Australia has been establishing stronger links with Asia—but has been unable to shake off the British monarchy
Australia's landmass—which can be viewed as the world's largest island—is dominated by a vast and largely empty interior of arid plains and plateaux, known as the outback. The most significant mountainous area is the Great Dividing Range, which runs down the east of the country, separating the outback from the coastal plain, re-emerging further south as the island of Tasmania. Most people are concentrated in the more fertile coastal areas, particularly in the east, south-east, and west.
Australia's population has been shaped by a long and continuing process of immigration: one-quarter of the current population were born overseas. Until the mid-1960s the government had a ‘white Australia’ policy which ensured that immigration was largely from Europe and particularly from the British Isles. Since then, it has cast its net wider, seeking the people with the highest skills. This, combined with refugee flows, has tilted the balance in favour of Asia. Even so, the largest single source of immigrants is New Zealand. In 2006/07 there were over 140,00 immigrants and a further 373,000 long-term arrivals.
Australia has an increasingly diverse population, but its most distinctive ethnic group are the original inhabitants—a quarter of a million Aborigines. They are the most marginalized part of Australian society: most live in desperate poverty, either in reserves in the outback or in urban slums. In recent decades they have become more assertive and in 2008 the Rudd government officially apologized for the ways in which the state has treated Aborigines.
Australia's economy is dominated by service industries that account for more than 80% of GDP and employment. The largest employer is the retail sector, but many other people work in catering—which also involves feeding more than five million tourists who arrive each year. Manufacturing has declined significantly. Until the 1990s, many Australian producers were protected by high tariffs, but most of these have now been cut, output has fallen, and in 2007 manufacturing employed only 10% of the workforce.
Aboriginal communities demand their rights
Australia remains a major producer and exporter of raw materials. Its extensive mineral wealth includes iron, aluminium, uranium, zinc, nickel, and lead. It also has gold and diamonds, as well as abundant energy sources in the form of coal, oil, and gas. For many minerals, Australia is the world's leading exporter. Mineral rights are generally vested in the Crown or in individual states which receive royalties from mining companies. But land title is disputed; Aboriginal communities are demanding either a veto over mineral development or a share of the profits.
Much of the territory is arid, but Australia also has rich agricultural land. Agriculture has become less significant, particularly following a series of severe droughts, but it still generates around one-quarter of exports—chiefly from wool, cereals, meat, and sugar. A more recent success has been wine, of which Australia is the world's sixth largest producer.
Australia is a federation of six states, each of which has its own government and governor. The head of state is still the British monarch, though there have been several attempts to despatch her. In a 1999 referendum, 55% of Australians rejected the proposal to become a republic, primarily because they disliked the form of republic on offer, or because they regarded the whole constitutional process as a waste of time and money.