Australia Australia is the only country that is also a continent. In area, Australia ranks as the sixth largest country and smallest continent. Australia is located between the South Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. The part of the Indian Ocean that is south of Australia is called the Southern Ocean in the country. Australia is about 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers) southwest of North America and about 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) southeast of mainland Asia. Australia is often referred to as being “down under” because it lies entirely within the Southern Hemisphere.

The name Australia comes from the Latin word australis, which means southern. The official name of the country is the Commonwealth of Australia. Australia is a dry, thinly populated land. Only a few areas along or near the coasts receive enough rainfall to support a large population. The southeastern coastal region has the most people by far. Australia’s two largest cities–Sydney and Melbourne–lie in this region.

Canberra, the national capital, lies only a short distance inland. The huge interior of Australia is mostly desert or dry grassland and has few settlements. The country as a whole averages only six persons per square mile (two persons per square kilometer). Australia is famous for its vast open spaces, bright sunshine, enormous numbers of sheep and cattle, and unusual wildlife. Kangaroos, koalas, platypuses, and wombats are only a few of the many unusual animals that live in Australia. The country was once a group of British colonies, and most of the Australian people are of British ancestry. When people moved to Australia from Britain, they took many British customs with them. For example, Australians drive on the left side of the road, as do British drivers.

Tea is the favorite hot drink in Australia, as it is in Britain. English, the official language of Australia, includes many British terms. But Australians have developed a way of life all their own. Australia has a warm, sunny climate. The people can therefore spend much of their free time out of doors.

Australians love outdoor sports and outdoor living in general. Australia is one of the world’s developed countries. It has busy cities, modern factories, and highly productive farms and mines. Australia is the world’s leading producer and exporter of wool and bauxite (the ore from which aluminum is made). It also produces and exports large amounts of other minerals and farm goods.

The income from these exports has made it possible for most of the people of Australia to have a high standard of living. In the past, Britain was Australia’s most important trading partner. Today, Australia trades most with Japan and the United States. The first Australians were a dark-skinned people known today as Aborigines (pronounced ab uh rihj uh neez). The Aborigines had lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years before the first white settlers arrived.

Britain settled Australia as a prison colony in 1788. Since then, the number of whites has steadily increased and the total number of Aborigines has declined. Today, the vast majority of Australians are white. Government The Commonwealth of Australia is a federation of states. The nation is administered under a written constitution. The Australian Constitution gives certain powers to the federal government and leaves all other government powers to the states.

Australia has six states. They are New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia. Each state has its own government. Australia also has two mainland territories–the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. Each territory is responsible for its own administration, the first step toward statehood. But until the territories become states, the federal government must approve major policy changes.

Australia has a parliamentary system of government. Under the parliamentary system, the national government is controlled by the political party or the coalition (combination) of parties with a majority of seats in the lower house of the parliament. The leader of the majority party or the coalition heads the government as prime minister. Australia is a constitutional monarchy like Britain. The British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is also queen of Australia and the country’s head of state. However, the queen has little or no power in the Australian government.

She serves mainly as a symbol of the historical tie between the two countries. Australia is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, the association formed by Britain and a number of its former colonies that are now independent countries. The federal government of Australia is officially headed by a governor general, who represents the queen. The queen appoints the governor general on the recommendation of the Australian prime minister. The governor general’s role, like the queen’s, is mainly symbolic. In 1975, however, the governor general used his power to remove the prime minister from office.

See the History section of this article for details. The prime minister, Australia’s head of government, is normally responsible only to the majority party or coalition. If the party or coalition chooses a new leader, that person becomes prime minister. The prime minister appoints members of Parliament to head the government departments. The department heads, called ministers, and the prime minister make up the Cabinet.

The Cabinet establishes major government policies. The federal Parliament has an upper and a lower house. The upper house is called the Senate and the lower house is called the House of Representatives. Most bills are introduced in the House. The Senate reviews bills passed by the House and can reject them.

The Australian Senate has 76 members. Each state elects 12 senators, and each mainland territory elects 2. Membership in the 148-member House of Representatives is divided among the states and mainland territories according to population. Senators are elected to six-year terms, and representatives to three-year terms. Elections for the House must be held at least every three years.

But the prime minister may ask the governor general to dissolve the House and call for new elections at any time. All Australians 18 years of age or older must vote in parliamentary and state elections. Those who do not vote may be fined. The federal courts. The High Court of Australia decides constitutional questions.

It also serves as the nation’s court of final appeals. Other federal courts deal with bankruptcy cases, family law, industrial disputes, and violations of federal law. State and local government. Each Australian state has its own parliament, court system, head of government, and governor. The heads of state governments are called premiers.

The governor of each state represents the queen. Australia’s states do not operate as independently of the federal government as do, for example, the states of the United States. The Australian states have heavy administrative responsibilities in certain areas, such as local law enforcement, public education, and the building of roads. But the federal government collects nearly all the nation’s taxes. Each state receives a share of the federal tax income. But this allowance is usually not enough to finance major new public works.

By granting or denying a state’s requests for additional funds or loans, the federal government strongly influences the services that the state provides.