Australia was a founder member of the Commonwealth in 1931 when its independence was recognised under the Statute of Westminster.
It is one of 28 island nations in the association; the mainland of Australia is the largest island in the world.
Of the many internationally acclaimed Australian writers, 11 have won overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes, eight for Best Book and three for Best First Book.
The term ‘Australia’ is derived from Terra Australis, the name given to a southern landmass whose existence geographers deduced before it was discovered. Papua New Guinea (to the north) and New Zealand (to the east) are Australia’s closest neighbours. To the south lie the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.
The Commonwealth of Australia is a Federation with six states – New South Wales (state capital Sydney), Victoria (Melbourne), Queensland (Brisbane), South Australia (Adelaide), Western Australia (Perth) and Tasmania (Hobart) – and two territories, Northern Territory (capital Darwin) and the Australian Capital Territory, where the federal capital, Canberra, is situated. Australia also has external territories (described in the profiles following this one). These have small populations or are uninhabited and, apart from the vast Australian Antarctic Territory, are small islands.
Canberra (capital, Australian Capital Territory, pop. 356,586 in 2011), Sydney (New South Wales, 3.9m), Melbourne (Victoria, 3.7m), Brisbane (Queensland, 1.87m), Perth (Western Australia, 1.62m), Adelaide (South Australia, 1.1m), Gold Coast – Tweed Heads (Queensland, 533,659), Newcastle (New South Wales, 308,307), Hobart (Tasmania, 204,951) and Darwin (Northern Territory, 78,467).
There are 825,500 km of roads, 44 per cent paved; Australian road design is known for the long, straight roads in rural areas. Some roads may be impassable after heavy rain.
Rail services link main towns across the country and the total system extends to 8,615 km. The 4,000 km Indian–Pacific from Sydney to Perth takes three days. The 3,000 km north–south line, linking Adelaide in the south with Alice Springs in the centre and Darwin in the north was completed in 2003.
The country has 25,800 km of coastline and many deep-water harbours.
International airports are at Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth, Darwin, Brisbane, Hobart, Townsville and Cairns.
Australia is a member of Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Forum, United Nations and World Trade Organization.
Australia is the largest link in the chain running between South-East Asia and the South Pacific. Much of central Australia is desert. The main mountain chain, the Great Dividing Range, runs down the east coast, rising to Australia’s highest point at Mt Kosciusko (2,230m). Consequently, many of the rivers draining to the east are short; those flowing to the west, of which the Murray-Darling river system is the most considerable, tend to flow only after heavy rains and end in lakes which are often dry with a salt-bed.
The Tropic of Capricorn almost bisects the continent, running just north of Alice Springs, Australia’s central settlement. The subtropical areas north of this line have summer rainfall and dry winters. South of the Tropic, the rest of the continent and Tasmania are temperate. Continental considerations affect this basic pattern, most coastal areas having some rainfall, whereas a large tract of central Australia has less than 300mm p.a. Drought and consequent bushfires are a serious problem.
This pattern of rainfall will be dramatically affected by occasional La Niña events which occur in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean causing the sea to cool and increasing the probability that strong cool onshore winds will bring heavy rains to the eastern regions of Australia, as occurred from November 2010, when there were devastating floods first in Queensland, then in Victoria.
The most significant environmental issues are soil erosion and desertification; loss of the natural habitat of many unique animal and plant species due to increases in agricultural and industrial production; and damage to the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world, due to increased shipping and tourism.
A wide range, from the tropical jungle of Queensland to the sparse flowers of the desert, with many unique species which evolved in the continent’s long geological isolation. Over 500 species of eucalyptus and over 600 species of acacia (wattle). The main fertile areas are in the south and east in New South Wales and Victoria – arable land comprises 6% of the total land area, while the north-east has tropical forest and bush – forest covers 19% of the country.
Many indigenous animal species are unique to the continent. The most distinctive are the marsupials, of which there are 120 species from the kangaroo to the tiny desert mouse, and the monotremes, the rare order of mammals which lay eggs, such as the duck-billed platypus and the echidna. There are also several species of flightless birds – the emu, second only to the African ostrich in size, and the cassowary