Australia is probably best known for the vastness of its territory and the Aboriginal people who give it such a vibrant presence.
The Aborigines are believed to have arrived in Australia from South-east Asia around 50,000 years ago. The official Australian website says that “They were scattered in 300 clans and spoke 250 languages and 700 dialects. Each clan had a spiritual connection with a specific piece of land. However, they also travelled widely to trade, find water and seasonal produce and for ritual and totemic gatherings”.
The Aborigines were pretty much it until the first European settlers arrived; most explored the coastline but didn’t penetrate inland. It was the Dutch in 1606 led by Willem Janszoon who made the first recorded landing in Australia. The Spanish are also known to have explored the coastal areas.
But it was James Cook in 1770 who claimed the land for Britain and the first penal colony, of New South Wales, was established soon after in 1788. This was the start of a major exodus from Britain as it sent more than 160,000 convicts to Australia before the practice ended in 1868.
Needless to say the Europeans displaced the Aborigines from their land and brought diseases which decimated the Aboriginal population. No surprise then to find that wars broke out between the settlers and the Aborigines. The most serious clashes were those between 1795 –1816 but there was an incident as late as 1932 and 1934 called the Caledon Bay crisis which saw, for the first time, public opinion swing behind the rights of Aborigines.
Meanwhile the European settlers advanced into the inner parts of this vast continent and discovered gold around 1851. This led to a gold rush with even more Europeans moving to Australia to find their fortunes. It didn’t take long for discontent to take hold between the governing authorities and the gold miners. This led to the now famous but small scale battle of the Eureka stockade in 1854. This eventually resulted in the first democratic reforms being introduced into Australia.
Although there had been a European style form of government since 1788, in 1825 the New South Wales Legislative Council was created and by 1850 the Australian Colonies Government Act (1850) had been introduced to give limited representative constitutions to New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.
In 1889 New South Wales Premier Henry Parkes called for a national executive government. In 1891 a National Australian Convention met and drafted a constitutional bill. But it wasn’t until a second convention in 1895 that a final Bill was drafted and in 1900 a delegation was sent to London to gain approval. The House of Commons passed the Bill on 5th July 1900.
Australia’s six states became one nation under a single constitution on 1st January 1901 with the first Federal elections being held in 1901. The Protectionist Party won a narrow victory over the Free Trade Party but it was the Australian Labor Party (ALP) which came third and sided with the Protectionists to form a government and Sir Edmund Barton became the first Prime Minister of Australia.
Despite a strong minority tendency towards republicanism in Australia it retains the British Crown as its head of state and stood with the United Kingdom through both World wars. Australia’s troops fought some of the toughest battles in the First World War, especially Gallipoli, and the Second World War, especially the North African campaign and closer to home in numerous battles such as the Battle of Buna – Gona against the Japanese as they threatened the Australian mainland.
All of the modern day political parties can trace their histories back to the early 1900s. The Australian Labour Party (it changed its name to Labor in 1912) was founded in 1901. The Free Trade Party and the Protectionists became the Commonwealth Liberal Party in 1909 and the National Party came on the scene in 1919.
The Labor Party ruled, mostly for single terms, throughout the 20th Century with its longest period in office (thirteen years) from 1983 until 1996 under the premiership of Bob Hawke. The centre-right under its various guises but today it is known as the Coalition has ruled for large chunks of the 20th Century. Perhaps its most notable periods were the twenty-three years between 1949 and 1972, mostly under the premiership of Robert Menzies and the eleven years between 1996 and 2007 under the premiership of John Howard.
In 2007 the Australian Labor Party won the general election under the leadership of Kevin Rudd with 83 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives. Three years later, in 2010, they won once more but this time under the leadership of Julia Gillard who had challenged Rudd just months before the election. Gauging the mood of the Labor Party Rudd stood down leaving the field free for Gillard. The relationship between Rudd and Gillard was never comfortable and despite being Foreign Minister in Gillard’s government there was a sense that Rudd was waiting for his moment to challenge her. That moment came in June 2013 when opinion polls showed that Labor would be all but wiped out in the general election set for September. Kevin Rudd won the leadership contest and leads the Australian Labor Party into the 7th September general election.
Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State
The bicameral parliament consists of the Senate with 76 seats comprised of 12 members from each of the six states and 2 from each of the two mainland territories. Half of state members are elected every three years by popular vote to serve six-year terms while all territory members are elected every three years. The House of Representatives has 150 members elected by popular vote to serve terms of up to three years.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Australia at 13th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 79 (where 100 is least corrupt).