In land area, Australia is estimated to be 7,692,024 square Kilometers and the sixth largest nation after Russia, Canada, China, the United States of America and Brazil. It has, however, a relatively small population.
Australia is the only nation to govern an entire continent and its outlying islands. The mainland is the largest island and the smallest, flattest continent on Earth. It lies between 10° and 39° South latitude. The highest point on the mainland, Mount Kosciuszko, is only 2,228 metres.
Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. Its interior has one of the lowest rainfalls in the world and about three-quarters of the land is arid or semi-arid. Its fertile areas are well-watered, however, and these are used very effectively to help feed the world. Sheep and cattle graze in dry country, but care must be taken with the soil. Some grazing land became desert when the long cycles that influence rainfall in Australia turned to drought.
The Australian federation consists of six States and two Territories. Most inland borders follow lines of longitude and latitude. The largest State, Western Australia, is about the same size as Western Europe.
Australia has a developed modern market economy and has had one of the most outstanding economies of the world in recent years with high-growth, low-inflation and low interest rates. Over the past decade, inflation has typically been 2–3% and the base interest rate 5–6%. There is an efficient government sector, a flexible labour market and a very competitive business sector.
Since 1992 Australia has averaged greater than 3 per cent economic growth and recorded over 17 consecutive years. This economic stability places Australia in the top echelon of developed countries in terms of sustained rates of growth.
The Australian economy is dominated by its service sector, representing 68% of Australian GDP. The agricultural and mining sectors account for 57% of the nation’s exports.
With its abundant physical resources, Australia has enjoyed a high standard of living since the nineteenth century. Australia is a major exporter of agricultural products, particularly wheat and wool, minerals such as iron-ore and gold, and energy in the forms of liquified natural gas and coal. It has made a comparatively large investment in social infrastructure, including education, training, health and transport.
According to the Reserve Bank of Australia, Australian per capita GDP growth is higher than that of New Zealand, US, Canada and The Netherlands. The past performance of the Australian economy has been heavily influenced by US, Japanese and Chinese economic growth.
Australia’s culturally diverse society includes its Indigenous peoples who arrived more than 50,000 years ago, and settlers from countries all around the world.
Immigration is an important feature of Australian society. Since 1945, over six million people from 200 countries have come to Australia as new settlers. Migrants have made a major contribution to shaping modern Australia. People born overseas make up almost one quarter of the total population.
The federal government sets immigration intake numbers on a yearly basis. Australia’s immigration policies are non-discriminatory and all applicants to migrate must meet the same selection criteria.
In recent years the mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals with the intention of applying for refugee status (asylum seekers) by boat has generated great levels of controversy.
Mandatory detention laws were introduced in Australia by the Keating Labor government, with bipartisan support, in 1992. The legislation was proposed as a result of an influx of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cambodian refugees over the previous few years.