Australia (03/03)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.



Area: 7.7 million sq. km. (3 million sq. mi.); about the size of the 48 continental United States.
Cities: (2001) Capital--Canberra (pop. 311,500). Other cities--Sydney (4.0 million), Melbourne (3.5 million), Brisbane (1.6 million), Perth (1.3 million).
Terrain: Varied, but generally low-lying.
Climate: Relatively dry, ranging from temperate in the south to tropical in the north.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Australian(s).
Population (2001): 19.5 million.
Annual growth rate: 1.25%.
Ethnic groups: European 92%, Asian 6%, Aboriginal 2%.
Religions: Anglican 20%, Roman Catholic 26%, other Christian 21%, other non-Christian 5%, no religion 15%.
Languages: English.
Education: Years compulsory--to age 15 in all states except Tasmania, where it is 16. Literacy--99%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--5/1,000. Life expectancy--males 77 yrs., females 82 yrs.
Work force (9.3 million): agriculture--4%; mining, manufacturing, and utilities--22%; services--70%; public administration and defense--4%.

Type: Democratic, federal-state system recognizing British monarch as sovereign.
Constitution: July 9, 1900.
Independence (federation): January 1, 1901.
Branches: Head of state is the governor general, who is appointed by the Queen of Australia (the British Monarch). Legislative--bicameral Parliament (76-member Senate, 148-member House of Representatives). The House of Representatives selects as head of government the Prime Minister, who then appoints his cabinet. Judicial--independent judiciary.
Administrative subdivisions: Six states and two territories.
Political parties: Liberal, National, Australian Labor, Australian Democrats. The Liberal and National parties form the governing coalition.
Suffrage: Universal and compulsory over 18.
Central government budget (FY 2002-03): $95 billion.
Defense (FY 2001-02): 2.0% of GDP.
Flag: On a blue field, U.K. Union Jack in the top left corner, a large white star directly beneath symbolizing federation, and five smaller white stars on the right half representing the Southern Cross constellation.

GDP: (2001) $348.5 billion.
Inflation rate: (2001) 3.1% p.a.
Trade: Exports ($64.0 billion, 2001)--coal, gold, wool, meat, iron ore, wheat, alumina, aluminum, machinery and transport equipment. Major markets--Japan, U.S. ($8.0 billion), New Zealand, South Korea. Imports ($61.7 billion, 2001)--machinery and transport equipment, computers, crude oil and petroleum products, telecommunications equipment. Major suppliers--U.S. ($13.5 billion), Japan, China, Germany, U.K., China, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Singapore.

Australia's aboriginal inhabitants, a hunting-gathering people generally referred to as Aborigines, arrived about 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. Aboriginal population density ranged from 1 person per square mile along the coasts to 1 person per 35 square miles in the arid interior. Food procurement was usually a matter for the nuclear family and was very demanding, since there was little large game, and they had no agriculture.

Australia may have been sighted by Portuguese sailors in 1601, and Capt. James Cook claimed it for Great Britain in 1770. At that time, the native population may have numbered 300,000 in as many as 500 tribes speaking many different languages. The aboriginal population currently numbers more than 410,000, representing about 2.2% of the population. Since the end of World War II, efforts have been made both by the government and by the public to be more responsive to aboriginal rights and needs.

Today, tribal aborigines lead a settled traditional life in remote areas of northern, central, and western Australia. In the south, where most aborigines are of mixed descent, movement to the cities is increasing.

Immigration has been essential 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, with a culture and outlook similar to those of Americans. However, since the end of World War II, the population has more than doubled; non-European immigration, mostly from the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, has increased significantly since 1960 through an extensive, planned immigration program. From 1945 through 2000, nearly 5.9 million immigrants settled in Australia, and about 80% have remained; nearly two of every seven Australians is foreign-born. Britain and Ireland have been the largest sources of post-war immigrants, followed by Italy, Greece, New Zealand, and the former Yugoslavia.

The 1970s saw progressive reductions in the size of the annual immigration program due to economic and employment conditions; in 1969-70, 185,000 persons were permitted to settle, but by 1975-76 the number had dropped to 52,700. Immigration has slowly risen since. In 1999-2000, Australia accepted 92,270 new immigrants, a 9.7% increase over the previous year.

Australia's refugee admissions of about 12,000 per year are in addition to the normal immigration program. In recent years, the government has given priority to refugees from the Former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and Africa. In recent years, refugees from Indochina and the former Yugoslavia have comprised the largest single element in Australia's refugee program.

Although Australia has scarcely more than two persons per square kilometer, it is one of the world's most urbanized countries. Less than 15% of the population live in rural areas.

Cultural Achievements
Much of Australia's culture is derived from European roots, but distinctive Australian features have evolved from the environment, aboriginal culture, and the influence of Australia's neighbors. The vigor and originality of the arts in Australia--films, opera, music, painting, theater, dance, and crafts--are achieving international recognition.

Australian actors such as Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Rachel Griffiths, Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Hogan, and Heath Ledger have achieved enormous popularity in the United States. Australian movies and directors such as Peter Weir and Philip Noyes also are well known.

Australia has had a significant school of painting since the early days of European settlement, and Australians with international reputations include Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, and Arthur Boyd. Writers who have achieved world recognition include Thomas Keneally, Colleen McCullough, Nevil Shute, Morris West, Jill Ker Conway, and Nobel Prize winner Patrick White.

Australia was uninhabited before stone-culture peoples arrived, perhaps by boat across the waters separating the island from the Indonesia archipelago about 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 Capt. Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney, and formal proclamation of the establishment of the Colony of New South Wales followed on February 7. Many but by no means all of the first settlers were convicts, condemned for offenses that today would often be thought trivial. The mid-19th century saw the beginning of government policies to emancipate convicts and assist the immigration of free persons. 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, 1830; South Australia, 1836; Victoria, 1851; and Queensland, 1859. Settlement had 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.

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 planned city designed by an American, Walter Burley Griffin. The first session of Parliament in that city was opened by another Duke of York (later King George VI). Australia passed the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act on October 9, 1942, which officially established Australia's complete autonomy in both internal and external affairs. Its passage formalized a situation that had existed for years. The Australia Act (1986) eliminated the last vestiges of British legal authority.

The Commonwealth government was created with a constitution patterned partly on the U.S. Constitution. The powers of the Commonwealth are specifically defined in the constitution, and the residual powers remain with the states.

Australia is an independent nation within the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II is the sovereign and since 1973 has been officially styled "Queen of Australia." The Queen is represented throughout Australia by a governor general and in each state by a governor.

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. The members of the House of Representatives are allocated among the states and territories roughly in proportion to population. In ordinary legislation, the two chambers have coordinate powers, but 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 is named 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; the last general election was in November 2001.

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. Australia also has two self-governing territories, the Australian Capital Territory (where Canberra is located) and the Northern Territory, with political systems similar to those of the states.

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.

Principal Government Officials
Governor General--Archbishop Peter Hollingworth
Prime Minister--John W. Howard
Foreign Minister--Alexander Downer
Ambassador to the United States--Michael Thawley
Ambassador to the United Nations--John Dauth

Australia maintains an embassy in the United States at 1601 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036 (tel. 202-797-3000), and consulates general in New York (212-408-8400), San Francisco (415-362-6160), Honolulu (808-524-5050), Los Angeles (310-229-4800) and Atlanta (404-880-1700).

Three political parties dominate the center of the Australian political spectrum: the Liberal Party (LP), nominally representing urban business-related groups; the National Party (NP), nominally representing rural interests; and the Australian Labor Party (ALP), nominally representing the trade unions and liberal groups. Although embracing some leftists, the ALP traditionally has been moderately socialist in its policies and approaches to social issues. All political groups are tied by tradition to domestic welfare policies, mostly enacted in the 1980s, which have kept Australia in the forefront of societies offering extensive social welfare programs. Australia's social welfare safety net has been reduced in recent years, however, in response to budgetary pressures and a changing political outlook. There is strong bipartisan sentiment on many international issues, including Australia's commitment to its alliance with the United States.

The Liberal Party/National Party coalition came to power in the March 1996 election, ending 13 years of ALP government and electing John Howard Prime Minister. Re-elected in October 1998 and again in November 2001, the coalition now holds 82 seats (69 Liberal/13 National) in the House of Representatives, against 65 for the ALP and 3 independents. In the Senate, the Liberal/National coalition holds 34 seats, against 28 for the ALP, 7 for the Australian Democrats, 2 for the Greens, 1 for One Nation, 1 for the Country Labor Party, and 3 independents. Lacking a majority in the Senate, the Liberal/National coalition has relied on the smaller parties and independents to enact legislation.

Howard's conservative coalition has moved quickly to reduce Australia's government deficit and the influence of organized labor, placing more emphasis on workplace-based collective bargaining for wages. The Howard government also has accelerated the pace of privatization, beginning with the government-owned telecommunications corporation. The Howard government has continued the foreign policy of its predecessors, based on relations with four key countries: the United States, Japan, China, and Indonesia. The Howard government strongly supports U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. National elections will likely take place in late 2004 or early 2005.

Australia's developed market economy is dominated by its services sector (70% of GDP), yet it is the agricultural and mining sectors (7% of GDP combined) that account for the bulk (57%) of Australia's goods and services exports. Australia's comparative advantage in primary products is a reflection of the natural wealth of the Australian Continent and its small domestic market; 19.5 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, and now accounts for around 12% of GDP.

Australia commenced a basic reorientation of its economy more than 17 years ago and has transformed itself from an inward looking, import-substitution country to an internationally competitive, export-oriented one. Key reforms include unilaterally reducing high tariffs and other protective barriers; floating the Australian dollar exchange rate; deregulating the financial services sector, including a decision in late 1992 to allow liberal access for foreign bank branches; efforts to restructure the highly centralized system of industrial relations and labor bargaining; better integrating the state economies into a national federal system; improving and standardizing the national infrastructure; privatizing many government-owned services and public utilities; and fundamental reform of the taxation system, including the introduction of a broad-based Goods and Services Tax (GST).

The ultimate goal is for Australia to become a competitive producer and exporter, not just of traditional farm and mineral commodities, but of a diversified mix of value-added manufactured products, services, and technologies. While substantial progress has been made on this economic reform agenda--such as in opening the telecommunications market to competition--much remains to be done, particularly in the domestic arena. The short-term outlook is for continued economic expansion but Australia's longer term prospects depend heavily on continued economic reform.

Australia was one of the OECD's fastest-growing economies throughout the 1990s, a performance which owed much to the above-mentioned program of economic reform. Following a transient slowdown in late 2000, mainly due to one-time distortions arising from the implementation of the GST, Australia is again one of the fastest growing of the developed economies. The economy appears set to record GDP growth of around 3.5% in 2002, despite the negative impact of global economic weakness and a severe Australian drought.

Australia has been active in international affairs since World War II. Its first major independent foreign policy action was to conclude an agreement in 1944 with New Zealand dealing with the security, welfare, and advancement of the people of the independent territories of the Pacific (the ANZAC pact). After the war, Australia played a role in the Far Eastern Commission in Japan and supported Indonesian independence during that country's revolt against the Dutch (1945-49). Australia was one of the founders of both the United Nations and the South Pacific Commission (1947), and in 1950, it proposed the Colombo Plan to assist developing countries in Asia. In addition to contributing to UN forces in Korea--it was the first country to announce it would do so after the United States--Australia sent troops to assist in putting down the communist revolt in Malaya in 1948-60 and later to combat the Indonesian-supported invasion of Sarawak in 1963-65. Australia also sent troops to assist South Vietnamese and U.S. forces in Vietnam and joined coalition forces in the Persian Gulf conflict in 1991.

Australia has been active in the Australia-New Zealand-U.K. agreement and the Five-Power Defense Arrangement--successive arrangements with Britain and New Zealand to ensure the security of Singapore and Malaysia.

One of the drafters of the UN Charter, Australia has given firm support to the United Nations and its specialized agencies. It was a member of the Security Council in 1986-87, a member of the Economic and Social Council for 1986-89, and a member of the UN Human Rights Commission for 1994-96. Australia takes a prominent part in many other UN activities, including peacekeeping, disarmament negotiations, and narcotics control. Australia also is active in meetings of the Commonwealth Regional Heads of Government and the South Pacific Forum, and has been a leader in the Cairns Group--countries pressing for agricultural trade reform in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations--and in the APEC forum.

Australia has devoted particular attention to relations between developed and developing nations, with emphasis on the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)--Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Brunei--and the island states of the South Pacific. Australia is an active participant in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which promotes regional cooperation on security issues. In September 1999, acting under a UN Security Council mandate, Australia led an international coalition to restore order in East Timor upon Indonesia's withdrawal from that territory.

Australia will provide about $1 billion as official development assistance for FY 2002-03 to about 60 countries. Papua New Guinea (PNG), a former Australian trust territory, is the largest recipient of Australian assistance. The Australian aid program is currently concentrated in East Asia (which receives 26% of the budget), Papua New Guinea (19%) and the Pacific Islands (9%). Selected aid flows are allocated to Africa and the Middle East (7%) and South Asia (6%), while contributions to multilateral organizations and other expenses account for 33% of the budget. For FY 2002-03, the largest aid flows by country were budgeted for Papua New Guinea ($189 million), Indonesia ($65 million), and Vietnam ($39 million). While East Timor was budgeted to receive $19 million in aid in FY 2002-03, this does not include direct expenditure by Australian Government departments to assist the Government of East Timor, which falls under the "other" expenses category.

The Australia, New Zealand, United States (ANZUS) security treaty was concluded at San Francisco on September 1, 1951, and entered into force on April 29, 1952. The treaty bound the signatories to recognize that an armed attack in the Pacific area on any of them would endanger the peace and safety of the others. It committed them to consult in the event of a threat and, in the event of attack, to meet the common danger in accordance with their respective constitutional processes. The three nations also pledged to maintain and develop individual and collective capabilities to resist attack.

In 1985, the nature of the ANZUS alliance changed after the Government of New Zealand refused access to its ports by nuclear-weapons-capable and nuclear-powered ships of the U.S. Navy. The United States suspended defense obligations to New Zealand, and annual bilateral meetings between the U.S. Secretary of State and the Australian Foreign Minister replaced annual meetings of the ANZUS Council of Foreign Ministers. The first bilateral meeting was held in Canberra in 1985. At the second, in San Francisco in 1986, the United States and Australia announced that the United States was suspending its treaty security obligations to New Zealand pending the restoration of port access. Subsequent bilateral Australia-U.S. Ministerial (AUSMIN) meetings have alternated between Australia and the United States. The 15th AUSMIN meeting will take place in Washington on October 28,  2002.

The U.S.-Australia alliance under the ANZUS Treaty remains in full force. Defense ministers of one or both nations often have joined the annual ministerial meetings, which are supplemented by consultations between the U.S. Commander in Chief Pacific and the Australian Chief of Defense Force. There also are regular civilian and military consultations between the two governments at lower levels.

Unlike NATO, ANZUS has no integrated defense structure or dedicated forces. However, in fulfillment of ANZUS obligations, Australia and the United States conduct a variety of joint activities. These include military exercises ranging from naval and landing exercises at the task-group level to battalion-level special forces training, assigning officers to each other's armed services, and standardizing, where possible, equipment and operational doctrine. The two countries also operate several joint defense facilities in Australia.

Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Australian Prime Minister Howard invoked the ANZUS Treaty for the first time on September 14, 2001. Australia was one of the earliest participants in Operation Enduring Freedom. Australian Defence Forces continue to participate in coalition military action against Taliban and Al Quaeda forces in Afghanistan.

After a review in 2000 of Australia's future defense needs, the government has made a commitment to increase defense spending by 3% a year for the next 10 years. The Australian Defense Force numbers about 49,500 active duty personnel. The Royal Australian Navy's front-line fleet currently comprises 10 frigates, including six of the Perry class and four new Australian-built ANZAC class, with four more under construction. The last of six submarines of the new, indigenous Collins class will be commissioned in March 2003. The F/A-18 fighter, built in Australia under license from the U.S. manufacturer, is the principal combat aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force, backed by U.S.-built F-111 strike aircraft. In June 2002 Australia also became a research and development partner in the U.S.-leg Joint Strike Fighter program.

The World War II experience, similarities in culture and historical background, and shared democratic values have made U.S. relations with Australia exceptionally strong and close. Ties linking the two nations cover the entire spectrum of international relations--from commercial, cultural, and environmental contacts to political and defense cooperation. Two-way trade totaled more than $23 billion in 2001. That same year, more than 400,000 Americans visited Australia.

Traditional friendship is reinforced by the wide range of common interests and similar views on most major international questions. For example, both countries sent military forces to the Persian Gulf in support of UN Security Council resolutions relating to Iraq's occupation of Kuwait; both attach high priority to controlling and eventually eliminating chemical weapons, other weapons of mass destruction, and anti-personnel landmines; and both work closely on global environmental issues such as anti-terrorism, slowing climate change, and preserving coral reefs. The Australian Government and opposition share the view that Australia's security depends on firm ties with the United States, and the ANZUS Treaty enjoys broad bipartisan support. Recent Presidential visits to Australia (in 1991 and 1996) and Australian Prime Ministerial visits to the United States (in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2002) have underscored the strength and closeness of the alliance.

Trade issues sometimes generate bilateral friction. In recent years, especially because of Australia's large trade deficit with the United States, Australians have protested what they consider U.S. protectionist barriers against their exports of wool, meat, dairy products, lead, zinc, uranium, and fast ferries. Australia also opposes as "extraterritorial" U.S. sanctions legislation against Cuba, Iran, and Libya. Australia remains concerned that U.S. agricultural subsidies--although targeted against European subsidies--may undercut Australian markets for grain and dairy products in the Asia-Pacific region. For its part, the United States has concerns about Australian quarantine barriers to imports of cooked chicken, fresh salmon, and some fruits; changes in Australian law governing intellectual property protection; and Australian Government procurement practices. Both countries share a commitment to liberalizing global trade, however. They work together very closely in the World Trade Organization (WTO), and both are active members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

A number of U.S. institutions conduct scientific activities in Australia because of its geographical position, large land mass, advanced technology, and, above all, the ready cooperation of its government and scientists. Under an agreement concluded in 1968 and since renewed, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) maintains in Australia its largest and most important program outside the United States, including a number of tracking facilities vital to the U.S. space program. Indicative of the broadranging U.S.-Australian cooperation on other global issues, a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) was concluded in 1997, enhancing already close bilateral cooperation on legal and counter-narcotics issues. In 2001 the U.S. and Australia signed a new tax treaty and a bilateral social security agreement.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--J. Thomas Schieffer
Deputy Chief of Mission--William Stanton
Political Counselor--Gregory Fergin
Economic Counselor--Judith Fergin
Consular Affairs Coordinator--Sylvia Johnson (resident in Sydney)
Administrative Counselor--Rosemary Hansen
Public Affairs Officer--Susan Crystal
Senior Commercial Officer--Robert Connan (resident in Sydney)
Agricultural Counselor--Andrew Burst
Defense and Air Attache and Representative of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Commander in Chief Pacific--Col. Rick Lester, USAF

The U.S. Embassy in Australia is located at Moonah Place, Yarralumla, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2600 (tel. (02) 6-214-5600; fax 6-214-5970). Consulates General are in Sydney (tel. 2-9373-9200; fax 2-9373-9107); Melbourne (tel. 3-9526-5900; fax 3-9510-4646; and Perth (tel. 9-231-9400; fax. 9-231-9444).