The Commonwealth of Australia is a country in the Southern Hemisphere and is the world's smallest continent and the largest island with a number of smaller islands in the Southern, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Australia's neighbouring countries are Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea to the north, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia to the north-east, and New Zealand to the south-east.
The continent of Australia has been inhabited for over 40,000 years by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. After many visits by European explorers and merchants from the 17th century and onwards, the eastern half of the continent was claimed by the British in 1770, and officially settled as the penal colony of New South Wales on 26 January 1788. As the population grew and new areas were explored, another five largely self-governing Crown Colonies were successively established over the course of the 19th century.
On 1 January 1901, the six colonies federated and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed. Since federation, Australia has kept a stable liberal democratic political system and remains a Commonwealth Realm. The current population of around Australia is around 20.4 million and is concentrated mainly in the coastal cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.
Australia consists of six states and several territories. The states are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. The two mainland territories are the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT); the federal government administers a separate area within New South Wales, the Jervis Bay Territory, as a naval base and sea port for the national capital.
most of the territories work similarly to the states, but the Commonwealth Parliament can override any legislation of their parliaments. By contrast, federal legislation overrides state legislation only with respect to certain areas as set out in the Constitution; all residual legislative powers are retained by the state parliaments, including powers over hospitals, education, police, the judiciary, roads, public transport and local government.
Each state and territory has its own bicameral parliament (unicameral in the case of Queensland, the Northern Territory and the ACT). The lower house is known as the Legislative Assembly (House of Assembly in South Australia and Tasmania) and the upper house the Legislative Council. The heads of the governments in each state and territory are called premiers and chief ministers, respectively. The Queen is represented in each state by a governor; an administrator in the Northern Territory, and the Governor-General in the ACT, have analogous roles.
Australia's landmass comprises 7,686,850 km² and is on the Indo-Australian Plate. Surrounded by the Indian, Southern and Pacific oceans, Australia is separated from Asia by the Arafura and Timor seas. Australia has a total 25,760 km of coastline. Climate is highly influenced by ocean currents, including the southern oscillation, which is correlated with periodic drought, and the seasonal tropical low pressure system that produces cyclones in northern Australia.
By far the largest part of Australia is desert which takes up two thirds of the country. Australia is the 2nd driest inhabited continent, the flattest, and has the oldest and least fertile soils. Only the south-east and south-west corners of the continent have a temperate climate. The northern part of the country, with a tropical climate, has a vegetation consisting of rainforest, woodland, grassland and desert. The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef, and lies a short distance off the north-east coast and extends for over 1,200 km and is visible from space. The world's two largest monoliths are located in Australia, Mount Augustus in Western Australia is the largest and Uluru in central Australia is the second largest. At 2,228 m, Mount Kosciuszko on the Great Dividing Range is the highest mountain on the Australian mainland, although Mawson Peak on the remote Australian territory of Heard Island is taller at 2,745 m
Australia has a Western-style type economy, with a per capita GDP (economy) a bit higher than those of the UK, Germany and France. Australia was ranked third in the 2004 Human Development Index and sixth in The Economist worldwide quality-of-life index 2005. In recent years, the Australian economy has been strong in the face of global economic downturn. Rising output in the domestic economy has been offsetting the global slump, and business and consumer confidence remains big. Australia's emphasis on reform is another key factor behind the economy's strength. In the 1980s, the Labor Party, led by Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating, started the process of modernising the Australian economy by floating the Australian dollar in 1983, and deregulating the financial system. Since 1996, the Howard government has continued the process of micro-economic reform, including the partial deregulation of the labour market and the privatisation of state-owned businesses, most notably in the telecommunications industry. Substantial reform of the indirect tax system was achieved in July 2000 with the introduction of a 10% Goods and Services Tax (GST), which has slightly reduced the heavy reliance on personal and company income tax that still characterises Australia's tax system.
The Australian economy has not been impacted on a recession since the early 1990s. As of July 2005, unemployment was 5.0% with 10,030,300 people employed. The service sector of the economy, including tourism, education, and financial services, comprises 69% of GDP. Agriculture and natural-resources represent only 3% and 5% of GDP, respectively, but contribute substantially to Australia's export performance. Australia's largest export markets include Japan, China, the United States, South Korea and New Zealand. Areas of concern to some economists include the chronically high current account deficit and also high levels of net foreign debt.
Australia has a long history of visual arts, starting with the cave and bark paintings of its indigenous peoples. From the time of European settlement, a common theme in Australian art has been the Australian landscape, seen in the works of Arthur Streeton, Arthur Boyd and Albert Namatjira, among others. The traditions of indigenous Australians are largely transmitted orally and are closely tied to ceremony and the telling of the stories of the Dreamtime. Australian Aboriginal music, dance and art have a palpable influence on contemporary Australian visual and performing arts. Australia has an active tradition of music, ballet and theatre; many of its performing arts companies receive public funding through the federal government's Australia Council. There is a symphony orchestra in each capital city, and a national opera company, Opera Australia, first made prominent by the renowned diva Dame Joan Sutherland; Australian music includes classical, jazz, and many popular music genres.
Sport is an important part of Australian culture, assisted by a climate that favours outdoor activities; 23.5% Australians over the age of 15 regularly participate in organised sporting activities. At national and international levels, Australia has particularly strong teams in Australian rules football, Rugby League, Rugby Union, cricket and netball and grows more in cycling and swimming. Australia has participated in every summer Olympic Games of the modern era, and every Commonwealth Games, and has hosted the 1956 and 2000 Summer Olympics; Australia has ranked among the top five medal-takers since 2000. Corporate and government sponsorship of many sports and élite athletes is common in Australia. Televised sport is popular; some of the highest rating television programs include the summer Olympic Games and the grand finals of local and international football competitions.