History: Australia is the world's smallest continent but the sixth largest country.
Background: Aboriginal settlers arrived on the continent from Southeast Asia about 40,000 years before the first Europeans began exploration in the 17th century.
No formal territorial claims were made until 1770, when Capt. James Cook took possession in the name of Great Britain and became a penal colony in the late 18th century. Six colonies were created in the late 18th and 19th centuries; they federated and became the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The new country took advantage of its natural resources to rapidly develop its agricultural and manufacturing industries and to make a major contribution to the British effort in World Wars I and II.
In recent decades, Australia has transformed itself into an internationally competitive, advanced market economy. It boasted one of the OECD's fastest growing economies during the 1990's, a performance due in large part to economic reforms adopted in the 1980's.
Long-term concerns include pollution, particularly depletion of the ozone layer, and management and conservation of coastal areas, especially the Great Barrier Reef.
Location: Oceania, continent between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean
Land area: total: 7,686,850 sq km
land: 7,617,930 sq km
water: 68,920 sq km
note: includes Lord Howe Island and Macquarie Island
Coastline: 25,760 km
Border countries: None
Climate: generally arid to semiarid; temperate in south and east; tropical in north
Population: 20,090,437 (July 2005 est.)
Language: English 79.1 %, Chinese 2.1%, Italian 1.9%, other 11.1%, unspecified 5.8% (2001 Census)
Religion: Catholic 26.4%, Anglican 20.5%, other Christian 20.5%, Buddhist 1.9%, Muslim 1.5%, other 1.2%, unspecified 12.7%, none 15.3% (2001 Census)
Ethnic diversity: Caucasian 92%, Asian 7%, aboriginal and other 1%
Life expectancy: total population: 80.39 years, male: 77 years, female: 83 years (2005 est.)
Literacy: definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 100%
female: 100% (1980 est.)
Political status: Commonwealth
Government type: Democratic, federal-state system recognising the British monarch as sovereign
Head of state: Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, represented by Governor-General Michael Jeffery
Head of Govt: Prime Minister John Howard
Currency: Australian dollar (AUD)
Major trading partners: Japan, US, South Korea, China, New Zealand
Imports: $98.1 billion (2004 est.)
Imports - partners: US 14.8 per cent, China 12.7 per cent, Japan 11.8 per cent, Germany 5.8 per cent, Singapore 4.4 per cent, UK 4.1 per cent (2004)
Exports: $86.89 billion (2004 est.)
Exports - partners: Japan 18.6 per cent, China 9.2 per cent, US 8.1 per cent, South Korea 7.7 per cent, New Zealand 7.4 per cent, India 4.6 per cent, UK 4.2 per cent (2004)
Labour force: 10.35 million (2004 est.)
Labour force by occupation: agriculture 3.6%, industry 26.4%, services 70% (2004 est.)
Unemployment rate: 5.1% (December 2004 est.)
Agriculture -products: wheat, barley, sugarcane, fruits; cattle, sheep, poultry
Industries: Mining, industrial and transportation equipment, food processing, chemicals, steel
Branches: Australian Defense Force (ADF): Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, Special Operations Command
Ages: 16 years of age for voluntary service (2001)
Expenditure: $16.65 billion (2004)
Expenditure (of GDP): 2.7% (2004)
Source: CIA World Factbook