The evolution of Australian trade

24 May 2019

Trade is anything but constant, what is traded, with whom, at what value and quantity are factors that change and fluctuate every single day. This article steps back to take the ‘long-view’ on Australia’s trade, from Federation to today. It reflects large shifts in the composition and direction of trade, namely towards resources and Asia, and the devastating impact of wars, their aftermaths, and more recently globally systemic crises on trade.

The early years

Wagon loaded with wheat at Narromine Railway Station. Image Powerhouse Museum.

Australia’s export performance between 1900 and 1950 was concentrated on a much narrower base of goods and services than it is today. Australia exported a small range of major agricultural commodities that were dispatched by sea to a small number of British Empire markets.

Exports grew slowly, and consequently, the importance of exports to the Australian economy declined. Export growth was also volatile due to the boom/bust nature of the agriculture cycle, and suffered severe disruptions during both world wars, along with a strong decline in exports during the Great Depression.

After the Second World War, Australia’s exports diversified with resources, manufactures and services exports growing in importance. Agricultural products dominated exports during the 1950s and 1960s, with wool, wheat, beef, sugar and butter major exports, even though agriculture as a share of the Australian economy had begun to decline since the end of the Second World War.

In the 1970s, the composition of Australia’s major exports started shifting towards resources, with exports such as coal, iron ore, natural gas and gold becoming more important. Exports grew strongly compared to the first half of the century and became more important to the Australian economy, especially from the 1980s onwards, as it opened up to the world.

Australia’s export markets also shifted geographically from Europe – particularly from the United Kingdom to Asia, and then within Asia, especially to Japan and China.

Indonesian Delegation in Australia inspecting freshly-shorn fleece from Australian sheep at a property close to Canberra, 1951. Image DFAT.

From the late 1980s, exports of services grew strongly, with personal travel services (both education-related and other personal) and business services becoming major exports.

Short-term overseas visitor arrivals (tourism exports) to Australia increased from 40,000 movements in 1950, to one million by 1984 to 2.4 million by 1990 to over 9.2 million in 2018.

Imports into Australia over the first half of the 20th century were concentrated on intermediate and capital goods. The United Kingdom was the main source, though the United States became more important during the Second World War. Growth in imports was moderate, but with severe disruptions during both world wars. Imports declined even more during the Great Depression.

Australian imports after the Second World War were strong compared to the first half of the century and became more important to the Australian economy, especially from the 1980s onwards as the Australian economy opened up to the world. The major sources of imports to Australia shifted from the United Kingdom in the 1950s, to the United States and Japan in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and then to China in the late 2000s.

Beryl Wilson, left, inspecting Australian clothing with a store buyer in Denver, 1963. She was appointed Australia’s first female trade commissioner in 1967. Image DFAT.

Today

The value of Australian goods and services exports has continued to rise. Exports reached a record $403.2 billion in 2017-18, an increase of nearly 8 per cent over 2016-17.

Australia’s largest goods export is iron ore and tourism is the largest services industry export. A milestone was reached in 2017-18 when we welcomed over 9.2 million international visitors – the largest number of international visitors in any year to date.

China is Australia’s largest export destination, and has been since 2009, receiving 30.6 per cent of our total exports in 2017-18. A further 29.1 per cent of total exports went, in order, to Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United States, and India. More than 75 per cent of Australia’s exports went to Australia’s top ten export destinations in 2017-18.

The value of goods and services imported into Australia continued to rise in 2017-18. Imports reached $395.4 billion after increasing by 9.0 per cent over the year. Australia’s top import, worth $42.5 billion, was the provision of travel services for Australians travelling overseas for personal tourism (excluding education-related travel).

Australia’s top import source in 2017-18 was China, accounting for 18.0 per cent of total imports worth $71.3 billion. The main type of imports were goods, worth $68.1 billion, while services came in at $3.2 billion. Of Australia’s top ten import sources, the United Kingdom was the only country where Australian importers sourced more services than goods imports.


Australia's merchandise exports 1901 to 1944-45

Chart showing Australia’s merchandise exports 1901 to 1944-45. See text version below.
View larger image. Text version below.
Year Exports - goods
($ billion)
1901 7
1902 6
1903 7
1904 8
1905 8
1906 10
1907 10
1908 9
1909 9
1910 10
1911 10
1912 9
1913 9
1914-15 7
1915-16 7
1916-17 9
1917-18 7
1918-19 9
1919-20 11
1920-21 10
1921-22 10
1922-23 9
Year Exports - goods
($ billion)
1923-24 9
1924-25 13
1925-26 11
1926-27 11
1927-28 11
1928-29 11
1929-30 10
1930-31 9
1931-32 10
1932-33 12
1933-34 12
1934-35 11
1935-36 13
1936-37 15
1937-38 14
1938-39 12
1939-40 14
1940-41 13
1941-42 13
1942-43 9
1943-44 11
1944-45 11
Based on:
DFAT STARS Database.
ABS Overseas trade, various editions
ABS Cat. No. 5302.0
ABS Cat. No. 5363.0

Australia's goods & services exports 1945-46 to present

Chart showing Australia’s goods & services exports 1945-46 to present. See text version below.
View larger image. Text version below
Year Exports - goods & services
($ billion)
1945-46 19
1946-47 22
1947-48 28
1948-49 32
1949-50 34
1950-51 47
1951-52 28
1952-53 32
1953-54 30
1954-55 27
1955-56 26
1956-57 33
1957-58 27
1958-59 27
1959-60 30
1960-61 30
1961-62 34
1962-63 34
1963-64 43
1964-65 40
1965-66 40
1966-67 43
1967-68 43
1968-69 45
1969-70 54
1970-71 55
1971-72 58
1972-73 66
1973-74 67
1974-75 74
1975-76 72
1976-77 76
1977-78 73
1978-79 80
1979-80 95
1980-81 89
Year Exports - goods & services
($ billion)
1981-82 84
1982-83 82
1983-84 87
1984-85 102
1985-86 103
1986-87 107
1987-88 117
1988-89 116
1989-90 119
1990-91 123
1991-92 128
1992-93 140
1993-94 148
1994-95 151
1995-96 164
1996-97 172
1997-98 185
1998-99 181
1999-00 198
2000-01 232
2001-02 223
2002-03 213
2003-04 201
2004-05 223
2005-06 254
2006-07 274
2007-08 286
2008-09 337
2009-10 294
2010-11 337
2011-12 350
2012-13 327
2013-14 347
2014-15 328
2015-16 320
2016-17 369
Based on:
DFAT STARS Database.
ABS Overseas trade, various editions
ABS Cat. No. 5302.0
ABS Cat. No. 5363.0

Australia's industry share of GDP

Chart showing Australias Industry share of GDP. See text version below.
View larger image. Text version below
Year Agriculture Mining Manufacturing Other
1900-01 18.3 9.9 11.9 59.9
1901-02 18.8 9.8 11.7 59.8
1902-03 21.8 9.7 11.2 57.3
1903-04 26.1 9.7 10.8 53.5
1904-05 29.3 9.6 10.8 50.4
1905-06 29.9 9.3 11.2 49.6
1906-07 29.0 9.0 11.6 50.4
1907-08 28.4 8.2 11.9 51.4
1908-09 28.2 7.1 12.2 52.6
1909-10 27.6 6.1 12.5 53.8
1910-11 26.2 5.7 13.1 54.9
1911-12 24.5 5.8 13.6 56.0
1912-13 22.6 5.8 14.0 57.7
1913-14 21.1 5.5 14.2 59.3
1914-15 21.5 5.1 14.1 59.4
1915-16 24.8 4.9 13.6 56.8
1916-17 29.1 4.7 12.9 53.3
1917-18 30.2 4.3 12.6 53.0
1918-19 28.1 3.7 12.7 55.5
1919-20 26.2 3.0 12.9 57.9
1920-21 25.2 2.5 13.1 59.2
1921-22 24.0 2.3 13.7 60.0
1922-23 23.2 2.3 14.2 60.3
1923-24 23.5 2.3 14.3 60.0
1924-25 24.1 2.4 14.1 59.5
1925-26 23.2 2.4 14.3 60.1
1926-27 21.6 2.3 15.1 61.0
1927-28 20.6 2.2 16.2 61.0
1928-29 20.4 2.0 17.0 60.6
1929-30 20.4 1.9 17.0 60.8
1930-31 20.9 1.9 16.4 60.8
1931-32 22.4 2.0 15.7 59.9
1932-33 23.9 2.2 15.4 58.5
1933-34 24.0 2.4 15.5 58.0
1934-35 23.7 2.6 15.7 57.9
1935-36 23.8 2.8 15.9 57.5
1936-37 23.6 3.0 16.3 57.1
1937-38 22.5 3.1 17.1 57.3
1938-39 20.6 3.2 18.2 57.9
1939-40 19.7 3.2 19.4 57.7
1940-41 19.9 3.2 20.2 56.7
1941-42 20.3 3.1 21.0 55.6
1942-43 20.5 3.0 21.8 54.7
1943-44 20.7 3.0 22.6 53.7
1944-45 21.0 2.9 23.3 52.8
1945-46 21.2 2.9 24.1 51.8
1946-47 21.4 2.8 24.9 50.9
1947-48 21.5 2.7 25.8 49.9
1948-49 21.6 2.7 26.7 49.1
1949-50 23.6 2.5 26.5 47.4
1950-51 25.5 2.3 26.0 46.1
1951-52 25.5 2.3 25.8 46.3
1952-53 23.4 2.3 26.2 48.0
1953-54 20.5 2.3 27.1 50.0
1954-55 18.6 2.3 27.9 51.2
1955-56 17.8 2.3 28.4 51.5
1956-57 16.6 2.3 28.9 52.2
1957-58 15.8 2.1 29.1 53.0
1958-59 15.0 1.9 29.5 53.6
1959-60 14.5 1.8 30.0 53.7
1960-61 14.0 1.7 30.0 54.3
1961-62 13.2 1.7 28.8 56.3
1962-63 12.3 1.6 27.1 59.0
1963-64 11.5 1.6 25.8 61.1
1964-65 10.9 1.6 25.5 62.0
1965-66 10.1 1.7 25.6 62.6
1966-67 9.2 1.8 25.4 63.6
1967-68 8.6 2.0 25.1 64.3
1968-69 7.9 2.3 24.9 64.9
1969-70 6.9 2.7 24.6 65.8
1970-71 6.2 3.1 24.1 66.6
1971-72 6.2 3.2 23.5 67.1
1972-73 6.9 3.2 22.8 67.1
1973-74 7.1 3.4 22.0 67.5
1974-75 6.3 3.8 21.3 68.6
1975-76 5.2 4.2 20.7 69.9
1976-77 4.6 4.5 20.3 70.6
1977-78 5.1 4.8 19.8 70.3
1978-79 5.7 5.3 19.4 69.6
1979-80 6.0 5.8 19.2 68.9
1980-81 5.5 6.2 19.1 69.2
1981-82 4.7 6.3 18.8 70.2
1982-83 4.3 6.5 18.3 70.9
1983-84 4.4 6.7 17.9 71.0
1984-85 4.4 6.7 17.6 71.4
1985-86 4.2 6.2 17.2 72.4
1986-87 4.0 5.3 16.6 74.0
1987-88 4.2 4.5 16.2 75.0
1988-89 4.4 4.3 15.7 75.6
1989-90 4.6 4.9 15.0 75.5
1990-91 3.5 5.2 13.8 77.5
1991-92 3.4 5.1 13.8 77.7
1992-93 3.5 5.1 14.0 77.4
1993-94 3.6 4.7 14.4 77.3
1994-95 3.3 4.7 14.4 77.6
1995-96 3.7 5.0 14.0 77.3
1996-97 3.6 4.7 13.5 78.2
1997-98 3.3 4.8 13.6 78.3
1998-99 3.3 4.5 13.0 79.2
1999-00 3.4 4.6 12.6 79.4
2000-01 3.8 5.5 12.1 78.6
2001-02 4.3 5.3 11.5 78.9
2002-03 3.2 5.0 11.9 79.9
2003-04 3.4 4.4 11.9 80.3
2004-05 3.1 5.5 11.3 80.1
2005-06 3.0 7.2 10.7 79.1
2006-07 2.4 7.7 10.1 79.9
2007-08 2.5 7.7 9.9 79.8
2008-09 2.5 9.8 9.0 78.8
2009-10 2.4 7.9 8.6 81.2
2010-11 2.4 9.9 7.9 79.8
2011-12 2.4 9.5 7.5 80.6
2012-13 2.4 8.2 7.0 82.3
2013-14 2.4 8.9 6.8 81.9
2014-15 2.5 7.1 6.7 83.6
2015-16 2.6 6.3 6.5 84.6
2016-17 2.9 8.2 6.2 82.7
Australia's GDP by Industry - % share
Sources:
N.G. Butlin Australian National Accounts 1788 to 1983
ABS Australian National Accounts 1948-49 to 1961-61 & ABS Cat. No. 5204.0 2012-13
RBA - Australian Economic Statistics 1949-50 to 1996-97 Occasional Paper No. 8
DFAT estimate - 1939-40 to 1948-49

Australia's merchandise imports 1901 to 1944-45

Chart showing Australia’s merchandise imports 1901 to 1944-45. See text version below.
View larger image. Text version below
Year Imports goods
($ billion)
1901 6
1902 6
1903 5
1904 5
1905 5
1906 6
1907 7
1908 7
1909 7
1910 8
1911 8
1912 9
1913 8
1914-15 7
1915-16 8
1916-17 7
1917-18 6
1918-19 8
1919-20 7
1920-21 12
1921-22 8
1922-23 10
Year Imports goods
($ billion)
1923-24 11
1924-25 12
1925-26 12
1926-27 13
1927-28 11
1928-29 11
1929-30 10
1930-31 5
1931-32 4
1932-33 5
1933-34 6
1934-35 7
1935-36 8
1936-37 8
1937-38 10
1938-39 10
1939-40 11
1940-41 10
1941-42 13
1942-43 17
1943-44 17
1944-45 15
Based on:
DFAT STARS Database.
ABS Overseas trade, various editions
ABS Cat. No. 5302.0
ABS Cat. No. 5363.0

Australia's imports 1945-46 to present

Chart showing Australia’s imports 1945-46 to present. See text version below.
View larger image. Text version below
Year Imports - goods & services
($ billion)
1945-46 12
1946-47 19
1947-48 25
1948-49 28
1949-50 32
1950-51 39
1951-52 47
1952-53 23
1953-54 27
1954-55 32
1955-56 30
1956-57 26
1957-58 29
1958-59 28
1959-60 33
1960-61 36
1961-62 31
1962-63 37
1963-64 40
1964-65 46
1965-66 47
1966-67 46
1967-68 50
1968-69 51
1969-70 55
1970-71 56
1971-72 54
1972-73 52
1973-74 67
1974-75 76
1975-76 71
1976-77 79
1977-78 78
1978-79 86
1979-80 92
1980-81 100
Year Imports - goods & services
($ billion)
1981-82 105
1982-83 95
1983-84 96
1984-85 116
1985-86 124
1986-87 118
1987-88 121
1988-89 130
1989-90 134
1990-91 124
1991-92 126
1992-93 142
1993-94 152
1994-95 168
1995-96 168
1996-97 170
1997-98 194
1998-99 205
1999-00 220
2000-01 231
2001-02 223
2002-03 236
2003-04 233
2004-05 257
2005-06 277
2006-07 297
2007-08 323
2008-09 334
2009-10 309
2010-11 322
2011-12 354
2012-13 348
2013-14 354
2014-15 353
2015-16 357
2016-17 359
Based on:
DFAT STARS Database.
ABS Overseas trade, various editions
ABS Cat. No. 5302.0
ABS Cat. No. 5363.0

Australia's Top 10 Export Markets 2017-18

 ($ billion) 
Rank Markets (a)(b) goods ($ billion) services ($ billion) Total % share
1 China 106.3 16.9 123.3 30.6
2 Japan 49.1 2.3 51.3 12.7
3 Republic of Korea 21.5 2.1 23.6 5.9
4 United States 12.3 9.2 21.4 5.3
5 India 16.3 4.8 21.1 5.2
6 Hong Kong (c) 11.4 3.1 14.5 3.6
7 New Zealand 9.3 5.0 14.4 3.6
8 Singapore 8.0 5.2 13.2 3.3
9 United Kingdom 6.5 5.3 11.8 2.9
10 Taiwan  9.4 1.5 11.0 2.7
Total top 10 markets 250.0 55.5 305.5 75.8
Total exports (d) 315.2 88.0 403.2 100.00
 of which: APEC 257.1 55.7 312.8 77.6
ASEAN 33.2 13.5 46.7 11.6
EU28 18.1 11.5 29.6 7.3
OECD 115.7 32.9 148.5 36.8
(a) All data is on a balance of payments basis, except for goods by country which are on a recorded trade basis.  
(b) May exclude selected confidential export commodities. Refer to the Trade time series data for more information and a list of the excluded commodities.
(c) Special Administrative Region of China.
(d) Totals may not add due to rounding.
Based on ABS trade data on DFAT STARS database, ABS catalogue 5368.0.55.003 and unpublished ABS data.


Last Updated: 14 May 2019

Australia’s new Trade Through Time website documents milestones in Australia’s trading history on an interactive timeline. Snapshot historical information is provided on trade prior to Federation in 1901 and then on a decade-by-decade basis from 1900 to the present.

The latest edition of Australia’s Trade and Investment at a Glance 2019 is available.

In addition to statistical trade publications, DFAT publishes detailed time series datasets of Australian trade and investment data. To view these and the explanatory notes on the historical dataset used in this article see the Trade time series data