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The Lowdown On Australia: What You Need To Know Before You Go

By: Tom Malone



Before you leave on an extended stay in Australia, take some time to learn about the place you're travelling to. Here is the basic lowdown on Australian geography, history, economics, and government.

Geography:

Physical
Overall, Australia’s topography features low elevation (under 1,000 feet), aside from the Great Dividing Range, which peaks at 7,300 feet. This range divides the heavily populated East Coast of Australia from the arid inland areas. These inland high desert regions produce hot temperatures and slim vegetation. As Australia is entirely surrounded by ocean, the sea plays a major role in Australia’s climate.

  • Climate
    • Mostly arid and semi-arid
    • Extremely hot in most areas
    • Temperate in Southeast
    • Tropical in North
  • Coast
    • Entire country/continent is an island
    • Completely surrounded by water
  • Outback
    • Inland area, not surrounded by ocean
    • Dry, arid desert
    • Mostly low elevations
    • Low-lying bushes provide some vegetation for adapted life
  • Fun Facts
    • World smallest continent
    • World’s sixth-largest country
    • Largest country without land borders

Human
Australia’s population congregates near the coast because the interior of the country provides a harsh environment and few natural resources for civilization to thrive; however, Aborigines learned to adapt to the harsh environment and thrived with a unique culture for more than 30,000 years. Currently, most Australians claim European heritage, though many still claim Aboriginal roots.

  • Population Density
    • Total Population: 22.7 million
    • 90% live in urban areas
    • 85% of Australians live within 50 km of the coast
  • Major Cities
    • Canberra: Capital
    • Sydney: Cultural center on East Coast
    • Darwin: Northern coastal town
    • Melbourne: Southern coastal town
  • Languages
    • English: 77%
    • Mandarin: 2%
    • Other: 10%
  • Religions
    • Protestant: 30%
    • Catholic: 25%
    • Buddhist: 2.5%
    • Muslim: 2.2%

History:

Aborigines
Aboriginal culture began 50,000 to 65,000 years ago (historians disagree on exact dates), which makes their culture the oldest continuous, surviving culture in the world. 

Aborigines thrived on adaptation; they were able to live in Australia’s hot deserts by utilizing nature to their fullest advantage. They used boomerangs carved from trees to hunt kangaroos, gathered wild honey from hollowed-out tree trunks, and ate grubs. They obtained water from any source possible and they knew where each water source was located.

Aborigines incorporated music and dance into their cultural traditions. Their dances honored the spirits and each dance group had their own, unique rhythm that identified them. Using hollowed termite nests, Aboriginal musicians crafted didgeridoos, which provide a hollow, echoed sound.

Tribal warfare rarely occurred, which made Aboriginal culture very peaceful overall. Spears and boomerangs were used to acquire food, not to harm other humans.

Oral tradition played a huge role in furthering Aboriginal culture by passing it from generation to generation. Though cave paintings were created, Aboriginal culture passed on their traditions verbally, not in written form.

Aborigines viewed themselves as a part of the land rather than owners of it. In 1770, European colonizers would arrive in Australia with the opposite mentality, viewing themselves as owners of land rather than part of the land.

British Colonization
In 1606, a Dutch sailor named William Janszoon became the first European to sail into “Australian” waters and called the continent Terra Australis Incognita (Unknown Southern Land), which is where modern Australia derives its name.

In 1770, James Cook sailed to East Australia and claimed the land for Britain under King George III. A colonial fleet follow 18 years later (in 1788) and settled in the Aboriginal territory of Cali. More colonial fleets followed.

The British government used Australia as a prison colony from 1788 to 1823, specifically the area of New South Wales. Britain sent their most prominent criminals to the island/continent to serve as farm labor in the newly established British territory.
In 1851 (two years after the California Gold Rush based near San Francisco), gold was discovered in a water hole in Australia. By 1852, 370,000 prospective gold miners arrived in Australia from Europe with hopes of growing rich quickly. The influx of immigrants to the British colony expanded Australia’s economy and solidified its place as a Eurocentric location.

Technically, Australia became an independent country (free from British rule) in 1931, though it didn’t fully exercise its independence until 1986. Independence was achieved peacefully.

Tension Between British Colonizers and Aboriginal Culture
When Britain colonized North America, it created conflict between colonists and Native Americans. The same type of conflict occurred between Australia's British colonists and Aborigines.

According to Australia’s government history database, “Initially, relations between the explorers and the Aboriginal inhabitants were generally hospitable and based on understanding the terms of trading for food, water, axes, cloth and artefacts, a relationship encouraged by Governor Phillip.”

However, according to Australia’s current government, “These relations became hostile as Aborigines realised that the land and resources upon which they depended and the order of their life were seriously disrupted by the on-going presence of the colonisers. Between 1790 and 1810, clans people of the Eora group in the Sydney area, led by Pemulwuy of the Bidjigal clan, undertook a campaign of resistance against the English colonisers in a series of attacks.”

Eventually, the British Australian government controlled most of the continent with legally binding contracts. In 1915, A.O. Neville became Australia’s “Chief Protector of Aborigines” and relocated thousands of Aboriginal children to British-style schools and institutions, which dissipated and diluted Aboriginal culture. Aborigines were forced onto reservations, which left their culture in a state of near-disappearance after 50,000+ years.

Economics:

Colonization Effects
British colonization had a wide-ranging effect on Australia that lingers in today’s economy. When gold was discovered in 1851, 370,000 immigrants (mainly from Britain) arrived on the continent. This provided a massive influx of workforce members, but it also provided more people to feed, which increased the demand for agricultural production.

Since Australia remained a British colony for so long, it provided massive amounts of production for the British Empire. Once the Aborigines were forced onto reservations, Australia’s landscape provided unused space for livestock raising and commercial farming, which fed large portions of the British Empire.

The demand for gold throughout the world made Australia an epicenter for precious metal mining as well.

Imports
  • $245.9 billion (2014)
  • Commodities: machinery, computers, telecommunication equipment, and oil

Exports
  • $250.8 billion (2014)
  • Commodities: coal, iron, gold, meat, wool, machinery, and wheat

Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
  • $1.095 trillion (2014)
  • $46,400 Per Capita (2014)
  • 2.7 % Growth Rate (2014)

Major Trading Partners
  • China, U.S.A., Japan, Germany, Singapore, and South Korea

Major Jobs
  • Tourism
  • Mining
  • Equipment Production
  • Food processing
  • Farming (crops and livestock)

Government:

Under British Colonization
While the British established various colonies on the Australian continent, the empire used its resources and available (and taken) land to provide for the British Empire.

The British parliament and Queen controlled the laws of the Australian colonies. British parliament signed off on laws and rules that governed the territories, while parliament and the Queen appointed officials to govern the Australian colonies.

As the British continued to colonize Australia, each newly claimed land became its own colony (ex: New South Wales was a different colony than Victoria). In 1901, all British colonies on the continent united as the Commonwealth of Australia.

Independence
Technically, Australia attained independence from the British Empire in 1901; however, some argue that 1931 marks Australia’s official independence day because the British Queen still signed off on Australian state bills (even until 1986, when Australian law passed a bill that eliminated the requirement of British approval for bills and government-appointed officials). Some argue that, because the British Queen is still the Chief of State in Australia, that Australia hasn’t gained complete independence.

Unlike the United States, Australia achieved independence from Britain peacefully and diplomatically. In 1901, the British parliament signed a law that made Australia a Federation (although the governing rules were essentially the same as they were when Australia was a “colony”).  British parliament gradually passed laws that loosened their grip on Australia’s government, which eventually culminated in full independence by 1986.

Australian independence from the British Empire was achieved without war and without revolution, unlike many modern nations.

Current Government
  • Type: Federal Parliamentary Democracy
    • British Commonwealth Realm
  • Capital City: Canberra
  • Anyone 18 years and older can vote for government leaders and laws
  • Government System
    • Executive Branch
      • Chief of State: Queen of England
      • Head of Government: Prime Minister (Leader of the majority party in Legislative Branch)
    • Legislative Branch
      • Senate (12 members from all 6 states)
      • House of representatives (150 seats)
    • Judicial Branch
      • 7 Justices (including Chief justice)
      • Life term with mandatory retirement at age 70
    • National Anthem: Advance Australia Fair
    • National Colors: Green and Gold

*Photo By: Tom Malone
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