Area 2,967,895 square mi (7,686,850 square km)
Population 23.49 million 2014
Capital Canberra
Highest Point 7,311 ft (2,229 m)
Lowest Point 49 ft (15 m)
GDP $1.454 trillion 2014
Primary Natural Resources gold, silver, uranium.

THE COMMONWEALTH of Australia is the world's sixth-largest country and is located on the world's smallest continent between the INDIAN OCEAN and the South PACIFIC OCEAN. The countries surrounding Australia are NEW ZEALAND to the southeast, PAPUA NEW GUINEA to the northeast, and INDONESIA and EAST TIMOR to the north. Australia is a democratic federation under the Commonwealth of Nations, which recognizes the British monarch as the head of state, who is represented through the governor-general. Australia is divided into six states and two territories, including the island of Tasmania. The legislature is a bicameral federal parliament that provides popular and state representation. The prime minister serves as the head of government.


Australia is roughly the size of the continental UNITED STATES. Due to millions of years of erosion, its coastline is generally even, with few indentations. Constant wind and water erosion give Australia the distinction of being the flattest continent. Australia's interior consists of the Great Western Plateau, the Central Lowlands, and the Eastern Highlands. Much of the Great Western Plateau is desert, particularly, the Great Sandy Desert, Gibson Desert, and Great Victoria Desert, where much of Australia's mineral wealth is located. The Central Lowlands contains the Great Artesian Basin, which holds 670,000 square mi (1,735,300 square km) of underground water. The Great Artesian Basin serves as pasture land for Australia's traditional sheep ranching industry. The major cities of Australia are located in the Eastern Highlands, along the eastern and southeastern coast, which consists of plateaus, hills, and low mountains.

Australia's climate, while it varies greatly, does not suffer extreme temperatures because it lacks physical barriers. Beyond its northern coast is the GREAT BARRIER REEF, one of the great natural wonders of the world, which is in danger from pollution. The climate is generally arid to semiarid. In the north, the climate is tropical, while temperate in the south and east. The tropical region has a hot and rainy season from February to March and a warm dry season. The deserts in central and western Australia receive only 10 in or 25.4 cm of rain. Because of Australia's position in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons occur opposite to those experienced in the Northern Hemisphere. In the south, January and February are the hottest months, with temperatures averaging between 65 and 70 degrees F (18.3 and 21.1 degrees C). June and July are the coldest months, with temperatures averaging 50 degrees F or 10 degrees C.

The first humans who settled in Australia came over from a land bridge that once connected Australia to Asia. The Aborigines, who are the descendants of those first settlers, are a hunter- gatherer society that roamed about the land. They spoke about 250 languages and all of their property was communal. Before the arrival of Europeans, Aborigines numbered between 250,000 and 1 million.

The first European to sight Australia was Captain James Cook in 1770. He circumnavigated the Australian coast and landed in Botany Bay, claiming the land for Britain. After the loss of the thirteen North American colonies, the British government saw Australia as a new destination to which it could send convicts. In 1787, the First Fleet, under the command of Captain Phillip Arthur, set sail from Portsmouth, England, to Australia, consisting of 11 ships carrying 1,487 people, of whom 736 were convicts whose crimes were mostly petty theft. In January 1788, the First Fleet landed on what became Sydney Harbor. The penal settlements of New South Wales, Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania), and Port Phillip District (later Victoria) were established, while Western Australia and Southern Australia were created as free settlements.

In 1851, gold was discovered in Victoria, sparking an influx of immigrants from all over the world. The population grew from 450,000 in 1850 to 1 million in 1858. The effects of the gold rush were the growth of national wealth, a spirit of egalitarianism, and the spark of nationalism.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Australia evolved from penal settlements to self-governing units where settlers took part in local affairs. In the 1890s, Australia was at a crossroads in its relationship to the mother country. Some circles called for independence from Britain, while others called for self-government within the BRITISH EMPIRE. Economic forces such as a worldwide depression and increasing unionization called for uniform laws and regulations.

On January 1, 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was born, which fused British and American models. The Commonwealth would be a parliamentary government like Britain, but it would have a federal system like the United States, where there would be state and popular representation in its legislature. Not long after, Australia gained the distinction of having a progressive government by establishing a minimum wage, ensuring safe conditions for workers, and granting suffrage for women. Yet at the same time, the new government maintained the “White Australia” policy which limited immigration to Europeans and mostly British.

Australia maintained its loyalty to Britain by contributing troops to the Boer War, World War I, and World War II. Australian troops distinguished themselves bravely during the famous Gallipoli campaign of World War I. However, after the end of the war, the troops who came home had difficulty readjusting to civilian life, partly because of well-meaning but, in the end, inadequate government policies. Australia suffered greatly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when as much as 28 percent of the workforce was unemployed.

By World War II, Australia's traditional links to Britain and the empire began to weaken. In 1939, Australia sent troops to Europe to fight Nazi GERMANY. However, JAPAN loomed as a larger threat to Australia's security. Australia fell under the protection of the UNITED STATES. After the war, Australia entered into the ANZUS alliance with New Zealand and the United States and began looking to Asia as a source for new markets. In 1972, the “White Australia” policy was replaced with an immigration policy that stressed multiculturalism and accepted immigrants from other areas of the world. In 1999, Australians once again faced the terms of their relationship with Britain, voting whether to keep the queen as head of state or declare itself a republic; a slim majority maintained the status quo. In 2002, after the terrorist bombings at Bali, Australia joined the United States as one of its coalition partners in the war against terrorism, providing troops to Iraq in 2003.

Despite the official end of “White Australia,” the population remains generally homogeneous, with 92 percent of European origin, 7 percent of Asian origin, and 1 percent of Aboriginal origin. However, since the end of World War II, Australia has accepted immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, adding to the old English stock. Australia's relationships with the Aborigines have not been easy. European colonialism had wiped out much of the original population through disease and assimilation. While Australians have become more sensitive to the plight of the borigines, many have remained at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Australia has a prosperous free market economy that is ranked with western European economies. Services make up 71 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), while industry makes up 26 percent, and agriculture makes up 3 percent. In 2000, Sydney hosted the Olympic Games, 44 years after its rival, Melbourne. The Australian economy suffered during the global economic slowdown in 2001, but it has been undergoing a recovery since 2003. In 2004, the Australian government debated whether to approve a free trade agreement with the United States.