Australia: An Overview


Australia, comprising the main island and the island state of Tasmania, has an area of 7,700,000 sq. km, which makes it just a little smaller than Brazil and about 2,000,000 sq. km smaller than the USA or Canada. However over a third of this land is sparsely populated desert. Latitudes range from 10ᵒ south (Tropics) to 40 south.


A (very brief) history

Australia has been occupied by humans for around 50,000 years and over that time a complex spiritual and material culture developed. For most of this time, with the exception of some trade with what is today Indonesia, this culture developed in isolation from the developments that were taking place on the Eurasian land mass over the last 10,000 years.

European mapping of the continent began with the Dutch in the first half of the 17th century, but the Dutch were far more interested in the spices of Indonesia. In 1770 the English explorer, James Cook, mapped the East Coast and claimed 2/3 of the continent as New South Wales. English attempts at occupation begin in 1788 when they set up a convict colony in Port Jackson, the site of modern Sydney.

Over the next 100 years settlers arrived and moved inland. This was disastrous for the original Indigenous population. Through European diseases, seizure of Indigenous food sources and massacres the population was decimated. However those who survived have been able to keep their cultures and some of the languages alive, although the path to true recognition as the First People is still not complete.

As the population grew, six colonies developed from the original colony of New South Wales. These were Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland. From the 1880s a movement towards forming a Federal Government began and this was achieved in 1901 after two referenda held in the separate colonies. At the time the States retained the majority of their powers, only giving external powers to the central Government such as Immigration, Trade and Defence. For the way this has changed in 120 years (see Section on Government).

Over the two centuries since the English occupation, the economy has mainly depended on exports that have included gold and agricultural products – originally primarily wool, meat and wheat but diversifying into a large variety of products. Since the 1950’s minerals exports, especially iron and coal, have dominated but now as demand for these has decreased Australia is relying more on its educational, financial and educational industries.


Political System

Australia is formerly a Constitutional Monarchy. A Referendum in 1999 on becoming a Republic was lost mainly because of a division on how the President should be supported. The model proposed was that with the President being appointed by 2/3 of the members of the Federal Parliament, but others wanted a directly elected President.

At the Federal Level there is (1) the Governor General, appointed by the United Kingdom’s Queen on the recommendation of the Government of the Day (2) a Senate, a House of Review, made up from six members from each of the States and two members from the Territories (The Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory) (3) the House of Representatives, which has 150 members representing the same number of electorates across Australia.

In most States the same pattern is repeated, except that Queensland does not have an Upper House.


Political Parties

The two major parties at both the State and Federal Level are (1) The Labour Party, representing the Centre-Left and (2) the Coalition, made up of the Liberal Party –representing the Centre-Right and the National Party – representing rural interests. The Greens are becoming a third force and there are a few Independents.


Educational System

Beginning in Victoria in 1876 and over the next two decades instituted in all the States a public school system was established that was secular, free, and compulsory. At first the focus was on Primary education but by the end of the 1960's all of the States provided twelve years of free education to all – six years primary, 4 years junior secondary and 2 years senior. The Catholic hierarchy thought that these schools were too ‘Protestant’ and ran their own parallel system.

Beginning in the 1970s the Federal Government began funding Catholic Schools and over the next thirty years encouraged the development of other private schools and today Australia has one of the most privatised systems in the world, with approximately 70% of students in public schools, 15% in Catholic Schools and another 15% in a variety of Christian, Islamic, Jewish and Independent schools.