Fifty million years ago the Australian continent broke away from the great southern landmass of Gondwanaland, which comprised South America, Africa, India, Australia and Antarctica. Apart from a period during the last Ice Age when the sea level was 100 metres lower than it is today, Australia existed in isolation. This resulted in the evolution of vegetation and wildlife which is substantially unique.
It was thought that the Aboriginal population may have lived in Australia for 50,000 years. However, recent evidence from the Kimberley region of Western Australia suggests much older human habitation. When European explorers arrived, the Aboriginal peoples lived by hunting and gathering and using stone tools. Estimates of the historical size of the population range up to 750,000 people. Aboriginal society, though technologically undeveloped, had complex cultural and religious forms, and some 500 languages, in 31 basic groups. There was a rich oral tradition of songs and stories, and many different styles of rock art.
The first known Europeans to land were Dutch. In 1606, William Jansz landed on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, and thereafter various landings were made. The Dutch named this land New Holland, but showed no interest in further exploration.
In April 1770, Captain James Cook in HMS Endeavour with the botanist Sir Joseph Banks landed in Botany Bay (in what is now New South Wales) and claimed the east coast for the English Crown. Having just lost the American colonies, England needed new penal colonies, and the first shipload of Australian settlers were convicts, arriving with Governor Arthur Phillip in 1788. They moved to Port Jackson (now part of Sydney Harbour) on 26 January, now Australia Day. However, even before transportation to New South Wales was abolished in 1840, free settlers were arriving in increasing numbers. Further exploration, often dangerous, revealed that the land known as New Holland and the English colony were one and the same large island.
In 1831, Western Australia became the second colony, followed by South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, Tasmania in 1856, and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory was, for some time, part of South Australia and later the responsibility of the federal government, achieving self-government in 1978.
The settler population in early years lived mostly in coastal areas, deploying large tracts of land for sheep and cattle. The annexation of land was often accompanied by brutal treatment of the Aboriginal population, who were forced into the interior. Gold was first discovered in Victoria in the 1850s and prompted Australia’s gold rush with a consequent opening up of the interior and more displacement of the Aboriginals. Wheat farming developed, and the country rapidly became a leading exporter. With the invention of refrigeration, export trade in mutton and dairy products began. An extensive railway system was built. Between 1860 and 1890, immigrants, and capital, mostly from Britain, contributed to a long economic boom. In 1891, the country had a population of 3 million, and was exporting wool, mutton, dairy products and wheat.
The colonies, all of which had Westminster-style representative institutions by 1890, became one nation on 1 January 1901. The Commonwealth of Australia, with a federal structure, was established. By the time of World War I, Australian politics emphasised social policy, industrial development, and protectionism to cushion local industries and maintain full employment. The development of the steel industry after 1915 and advances in mining assisted development, so that by 1939, industry was responsible for 40 per cent of GDP. Sophisticated industries such as car manufacture developed in the 1950s. By the latter 1980s, Australians enjoyed one of the world’s highest living standards.
Australia’s political party system traditionally consisted of the Liberal Party, National Party (originally known as the Country Party) and Labor Party (ALP). The Liberal and National parties were frequently in coalition. A new party, the Australian Democrats, was formed in the 1970s as a breakaway group from the Liberal–National coalition. The Liberal–National coalition was in office from 1949 until 1972, and again from 1975 to 1983, under Malcolm Fraser. The Labor Party, under Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating, was in office from 1983 to 1996, when the Liberal–National coalition led by John Howard returned to power. Howard’s conservative coalition’s majority was reduced in an early general election in October 1998, in the face of a strong showing by the Labor Party led by Kim Beazley.
In February 1998, the Constitutional Convention voted by 89 votes to 52 for Australia to become a republic by 2001, and by 73 votes to 57 to replace the British monarch with a President. It was agreed that there would be a referendum on the issue.
Despite evidence from opinion polls that most Australians were in favour of a republic, in the referendum of November 1999 – when asked if they supported ‘an act to alter the constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic, with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament’ – almost 55 per cent registered a ‘No’ vote. The result was widely attributed to widespread dissatisfaction about the right of parliamentarians to choose a President.