Languages: English 79%, native and other languages

Ethnicity/race: Caucasian 92%, Asian 7%, aboriginal and other 1%

Religions: Roman Catholic 26%, Anglican 21%, other Christian 21%, Buddhist 2%, Islam 2%, other 1%, none 15% (2001)

National Holiday: Australia Day, January 26

Literacy rate: 99%% (2003 est.)

Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2009 est.): $824.3 billion; per capita $38,800. Real growth rate: 1%. Inflation: 1.9%. Unemployment: 5.7%. Arable land: 6.15%. Agriculture: wheat, barley, sugarcane, fruits; cattle, sheep, poultry. Labor force: 10.9 million; agriculture 3.6%, industry 21.2%, services 75.2% (2007 est.). Industries: mining, industrial and transportation equipment, food processing, chemicals, steel. Natural resources: bauxite, coal, iron ore, copper, tin, gold, silver, uranium, nickel, tungsten, mineral sands, lead, zinc, diamonds, natural gas, petroleum. Exports: $161.5 billion (2009 est.): coal, gold, meat, wool, alumina, iron ore, wheat, machinery and transport equipment. Imports: $160.9 billion (2009 est.): machinery and transport equipment, computers and office machines, telecommunication equipment and parts; crude oil and petroleum products. Major trading partners: China, U.S., Japan, Singapore, Germany (2006).

Member of Commonwealth of Nations

Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 9.94 million (2006); mobile cellular: 19.76 million (2006). Radio broadcast stations: AM 262, FM 345, shortwave 1 (1998). Television broadcast stations: 104 (1997). Internet hosts: 9.458 million (2007). Internet users: 15.3 million (2006).

Transportation: Railways: total: 38,550 km (2006). Highways: total: 810,641 km; paved: 336,962 km; unpaved: 473,679 km (2004). Waterways: 2,000 km (mainly used for recreation on Murray and Murray-Darling river systems) (2006). Ports and harbors: Brisbane, Dampier, Fremantle, Gladstone, Hay Point, Melbourne, Newcastle, Port Hedland, Port Kembla, Port Walcott, Sydney. Airports: 461 (2007).

International disputes: Timor-Leste and Australia agreed in 2005 to defer the disputed portion of the boundary for fifty years and to split hydrocarbon revenues evenly outside the Joint Petroleum Development Area covered by the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty; East Timor dispute hampers creation of a revised maritime boundary with Indonesia in the Timor Sea; Indonesian groups challenge Australia’s claim to Ashmore and Cartier Islands; Australia closed parts of the Ashmore and Cartier Reserve to Indonesian traditional fishing and placed restrictions on certain catch; regional states continue to express concern over Australia’s 2004 declaration of a 1,000-nautical mile-wide maritime identification zone; Australia asserts land and maritime claims to Antarctica (see Antarctica); in 2004 Australia submitted its claims to UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to extend its continental margins covering over 3.37 million square kilometers or roughly thirty percent of its claimed exclusive economic zone; since 2003, Australian Defense Force leads the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) to maintain civil and political order and reinforce regional security.

From the World Wars to the End of the Millennium

Australia fought alongside Britain in World War I, notably with the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) in the Dardanelles campaign (1915). Participation in World War II helped Australia forge closer ties to the United States. Parliamentary power in the second half of the 20th century shifted between three political parties: the Australian Labour Party, the Liberal Party, and the National Party. Australia relaxed its discriminatory immigration laws in the 1960s and 1970s, which favored Northern Europeans. Thereafter, about 40% of its immigrants came from Asia, diversifying a population that was predominantly of English and Irish heritage. An Aboriginal movement that grew in the 1960s gained full citizenship and improved education for the country’s poorest socioeconomic group.

In March 1996, the opposition Liberal Party–National Party coalition easily won the national elections, removing the Labour Party after 13 years in power. Pressure from the new, conservative One Nation Party threatened to reduce the gains made by Aborigines and to limit immigration.

In Sept. 1999, Australia led the international peacekeeping force sent to restore order in East Timor after pro-Indonesian militias began massacring civilians to thwart East Timor’s referendum on independence.

Changes in Immigration Policy

John Howard won a third term in Nov. 2001, primarily as the result of his tough policy against illegal immigration. This policy has also brought him considerable criticism: refugees attempting to enter Australia—most of them from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq and numbering about 5,000 annually—have been imprisoned in bleak detention camps and subjected to a lengthy immigration process. Asylum-seekers have staged riots and hunger strikes. Howard has also dealt with refugees through the “Pacific solution,” which reroutes boat people from Australian shores to camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. In 2004, however, the government began easing its policies on immigration.

Australia on the International Stage as Peacekeeper

Prime Minister Howard sent 2,000 Australian troops to fight alongside American and British troops in the 2003 Iraq war, despite strong opposition among Australians.

In July 2003, Australia successfully restored order to the Solomon Islands, which had descended into lawlessness during a brutal civil war.

Australian citizens have been the victims of two significant terrorist attacks in recent years: the 2002 Bali, Indonesia, bombings by a group with ties to al-Qaeda in which 202 died, many of whom were Australian, and the 2004 attack on the Australian embassy in Indonesia, which killed ten.

In Oct. 2004, Howard won a fourth term as prime minister. When rival security forces in East Timor began fighting each other in 2006, Australia sent 3,000 peacekeeping troops to stem the violence. Howard was defeated by the Labor Party’s Kevin Rudd in elections in Nov. 2007. Rudd campaigned on a platform for change, and promised to focus on the environment, education, and healthcare. Observers predicted Rudd would maintain a close relationship with the United States. The military began withdrawing Australia’s 550 troops from Iraq in June 2008, following through on a promise made by Rudd.

The worst wildfires in Australian history killed at least 181 people in the state of Victoria, injured more than a hundred, and destroyed more than 900 houses in Feb. 2009. At least one of the fires was determined to be the work of arsonists. Australian officials were criticized for failing to evacuate those in danger. A government inquiry was requested to research the state’s response to the fires.

Australia Elects Its First Female Prime Minister

Rudd’s popularity plummeted in May 2010, largely because he shelved his environmental policy that centered on an emissions-trading system. In June, the Labor Party ousted him as its leader and elected his deputy, Julia Gillard. She became Australia’s first female prime minister in June and promptly called for elections, which were held in August. They resulted in a hung parliament, with neither the incumbent Labor Party nor the conservative Liberal-National coalition, led by Tony Abbott, taking a majority of seats. It is the country’s first hung parliament in 70 years. After several weeks of attempting to woo members of parliament to her side, Gillard succeeded in early September, when two independents backed her. It was enough to give her the slimmest majority: 76 out of 150 seats.

Worst Flooding in Decades

In January 2011, the worst flooding for decades in Queensland cut off many cities and towns. The floods left more than 30 people dead and caused billions of dollars in damage to mines, farms, and cities. Coal mining operations in the Australian state were severely hampered. The flood affected about 200,000 people and covered an area larger than France and Germany combined. Prime Minister Gillard started off the New Year by visiting the ravaged state. In April, Queensland urban areas were plagued with extremely large numbers of flying beetles, a likely result of the floods.