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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Here are some essential facts about Australia for those who live in the country, intend to move there or are thinking of moving there, or want to visit the country. The facts presented here are divided into several broad categories: geography, climate, history, government, the people, and the economy.

Geography

Australia is located to the south of eastern Asia, between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world’s sixth largest country after Russia, Canada, the United States, China, and Brazil, with a land area of nearly three million square miles. The country is entirely surrounded by sea, has over 21,000 miles of coastline, and is usually regarded as a continent. It is the oldest, flattest, and driest country. Most of Australia is desert or semi-desert, although forests cover eighteen per cent of the country. Due to Australia’s age, climatic extremes, and isolation, much of the country’s fauna and flora is unique. More than four-fifths of its mammals and plants and nearly half of its birds are not found elsewhere.

The largest geographical feature is the Western Shield, basically the desert area covering much of Western Australia, Northern Territory, and South Australia. To its east is the Great Artesian Basin, extending through much of Queensland and New South Wales. The Great Dividing Range runs along the eastern side of the country from northern Queensland to Tasmania. Australia’s highest point, Mount Kosciusko, at 7,310 feet, is part of the range. The 1,200 mile long Great Barrier Reef lies off the Queensland coast.

The name “Australia” comes from the Latin “australis”, which means “southern”. Stories of a great southern land go back to Roman days, where people thought that something had to exist down there in order to balance the world. “Australia” was first used in the English language in 1625. The name wasn’t commonly used until the 1810s. In 1824, the British government declared that the continent should be called Australia.

Climate

Australia’s large size and latitudinal span means it has a wide variety of climatic conditions, including tropical, temperate, alpine and arid. Most of Western Australia, South Australia, and Northern Territory, and a large part of New South Wales and Queensland, is desert or semi-arid. The desert areas receive less than ten inches of rain a year, while the semi-arid areas receive 10-20 inches. Temperatures can reach 110-120 degrees by day in summer, but can fall below 30 degrees on winter nights in some places.

A tropical climate can be found along the northern and north-eastern coastal areas. Rainforests dominate these regions, where average rainfall is as high as 160 inches a year. Most of the rain falls in the summer months. These areas can be quite hot, with summer average maximums of up to 95 degrees. The tropical belt is often subject to cyclones, flooding, and drought.

The temperate zone extends in a band from inland of Brisbane, south through New South Wales, most of Victoria, all of Tasmania, and part of South Australia. Most of Australia’s major cities are located in this area. Summers are warm and winters mild. Moderate levels of rainfall are spread throughout the year. Weather extremes can be experienced in this region, including temperatures over 100 degrees, drought and flooding. Bush fires are a hazard in this region.

A small area of south-east New South Wales is regarded as having an alpine climate. Temperatures in this mountainous area frequently fall to 10-20 degrees overnight in winter. Good snowfalls suitable for skiing are usually received in the colder months.

History

The Australian Aborigines migrated to the continent from India and south-east Asia up to 50,000 years ago, when Australia and Asia were more or less linked by land bridges. In pre-European times, they were hunter-gatherers living in small groups of 25-50 people. At the time of European settlement, an estimated 300,000 Aborigines lived in all parts of Australia.

The first European sighting of Australia was by Dutchman Willem Janszoon, who saw Cape York Peninsula in the country’s north-east in 1606. Other early explorers included Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, who chartered the Tasmanian coastline in 1642, and William Dampier from England, who mapped the western and north-western coasts. The best known explorer was Englishman Captain James Cook, who tracked the east coast of Australia in 1770 and claimed it for England.

European settlement of Australia started in 1788 when a convict colony was set up at Port Jackson, where Sydney now stands. Another convict colony was established along Tasmania’s Derwent River in 1803, which became Hobart. The first free settlers came to Australia in the 1790s. Over the coming decades, they spread to most parts of the continent. Other colonies were set up at Brisbane in 1824, Perth in 1829, Melbourne in 1835, and Adelaide in 1836. The last two didn’t use convict labour. Convicts continued to be brought to Australia until 1840 in New South Wales, 1853 in Tasmania, and 1868 in Western Australia.

Gold was discovered in Victoria and New South Wales in the 1850s, Queensland from the 1860s and Western Australia in the 1890s. People came in their hundreds of thousands to seek their fortune. Victoria’s population exploded from 77,000 to 540,000 in two years from 1851 to 1853. The population of Australia grew from 430,000 in 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871.

The six states of the continent became a country, the Commonwealth of Australia, on 1 January 1901, after a majority of voters in a majority of states voted that the previously separate colonies unite as one. New social legislation before World War I included women getting the vote in 1902, a basic wage in 1906, age and invalid pensions in 1909 and 1910 respectively, free and compulsory education around 1910, and a maternity allowance in 1912.

Australia sent 330,000 troops to Europe during World War I (1914-1918) to fight with the British. However, conscription was defeated in two referendums. In World War II (1939-1945), Australian troops fought in the Middle East from 1940 to 1942, and in the Pacific region from 1942 after Japan entered the war. Australia ended most of its constitutional links with the United Kingdom in 1942.

Aboriginal people were given the vote in 1967 after a referendum in which over ninety per cent of Australia’s population supported the move. The nation’s White Australia Policy, which was one of the Commonwealth’s first pieces of legislation in 1901, was finally wound back and abolished in 1973.

Remaining constitutional ties with the United Kingdom were cut with the introduction of the Australia Act in 1986. A referendum in 1999 rejected a move for Australia to become a republic by less than five per cent of the vote.

Government

Initially, the Australian colonies were under British rule. Self-government was achieved in 1850 with Britain passing the Australian Colonies Government Act. This gave the colonies considerable independence, including the right to amend their constitutions and impose tariffs.

Since 1901, Australia has been a constitutional democracy. The federal government is divided into three branches: the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The legislator is the Commonwealth Parliament, which comprises the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Queen. The executive consists of the prime minister and the other federal ministers. The judiciary is the federal courts, including the High Court of Australia.

The House of Representatives or lower house has 150 seats spread evenly around Australia on a population basis, within tolerances. The Senate or upper house has 76 senators, with each state having twelve and each territory having two. An election on 24 November 2007 saw the Labor Party swept to victory over the Liberal-National Coalition, with Kevin Rudd becoming prime minister. Unlike in some countries, voting is compulsory in Australia.

Section 51 of the Australian Constitution sets out the powers of the federal government. These include trade and commerce with other countries, external affairs, income tax, defence, currency, immigration, marriage and divorce, bankruptcy, and pensions, among others. Any area not in the Constitution rests with the states and territories, which includes hospitals, education, public transport, roads, police, state courts, and local government.

Australia has six states, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania, and two main territories, Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. The national capital is Canberra, within the ACT. There are also a number of minor internal and external territories. Australia has 673 local councils in charge of planning, local roads and traffic, rubbish collection, water, local laws and regulations, and so on.

People

The population of Australia in early 2008 was about 21 million. This includes around ninety per cent who originated from Europe, six per cent from Asia, and over two per cent who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. About 14 million Australians were born in the country. Other main countries of birth are England, New Zealand, China, Italy, and Vietnam.

Australia has always operated a large migration program. Since the end of Word War II, around seven million migrants have arrived in Australia. Most immigration in the post-war years was from the United Kingdom and Europe. In more recent decades, the emphasis has shifted to Asian countries. Migrants come to Australia as skilled workers, business people, family members of previous migrants, and refugees.

More than 85 per cent of Australians live in urban areas. The major cities and their populations are Sydney (4.3 million), Melbourne (3.7 million), Brisbane (1.8 million), Perth (1.5 million), Adelaide (1.1 million), Gold Coast (520,000), Newcastle (500,000), Canberra (330,000), Geelong (210,000), Hobart (205,000), Wollongong (190,000), and Townsville (165,000). Most of Australia’s population lives in an arc from Brisbane to Adelaide.

The official language of Australian is English. About eighty per cent of people speak only English. The next major languages are Chinese (spoken by 2.3 per cent of the population), Italian (1.6 per cent), Greek (1.3 per cent), and Arabic (1.2 per cent). Australian Aboriginal languages are the main language for around 50,000 people or 0.25 per cent of the population. About 260 Aboriginal languages were spoken throughout Australia before white settlement. Only about seventy survive, with about fifty of these in danger of disappearing.

Australians are free to choose their religion, and also whether to have one at all. About 26 per cent are Catholic and nineteen per cent are Anglican. There are many smaller Christian religions. The main non-Christian religion is Islam, with about 340,000 Muslims living in Australia, or nearly two per cent of the population. There are smaller numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews. At the 2006 census, nineteen per cent of people didn’t have a religion, while twelve per cent chose not to state their religion.

Attendance at school is compulsory from age six to fifteen. Among adults, 99 per cent are literate. More than half of the population has a vocational or tertiary qualification. Australia has 38 universities, and a technical and further education system. The country has the highest ratio of international to local tertiary students in the world.

Three-quarters of the population live in a separate house, with a further nine per cent living in a semi-detached or terrace house or townhouse, and fourteen per cent live in a flat, unit or apartment.

Economy

Australia has a market economy with a large private sector and relatively small government sector. Traditionally, the major industries were agriculture, mining, and manufacturing. However, over eighty per cent of the labour force now work in services, such as retail trade, banking, education, tourism, and government services. Agriculture and mining are still important as they account for 65 per cent of exports.

Gross domestic product was $645 billion in 2006, ranking Australia seventeenth in terms of economic output. Growth is quite strong at about four per cent per annum. Inflation is relatively low at around three per cent and unemployment is about four per cent, down from double digits only a decade ago.

Australia has a goods and services tax of ten per cent. Residents pay no income tax on the first $6,000 of annual personal income, and then fifteen cents in the dollar up to $30,000, then thirty cents up to $75,000, then forty cents up to $150,000, and then 45 cents for amounts above $150,000. A Medicare levy of 1.5 per cent is added to these rates. State taxes include stamp duty, land tax, and payroll tax. Local governments charge a rate on property owners.

Australia’s currency was converted from pounds to a decimal system using dollars on 14 February 1966. Coins range in value from five cents to two dollars, and notes from five dollars to 100 dollars. The exchange rate with the US dollar has hovered around 90 to 95 cents in the early months of 2008.

All in all, Australia is a great place to live, with a good climate, prosperous economy, and few of the tensions that exist in many parts of the world. Australia came sixth in the Economist’s quality of life index in 2005 and third in the United Nations’ Human Development Index in 2007.

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