September 3, 2012, 10:03 am
Source: CIA World Factbook
Content Cover Image

Coastal drainage on Kangaroo Island, Australia. @ C.Michael Hogan

Australia is a nation of twenty-two million people composed of the major continental land mass of the world's smallest continent, plus a number of islands.

While Australia is sixth-largest country by area, its modest population is concentrated along the eastern and southeastern coasts. The vast interior of Australia is very sparsely populated.

caption Map of Australia.

Its major environmental issues include:

  • 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; and,
  • land imited natural fresh water resources.

Australia is susceptible to cyclones along the coast; severe droughts; and forest fires.

Long-term concerns include climate-change issues such as the depletion of the ozone layer and more frequent droughts, and management and conservation of coastal areas, especially the Great Barrier Reef. The invigorating sea breeze known as the "Fremantle Doctor" affects the city of Perth on the west coast and is one of the most consistent winds in the world.

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 territorial 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 took advantage of its natural resources to rapidly develop agricultural and manufacturing industries and to make a major contribution to the British effort in World Wars I and II.

In recent decades, Australia has transformed itself into an internationally competitive, advanced market economy. It boasted one of the OECD's fastest growing economies during the 1990s, a performance due in large part to economic reforms adopted in the 1980s.


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

Geographic Coordinates: 27 00 S, 133 00 E

Area: 7,686,850 km2 (7,617,930 km2  land and 68,920 km2 water, includes Lord Howe Island and Macquarie Island)

arable land: 6.15% (includes about 27 million hectares of cultivated grassland)
permanent crops: 0.04%
other: 93.81% (2005)

Coastline: 25,760 km

Maritime Claims:

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

Natural Hazards: Cyclones along the coast; severe droughts; forest fires

Terrain:  Mostly low plateau with deserts; fertile plain in southeast. The lowest point is Lake Eyre (-15 meters) and its highest point is Mount Kosciuszko (2,229 meters)

Climate: Generally arid to semiarid; temperate in south and east; tropical in north.

Topography of Australia. Source: Hans Braxmeier.

Environmental Overview

Most of the forests of Australia consist of evergreen tree species, most notably eucalypts, except for arid regions where acacia are the dominant tree and shrub species. The country boasts some of the world’s most notable native mammals, including endemic monotreme species platypus and echidna; many of the Earth’s marsupials are found here including the wombat, kangaroo and koala. The continent also claims some of the most venomous snakes on Earth. The wild dog dingo was introduced by Austronesian people who traded with indigenous Australians around 3000 BC.

Many plant and animal species (including certain megafauna) became extinct soon after first human settlement; other taxa have vanished since European settlement, among them the Thylacine. Many of Australia's ecoregions, and the species within those regions, are threatened by human activities and alien species of both plants and animals. The federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 establishes the legal basis for the protection of threatened species. A considerable number of protected areas of Australia have been set up under the nation’s Biodiversity Action Plan to protect and preserve unique ecosystems. Australia was ranked fifty first of countries in the world on the 2010 Environmental Performance Index. with many Australians considering protection of the environment to be the most important issue facing the country. The Rudd Ministry has initiated several emission reduction activities; Rudd's first official act, on his first day in office, was to sign the instrument of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

Nevertheless, Australia's carbon dioxide emissions per capita are among the highest in the world, being exceeded by only a few other industrialized nations. Rainfall in Australia has slightly increased over the past century, both nationwide and for two quadrants of the nation. Water usage restrictions are currently imposed in many regions and cities of Australia in response to chronic shortages due to urban population increases and localized drought


Ecoregions of Australia. Source: World Wildlife Fund.

  1. Jarrah-Karri forest and shrublands;
  2. Southwest Australia woodlands;
  3. Southwest Australia savanna;
  4. Esperance mallee;
  5. Coolgardie woodlands;
  6. Carnarvon xeric shrublands;
  7. Pilbara shrublands;
  8. Western Australia mulga shrublands;
  9. Great Victoria Desert;
  10. Nullarbor Plains xeric shrublands;
  11. Kimberly tropical savanna;
  12. Victoria Plains tropical savanna;
  13. Great Sandy-Tanami Desert;
  14. Gibson Desert;
  15. Central Ranges xeric scrub;
  16. Tirari-Sturt Stony Desert;
  17. Eyre and York mallee;
  18. Mount Lofty woodlands;
  19. Murray-Darling woodlands and mallee;
  20. Naracoorte woodlands;
  1. Southeast Australia temperate forests;
  2. Australian Alps montane grasslands;
  3. Southeast Australia temperate savanna;
  4. Eastern Australian temperate forests;
  5. Simpson Desert;
  6. Eastern Australia mulga shrublands;
  7. Brigalow tropical savanna;
  8. Queensland tropical rain forests;
  9. Mitchell grass downs;
  10. Einasleigh upland savanna;
  11. Cape York tropical savanna;
  12. Carpentaria tropical savanna;
  13. Arnhem Land tropical savanna;
  14. Tasmanian temperate rain forests;
  15. Tasmanian Central Highland forests;
  16. Tasmanian temperate forests; and,
  17. Swan Coastal Plain scrub and woodlands
    (not numbered in the figure below but which
    lies on the southwestern coast adjacent to region 2)

See also marine ecosystems

See also World Heritage sites:

See also: Biological diversity in Southwest Australia

International Environmental Agreements

Boab trees along the Plenty Highway in the Outback. These trees store water in their swollen trunks and shed their leaves during the dry season. Indigenous Australians used them as a source of water and food, and utilized the leaves medicinally.
Uluru (Ayers Rock) is an inselberg, or island mountain, found in the Northern Territory near Alice Springs - in the middle of Australia's Outback. It is a large sandstone rock formation that the aborigines of the area hold sacred.
A view of the northern coast of Western Australia shows the low lying coastal plains that surround much of Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, Western Australia. Large plumes of sediment have been washed into the Cambridge Gulf, probably from the Victoria River, which flows into the Gulf just outside the area of the photo. Image courtesy of NASA.

Australia is party to international agreements on Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic-Marine Living Resources, Antarctic Seals, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Marine Life Conservation, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands, and Whaling.

People and Society

Australia's indigenous inhabitants, a hunting-gathering people collectively referred to today as Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders, arrived more than 40,000 years ago. Although their technical culture remained static--depending on wood, bone, and stone tools and weapons--their spiritual and social life was highly complex. Most spoke several languages, and confederacies sometimes linked widely scattered tribal groups. Indigenous population density ranged from one person per square mile along the coasts to one person per 35 square miles in the arid interior. When Captain James Cook claimed Australia for Great Britain in 1770, the native population may have numbered 300,000 in as many as 500 tribes speaking many different languages. In 2006 the indigenous population was approximately 517,200, representing about 2.5% of the population. Since the end of World War II, the government and the public have made efforts to be more responsive to aboriginal rights and needs, such as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s February 2008 apology to the indigenous people that included a pledge “to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.”

Immigration has been vital to Australia's development since the beginning of European settlement in 1788. For generations, most settlers came from the British Isles, and the people of Australia are still predominantly of British or Irish origin. Non-British/Irish immigration has increased significantly since World War II through an extensive, planned immigration program. Since 1945, over 7 million migrants have settled in Australia, including 700,000 refugee and humanitarian entrants. About 80% have remained; 24%--almost one in four--of Australians are foreign-born. Britain, Ireland, Italy, Greece, New Zealand, and the former Yugoslavia were the largest sources of post-war immigration. In 2010-2011, China was the largest source country for permanent migrants to Australia, with New Zealand, India, Britain, and the Philippines making up the rest of the top five. Australia's humanitarian and refugee program of about 13,000 per year is in addition to other immigration programs. In recent years, refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia have comprised the largest element in Australia's refugee program.

Although Australia has fewer than three people per square kilometer, it is one of the world's most urbanized countries. Less than 2.5% of the population lives in remote or very remote areas.

Population: 22,015,576 (July 2012 est.)

Ethnic groups: white 92%, Asian 7%, aboriginal and other 1%

Age Structure:

Media age: 37.7 years
0-14 years: 18.3% (male 2,040,848/female 1,937,544)
15-64 years: 67.7% (male 7,469,092/female 7,266,143)
65 years and over: 14% (male 1,398,576/female 1,654,508) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 1.126% (2012 est.)

Birthrate: 12.28 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate: 6.94 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate: 5.93 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Urbanization: 89% of total population (2010) growing at 1.2% annual rate of change (2010-15 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 81.9 years 

male: 79.48 years
female: 84.45 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 1.77 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: English 78.5%, Chinese 2.5%, Italian 1.6%, Greek 1.3%, Arabic 1.2%, Vietnamese 1%, other 8.2%, unspecified 5.7% (2006 Census)

Literacy: 99% (2003 est.)

Urbanization: 89% of total population (2010) growing at an annual rate of change of 1.2% (2010-15 est.)

The 2010  Human Development Index for Australia is 0.937, which gave Australia a rank of 2nd (after Norway) out of 169 countries with data . 


Australia was uninhabited until stone-culture peoples arrived, perhaps by boat across the waters separating the island from the Indonesia archipelago more than 40,000 years ago. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English explorers observed the island before 1770, when Captain Cook explored the east coast and claimed it for Great Britain. (Three American colonists were crew members aboard Cook's ship, the Endeavour.)

On January 26, 1788 (now celebrated as Australia Day), the First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney, and formal proclamation of the establishment of the Colony of New South Wales followed on February 7. Many of the first settlers were convicts, some condemned for offenses that today would often be thought trivial. From the mid-19th century convict transportation to Australia significantly declined; the last ship to arrive was in 1868. The discovery of gold in 1851 led to increased population, wealth, and trade.

The six colonies that now constitute the states of the Australian Commonwealth were established in the following order: New South Wales, 1788; Tasmania, 1825; Western Australia, 1829; South Australia, 1836; Victoria, 1851; and Queensland, 1859. Settlement preceded these dates in most cases. Discussions between Australian and British representatives led to adoption by the British Government of an act to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia in 1900, effective January 1, 1901. In 1911, control of the Northern Territory was transferred from South Australia to the Commonwealth. Also that year, the Australian Capital Territory (where the national capital, Canberra, is located), was established. The Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory were granted self-government in 1978 and 1988, respectively.

The first federal Parliament was opened at Melbourne in May 1901 by the Duke of York (later King George V). In May 1927, the seat of government was transferred to Canberra, a city designed by American Walter Burley Griffin. The first session of Parliament in Canberra was opened by another Duke of York (later King George VI). Australia passed the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act on October 9, 1942 (with effect as of September 3, 1939), which officially established Australia's complete autonomy in both internal and external affairs and formalized a situation that had existed for years. The Australia Act (effective March 3, 1986) eliminated almost all remaining vestiges of British legal authority, including the ability to appeal to the British Privy Council. "Advance Australia Fair" was adopted as the national anthem in 1984.


The Commonwealth government is a constitutional monarchy with a Constitution patterned partly on the U.S. Constitution, although it does not include a "bill of rights." Powers of the Commonwealth are specifically defined in the Constitution, and the residual powers remain with the states. Proposed changes to the Constitution must be approved by the Parliament and the people, via referendum.

Australia is an independent nation within the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state and since 1973 has been officially styled "Queen of Australia." The Queen is represented federally by a governor general and in each state by a governor. By convention, the governor general generally acts on the advice of the prime minister and other ministers. However the governor general has "reserve powers," including the power to dismiss ministers, last exercised in 1975.

The federal Parliament is bicameral, consisting of a 76-member Senate and a 150-member House of Representatives. Twelve senators from each state are elected for 6-year terms, with half elected every 3 years. Each territory has two senators who are elected for 3-year terms, concurrent with that of the House. Seats in the House of Representatives are allocated among the states and territories roughly in proportion to population. The two chambers have equal powers, except all proposals for appropriating revenue or imposing taxes must be introduced in the House of Representatives. Under the prevailing Westminster parliamentary system, the leader of the political party or coalition of parties that wins a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives becomes prime minister. The prime minister and the cabinet wield actual power and are responsible to the Parliament, of which they must be elected members. General elections are held at least once every 3 years.

Each state is headed by a premier, who is the leader of the party with a majority or a working minority in the lower house of the state legislature. (Queensland is an exception, with a unicameral parliament.) Australia's two self-governing territories have political systems similar to those of the states, but with unicameral assemblies. Each territory is headed by a chief minister who is the leader of the party with a majority or a working minority in the territory's legislature. More than 670 local councils assist in the delivery of services such as road maintenance, sewage treatment, and the provision of recreational facilities.

Government Type: Federal parliamentary democracy and a Commonwealth realm

Capital: Canberra - 384,000 (2009)

Other major cities: Sydney 4.429 million; Melbourne 3.853 million; Brisbane 1.97 million; Perth 1.599 million (2009)

Administrative divisions: Six states and two territories(Australian Capital Territory [ACT] and Northern Territory). Its 6 states are:
  1. New South Wales
  2. Queensland
  3. South Australia
  4. Tasmania
  5. Victoria
  6. Western Australia

Dependent areas:

Source: Embassy of Australia.


Independence Date: 1 January 1901 (federation of UK colonies)

Legal System: Based on English common law. Australia accepts compulsory International Court of Justice jurisdiction with reservations; and accepts International Criminal Court jurisdiction. At the apex of the court system is the High Court of Australia. It has general appellate jurisdiction over all other federal and state courts and possesses the power of constitutional review.

Located in the Northern Territory of Australia, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park hosts some of the world's most spectacular examples of inselbergs, or isolated mountains. The most famous of these inselbergs is Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock). An equally massive inselberg located approximately 30 km (20 mi) to the northwest is known as Kata Tjuta. Like Uluru, this is a sacred site to the native Anangu or Aboriginal people. An English-born explorer named the highest peak Mount Olga, with the entire grouping of rocks informally known as "the Olgas." Mount Olga has a peak elevation of 1,069 m (3,507 ft) above sea level, making it 206 m (676 ft) higher than Uluru. In this astronaut photograph, afternoon sunlight highlights the rounded summits of Kata Tjuta against the surrounding sandy plains. Sand dunes are visible in the lower left, while in other areas (bottom and right) sediments washed from the rocks have been anchored by a variety of grasses and bushes adapted to the arid climate. Green vegetation in the ephemeral stream channels that drain Kata Tjuta (top center) provides colorful contrast with the red rocks and surrounding soils. Large gaps in the rocks (highlighted by shadows) are thought to be fractures that have been enlarged due to erosion. Image courtesy of NASA.


Total Renewable Water Resources: 398 cu km (1995)

Freshwater Withdrawal: Total: 24.06 cu km/yr (15% Domestic, 10% industrial, 75% agriculture). Per capita: 1,193 cu m/yr (2000)


Agricultural products: Wheat, barley, sugarcane, fruits, cattle, sheep, poultry

Irrigated Land: 25,450 sq km (2003)


Australia's abundant and diverse natural resources attract high levels of foreign investment and include extensive reserves of coal, iron ore, copper, gold, natural gas, uranium, and renewable energy sources.

Natural Resources: Bauxite, coal, iron ore, copper, tin, gold, silver, uranium, nickel, tungsten, mineral sands, lead, zinc, diamonds, natural gas, petroleum. Note: Australia is the world's largest net exporter of coal accounting for 29% of global coal exports. See also Olympic Dam, South Australia


A series of major investments, such as the US$40 billion Gorgon Liquid Natural Gas project, will significantly expand the resources sector. Australia also has a large services sector and is a significant exporter of natural resources, energy, and food.

See Energy profile of Australia

  Production Consumption Exports Imports Reserves
Electricity 232 billion kWh
(2009 est.)
225.4 billion kWh
(2008 est.)
0 kWh
(2009 est.)
0 kWh
(2009 est.)
Oil 549,200 bbl/day
(2010 est.)
960,800 bbl/day
(2010 est.)
312,600 bbl/day
(2009 est.)
731,400 bbl/day
(2009 est.)
3.318 billion bbl
(1 January 2011 est.)
Natural Gas 45.11 billion cu m
(2010 est.)
26.41 billion cu m
(2010 est.)
24.7 billion cu m
(2010 est.)
5.99 billion cu m
(2010 est.)
3.115 trillion cu m
(1 January 2011 est.)


Australia's economy is dominated by its services sector, yet it is the agricultural and mining sectors that account for the bulk of Australia's exports. Australia's comparative advantage in the export of primary products is a reflection of the natural wealth of the Australian continent and its small domestic market; 23 million people occupy a continent the size of the contiguous United States. The relative size of the manufacturing sector has been declining for several decades, but has now steadied at around 8.5% of GDP. The global recovery is putting upward pressure on prices for Australia's commodity exports, which caused a substantial rise in the terms of trade in 2011.

Since the 1980s, Australia has undertaken significant structural reform of its economy and has transformed itself from an inward-looking, highly protected, and regulated marketplace to an open, internationally competitive, export-oriented economy. Key economic reforms included unilaterally reducing high tariffs and other protective barriers to free trade, floating the Australian dollar, deregulating the financial services sector, including liberalizing access for foreign banks, increasing flexibility in the labor market, reducing duplication and increasing efficiency between the federal and state branches of government, privatizing many government-owned monopolies, and reforming the taxation system, including introducing a broad-based Goods and Services Tax (GST) and large reductions in income tax rates.

Australia enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the G7. Australia's economic standing in the world is a result of a commitment to best-practice macroeconomic policy settings, including the delegation of the conduct of monetary policy to the independent Reserve Bank of Australia, and a broad acceptance of prudent fiscal policy where the government aims for fiscal balance over the economic cycle. Economic recovery is strengthening, with GDP forecast to grow by 3.25% in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. The success of monetary and fiscal stimulus is projected to return the budget to surplus in 2012. Net debt is forecast to peak at 8.9% of GDP in 2011-2012.

The unemployment rate was 5.3% in November 2011. Labor market participation has remained at around 65%. Both the federal and state governments have recognized the need to invest heavily in water, transport, ports, telecommunications, and education infrastructure to expand Australia's supply capacity. The largest river system in Australia, the Murray-Darling, and related coastal lakes and wetlands in South Australia are threatened, although the long drought has broken, and the government has developed a plan to improve irrigation infrastructure and efficiency and buy back unused water allocations along the river.

A second significant issue is climate change. A report commissioned by Prime Minister John Howard recommended a domestic carbon emissions trading scheme and that Australia take an active role in developing a future global carbon emissions trading system. The Gillard government has passed legislation to price carbon at a rate of A$23 (about U.S. $24) per ton from July 2012, with free carbon credits provided to many companies.

Key tenets of Australia's trade policy include support for open trade and the successful culmination of the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, particularly for agriculture and services.

The Australia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) entered into force on January 1, 2005. The AUSFTA was the second free trade agreement (FTA) the United States concluded with a developed economy, following the U.S.-Canada FTA in 1988. Australia also has FTAs with New Zealand, ASEAN, Singapore, Thailand, and Chile, and is pursuing other FTAs, including with China, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea. Australia is also involved in ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations.

A koala female and her joey. Koalas are found in coastal regions in eastern and southern Australia. Despite the fact they are sometimes incorrectly referred to as bears, koalas are actually marsupials, usually giving birth to one offspring per year. The koala eats leaves and bark and is one of a small number of mammals capable of digesting eucalyptus leaves.
Night at Circular Quay in Sydney. View includes the Central Business District, Circular Quay, and the Sydney Opera House.

The Australian economy grew for 17 consecutive years before the global financial crisis. Subsequently, the Rudd government introduced a fiscal stimulus package worth over US$50 billion to offset the effect of the slowing world economy, while the Reserve Bank of Australia cut interest rates to historic lows. These policies - and continued demand for commodities, especially from China - helped the Australian economy rebound after just one quarter of negative growth.

The economy grew by 1.2% during 2009 - the best performance in the OECD. Unemployment, originally expected to reach 8-10%, peaked at 5.7% in late 2009 and fell to 5.1% in 2010. As a result of an improved economy, the budget deficit is expected to peak below 4.2% of GDP and the government could return to budget surpluses as early as 2015.

Australia was one of the first advanced economies to raise interest rates, with seven rate hikes between October 2009 and November 2010.

The Gillard government is focused on raising Australia's economic productivity to ensure the sustainability of growth, and continues to manage the symbiotic, but sometimes tense, economic relationship with China.

Australia is engaged in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks and ongoing free trade agreement negotiations with China, Japan, and Korea.

GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $917.7 billion (2011 est.)

GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $1.507 trillion (2011 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $40,800 (2011 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 4%
industry: 25.6%
services: 70.4% (2011 est.)

Industries: Mining, industrial and transportation equipment, food processing, chemicals, steel

Currency: Australian dollars (AUD) 



Agency, C., & Department, U. (2012). Australia. Retrieved from


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