Sovereign: Queen Elizabeth II (1952)
Governor-General: Peter Cosgrove (2014)
Prime Minister: Malcolm Turnbull (2015)
Land area: 2,941,283 sq mi (7,617,931 sq km); total area: 2,967,893 sq mi (7,686,850 sq km)
Population (2014 est.): 22,507,617 (growth rate: 1.09%); birth rate: 12.19/1000; infant mortality rate: 4.43/1000; life expectancy: 82.07
Capital (2011 est.): Canberra, 399,000
Largest cities: Sydney 4.543 million; Melbourne 3.961 million; Brisbane 2.039 million; Perth 1.649 million; Adelaide 1.198 million; CANBERRA (capital) 399,000 (2011)
Monetary unit: Australian dollar
The continent of Australia, with the island state of Tasmania, is approximately equal in area to the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). Mountain ranges run from north to south along the east coast, reaching their highest point in Mount Kosciusko (7,308 ft; 2,228 m). The western half of the continent is occupied by a desert plateau that rises into barren, rolling hills near the west coast. The Great Barrier Reef, extending about 1,245 mi (2,000 km), lies along the northeast coast. The island of Tasmania (26,178 sq mi; 67,800 sq km) is off the southeast coast.
Democracy. Symbolic executive power is vested in the British monarch, who is represented throughout Australia by the governor-general.
The first inhabitants of Australia were the Aborigines, who migrated there at least 40,000 years ago from Southeast Asia. There may have been between a half million to a full million Aborigines at the time of European settlement; today about 350,000 live in Australia.
Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish ships sighted Australia in the 17th century; the Dutch landed at the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1606. In 1616 the territory became known as New Holland. The British arrived in 1688, but it was not until Captain James Cook's voyage in 1770 that Great Britain claimed possession of the vast island, calling it New South Wales. A British penal colony was set up at Port Jackson (what is now Sydney) in 1788, and about 161,000 transported English convicts were settled there until the system was suspended in 1839.
Free settlers and former prisoners established six colonies: New South Wales (1786), Tasmania (then Van Diemen's Land) (1825), Western Australia (1829), South Australia (1834), Victoria (1851), and Queensland (1859). Various gold rushes attracted settlers, as did the mining of other minerals. Sheep farming and grain soon grew into important economic enterprises. The six colonies became states and in 1901 federated into the Commonwealth of Australia with a constitution that incorporated British parliamentary and U.S. federal traditions. Australia became known for its liberal legislation: free compulsory education, protected trade unionism with industrial conciliation and arbitration, the secret ballot, women's suffrage, maternity allowances, and sickness and old-age pensions.