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The Commonwealth



Did you know:

Australia was a founder member of the Commonwealth in 1931 when its independence was recognised under the Statute of Westminster.

It is one of 28 island nations in the association; the mainland of Australia is the largest island in the world.

Of the many internationally acclaimed Australian writers, 11 have won overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes, eight for Best Book and three for Best First Book.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1931 (Statute of Westminster)
Population: 23,343,000 (2013)
GDP: 1.8% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: World ranking 2
Official language: English
Timezone: GMT plus 8–11hr
Currency: Australian dollar (A$)


Area: 7,682,395 sq km
Coastline: 25,800km
Capital city: Canberra
Population density (per sq. km): 3

The term ‘Australia’ is derived from Terra Australis, the name given to a southern landmass whose existence geographers deduced before it was discovered. Papua New Guinea (to the north) and New Zealand (to the east) are Australia’s closest neighbours. To the south lie the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

The Commonwealth of Australia is a Federation with six states – New South Wales (state capital Sydney), Victoria (Melbourne), Queensland (Brisbane), South Australia (Adelaide), Western Australia (Perth) and Tasmania (Hobart) – and two territories, Northern Territory (capital Darwin) and the Australian Capital Territory, where the federal capital, Canberra, is situated. Australia also has external territories (described in the profiles following this one). These have small populations or are uninhabited and, apart from the vast Australian Antarctic Territory, are small islands.

Main towns:

Canberra (capital, Australian Capital Territory, pop. 356,586 in 2011), Sydney (New South Wales, 3.9m), Melbourne (Victoria, 3.7m), Brisbane (Queensland, 1.87m), Perth (Western Australia, 1.62m), Adelaide (South Australia, 1.1m), Gold Coast – Tweed Heads (Queensland, 533,659), Newcastle (New South Wales, 308,307), Hobart (Tasmania, 204,951) and Darwin (Northern Territory, 78,467).


There are 825,500 km of roads, 44 per cent paved; Australian road design is known for the long, straight roads in rural areas. Some roads may be impassable after heavy rain.

Rail services link main towns across the country and the total system extends to 8,615 km. The 4,000 km Indian–Pacific from Sydney to Perth takes three days. The 3,000 km north–south line, linking Adelaide in the south with Alice Springs in the centre and Darwin in the north was completed in 2003.

The country has 25,800 km of coastline and many deep-water harbours.

International airports are at Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth, Darwin, Brisbane, Hobart, Townsville and Cairns.

International relations:

Australia is a member of Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Forum, United Nations and World Trade Organization.


Australia is the largest link in the chain running between South-East Asia and the South Pacific. Much of central Australia is desert. The main mountain chain, the Great Dividing Range, runs down the east coast, rising to Australia’s highest point at Mt Kosciusko (2,230m). Consequently, many of the rivers draining to the east are short; those flowing to the west, of which the Murray-Darling river system is the most considerable, tend to flow only after heavy rains and end in lakes which are often dry with a salt-bed.


The Tropic of Capricorn almost bisects the continent, running just north of Alice Springs, Australia’s central settlement. The subtropical areas north of this line have summer rainfall and dry winters. South of the Tropic, the rest of the continent and Tasmania are temperate. Continental considerations affect this basic pattern, most coastal areas having some rainfall, whereas a large tract of central Australia has less than 300mm p.a. Drought and consequent bushfires are a serious problem.

This pattern of rainfall will be dramatically affected by occasional La Niña events which occur in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean causing the sea to cool and increasing the probability that strong cool onshore winds will bring heavy rains to the eastern regions of Australia, as occurred from November 2010, when there were devastating floods first in Queensland, then in Victoria.


The most significant environmental issues are soil erosion and desertification; loss of the natural habitat of many unique animal and plant species due to increases in agricultural and industrial production; and damage to the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world, due to increased shipping and tourism.


A wide range, from the tropical jungle of Queensland to the sparse flowers of the desert, with many unique species which evolved in the continent’s long geological isolation. Over 500 species of eucalyptus and over 600 species of acacia (wattle). The main fertile areas are in the south and east in New South Wales and Victoria – arable land comprises 6% of the total land area, while the north-east has tropical forest and bush – forest covers 19% of the country.


Many indigenous animal species are unique to the continent. The most distinctive are the marsupials, of which there are 120 species from the kangaroo to the tiny desert mouse, and the monotremes, the rare order of mammals which lay eggs, such as the duck-billed platypus and the echidna. There are also several species of flightless birds – the emu, second only to the African ostrich in size, and the cassowary


Fifty million years ago the Australian continent broke away from the great southern landmass of Gondwanaland, which comprised South America, Africa, India, Australia and Antarctica. Apart from a period during the last Ice Age when the sea level was 100 metres lower than it is today, Australia existed in isolation. This resulted in the evolution of vegetation and wildlife which is substantially unique.

It was thought that the Aboriginal population may have lived in Australia for 50,000 years. However, recent evidence from the Kimberley region of Western Australia suggests much older human habitation. When European explorers arrived, the Aboriginal peoples lived by hunting and gathering and using stone tools. Estimates of the historical size of the population range up to 750,000 people. Aboriginal society, though technologically undeveloped, had complex cultural and religious forms, and some 500 languages, in 31 basic groups. There was a rich oral tradition of songs and stories, and many different styles of rock art.

The first known Europeans to land were Dutch. In 1606, William Jansz landed on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, and thereafter various landings were made. The Dutch named this land New Holland, but showed no interest in further exploration.

In April 1770, Captain James Cook in HMS Endeavour with the botanist Sir Joseph Banks landed in Botany Bay (in what is now New South Wales) and claimed the east coast for the English Crown. Having just lost the American colonies, England needed new penal colonies, and the first shipload of Australian settlers were convicts, arriving with Governor Arthur Phillip in 1788. They moved to Port Jackson (now part of Sydney Harbour) on 26 January, now Australia Day. However, even before transportation to New South Wales was abolished in 1840, free settlers were arriving in increasing numbers. Further exploration, often dangerous, revealed that the land known as New Holland and the English colony were one and the same large island.

In 1831, Western Australia became the second colony, followed by South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, Tasmania in 1856, and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory was, for some time, part of South Australia and later the responsibility of the federal government, achieving self-government in 1978.

The settler population in early years lived mostly in coastal areas, deploying large tracts of land for sheep and cattle. The annexation of land was often accompanied by brutal treatment of the Aboriginal population, who were forced into the interior. Gold was first discovered in Victoria in the 1850s and prompted Australia’s gold rush with a consequent opening up of the interior and more displacement of the Aboriginals. Wheat farming developed, and the country rapidly became a leading exporter. With the invention of refrigeration, export trade in mutton and dairy products began. An extensive railway system was built. Between 1860 and 1890, immigrants, and capital, mostly from Britain, contributed to a long economic boom. In 1891, the country had a population of 3 million, and was exporting wool, mutton, dairy products and wheat.

The colonies, all of which had Westminster-style representative institutions by 1890, became one nation on 1 January 1901. The Commonwealth of Australia, with a federal structure, was established. By the time of World War I, Australian politics emphasised social policy, industrial development, and protectionism to cushion local industries and maintain full employment. The development of the steel industry after 1915 and advances in mining assisted development, so that by 1939, industry was responsible for 40 per cent of GDP. Sophisticated industries such as car manufacture developed in the 1950s. By the latter 1980s, Australians enjoyed one of the world’s highest living standards.

Australia’s political party system traditionally consisted of the Liberal Party, National Party (originally known as the Country Party) and Labor Party (ALP). The Liberal and National parties were frequently in coalition. A new party, the Australian Democrats, was formed in the 1970s as a breakaway group from the Liberal–National coalition. The Liberal–National coalition was in office from 1949 until 1972, and again from 1975 to 1983, under Malcolm Fraser. The Labor Party, under Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating, was in office from 1983 to 1996, when the Liberal–National coalition led by John Howard returned to power. Howard’s conservative coalition’s majority was reduced in an early general election in October 1998, in the face of a strong showing by the Labor Party led by Kim Beazley.

In February 1998, the Constitutional Convention voted by 89 votes to 52 for Australia to become a republic by 2001, and by 73 votes to 57 to replace the British monarch with a President. It was agreed that there would be a referendum on the issue.

Despite evidence from opinion polls that most Australians were in favour of a republic, in the referendum of November 1999 – when asked if they supported ‘an act to alter the constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic, with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament’ – almost 55 per cent registered a ‘No’ vote. The result was widely attributed to widespread dissatisfaction about the right of parliamentarians to choose a President.

The History of Australia

Australia The First 4 Billion Years

Learn more about Australia on The Commonwealth site Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

Visit for information on Australia including history and videos.

Iconic Australia

Australian Tourism Video

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Return to our Commonwealth Page


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