is both the name of the world's smallest continent
, and the short form of the Commonwealth of Australia
The Commonwealth of Australia is the sixth largest country in the world (geographically), the only one to occupy an entire continent, and the largest in Australasia. New Zealand is to the southeast; and Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and East Timor to its north. The name 'Australia' comes from the Latin phrase terra australis incognita ("unknown southern land", see Terra Australis).
Main article: History of Australia
Australia has been inhabited for at least 50,000 years, since the remote ancestors of the current Australian Aborigines arrived from present-day Southeast Asia. The land was not discovered by Europeans until the 17th century, when it was sighted and visited by several expeditions. The eastern two-thirds of the continent was claimed for the United Kingdom in 1770, and first colonised in New South Wales on 26 January 1788 as a British penal colony. The rest was claimed by the United Kingdom in 1829. Most of the states that later federated to form Australia were not penal colonies.
On 1 January 1901, the Commonwealth, or federation of Australia was born, as a dominion, within the British Empire. Australia was now independent, although the last legal ties with the United Kingdom were not severed until 1986). Australia is a Constitutional monarchy, with Elizabeth II reigning as 'Queen of Australia'. In 1999, a referendum was held on constitutional change to a republic, with an appointed President replacing the Queen as head of state, but this was rejected.
See also: Australian Constitutional History
Main article: Politics of Australia
The Commonwealth of Australia is a constitutional monarchy: the Queen of Australia is the official head of state and is represented by the Governor General. In practice the role of the Crown (and thus that of the Governor General) is largely ceremonial. The executive power theoretically vested in the Crown is exercised by an elected cabinet headed by a prime minister.
The prime minister is almost always the leader of the majority party in the
House of Representatives, the 150-seat lower house of the bicameral Commonwealth Parliament. Members of the House of Representatives, or MHRs, are elected from single-member constituencies, known as divisions. The upper house is the 76-seat Senate, in which each state is represented by twelve Senators, regardless of population size, and each territory by two. Elections for both chambers are held every three years, usually with one half of the Senate being eligible for reelection.
See also: Republicanism in Australia
States and Territories
Main article: Australian States and Territories
Australia is divided into six states and several territories. The states are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia; the territories, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.
Australia also has an additional minor internal territory, Jervis Bay Territory (a naval base in New South Wales), several inhabitated external territories (Norfolk Island, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and several largely uninhabited external territories: Coral Sea Islands Territory, Heard Island and McDonald Islands and the Australian Antarctic Territory.
The Australian Capital Territory was created at the chosen site of the capital city Canberra. Canberra was founded as a compromise between the two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney.
Main article: Geography of Australia
By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-desert—40% of the landmass is covered by sand dunes. Only the south-east and south-west corners have a temperate climate and moderately fertile soil. The northern part of the country has a tropical climate: part is tropical rainforests, part grasslands, and part desert. The Great Barrier Reef, by far the world's largest coral reef, lies a short distance off the north-east coast. Uluru, in central Australia, is the largest monolith in the world.
See also: Protected areas of Australia
Flora and Fauna
Main articles: Australian fauna, Australian flora
Although most of the continent is desert or semi-desert, Australia nevertheless includes a diverse range of habitats, from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests. Because of the great age of the continent, its very variable weather patterns, and its long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia's biota is unique.
See also: Australian birds
Main article: Economy of Australia
Australia has a prosperous Western-style mixed economy, with a per capita GDP on par with the four dominant Western European economies. In recent years, the Australian economy has been resilient in the face of global economic downturn, with steady growth. Rising output in the domestic economy has been offsetting the global slump, and business and consumer confidence remains robust. Australia's emphasis on reforms is another key factor behind the economy's strength.
Main article: Demographics of Australia
Most of the Australian population descends from 19th and 20th century immigrants, most from the United Kingdom and Ireland to begin with, but from other sources in later years. Many inhabitants are of Greek, Italian or Asian descent. Descendants of the original population, the Australian Aborigines, make up 2.2% of the population, according to the 2001 Census. In common with many other developed countries, Australia is currently experiencing a demographic shift towards an older population, with more retired people and fewer of working age.
English is the spoken language in Australia, although some of the surviving Aboriginal communities maintain their native languages, and a considerable number of first and sometimes second-generation migrants are bi-lingual. Although the nation is broadly secular and few are church-goers, three-quarters of Australians are nominally Christian, mostly Catholic or Anglican. A diverse range of other religions is practised.
See also: List of cities in Australia
Main article: Culture of Australia
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