Background Notes: Australia

Contributed By RealAdventures

Australia's aboriginal inhabitants, a hunting-gathering people generally referred to as Australoids or 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 the United Kingdom 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 300,000, representing about 1.7% 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 1996, nearly 5.5 million immigrants settled in Australia, and about 80% have remained; nearly one of every four 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 1995-96, Australia accepted more than 99,000 regular immigrants. In 1999-2000, Australia will accept 82,000 new immigrants. In addition, since 1990 about 7,500 New Zealanders have settled in Australia each 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.

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. Australian movies are also well known

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 Endeavor).

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 148-member House of Representatives. Twelve senators from each state and two from each territory are elected for 6-year terms, with half elected every 3 years. 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 October 1998.

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.

Governor General--Sir William Deane
Prime Minister--John W. Howard
Foreign Minister--Alexander Downer
Ambassador to the United States--Andrew Peacock
Ambassador to the United Nations--Penelope Wensley

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 1980's, 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, the coalition now holds 80 seats (64 Liberal/16 National) in the House of Representatives, against 68 for the ALP and 1 independent. In the Senate, the Liberal/National coalition holds 37 seats (31 Liberal/6 national), against 28 for the ALP, 7 for the Australian Democrats, 2 for the Greens, and 2 for independents. The new Senators take their seats on July 1, 1999. 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. As of 1 July 1999 in the Senate, the Liberal/national coalition holds 34 seats (31 Liberals/3 National), against 29 for the ALP, 9 for the Australian Democrats, 1 for the Greens, 1 for One Nation 1 for the Country Liberal Party, and 1 Independent.

The ongoing region-wide Asian financial crisis, which began in 1997, has created uncertainty and instability in Australia's economy.

Historically, the Australian economy has consisted of export-oriented agricultural and mining sectors coupled with a diversified manufacturing-service sector dedicated to domestic requirements. That pattern is changing slowly. Australia's developed economy is dominated by its services sector (65% of GDP), but it is the agriculture and mining sectors (8% of GDP) that account for the bulk of goods and services exports (57% in 1997). The Australian economy and balance of payments are strongly influenced by world prices for primary products.

Australia has immense mineral and energy resources. It is the world's leading exporter of coal and one of the world's leading producers and exporters of aluminum, alumina, bauxite, cobalt, copper, industrial diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, silver, and uranium. In addition, abundant supplies of natural gas, liquid petroleum gas, and uranium make Australia a net exporter of energy products.

The manufacturing sector has been limited by Australia's small domestic market and labor force and relatively high labor costs fostered by strong unions. A broad-based manufacturing sector was developed, nonetheless, partly due to an extensive range of tariffs and other protective measures. The trade barriers that insulated domestic industry from foreign competition are, today, seen as having restrained the growth of industrial modernization and productivity. Since 1984, successive Australian governments have reduced or eliminated tariffs and sectoral-assistance measures. More recent macroeconomic reforms have boosted economic diversification, export orientation, and the manufacturing industries. Exports of elaborately transformed products are growing, and manufactures' share of total exports has increased. However, the relative size of the manufacturing sector has declined for several decades and in 1998 accounted for just under 14% of GDP.

Since the Australian dollar was floated and allowed to fall dramatically from 1984 to 1987, successive Australian governments have begun to make the manufacturing sector more competitive with imports and more capable of exporting overseas. Corporate taxes have been significantly reduced. Unions have agreed to gradual reductions in real wages. The financial sector has been liberalized and exposed to international competition. The national air carrier, QANTAS, and the Commonwealth Bank have been fully privatized. The national telecommunications carrier, Telstra, was one-third privatized in November 1997. By 1996, a program begun in 1988 had reduced most tariffs to 5%.

Foreign investment has been vital in the development of Australian ranching, transport, and manufacturing. The Australian Government welcomes foreign investment congenial to the Australian community, particularly if it is for export-oriented industries and creates employment opportunities. Some restrictions on foreign ownership exist for the media, civil aviation, mining, and certain kinds of real estate. In 1998, cumulative U.S. investment in Australia--the single-most important source of direct foreign investment in that country--totaled more than $72 billion and accounted for 24% of total foreign investment.

Australia suffered a significant recession in 1990-91, followed by rapid growth in 1992-94. Growth has slowed somewhat since, with the Australian economy experiencing a cyclical downturn during 1996-97. Real GDP growth is expected to reach 2.8% in 1998. Inflation, which reached 5.1% during the recovery, has now fallen significantly; in 1997 Australia recorded the first annual price deflation in 35 years. Unemployment continues to hover stubbornly above 8.0%, however, despite some job creation in the second half of 1997. The Howard government inherited a substantial budget deficit in 1996, but has since embarked on an ambitious fiscal consolidation program, which relies primarily on cutting government spending. The government announced an underlying budget surplus, which removes debt repayments and assets from the headline balance, of $1.6 billion for FY 1998-99, and a substantial headline budget surplus. Australia's trade deficit fell during 1995 and 1996, but is projected to reach $3 billion in 1998. Australia's net foreign debt has averaged 30%-40% of GDP for several decades and totaled $150 billion (39.7% of GDP) at the end of 1997. Australia's external public debt was $38 billion at the end of 1997. The public sector accounts for 26% of Australia's gross external debt; the remainder is the responsibility of the private sector.

Over the long term, Australia's economic prospects generally are bright. The successful conclusion of the GATT Uruguay Round of trade liberalization negotiations should boost overall economic activity, exports, and employment. In addition, the integration of the Australian economy into the rapidly growing Asia-Pacific region and increasing emphasis on using the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to advance regional economic liberalization should boost future growth.

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. Australia has a large bilateral aid program (about $1.3 billion for 1997-98, mostly in the form of grants) under which some 60 countries receive assistance. Papua New Guinea (PNG), a former Australian trust territory, is the largest recipient of Australian assistance. In 1997, Australia contributed to the IMF program for Thailand, and assisted Indonesia and PNG with regional environmental crises. From 1997-1999 Australia contributed to IMF program for Thailand and assisted Indonesia and PNG with regional environmental crisis and drought relief efforts. Australia provided the majority of disaster relief to PNG following a devastating tsumani in 1998.

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 $19 billion in 1998. That same year, over 200,000 Americans visited Australia and nearly 53,000 resided there.

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 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) 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 U.S., 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 U.S. has concerns about Australian barriers to imports of cooked chicken, fresh salmon, and some fruits; subsidized Australian exports of leather for automobile upholstery; 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 broad-ranging 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 counternarcotics issues.

Ambassador--Genta Hawkins Holmes
Deputy Chief of Mission--W. Mark Bellamy
Consular Affairs Coordinator--Steve Coffman (resident in Sydney)
Economic Counselor--Michael Delaney
Political Counselor--Stephen Engelken
Administrative Counselor--Jo Ellen Powell
Public Affairs Officer--Don Q. Washington
Defense and Air Attache and Representative of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
and the Commander in Chief Pacific--Col. Charles Scaperotto, USAF
Agricultural Counselor--Randy Zeitner
Senior Commercial Officer--Barry Friedman (resident in Sydney)

Sydney Consulate Website:

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).

For information on foreign economic trends, commercial development, production, trade regulations, and tariff rates, contact the International Trade Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC 20230. This information also is available from any Commerce Department district office.

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