Australia in brief

The land and its people

Brief history

Australia's Aboriginal people, the original inhabitants of the Australian continent, arrived from Asia at least 50,000 years ago. Parts of the continent were mapped by Dutch navigators in the seventeenth century and by French and British navigators the following century, but it was not until 1770 that Captain James Cook charted the east coast and claimed it for Britain.

From 1788, Britain established penal colonies in New South Wales and Tasmania and later in Western Australia. Free settlers followed in increasing numbers, gradually outnumbering convicts. A colony made up entirely of free settlers was established in South Australia in the 1830s.

European claims to ownership of the land were reinforced in 1835 with the enunciation of the doctrine of terra nullius, the notion that no-one owned the land before the British Crown took possession of it. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, displaced by European colonisation, suffered great hardship, but maintained proud and strong Indigenous cultures and languages throughout and to the present day. Native title to land and waters was recognised by the High Court in 1992, and by the Commonwealth Parliament a year later.

Queensland and Victoria separated from New South Wales in the 1850s, by which time gold had been discovered in New South Wales and Victoria. The gold rush brought immigrants to Australia from all over the world.

In 1901, the six colonies united to form the federal Commonwealth of Australia. The new federation adopted a restrictive immigration policy, protectionist tariffs and a centralised system of industrial conciliation and arbitration. These policies were dismantled in the 1970s and 1980s with major reforms leading to the opening of the Australian economy.

From 1914–18, more than 400,000 Australians volunteered in World War I. Although Australia's first major campaign in Gallipoli in 1915 was a failure, with almost 9,000 Australian soldiers losing their lives, its commemoration came to be an important element in the emergence of an Australian national identity.

The signing of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles by the Prime Minister was the first time that Australia had signed an international treaty. In World War II (1939–45), Australian troops were deployed against the Axis powers in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and allied with the United States in the Pacific War against Japan. On 1 November 1945, Australia became a founding member of the United Nations. In 1951, Australia entered into the ANZUS Treaty with the United States and New Zealand, and in 1957 signed an agreement on commerce with Japan which underpinned Australia's increasing engagement with Asia.

Over the last fifty years, Australia has become a destination for migrants from all across the world, and it is now among the world's most multicultural nations. The nation has developed a highly diversified economy with considerable strengths, particularly in the mining and agricultural sectors as well as manufacturing and services, and it has become increasingly economically integrated with the countries of East Asia.

Prime Minister Whitlam pouring dry earth into the palm of Mr Vincent Lingiari. Mr Lingiari holds leasehold title document in other hand.
On 26 August 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed a leasehold title to land at Daguragu (Wattle Creek) to Vincent Lingiari, representative of the Gurindji people. It was a turning point for Aboriginal land rights in Australia. Photo courtesy of Mervyn Bishop

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A diverse people

Australian society is a melting pot of cultures. While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the traditional inhabitants of the land, immigrants from more than 200 countries also call Australia home. Since World War II, more than seven million migrants have come to Australia. From 1788 to the 1970s, the majority came from Europe. These days, Australia receives many more migrants from Asia, and since 1996 the number of migrants from Africa and the Middle East has almost doubled. Australia's immigration policy welcomes people from all over the world and does not discriminate on racial, cultural or religious grounds. As a nation, we embrace the spectrum of religious beliefs: Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and other places of worship are found in almost every major city.

Cover illustration from the Australia's Multicultural Policy publication, made up of many Australian faces.
The People of Australia – Australia's Multicultural Policy. Source: DIAC
Breakdown of religious affiliation in Australia
The figure is a pie chart. Data reading clockwise around the chart is as follows:
Religion	Percentage
Catholic	25.3
Anglican	17.1
Uniting Church	5.0
Presbyterian and Reformed	2.8
Other Christian	2.8
Eastern Orthodox	2.6
Baptist	1.6
Lutheran	1.2
Pentecostal	1.1
Jehovah's Witnesses	0.4
Latter-day Saints	0.3
Salvation Army	0.3
Seventh-day Adventist	0.3
Other Protestant	0.3
Oriental Orthodox	0.2
No religion	22.3
Religious affiliation not stated	8.6
Buddhism	2.5
Islam	2.2
Other Religions:	1.6
Hinduism	1.3
Judaism	0.5
Percentage is not 100 per cent due to rounding. Source: 2011 Census data

Human rights for all

Australia is committed to promoting and protecting human rights universally. Australia has an enduring commitment to human rights internationally and is a party to major human rights treaties. We believe the protection and promotion of human rights is every nation's responsibility. We take this responsibility seriously, including through our national human rights institution, the Australian Human Rights Commission and our Human Rights Framework. We have a strong democratic tradition, a transparent and independent judicial system and a free media. Our society is characterised by a sense of egalitarianism.


Australians were pioneers in establishing democracy in the modern world. In the midnineteenth century, Australian colonies set about writing constitutions which produced democratically elected parliaments. From the 1850s to the 1890s, when few other countries in the world were democratic, the Australian colonies progressively established universal male suffrage, and were also among the first to give women the vote.

The Australian form of government follows the British (Westminster) tradition. The Governor-General, representing the Crown, exercises the supreme executive power of the Commonwealth. In practice, the Governor-General acts on the advice of the head of the government, the Prime Minister, and other ministers.

The Prime Minister leads a Cabinet of ministers, each of whom has responsibility for a different portfolio of government duties. Commonwealth ministers, including the Prime Minister, are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the leader of a political party or coalition which represents a majority of the House of Representatives in the federal parliament.

A similar system operates in the states. The Governor-General takes the Prime Minister's advice on the exercise of executive power, including such matters as the timing of elections and the reshuffling of ministerial portfolios.

The 1901 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia sets out the powers of the Commonwealth and states. Each state has its own written constitution. The High Court of Australia and the Federal Court of Australia have the authority to interpret constitutional provisions. Under the Constitution, the legislative power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Federal Parliament. The Parliament makes laws, authorises the Government to spend public money, scrutinises government activities, and is a forum for debate on national issues.

Two school children inspect an exhibition of political badges.
The Museum of Australian Democracy at Canberra's Old Parliament House encourages visitors to celebrate, debate and experience the journey of Australia's democracy. Its school education program reaches some 70,000 school children a year. Photo: MOAD

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This diagram is about Parliament and government.

More than 14 million Australians vote for federal representatives.

The Parliament of Australia is made up of 226 federal representatives.

There are 76 senators in the Senate.

There are 150 members in the House of Representatives.

Over 50% of support is needed in the House of Representatives to form government.

A maximum of 42 members of the government are part of the executive government.

Some members of the executive government are also members of Cabinet.
Source: Parliamentary Education Office
This diagram illustrates the locations and names of the state and territory parliaments across Australia.

  The Northern Territory Legislative Assembly in Darwin makes laws for the Northern Territory
  The Western Australian Parliament in Perth makes laws for Western Australia
  The South Australian Parliament in Adelaide makes laws for South Australia
  The Tasmanian Parliament in Hobart makes laws for Tasmania
  The Victorian Parliament in Melbourne makes laws for Victoria
  The Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly in Canberra makes laws for the Australian Capital Territory
  The New South Wales Parliament in Sydney makes laws for New South Wales
  The Queensland Parliament in Brisbane makes laws for Queensland.
Source: Parliamentary Education Office
This diagram shows how governments raise and spend money.

The federal government raises money through taxing people and businesses. The money is spent on federal matters such as: security, defence, immigration, the environment.

State/territory governments receive more than half their money from federal government and also collect taxes. The money is spent on state matters such as: roads, prisons, housing, public transport, police and ambulance services.

Local councils collect taxes (rates) from all local property owners and receive money from federal and state government. The money is spent on local matters such as: town planning, rubbish collection, water and sewage, dog registration, local roads.
Source: Parliamentary Education Office

Indigenous Australia

Australia's Aboriginal people arrived from Asia at least 50,000 years ago. They formed many different tribes and were largely nomadic hunters and gatherers.

Torres Strait Islander peoples first settled on islands north of the mainland, between the tip of Queensland and Papua New Guinea, about 10,000 years ago.

Today most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live in cities and towns, but many still live in rural and remote areas and follow traditional lifestyles.

Indigenous culture is diverse and strong, and makes a vital contribution to Australia's national identity. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples contribute significantly across many fields including the arts, media, academia, politics, sport and business.

When Europeans arrived in Australia, there were a large number of different Aboriginal languages and dialects spoken. While Indigenous languages remain strong in some communities, it is estimated that over 50 languages have been lost since European settlement. Approximately 145 languages are still spoken with around 110 of these severely or critically endangered. Efforts are underway to keep language strong in Indigenous communities, and revive vulnerable languages.

A federal referendum on 27 May 1967 removed references from the Australian Constitution which discriminated against Indigenous people. It saw the highest 'yes' vote ever recorded in a federal referendum, with 90.77 per cent voting for the change. The referendum was an important milestone in Australian history.

On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia, through the landmark Mabo decision, recognised native title and Indigenous peoples' entitlements to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of lands for the first time in Australian history. Many regard the decision as a turning point for reconciliation in Australia.

Teenage dancers holding pose on stage.
Dancers performing at Corroboree 2000, a national reconciliation event held at Sydney in May 2000. Photo: Karen Mork,
Two men setting up a video camera out in the desert.
Cameramen from Imparja Television, Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Imparja Television is a private, fully commercial company under the control of Indigenous shareholders. Photo: Penny Tweedie

On 13 February 2008, the then Australian Prime Minister, the Hon Kevin Rudd MP, moved in the Australian Parliament a motion of Apology to Australia's Indigenous peoples, in particular the Stolen Generations, for past mistreatment and injustices.

The Apology was deeply felt by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and helped to build a bridge of respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

The Australian Government is working towards recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their culture and languages in Australia's Constitution, as a significant step towards building a nation based on strong relationships and mutual respect, which recognises the unique and special place of our Indigenous peoples.

Australian governments at all levels are working to close the gap in the education, health, housing and employment sectors where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander outcomes are well below the Australian average.

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Woman in print studio, dressed in and surrounded by colourful fabric.
Fabric printer Rosie Ware from Thursday Island takes inspiration from the strength of Torres Strait culture, her island surroundings and the sea, and promotes Torres Strait art and crafts to visitors to her island home. Rosie sells her own work from her studio: Photo: Newslines

Text of the apology to Australia's Indigenous people as delivered by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on 13 February 2008

I move:

That today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation's history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed. A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Australia's unique environment

Australia is a land like no other, with over half a million different native species. More than 80 per cent of our mammals, reptiles, frogs and flowering plants are unique to Australia, along with many of our freshwater fish, and almost half our birds. Australia has more than 140 species of marsupials, animals that carry their young in a pouch, such as kangaroos, koalas, wombats and the Tasmanian devil. We are also home to two monotremes, egg-laying mammals sometimes referred to as 'living fossils': the platypus and echidna.

Environmental challenges

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth . Climate variability and change pose risks to Australia’s water resources, agricultural production, coastal communities and natural ecosystems.

Introduced animals have established feral populations in Australia, with cats and foxes responsible for the decline and contributing to the extinction of many native animals. Plants introduced since European settlement have become weeds and cause substantial damage to native vegetation and habitats.

Australia's national parks and protected areas

Australia’s national reserve system covers 16.5 per cent of Australia’s land mass—more than 127 million hectares (313 million acres) across 10,000 properties—and includes a range of habitats from lush rainforests to savannahs and deserts. The Commonwealth marine reserve estate includes 60 reserves (including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park), covering 3.1 million square kilometres—approximately a third of Commonwealth waters.

Two divers swimming over coral reef.
Great Barrier Reef, Queensland. Photo: Tourism Queensland
Kangaroos skipping past sand formations.
Lake Mungo, New South Wales. On the eastern shore of the lake are the 'Walls of China', 30 metres high and formed over thousands of years. Photo: Tourism NSW

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Photo of a waterfall
Cedar Falls along the Never Never circuit in Dorrigo National Park, New South Wales. Photo: Wikicommons
Kookaburra perched on a branch.
Kookaburra. Photo: Tourism NSW