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Aboriginal settlers arrived on the continent from Southeast Asia about 40,000 years before the first Europeans began exploration in the 17th century. No formal claims were made until 1770, when Capt. James COOK took possession in the name of Great Britain. Six colonies were created in the late 18th and 19th centuries; they federated and became the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The new country was able to take advantage of its natural resources in order to rapidly develop its agricultural and manufacturing industries and to make a major contribution to the British effort in World Wars I and II. Long-term concerns include pollution, particularly depletion of the ozone layer, and management and conservation of coastal areas, especially the Great Barrier Reef. A referendum to change Australia's status, from a commonwealth headed by the British monarch to a republic, was defeated in 1999.


Oceania, continent between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean

Geographic coordinates:

27 00 S, 133 00 E


total: 7,686,850 sq km
water: 68,920 sq km
note: includes Lord Howe Island and Macquarie Island
land: 7,617,930 sq km

Maritime claims:

territorial sea: 12 nm
continental shelf: 200 nm or to the edge of the continental margin
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
contiguous zone: 24 nm


generally arid to semiarid; temperate in south and east; tropical in north


mostly low plateau with deserts; fertile plain in southeast

Elevation extremes:

lowest point: Lake Eyre -15 m
highest point: Mount Kosciuszko 2,229 m

Natural resources:

bauxite, coal, iron ore, copper, tin, gold, silver, uranium, nickel, tungsten, mineral sands, lead, zinc, diamonds, natural gas, petroleum

Land use:

arable land: 6.55% (includes about 27 million hectares of cultivated grassland)
permanent crops: 0.04%
other: 93.41% (2001)

Irrigated land:

24,000 sq km (1998 est.)

Natural hazards:

cyclones along the coast; severe droughts; forest fires

Environment - current issues:

soil erosion from overgrazing, industrial development, urbanization, and poor farming practices; soil salinity rising due to the use of poor quality water; desertification; clearing for agricultural purposes threatens the natural habitat of many unique animal and plant species; the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast, the largest coral reef in the world, is threatened by increased shipping and its popularity as a tourist site; limited natural fresh water resources

Geography - note:

world's smallest continent but sixth-largest country; population concentrated along the eastern and southeastern coasts; regular, tropical, invigorating, sea breeze known as "the Doctor" occurs along the west coast in the summer


19,913,144 (July 2004 est.)

Ethnic groups:

Caucasian 92%, Asian 7%, aboriginal and other 1%


Anglican 26.1%, Roman Catholic 26%, other Christian 24.3%, non-Christian 11%, other 12.6%


English, native languages

Government type:

democratic, federal-state system recognizing the British monarch as sovereign



Administrative divisions:

6 states and 2 territories*; Australian Capital Territory*, New South Wales, Northern Territory*, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia

Dependent areas:

Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Coral Sea Islands, Heard Island and McDonald Islands, Norfolk Island


1 January 1901 (federation of UK colonies)

National holiday:

Australia Day, 26 January (1788)

Legal system:

based on English common law; accepts compulsory ICJ jurisdiction, with reservations

Economy - overview:

Australia has a prosperous Western-style capitalist economy, with a per capita GDP on par with the four dominant West European economies. 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. The impact of drought, weak foreign demand, and strong import demand pushed the trade deficit up to $14 billion in 2003 from $5 billion in 2002.

Distribution of family income - Gini index:

35.2 (1994)

Inflation rate (consumer prices):

2.8% (2003 est.)

Labor force:

10.19 million (37256)

Labor force - by occupation:

agriculture 5%, industry 22%, services 73% (1997 est.)

Unemployment rate:

6% (2003)

Agriculture - products:

wheat, barley, sugarcane, fruits; cattle, sheep, poultry


mining, industrial and transportation equipment, food processing, chemicals, steel

Exports - commodities:

coal, gold, meat, wool, alumina, iron ore, wheat, machinery and transport equipment

Exports - partners:

Japan 18.1%, US 8.7%, China 8.4%, South Korea 7.4%, New Zealand 7.4%, UK 6.7% (2003 est.)

Imports - commodities:

machinery and transport equipment, computers and office machines, telecommunication equipment and parts; crude oil and petroleum products

Imports - partners:

US 16%, Japan 12.5%, China 11%, Germany 6.1%, UK 4.2% (2003 est.)


Australian dollar (AUD)

Telephones - main lines in use:

10.815 million (2003)

Telephones - mobile cellular:

14.347 million (2003)


total: 44,015 km (5,290 km electrified)
broad gauge: 1,957 km 1.600-m gauge
standard gauge: 27,095 km 1.435-m gauge (2,828 km electrified)
dual gauge: 213 km dual gauge (2003)
narrow gauge: 14,957 km 1.067-m gauge (2,462 km electrified)


total: 811,603 km
paved: 314,090 km (including 18,619 km of expressways)
unpaved: 497,513 km (1999 est.)


2,000 km (mainly used for recreation on Murray and Murray-Darling river systems) (2004)


condensate 36 km; condensate/gas 243 km; gas 27,321 km; liquid petroleum gas 240 km; oil 4,779 km; oil/gas/water 104 km (2003)

Ports and harbors:

Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, Darwin, Devonport (Tasmania), Fremantle, Geelong, Hobart (Tasmania), Launceston (Tasmania), Mackay, Melbourne, Sydney, Townsville

Merchant marine:

total: 52 ships (1,000 GRT or over) 1,531,461 GRT/1,999,409 DWT
foreign-owned: United Kingdom 2, United States 12
registered in other countries: 60 (2003 est.)
by type: bulk 20, cargo 5, chemical tanker 3, combination bulk 2, container 3, liquefied gas 4, passenger 2, petroleum tanker 7, roll on/roll off 6


444 (2003 est.)

Airports - with paved runways:

total: 297
over 3,047 m: 10
2,438 to 3,047 m: 12
1,524 to 2,437 m: 129
914 to 1,523 m: 133
under 914 m: 13 (2003 est.)

Airports - with unpaved runways:

total: 147
1,524 to 2,437 m: 17
914 to 1,523 m: 116
under 914 m: 14 (2003 est.)

Military branches:

Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, new Special Operations Command (announced in December 2002)

Disputes - international:

the 1999 maritime delimitation established partial maritime boundaries with East Timor over part of the Timor Gap but temporary resource-sharing agreements over an unreconciled area grant Australia 90% share of exploited gas reserves and hamper creation of a southern maritime boundary with Indonesia (see Ashmore and Cartier Islands disputes); Australia asserts a territorial claim to Antarctica and to its continental shelf (see Antarctica)

Illicit drugs:

Tasmania is one of the world's major suppliers of licit opiate products; government maintains strict controls over areas of opium poppy cultivation and output of poppy straw concentrate