| This continent was 1st
known to Europeans as Terra Australis, and is thought
to have been inhabited by man for at least 40,000 years. The aboriginal
population, whose modern remnants describe themselves as Kooris,
are considered to have migrated from southern India or Sri Lanka.
The 1st European settlements were begun by the Dutch East
India Company in 1606. The company charted and claimed
for their mother country the 320 kilometre (200 miles) of north
west coast, which they named New Holland.
The travels of Captain James Cook, 150 years later,
opened up the east coast. Having just lost American colonies, the
British empire was in need of a new prison colony.
By 1868, when transportation ended, Britain had
sent more than 160,000 convicts over to Australia. They were settled
around the coast, many of modern Australia’s biggest cities
grew from the penal settlements and those set up by freed convicts
and other European immigrants, and eventually enabled the British
crown to claim the whole continent. The colonisers treated the Kooris
with atrocious brutality but as long as European settlement was
confined to the coast, the majority of tribes were able to live
This ended in 1851, when, following an fight to the gold
fields of California, the administrators sought to stem
the tide by offering rewards for the discovery of gold in Australia.
The successive gold rush prompted the 1st wave of voluntary migration
to the continent in modern times, the population doubled within
months of the discovery of gold in Victoria.
Around the same time, the interior was charted for the 1st time,
while towns sprang up both there and on the littoral. The Kooris,
meanwhile, were massacred, driven into desolate areas or into lives
of virtual slavery. Most of Australia was granted the right to self
government in the 1850's.
The Commonwealth of Australia, a Federation of
States, was set up in 1901, determining Australia as an independent
democracy. Nonetheless, close links with the United Kingdom were
maintained, Australian troops fought alongside the British during
both World Wars.
The politics of Australia remained under firm British supervision
until years after World War II. In the aftermath, Australia assumed
some of the trappings of a regional power, taking control of some
of Germany’s former territories in the area and developing
links with India, Japan and South East Asia.
Australia also joined in a secretive tactical alliance
with Britain, the United States of America, Canada and New Zealand,
which remains the country’s principal defence commitment.
Until its abandonment in the mid 1960s, a ‘White Australia’
policy was officially adopted with concern to immigration.
Between 1949 and 1972, Australian governments were composed of the
Liberal Party in a centre right coalition with the smaller National
Sir Robert Menzies was
the main political figure, serving 16 years as Prime Minister. In
1972, the alliance was finally defeated at the polls and the Labour
Party under Gough Whitlam took office with a comparatively radical
There followed 1 of the most controversial periods of recent Australian
history, concluding in the Whitlam government being dismissed by
the Governor General, Sir John Kerr, in circumstances
still hotly disputed.
The direct beneficiary was the Liberal Party leader, Malcolm
Fraser, who won the next elections, which followed in December
1975, within weeks of Whitlam’s dismissal.
Fraser remained in office until 1983, when Labour was returned to
power under the guidance of the ex trade union leader, Bob
Hawke. Under Hawke and his sharp Treasury Minister and
eventual successor, Paul Keating, the Labour party won 5 elections
in a row.
Ultimately, in March 1996, tiring of Labour, the Australian public
turned to the Liberal Party led by John Howard. John Howard’s
centre right coalition was returned to office for a 3rd term at
the 2004 general election.
Aboriginal issues continue to effect successive Australian
governments who have found significant difficulty in reconciling
Koori peoples’ traditional claims and conceptions of land
ownership with, to take but 1 example, the requirements of mining
The other main political issue of the last few years was Australia’s
constitutional future. There were 2 options, to maintain the existing
link with Britain, or to establish Australia as a fully fledged
A split in the republican camp produced a surprise
victory for the traditionalists in the national referendum on the
subject, which was held in October 1999. Despite that, most Australians
now look to links with America and Asia as more important and appropriate
to their future than those with the ‘Old Country’.
Australia's foreign policy (irrespective of the
party in power) is now geared to the reinforcement of economic and
political links with the countries of the Asian Pacific Rim and
the confirmation of the existing links with the USA (exemplified
by Australia’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq).
Under the Howard governments, migration has come
to control the Australian political agenda. The hard line which
Howard set down has been thoroughly pursued, ‘boat people’
from the troubled states of Asia have been banned from landing in
Australia and instead directed to small Pacific islands, those who
do reach Australia are detained in remote outback encampments.
The government’s hard line was reinforced by the October 2002
bomb in Bali, which killed 200 people, mostly Australian tourists.
This brought Australia to the centre of the United States inspired
global ‘war against terrorism’.