Human habitation of Australia is estimated to have begun between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago, possibly with the migration of people by land bridges and short sea-crossings from what is now Southeast Asia. These first inhabitants may have been ancestors of modern Indigenous Australians. At the time of European settlement in the late 18th century, most Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers, with a complex oral culture and spiritual values based on reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Torres Strait Islanders, ethnically Melanesian, were originally horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers.
Following sporadic visits by fishermen from the Malay Archipelago, the first recorded European sighting of the Australian mainland and the first recorded European landfall on the Australian continent were attributed to the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon. He sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula on an unknown date in early 1606, and made landfall on 26 February at the Pennefather River on the western shore of Cape York, near the modern town of Weipa. The Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines of "New Holland" during the 17th century, but made no attempt at settlement. William Dampier, an English explorer/privateer landed on the northwest coast of Australia in 1688 and again in 1699 on a return trip. In 1770, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast of Australia, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Great Britain. Cook's discoveries prepared the way for establishment of a new penal colony. The British Crown Colony of New South Wales was formed on 26 January 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip led the First Fleet to Port Jackson. This date became Australia's national day, Australia Day. The United Kingdom formally claimed the western part of Australia in 1828.
Separate colonies were carved from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory was founded in 1911 when it was excised from South Australia. South Australia was founded as a "free province"-it was never a penal colony. Victoria and Western Australia were also founded "free", but later accepted transported convicts. A campaign by the settlers of New South Wales led to the end of convict transportation to that colony; the last convict ship arrived in 1848.
A gold rush began in Australia in the early 1850s, and the Eureka Rebellion against mining licence fees in 1854 was an early expression of civil disobedience. Between 1855 and 1890, the six colonies individually gained responsible government, managing most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire.
On 1 January 1901 federation of the colonies was achieved after a decade of planning, consultation, and voting. The Commonwealth of Australia was established and it became a dominion of the British Empire in 1907. The Federal Capital Territory (later renamed the Australian Capital Territory) was formed in 1911 as the location for the future federal capital of Canberra. In 1914, Australia joined Britain in fighting World War I. Australians took part in many of the major battles fought on the Western Front. Many Australians regard the defeat of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) at Gallipoli as the birth of the nation-its first major military action.
Australia is a constitutional monarchy with a federal division of powers. It uses a parliamentary system of government with Queen Elizabeth II at its apex as the Queen of Australia, a role that is distinct from her position as monarch of the other Commonwealth realms. The Queen resides in the United Kingdom, and she is represented by her viceroys in Australia, (the Governor-General at the federal level and by the Governors at the state level), who by convention act on the advice of her ministers. Supereme executive authority is vested by the constitution of Australia in the sovereign, but the power to exercise it is conferred by the constitution specifically to the Governor-General.
Provinces and districts
Australia has six states-New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia-and two major mainland territories-the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).
Australia has a market economy with high GDP per capita and low rate of poverty. The Australian dollar is the currency for the nation, including Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and Norfolk Island, as well as the independent Pacific Island states of Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu. After the 2006 merger of the Australian Stock Exchange and the Sydney Futures Exchange, the Australian Securities Exchange is now the ninth largest in the world.
Ranked third in the Index of Economic Freedom (2010), Australia is the world's thirteenth largest economy and has the ninth highest per capita GDP; higher than that of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, Japan, and the United States. The country was ranked second in the United Nations 2010 Human Development Index and first in Legatum's 2008 Prosperity Index. All of Australia's major cities fare well in global comparative liveability surveys; Melbourne reached second place on The Economist's 2008 World's Most Livable Cities list, followed by Perth, Adelaide, and Sydney in fourth, seventh and ninth place respectively. Total government debt in Australia is about $190 billion. Australia has amongst the highest house prices and some of the highest household debt levels in the world.
An emphasis on exporting commodities rather than manufactured goods has underpinned a significant increase in Australia's terms of trade since the start of the century, due to rising commodity prices. Australia has a balance of payments that is more than 7 per cent of GDP negative, and has had persistently large current account deficits for more than 50 years. Australia has grown at an average annual rate of 3.6 per cent for over 15 years, in comparison to the OECD annual average of 2.5 per cent. There are differing opinions based on evidence as to whether or not Australia had been one of the few OECD nations to avoid experiencing a recession during the late 2000s global financial downturn. Six of Australia's major trading partners had been in recession which in turn affected Australia, and economic growth was hampered significantly over recent years.
In Australia's tax system, personal and company income tax are the main sources of government revenue.
In January 2007, there were 10,033,480 people employed, with an unemployment rate of 5.1 per cent. Youth unemployment (15-24) rose from 8.7 per cent to 9.7 per cent over 2008-2009. Over the past decade, inflation has typically been 2-3 per cent and the base interest rate 5-6 per cent. The service sector of the economy, including tourism, education, and financial services, accounts for about 70 per cent of GDP. Rich in natural resources, Australia is a major exporter of agricultural products, particularly wheat and wool, minerals such as iron-ore and gold, and energy in the forms of liquified natural gas and coal. Although agriculture and natural resources account for only 3 per cent and 5 per cent of GDP respectively, they contribute substantially to export performance. Australia's largest export markets are Japan, China, the US, South Korea, and New Zealand. Australia is the world's fourth largest exporter of wine, in an industry contributing $5.5 billion per annum to the nation's economy.
For generations, the vast majority of immigrants came from the British Isles, and the people of Australia are still mainly of British or Irish ethnic origin. In the 2006 Australian census, the most commonly nominated ancestry was Australian (37.13 per cent), followed by English (32 per cent), Irish (9 per cent), Scottish (8 per cent), Italian (4 per cent), German (4 per cent), Chinese (3 per cent), and Greek (2 per cent).
Australia's population has quadrupled since the end of World War I, much of the increase from immigration. Following World War II and through to 2000, almost 5.9 million of the total population settled in the country as new immigrants, meaning that nearly two out of every seven Australians were born overseas. Most immigrants are skilled, but the immigration quota includes categories for family members and refugees. By 2050, Australia's population is currently projected to reach around 42 million.
In 2001, 23.1 per cent of Australians were born overseas; the five largest immigrant groups were those from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam, and China. Following the abolition of the White Australia policy in 1973, numerous government initiatives have been established to encourage and promote racial harmony based on a policy of multiculturalism. In 2005-06, more than 131,000 people emigrated to Australia, mainly from Asia and Oceania. The migration target for 2010-11 is 168,700, compared to 67,900 in 1998-99.
The Indigenous population-mainland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders-was counted at 410,003 (2.2 per cent of the total population) in 2001, a significant increase from 115,953 in the 1976 census.
In common with many other developed countries, Australia is experiencing a demographic shift towards an older population, with more retirees and fewer people of working age. In 2004, the average age of the civilian population was 38.8 years. A large number of Australians (759,849 for the period 2002-03) live outside their home country.
Over recent decades, Australia's foreign relations have been driven by a close association with the United States through the ANZUS pact, and by a desire to develop relationships with Asia and the Pacific, particularly through ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum. In 2005 Australia secured an inaugural seat at the East Asia Summit following its accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, and in 2011 will attend the Sixth East Asia Summit in Indonesia. Australia is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, in which the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings provide the main forum for cooperation.
Australia has pursued the cause of international trade liberalisation. Australia is a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Trade Organization, and has pursued several major bilateral free trade agreements, most recently the Australia - United States Free Trade Agreement and Closer Economic Relations with New Zealand, with another free trade agreement being negotiated with China - the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement - and Japan, South Korea in 2011, Australia-Chile Free Trade Agreement, ASEAN - Australia - New Zealand Free Trade Area, and the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership.