closest living relative, but has a thicker coat, larger ears and longer limbs. Koalas are only active for around two hours a day and get all their fluids from eating eucalyptus leaves. You can spot koalas all along Australia’s temperate eastern coast. Some of their top hangouts include Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, near Canberra, around Port Stephens in New South Wales and the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Queensland. Observe them in the wild on Victoria’s Phillip Island and Yanchep National Park in Western Australia.
The kangaroo is unique to Australia and appears on our coat of arms. It is a mammal and a macropod, a family of marsupials that includes wallabies and pademelons. Kangaroos are the only large animals to travel by hopping and breeding adult males often fight by boxing with their front paws and kicking their back legs. There are 55 kangaroo species spread across Australia. In Victoria, see them in Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road and in the Grampians. Spot them in South Australia’s Kangaroo Island and Flinders Ranges. Get up close in Namadgi and Kosciuszko National Parks in the Australian Alps, in Pebbly Beach in New South Wales and Tasmania’s Maria Island.
Australia’s kookaburra is the world’s largest kingfisher. Similar to other kingfishers, kookaburras have a stout and compact body, short neck, long and pointed bill and short legs. They’re native to Australia’s east coast and were introduced to Western Australia in 1898. Kookaburras are best known for their hysterical, human-sounding laughter at dusk and dawn. They also often sing as a chorus to mark their territory. Kookaburras are carnivores but will eat almost everything. They are territorial, and often live with the partly grown chicks of the previous season. You’ll spot them in the city suburbs, but more commonly in the countryside.
The emu is a large, brown, soft-feathered, flightless bird. Emus grow up to two metres tall and have three toes and long legs that allow them to run very fast, up to 50km per hour. The female emu is larger than the male and lays up to 20 large, dark green eggs. The emu appears on the Australian 50 cent coin and alongside the red kangaroo on the Australian Coat of Arms. It is also a recurring figure in Aboriginal mythology. The emu avoids populated areas and feeds on grass, leaves and small insects. You’ll see emus in grasslands, sclerophyll forests and savanna woodlands all over Australia.
The lyrebird is a ground-dwelling Australian bird, known for its ability to mimic any sound it hears– from car engines and fire alarms to crying babies. The lyrebird is named after the male’s spectacular, 16-feathered tail, which was thought to resemble a lyre in the 1800s. There are two species of lyrebird. Spot the smaller Albert’s Lyrebird in Mt Warning National Park and in the Gondwanan rainforest around the Gold Coast hinterland. See the more common superb lyrebird in Dandenong Ranges and Kinglake National Parks around Melbourne and the Royal National Park and Illawarra region south of Sydney. You’ll find them in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, near Canberra, and many other parks along Australia’s east coast.
The Tasmanian devil is a carnivorous marsupial with the appearance of a small, stocky dog. It has a broad head, thick tail and coarse, black fur. The Tasmanian devil was given its common name by early European settlers, who were haunted at night by its screeches and demonic growls. Despite its appearance and reputation, the Tasmanian devil is actually a shy creature. It is the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial since the Tasmanian tiger became extinct in 1936. Since 1995 Tasmanian devils have been ravaged by devil facial tumour disease, and as a result are now a protected species. See them in Tasmanian wildlife parks, such as Taranna on the Tasman Peninsula.
The dingo is Australia’s wild dog, though is not native to the continent. Dingoes are medium-sized, with broad heads, pointed muzzles, erect ears, bushy tails and red to yellow coats. They have longer muzzles, longer canine teeth and flatter skulls than similarly sized domestic dogs. Dingoes are carnivores, commonly feeding on kangaroos, wallabies, cattle, wombats and possums. Dingoes are highly social creatures and form stable packs with clearly defined territories where possible. They communicate mostly through howling and whimpering and bark less than domestic dogs. Dingoes ar
e found all across Australia, except for Tasmania. Catch a glimpse on Queensland’s Fraser Island, in Western Australia’s Kimberly and across the deserts of the Northern Territory and South Australia.
Possums are small marsupials with brown or grey fur. Australia’s 69 possum species range from pygmy possums and wrist-winged gliders the length of a finger, to brushtails and ringtails the size of a domestic cat. All possums are nocturnal and omnivorous, hiding in a nest in a hollow tree during the day and foraging for food at night. Possums have long played a part of Australian culture and folklore. Aboriginal Australians used possum hides whilst playing Marn Grook, a traditional ball game at gatherings and celebrations. In Australia’s south-east, Aboriginal people used possum-skin to make cloaks and clan heirlooms. Today you’ll see possums in urban areas and city parks.
The name wallaby comes from Sydney’s Eora Aboriginal tribe. It refers to about 30 species of macropods which are smaller than a kangaroo or wallaroo. The most common species are the agile wallaby and red-necked wallaby, which look very similar to kangaroos and wallaroos, and are frequently seen in the southern states. Rock-wallabies specialise in rugged terrain and have modified feet designed to grip rock rather than dig into soil. Very small forest-dwelling wallabies are known as pademelons. Wallabies are widespread across Australia, particularly in more remote, rocky and rugged areas. Spot them in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, Tasmania’s Freycinet National Park and in Namadgi and Kosciuszko National Parks in the Australian Alps.
Platypuses are small, dark-brown, furry, egg-laying mammals with webbed paws and a duck-like beak. Platypuses live in burrows which they dig into the banks of rivers. They are diving animals, and can stay under water for up to fifteen minutes. Unlike a duck’s beak, the platypus’ beak is rubbery and flexible. It has hundreds of electroreceptor cells inside it, which can detect the electrical currents that are caused by its prey swimming through the water. Platypuses can be found along Australia’s eastern coastal areas in small streams and quiet rivers. See them in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra, on Lake Elizabeth in Victoria’s Great Otway National Park and in Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park.