Location and Geography
Australia is an island continent of approximately 7.7 million square kilometres, making it the sixth-largest country in the world. Located between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean, it is the oldest, lowest (apart from Antarctica), and driest continent. Because of its unique and varied geography, it is an archaeologist’s delight, with landforms dating back millions of years. Australia is mostly flat, but has some notable mountains and long beaches. Canberra is the capital.
The climate ranges from tropical in the north to temperate in the south. The largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid. Overall, Australian cities enjoy a mild climate, with maximum temperatures falling in a fairly narrow range (e.g., in the summer in Sydney, the temperature might range from 16° to 26° Celsius). But the continent is large, and international students should be informed about the individual climates of the regions they are interested in. They should also be aware that the Australian sun can be very strong.
History and Population
Aboriginal peoples settled Australia about 60,000 years ago – there were many distinct languages and dialects, and customs varied greatly from region to region. British settlement began in 1788, and for a time Australia was actually used as a penal colony (the first fleet of convicts arrived January 26, 1788, and the country still marks this occasion on that date with a holiday called Australia Day). The penal era ended in 1868. The settlement developed into six self-governing colonies which federated in 1901 to form Australia, a nation founded on ideals of egalitarianism, human rights, harmony, and democracy. Since the 1950s, large numbers of displaced people have immigrated to Australia, and this has had a profound effect on its society and culture.
The population is more than 21 million, and is highly urbanised. Just over 60% of Australians live in the main cities and almost 80% within 100 kimometres of a major city. Nearly one in four Australians were born overseas. Australia is predominantly a Christian country, with English the official language. It is a member of the British Commonwealth.
Society and Culture
Australian society is safe, friendly, sophisticated, and harmonious. Many ethnic groups are represented in Australia, making it one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. The country’s proximity to the Asia-Pacific region also influences its culture, economy, and lifestyle. The government of Australia describes the values underpinning the Australian way of life as:
- Respect for equal worth, dignity and freedom of the individualFreedom of speech and association, religion, and a secular government
- Support for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law
- Equality under the law
- Equality of men and women
- Equality of opportunity
- A spirit of egalitarianism that embraces tolerance, mutual respect, and compassion for those in need.
There are many ways to take part in Australian culture, from enjoying the vibrant dining out scene to barbequing on a beach, and from taking in a world-class theatre event to throwing on a backpack and doing a scenic hike. Surfing and other water activities are also highlights of Australia. It’s been said that Australia is an easy place to be a tourist even on a limited budget.
Australia has a stable, advanced economy, and is a member of the G20 group of nations. In 2009, it was the 13th largest economy in the world by nominal GDP. As with other advanced economies, the service sector dominates, which represents 68% of GDP. Natural resources are also important: the agricultural and mining sectors account for more than half of the nation’s exports. The currency is the Australian Dollar.
Australia is divided politically into six states and two territories, and is a stable, liberal parliamentary democracy (similar to the U.S. and U.K.), with three levels of government: federal, state, and local. Federal and state governments administer the laws that apply to education.
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