Australia is both the world's smallest continent and the sixth largest country with a land area of 7,682,300 square kilometres (2,966,152 square miles). It is comparable in size to the 48 contiguous United States although it has less than one tenth the population, with the distances between cities and towns easy to underestimate. Australia is bordered to the west by the Indian Ocean, and to the east by the South Pacific Ocean. The Tasman Sea lies to the southeast, separating it from New Zealand, while the Coral Sea lies to the northeast. Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Indonesia are Australia's northern neighbours, separated from Australia by the Arafura Sea and the Timor Sea.
Australia is highly urbanised with most of the population heavily concentrated along the eastern and south-eastern coasts. Most of the inland areas of the country are semi-arid. The most-populous states are Victoria and New South Wales, but by far the largest in land area is Western Australia.
Australia has large areas that have been deforested for agricultural purposes, but many native forest areas survive in extensive national parks and other undeveloped areas. Long-term Australian concerns include salinity, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and management and conservation of coastal areas, especially the Great Barrier Reef.
As a large continent a wide variation of climates are found across Australia. Most of the country receives more than 3,000 hours of sunshine a year. Generally, the north is hot and tropical, while the south tends to sub-tropical and temperate. Most rainfall is around the coast, and much of the centre is arid and semi-arid. The daytime maximum temperatures in the tropical city of Darwin rarely drop below 30°C (86°F), even in winter, while night temperatures in winter usually hover around 15-20°C (59-68°F). Australian winters tend to be milder than those at similar latitudes in the northern hemisphere, and snow never falls in most parts of the country. Temperatures in high altitude areas of some southern regions can drop below freezing in winter (and sometimes even in the summer) and the Snowy Mountains in the South East experiences metres of winter snow. Parts of Tasmania have a temperature range very similar to England, and it is not unheard of for snow to fall in the summer in some mountainous regions of the state.
As Australia is in the southern hemisphere the winter is June–August while December–February is summer. The winter is the dry season in the tropics, and the summer is the wet. In the southern parts of the country, the seasonal temperature variation is greater. The rainfall is more evenly distributed throughout the year in the southern parts of the East Coast, while in the rest of the south beyond the Great Dividing Range, the summers are dry with the bulk of the rainfall occurring in winter.
The continent of Australia was first settled more than 40,000 years ago with successive waves of immigration of Aboriginal peoples from south and south-east Asia. With rising sea levels after the last Ice Age, Australia became largely isolated from the rest of the world and the Aboriginal tribes developed a variety of cultures, based on a close spiritual relationship with the land and nature, and extended kinship. Australian Aboriginal people maintained a hunter-gatherer culture for thousands of years in association with a complex artistic and cultural life - including a very rich 'story-telling' tradition. While the 'modern impression' of Australian Aboriginal people is largely built around an image of the 'desert people' who have adapted to some of the harshest conditions on the planet (equivalent to the bushmen of the Kalahari), Australia provided a 'comfortable living' for the bulk of the Aboriginal people among the bountiful flora and fauna on the Australian coast - until the arrival of Europeans.
Although a lucrative Chinese market for shells and beche de mere had encouraged Indonesian fishermen to visit Northern Australia for centuries it was unknown to Europeans until the 1600s, when Dutch traders to Asia began to 'bump' into the North Western Coast. Early Dutch impressions of this extremely harsh, dry country were unfavourable, and Australia remained for them something simply a road sign pointing north to the much richer (and lucrative) East Indies (modern Indonesia). Deliberate exploration of the Australian coast was then largely taken over by the French and the British. Consequently place names of bays, headlands and rivers around the coastline reflect a range of Dutch, French, British, and Aboriginal languages.
In 1770, the expedition of the Endeavour under the command of Captain James Cook navigated and charted the east coast of Australia, making first landfall at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770. Cook continued northwards, and before leaving put ashore on Possession Island in the Torres Strait off Cape York on 22 August 1770. Here he formally claimed the eastern coastline he had discovered for the British Crown, naming it New South Wales. Given that Cook's discoveries would lead to the first European settlement of Australia, he is often popularly conceived as its European discoverer, although he had been preceded by more than 160 years.
Following the exploration period, the first British settlement in Australia was founded in 1788 at what is today Sydney, led by Captain Arthur Philip who became the first governor of the colony of New South Wales. This started a process of colonisation that almost entirely displaced the Aboriginal people who inhabited the land. This reduced indigenous populations drastically and marginalised them to the fringes of society. Originally comprising the eastern two-thirds of the continent, the colony of New South Wales was later split into several separate colonies, with Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen's Land) becoming a separate colony in 1825, followed by South Australia in 1836, New Zealand in 1841, Victoria in 1851 and Queensland in 1859. On the other hand, the western third of the continent was not settled by Europeans until the British established a naval base in Albany, then known as King George Sound in 1826. The Swan River Colony was formally established in 1829 at what is today Perth. The Swan River Colony was officially renamed Western Australia in 1832.
While Australia began its modern history as a British penal colony, the vast majority of people who came to Australia after 1788 were free settlers, mainly from Britain and Ireland, but also from other European countries. Convict settlements were mostly along the east coast, with scattered pockets of convict settlements in Western Australia. The state of South Australia, on the other hand, was settled entirely by free settlers. Many Asian and Eastern European people also came to Australia in the 1850s, during the Gold Rush that started Australia's first resource boom. Although such diverse immigration diminished greatly during the xenophobic years of the White Australia policy, Australia welcomed a successive series of immigration from Europe, the Mediterranean and later Asia to formulate a highly diverse and multicultural society by the late 20th century.
The system of separate colonies federated to form the self-governing British dominion of Australia in 1901, each colony now becoming a state of Australia, with New Zealand opting out of the federation. The new country took advantage of its natural resources to rapidly develop its agricultural and manufacturing industries and made a large contribution (considering its small size of population) to the Allied war effort in World Wars I and II as part of the British Commonwealth forces. Australian troops also made a valuable, if sometimes controversial, contribution to the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Australian Diggers retain a reputation as some of the hardest fighting troops along with a great social spirit. Australia and Britain passed the Australia Act in 1986, ending any remnant power the British parliament may have had to pass laws for Australia, though the British queen remains the head of state with an appointed Governor-General as her representative in Australia.
Australia has a prosperous Western-style capitalist economy, with a per capita GDP on par with the four dominant West European economies.
The service industries, including tourism, education, and financial services, account for the majority of the Australian Gross Domestic Product – about 69%. Within the service sector, tourism is one of the most important industries in Australia, as it provides employment, contributes $73 billion to the economy each year and accounts for at least 11% of total exports.
Primary industry - mining and agriculture - accounts for most of Australia's exports. Iron Ore and Coal are by far the largest exports, with wheat, beef and wool declining in importance.
Australia has a comprehensive social security system, and a minimum wage higher than the United States or the United Kingdom. Tradesmen are extremely well-paid in Australia, often more so than professionals.
Australia has a federal system of government, with eight state and territory governments and a national government. Each of the sub-national governments has an elected parliament, with the leader of each government, known as the Premier in the states (or Chief Minister in the territories), being the leader of the largest party represented in the lower house. The national parliament is based on the British Westminster system, with some elements being drawn from the American congressional system. At the federal level it consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives. Each Member of the House of Representatives (colloquially known as a Member of Parliament (MP)) represents an electoral division, with more populous states having more electoral divisions and hence, more MP's. On the other hand, similar to the US Senate, each Australian state has an equal number of senators, with 12 senators being directly elected by the people in each state, and 2 senators each from the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. The political party (or coalition of parties) which has the most Members in the House of Representatives becomes the governing party and forms the national government. Ministers are drawn from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, though by convention, the Prime Minister comes from the House of Representatives. The current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is the leader of the majority Liberal-National coalition in the House of Representatives.
The Queen remains the notional head of state, and her representative in Australia - the Governor-General - has a ceremonial and conventionally politically powerless role. However, in 1975, these powers were controversially used to dismiss the incumbent government and then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. In practice, the Prime Minister is seen to wield the most authority in government. A referendum to change Australia's status to a republic was defeated in 1999, but republicanism in Australia remains a regularly debated topic.
The two major political parties in Australia are the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal Party, which operates in coalition with the National Party. Emerging in power is the social democratic Greens Party, which supports an environmentalist policy platform. It should be noted that the Liberal Party is (traditionally) a centre-right, conservative party - the term liberal refers to maintaining a free market economy.
Australia has a multicultural population practicing almost every religion and lifestyle. Over one-quarter of Australians were born outside Australia, and another quarter have at least one foreign-born parent. The most multicultural cities are Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. All three cities are renowned for the variety and quality of global foods available in their many restaurants, and Melbourne especially promotes itself as a centre for the arts, while Brisbane promotes itself through various, multicultural urban villages. Adelaide is known for being a centre for festivals as well as German cultural influences, while Perth is known for its food and wine culture, pearls, gems and precious metals as well as the international fringe arts festival. Smaller rural settlements generally still reflect a majority Anglo-Celtic culture often with a small Aboriginal population. However, virtually every large Australian city and town reflects the immigration from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific that occurred after World War II and continued into the 1970s; in the half century after the war Australia's population boomed from roughly 7 million to just over 20 million people.
There are approximately half a million Australians who identify as being of Aboriginal descent. Many fewer maintain elements of traditional Aboriginal culture.
Contrary to popular mythology, descendants from convicts are a minority, and even during the years of transportation free settlers outnumbered convict migrants by at least five to one.
Australian English was once known for its colour and colloquialisms but has lost a great deal of this to outside influence, although people in rural areas still tend to speak in a broader accent, using many of the slang words that have become outmoded in metropolitan areas. There is very little provincialism in Australia, although accents tend to be broader and slower outside of the large cities. There are only small pronunciation differences in the cities but these are becoming more common. For example the word "you", which is often rolled off the tongue sharper on the south east coast, almost as "ewe" as opposed to the west coast and other regions. Another modern variation is the presence of Afrikaan accents on the west coast, modifying the local accents slightly due to the high immigration in that area. Like in much of the English speaking world, more educated and/or white-collar Australian accents tend towards being softer or general in tone, rather than sharp, however it is a subtle difference overall and native speakers typically recognise regional variations.
Australians can be socially conservative compared to some European cultures and often have a balanced attitude defining their European origin with their growing Asian influence. They tend to be relaxed in their religious observance. While the Australian sense of egalitarianism has moderated in economic terms, modes of address still tend to be casual and familiar compared to some other cultures. Most Australians will tend to address you by your first name and will expect that you do the same to them.
The national holidays in Australia are:
Many states observe Labour Day, but on different days. Most states have one or two additional state-wide holidays, with Victoria and South Australia having a day off for a horse race (The Melbourne Cup and The Adelaide Cup). Western Australia has Foundation day typically the first Monday in June (recognising the founding of the state since 1829) but also celebrates the Queens Birthday at a different date to the rest of the country, either at the end of September or early October, due to the usual June date is such close proximity to Foundation day.
When a public holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the following Monday (and Tuesday if necessary) are usually declared holidays in lieu, although both the celebrations and the retail closures will occur on the day itself. Most tourist attractions are closed Christmas Day and Good Friday. Supermarkets and other stores may open for limited hours on some public holidays and on holidays in lieu, but are almost always closed on Christmas Day (25 December), Good Friday, Easter Sunday and ANZAC Day morning.
Most attractions in Australia remain open year-round, some operating at a reduced frequency or shorter hours during the off-peak season.
Salaried Australians have four weeks of annual leave and school children in the major population centres have January as a long break. Domestic tourism is strongest during January and the Easter school holidays.
Summer tends to be the peak travel season through much of the south, with the winter (dry) season the peak travel season in the tropics.
Australian teenagers celebrate the end of school at the end of November and early December for the 3 weeks known as schoolies. The volume of teen revellers can completely change the nature of some of the cities and towns they choose to visit, especially coastal towns like Byron Bay in New South Wales, the Gold Coast in Queensland and various localities along the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.
Australia can have up to five different time zones during the daylight savings period, and three at other times.
In the east, Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria always have the same time. Queensland doesn't observe daylight saving, so it is an hour behind the other eastern states during that period.
In the centre, South Australia and the Northern Territory are half an hour behind during the winter, but the Northern Territory doesn't observe daylight saving while South Australia does. During daylight saving South Australia remains half an hour behind New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, but moves half an hour ahead of Queensland. The Northern Territory remains half an hour behind Queensland, but moves an hour and a half behind New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.
In the west, Western Australia is two hours behind the eastern states in winter, and also doesn't observe daylight saving. It moves three hours behind the eastern states that observe daylight saving (remaining two hours behind Queensland).
There are no official abbreviations or names for Australian time zones, and you may see a few variations used. EST, CST, WST along with EDT, CDT are sometimes used. Sometimes AEST, etc., with the 'A' prefix distinguishing them from the North American time zones with the same names. In conversation, the abbreviations aren't used. People tend to say Sydney time, Brisbane time, or Perth time. Expect blank stares from most if you start talking about Central Summer Time.
In those states which observe daylight saving, it commences on the first Sunday in October and ends on the first Sunday in April.
As of 2000, the mains supply voltage specified in AS 60038 is 230V with a tolerance of +10% -6% and 50Hz. This was done for voltage harmonisation – however 240V (and less commonly 250V) is within tolerance and is commonly supplied. Mains voltage is still popularly referred to as being "two-forty volts". Bathrooms in hotels will often have a type I, C and A socket marked "for shavers only" as pictured on the right, along with a standard 3 pin (earthed) plug; two pin (the two angled pins) unearthed plugs are also common. Three phase (415V) is also used, for larger appliances.
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