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Australia

Australia flagAustralia Facts

Australia, officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the world's smallest continent and a number of islands in the Southern, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Neighbouring countries include Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea to the north, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and the French dependency of New Caledonia to the northeast, and New Zealand to the southeast.

The mainland of Australia has been inhabited for more than 42,000 years by Indigenous Australians. After sporadic visits by fishermen from the north and by European explorers and merchants starting in the seventeenth century, the eastern half of the mainland was claimed by the British in 1770 and officially settled through penal transportation as the colony of New South Wales on 26 January 1788. As the population grew and new areas were explored, another five largely self-governing Crown Colonies were successively established over the course of the 19th century.

On 1 January 1901, the six colonies became a Federation, and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed. Since federation, Australia has maintained a stable liberal democratic political system and remains a Commonwealth Realm. The capital city is Canberra, located in the Australian Capital Territory. The current national population is around 20.6 million people, and is concentrated mainly in the large coastal cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.

Demographics

Most of the estimated 20.6 million Australians are descended from nineteenth- and twentieth-century settlers, the majority from Great Britain and Ireland. Australia's population has quadrupled since the end of World War I, spurred by an ambitious immigration program. In 2001, the five largest groups of the 23.1% of Australians who were born overseas were 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.

The indigenous population — mainland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders — was 410,003 (2.2% of the total population) in 2001, a significant increase from the 1976 census, which showed an indigenous population of 115,953. Indigenous Australians have higher rates of imprisonment and unemployment, lower levels of education and life expectancies for males and females that are 17 years lower than those of other Australians.

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. A large number of Australians (759,849 for the period 2002–03) live outside their home country. Australia has maintained one of the most active immigration programmes in the world to boost population growth. Most immigrants are skilled, but the immigration quota includes categories for family members and refugees.

English is the national language, and is spoken and written in a distinct variety known as Australian English. According to the 2001 census, English is the only language spoken in the home for around 80% of the population. The next most common languages spoken at home are Chinese languages (2.1%), Italian (1.9%) and Greek (1.4%). A considerable proportion of first- and second-generation migrants are bilingual. Australia has a sign language known as Auslan, which is the main language of about 6,500 deaf people.

School attendance is compulsory throughout Australia between the ages of 6–15 years (16 years in South Australia and Tasmania, and 17 years in Western Australia), contributing to an adult literacy rate that is assumed to be 99%. The ratio of international to local students in tertiary education in Australia is the highest in OECD countries.

Climate

By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid. Australia is the driest inhabited continent, the flattest, and has the oldest and least fertile soils. Only the south-east and south-west corners of the continent have a temperate climate. The majority of the population lives along the temperate south-eastern coastline. The northern part of the country, with a tropical climate, has a vegetation consisting of rainforest, woodland, grassland, mangrove swamps and desert. Climate is highly influenced by ocean currents, including the El Niño southern oscillation, which is correlated with periodic drought, and the seasonal tropical low pressure system that produces cyclones in northern Australia.
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