An Introduction to Australia: or everything you wanted (or didn’t think you knew you wanted ) to know about Australia in 10 hand-written pages.

A Talk given to Eastwood Middle School’s 7th Grade Social Studies Class
Indianapolis, Indiana

Australia Day, 26th January 2006

By Fran Colley and David Hart (Parents of two of the aforementioned 7th Graders), Australian nationals all of us.

Table of Contents


A Few Questions to get the Mind in Gear before we begin

  • How did a society which began as a penal colony ruled by British marines produce one of the freest, prosperous, and most politically stable societies in the world 200 years later?
  • How has technolgy overcome what one Australian historian has called the “tyranny of distance” and what impact has this had on Australian society?
  • What impact has the arrival of a scientific, technological, Christian, and economically oriented society (the British) had on a traditional, hunter-gatherer society (the Aborignes)? Could this have been avoided? If so, how?
  • How did the environment influence the economic and social development of Australia? In other words, why does a country much the same size as the US (with 300 milion people) only have 20 million inhabitants?
  • What happens when a “monocultural” society (like Anglo-Australia) allows widescale immigration in a short period of time to produce a “multicultural” society?
  • Why did a society so geographically isolated as Australia willingly participate in so many distant, foreign wars during the 20th century?
  • What impact has the proximity to the sea and the coast had on Australian society?
  • Why do Australians talk so funny?

1. The Australian Landscape - geography, climate and wildlife

Why is Australia so isolated?

  • the supercontinent Pangaea broke up 200 m years ago [Map 1]
  • one part, Gondwanaland, was made up of what became Sth. America, Africa, Antarctica, India, Australia [Gondwanaland]
  • it too broke up and Australia broke away from Antarctica 100m yrs ago [Map 2]
    • it was “cast adrift” away from the other continents
    • with no active mountain forming process (e.g. India’s collision with Asia creating the Himalayas)
    • no active volcanic zones (as in NZ) which create new, rich soils and cover up older rocks
    • so Australia’s landscape is very old (with some of the oldest rock formations on the planet, 3 b yrs)
      • highly stable and eroded and leached soils
      • flat landscape with no high mountains [Map 3]
  • periodic ice ages (100,000 yr cycles) have raised and lowered “land bridges” to Asia
    • entry point for ancient humans and animals
    • humans first came to Australia via Indonesia 60,000 yrs ago

The Climate

  • Aust. is a land of extremes - extreme heat in the NW and centre and heavy snow and cold in the Snowy Mnts in SE
  • 40% of continent is above the Tropic of Capricorn and is tropical with monsoonal wet/dry seasons and cyclones
  • the centre is hot and dry [BOM map of max temperatures on 20 January, 2006]
  • coastal regions are moderated by moist ocean breezes
  • climatic extremes make farming harzardous - bushfires, floods [Leunig summer cartoon and poem]
  • Aust. is the driest continent (Nth America 660 mm p.a., Aust. 420 mm p.a - US gets 50% more rain, has large internal river systems, and Great Lakes) [Rainfall map 2005]


  • isolation from the world allowed unique flora and fauna to evolve (megafauna, marsupials (koala, kangaroo), eucalyptus trees)
  • no large natural predators
  • native animals susceptible to introduced species like fox and cat
  • uncontrollable pests like cane toads and rabbits

2. Aboriginal Australia before 1788

  • 1st Australians came from SE Asia (via Bali and Java) 60,000 yrs ago by using the land-bridge or by boat. Humans had been living in SE Asia for 1.5 m yrs [Migration map 1] [Migration map 2]
  • in 1788 there were between 300,000 and 1.5 m (Butlin) inhabitants
    • denser settlements on the tropical Nth coast and fertile Murray-Darling river basin
  • hunter-gatherer economic system
    • not settled farmers
    • groups of 25-50 people
    • used some farming techniques such as replanting seeds/bulbs and digging canals for fish
  • during last ice age 20,000 yrs ago cohabited with megafauna (Naracoorte caves SA) [Megafauna]
    • Diprododon - 2m tall marsuial
    • Procoptodon giant kangaroo
    • marsupial lion (size of leopard)
    • became extinct through climate change, hunting, bush fires
  • introduction of the dingo to Aborig,. culture 4,000 yrs ago
  • used stone tools and hardened sticks
    • stone hatchets 20,000 yrs ago in Nth (oldest in world)
    • boomerangs 10,000 yrs ago in SA
  • 1,000 of rock paintings evidence of rich aborig. cultural life in Kakadu NT and Laura Nth. Qld [Rock painting 1] [Rockpainting 2]
  • Lake Mungo NSW one of oldest sites 38,000 yrs ago
  • evidence of extensive long distance trade
    • coastal shells in centre
    • stone hatchets from quarries in centre found on coast
  • 250 separate languages (over 600 dialects) spoken by Aborig.
    • 100 now extinct
    • no communities in Vic or NSW speak traditional languages
    • centre and Nth have communities with large numbers of native speakers
  • no written language, only oral tradition (“the Dreamtime”)
    • stories of giant animals proved true after discovery of fossils of megafauna
    • rock art and designs [Tiwi crocodile]
  • rich relious beliefs underpin Aborig. society
    • mythical beings who shaped the featureless world during the dreamtime
    • the power of these beings still reside in the physical forms they created (rivers, mountains, caves)
    • when a peson is born their spirit comes from some feature of the landscape nearby and they then have a special tie to the beings associated with that physical feature
    • knowledge of the beings and the events of the dreamtime related to the tribal home is preserved by male elders who use ritual performance of songs, dance, and use of designs in art to keep social order and to pass on knowledge to the young


3. European Exploration and Settlement of Australia to 1901

European Exploration

  • in the 17thC the great European empires were actively exploring in SE Asia and the Pacific [Map 1]
  • Terra australis incognita - the unknown southern land
  • looking for spices, exotic timbers, gold and silver
  • the Dutch (who controlled Indonesia) explored the west coast of New Holland (Dirk Hartog) and reached Tasmania (Abel Tasman) in the 1640s
  • the British sent James Cook who circumnavigated the NZ islands and mapped the east coat of Australia 1770
  • the French - Baudin 1802-03

1st British settlement in Sydney

  • 750 convicts and 200 marines landed at Botany Bay, then Sydney (Port Jackson) on 26th Janaury, 1788
  • reasons for creation of colony
    • US independence had ended British transportation to colonies like Georgia
    • to preempt French colonization of the Pacific (Britain was at war with France 1793-1815)
    • to create a closer source of supply for Indian colony
  • convictism - 160,000 convicts sent over a 60 yr period, ending in 1840s-50s

Economic Development

  • initially limited to whaling, fishing, sealing until inland route discovered 1813
  • opened up huge pastoral districts to west, sheep rearing became enormously profitable [Map of agricultural and mineral resources]
  • new colonies in Melbourne, Adelaide (1836), Brisbane, Perth (1829)
  • large scale European/British free immigration began in 1830s
  • discovery of gold in 1850s (compare California in 1849)
  • population growth 405,000 in 1850 to 4m in 1900
  • expansion of mining and other agricultural commodities - wheat, dairy, meat (beef, lamb), sugar in QLD
  • sparse pop. and harsh climate made building railways and telegraph difficult
  • coastal trade remained cheap and easy
  • telegraph link to England in 1871 (the Victorian internet)

Political Developments

  • colonies became largely self-governing in 1850s - Britain still controlled defence and foreign affairs
  • Parliamentary system based upon British Westminster system
  • Australian political, economic, legal freedoms equal to that of British subjects
  • by 1890s Aust. had highest standard of living in the world

Treatment of Aboriginal Australians

  • European settlement had a catastrophic impact on Aborig. society
  • debate whether it was intentional ("Genocide") or unintentional (disease) or both
  • decimated by disease
  • driven from their traditional land by pastoralists
  • killed by police and farmers when they resisted
  • racism by white settlers widespread
  • feeble efforts to protect Aborig. by British government "Aboriginal Protection Society " hampered by long distance and reluctance of settlers to enforce rulings
  • land set aside for dispossed Aborig. contolled by Christian missions in mid-19thC, late 19thC controlled by state governments
  • Aborig. workers very important in developmnet of cattle industry in QLD and Nth.

4. Modern Australian Politics after 1901


  • full self-government/independence from Britain with formation of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1 January, 1910 (no need for a bloody revolution and war of independence like US)
  • separate colonies formed federation of states (nearly included NZ and nearly didn't include WA)
    • 6 states - NSW, VIC, QLD, SA, TAS, WA
    • 2 territories - ACT, NT
  • Aust. states some of the earliest to grant women the right to vote - NZ 1893, Aust. 1902 (US 1920)
  • Aborig. citizenship and right to vote in 1967 (US Indian right to vote 1920s)
  • disagreement about tariffs
    • protectionist VIC vs free trade NSW
    • new federal govt. had free trade within Aust. but high protection for foreign trade (until 1980s)
  • Westminster system based on British model where party with the majority in the House of Reps (150 MPs) forms a government headed by PM who is accountable to Parliament
  • Aust. also borrowed from US model with
    • a written constitution but no bill of rights (embedded in common law)
    • Senate representing interests of states - 76 senators (12 from each state and 2 from territories)
  • created one of the freest and most stable liberal democracies in the world

Economic Development

  • mining and ag. remain very important
  • Aust. major exporter of food - wheat, beef, lamb, fish
  • wool has declined in importance in competition with artificial fibres
  • mining has grown in importance - coal, iron ore, bauxite, rare metals
  • new industries in last 30 yrs - wine, natural gas, tourism, financial services
  • Aust. has always been a supplier of products for larger economies
    • Britain in 19th and early 20thC
    • Europe since WW2
    • Japan's growth after WW2 in 1960s, then Korean, now China and India
    • free trade treaty with US in 2005
  • economic deregulation in 1980s and 1990s has created one of the freest and most open and dynamic economies in the world
    • Aust. ranked 11th freest economy in world 2004 (US 10th)
    • end of tariff protection after 80 yrs
    • Sydney basin one of the economic success stories of the Pacific Rim
    • US economist Richard Florida ranks Sydney and Melbourne as international magnets which attract the "creative class"

Australia's Relationship with the Rest of the World

  • Aust. has had a contradictory relationship with the rest of the world
  • traditionally dependent on Britain for defence, foreign policy, economic investment, and markets
  • small population very remote from Europe and US
  • one of the first acts after Federation was the "White Australia Policy" to limit non-European immigration (aimed at Chinese), was in effect until 1974 (Whitlam)
  • post-Federation trade policy was high tariffs to keep out cheap manufactured goods (textiles, footwear, cars) - largely dismantled in 1980s-90s
  • Aust. nevertheless quick to join larger imperial powers in distant, foreign wars
    • joined Britain in Boer War in Sth Africa 1899-1901
      • WW1 in Europe in 1914 (US joined in 1917)
        • 58,000 died and 156,000 wounded out of 5m pop. (compare US dead of 58,000 in VN out of pop. of 200m)
        • ANZAC myth
      • WW2 in Europe, Nth Africa, and Pacific in 1939 (US joined in Dec. 1941)
        • 27,000 killed/wounded out of 7m pop.
      • Korea
      • NV
      • Gulf War I and II
  • defeat of Britain in Singapore in 1942 was a turning point in Aust.'s relationship with rest of world
    • could no longer rely on British Empire for defence
    • gave refuge and support to Gen. MacArthur's forces after fall of Philippines, thereafter ties with US for defence
    • UK entry into EEC forced Aust. to trade with Asia, especially Japan
    • defence ties with US led to involvement in VN, Gulf Wars, and massive public opposition
  • post-WW2 Aust. very active in formation of UN
    • closesr US defence ties
    • open door immigration from Sth Europe (Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Lebanon)
  • debate in Aust. in late 1980s (PM Keating) about whether Aust. is
    • ouotpost of Europe in Asia
    • part of Asia
    • led tio closer ties to ASEAN and the teaching of Asian languages in schools
  • today Aust.'s largest trading partners are in Asia - Japan, Korea, China
    • open, dynamic economy with higher percentage of foreign trade that US
    • open and tolerant multicultural society

Treatment of Aborigines in the 20th Century

  • by late 19thC state governments controlled Aborig. land and affairs
    • policy of neglect and preference for mining and farming by whites
    • attitude that Aborig. were an inferior race in decline and would eventually die out
    • policy of "adopting out" Aborig. children (often by deception or by fiorce) separated young children from their mothers and fostered out by white Anglo parents
    • so-called "stolen generation" - practice continued until late 1960s/70s
  • referendum in 1967 to grant citizenship and voting rights to Aborig.
    • Aborig. affairs taken over by Federal govt.
  • 1976 landmark Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Nth. T) recognized traditional land ownership [Land claims map]
    • land councils would prepare cliams to go before court
    • usually confined to land unwanted by whites (but became valuable through mining and tourism)
    • 1992 Eddie Mabo decision by High Court granted rights to those who could establish continuing title to land
    • 1993 Native Title Bill (Canadian precedents)
    • 1971 106,000 Aborig. and 10,000 Torres St. Islanders
    • 2001 pop. 458,000 (1.5% of 20m pop.) [Map of population distribution]
  • Aborig. continue to have the poorest health, lowest life expectancy, least education, and highest unemployment of all Australians
  • many Aborig. regard Australia Day (26 January) as "Invasion Day" not a truly national day
  • growing demand for policy of reconciliation and formal apology from Federal govt.
    • previous GG William Dean was willing and did so
    • current conservative PM (Howard 1996) rejects this
  • teaching of Aborig. history and culture largely ignored in Aust. schools until 1970s
    • explosion in Aborig. studies since then
    • controversies over native title, "genocide", violence on frontier, stolen generations, level of pre-contact pop.
  • great interest in Aborig. art in Aust. and overseas - both traditional and new [dot painting] [Tiwi crocodile]

5. Australian Life and Culture


  • convict influence
    • urban, poor, working class, criminal
    • "flash" language - London criminal slang
  • early British English influence
    • language of English towns - London and SE
    • not language of English countryside - Aust. English did not adopt words like brook, glen, dale
  • early Irish English influence
    • transportation of rebels arrested after 1798 Irish Rebellion
    • free immigrants after Irish famine of 1840s - "sheila" and "paddy"
  • incorportion of Aborig. words, especially unfamiliar flora and fauna
    • kangaroo, koala, wallaby
    • mallee, jarrah, coolibah
    • kookaburra, currawong, budgerigar
    • barramundi, yabby
    • billabong, willy-willy
    • boomerang, didgerdoo, corroberree
  • goldrush of 1850s - influx of people from UK, Ireland, Europe, US, Asia
    • fossick, digger
  • rise of nationalism in 1890s led to pride in distinctive Aust. speech, literature, and character
    • The Bulletin magazine published stories
  • early 20thC Aust. English
    • WW1 - 300,000 men served overseas, impact of army life - "furphy" brand of water truck, unfounded rumour
    • WW2 - MacArthur's troops in Nth introduction of Americanisms, Aussie army slang "to go troppo"
  • post-WW2 Aust. English
    • increasing impact of American popular culture - TV, movies, music
    • nevertheless Aussie kids still say biscuit instead of cookie, zed not zee (Playschool vs Sesame St)
    • Aust. rock groups sing with fake American accent but use normal Aussie slang when being interviewed
    • migrant English - impact of Greek and Italian
  • accent - the "twisted" diphthong/vowel ("oi") and the flattened vowel ("eh")
    • "melting pot" theory - accent created by 1st generation of Aust. born kids
    • "stranded dialect" theory - accent came from the predominant group among the convicts

Literature, Art, and Film

(to be added later)

Australian Popular Music

(to be added later)

Life in Modern Australia

  • before WW2 Aust. predominantly white Anglo (with considerable Irish) - 90% immigrants British
  • post-WW2 immigration has created a society with a high concentration of immigrants (1/3 born elsewhere)
    • given size of Aust. pop this means it has one of the highest rates of immigration per capita
    • 1947-1974 3m immigrants - 11% N. Europe, 13% E. Europe, 21% S. Europe (Greek Italian, Yugolsav), 6% Asian
    • 6 m by 2001 (out of 20m pop.)
    • led to dramatic change in Aust. food, religion (growth in Catholicism, Muslim)
  • PM Whitlam ended White Australia Policy in 1974
  • entry of refugees from Lebanese civil war, Vietnamese boat people, Africa, Hong Kong chinese
  • Sydney 1/7 Asian pop.
  • Australia is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in world (like US and Canada)
Food and Wine
  • traditional Aust. food and drick was derived from Britain
    • lamb chop and two veggies, tea, beer, fortified wine (sherry, port)
  • huge impact on food and drink habits result of post-war immigration from Europe and Asia
    • Greek and Italian influence - vegetables and herbs (tomatoes, basil), pasta, seafood (calamari), olive oil, wine
    • Asian influence - Thai, Indian, Chinese, Indonesian
  • new Aust. cuisine innovative combination of Mediterranean and Asian styles
    • use of fresh local seafood
    • use of Aust. animals - kangaroo
    • native herbs and spices
    • combined with local wines
    • explosion of gourmet food shops, restaurants, cooking schools
  • wine industry since 1970s
    • professionally trained oenologists
    • sophisticated internal market
    • mass production which maintains high standards
    • internationally compettitve at all levels
  • American fast food has appeared in Aust. since 1970s - McDonalds, KFC
    • traditional Aust. fast food - meat pie (tomato sauce), sausage roll, pastie, fish and chips, hamburger (with pinieapple, egg, beetroot, no pickle)
    • other new fast food - fellafel, gyros (Greek and Lebanese influence)
Life on the Coast
  • Aust. has the longest coastline of any country in the world - anywhere between 25,760 (CIA fact book)and 59,726 km [Map 1]
  • because of harsh climate and lack of water Aust. has always been highly urbanised with cities largely located on coast or slightly inland on river (Brisbane, Adelaide)
    • 85% urban
    • 70% live in 10 main cities [Population distribution] [2001 census]
      • Sydney 4m [Sydney harbour]
      • Melbourne 3.5 m
      • Brisbane 1.6m
      • Perth 1.4m
      • Adelaide 1m (muchj same as Indianapolis)
    • lack of large internal river systems (like Mississippi, Ohio, Misouri Rs and Great Lakes) meant transport difficult
    • coastal transport cheap and easy
  • Geoffrey Blainy coined expression "the tyranny of disatnce"
    • remoteness from Europe (ships took 3 mths) meant Aust. diffulcult to rule closely from London - led to de facto independence quite early
    • instantaneous communication only possible with telegragh - Aust. connnected in 1871
    • international phone communication in early 20thC
    • jumbo jets in 1960s revolutionised transport with rest of word - London 24 hrs away, affordable for millions of people
    • internet in 1990s - Sydney no further away than Indianapolis
  • mild climate and access to coast has had huge impact on Aust. life and culture
    • sport and outside activities (barbeques) possible all year round
    • traditional strength in tennis, swimming (Olympics)
    • international matches in cricket and rugby against Britain and other Commonweaklth countries (NZ, SA, India, Pakistan, W. Indies)
    • boating and sailing and surfing on beaches, harbours, bays
    • hot days relieved by sea breezes
    • social and political liberalisation during 1960s
      • beach and surf culture - place to go for freedom and relaxation
      • skimpy bathing suits, topless sunbathing at many beaches
      • surf and beach fashion among youth
    • Surf Life Saviing Associations traditional sport since 1920s
  • dress and speech more casual and informal in Aust. than elsewhere
    • yet downtown Sydney is a very fashionable world city
Religious Belief
  • Aust. more like Europe than US in religious practice
    • little impact from Puritans
    • huge decline in church attendance since WW2 - "post-Christian society"
  • 2001 census
    • Catholic 26.4%
    • Anglican 20.5 %
    • Other Christian 20.5 %
    • Buddhist 1.9%
    • Muslim 1.5%
    • unspecified 12.7%
    • none 15.3%