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Australian History

Introductory Snapshot

A lot has changed in Australia since its original inhabitants, the Australian Aborigines, lived in complex social systems with traditions that reflected their deep connection with the land and the environment. From that time to the arrival of the first European explorers, convicts, free settlers and more recent immigrants, Australia has survived depressions, wars and political scandals; created dynamic cities and legends of 'the bush' and the 'Aussie battler'; provided new beginnings for people from all over the world; and experienced a decline and gradual re-emergence of its Indigenous culture.

Pre 20th Century History

Australia's original inhabitants, known as Australian Aborigines, have the longest continuous cultural history in the world, with origins dating back to the last Ice Age. Although mystery and debate obscure many aspects of Australian prehistory, it is generally accepted that the first humans travelled across the sea from Indonesia about 70,000 years ago.

Europeans began to explore Australia in the 16th century: Portuguese navigators were followed by Dutch explorers and the enterprising English pirate William Dampier. Captain James Cook sailed the entire length of the eastern coast in 1770, stopping at Botany Bay on the way; soon after he claimed the continent for the British and named it New South Wales.

In 1779, Joseph Banks (a naturalist on Cook's voyage) suggested that Britain could solve overcrowding problems in its prisons by transporting convicts to New South Wales. In 1787, the First Fleet set sail for Botany Bay, comprising 11 ships and 750 male and female convicts. It arrived on 26 January 1788, but soon moved north to Sydney Cove, where there was better land and water. For the new arrivals, New South Wales was a hot, harsh and horrible place, and the threat of starvation hung over the colony for many years. To cope with their struggle against nature and an oppressive government, these new Australians forged a culture that became the basis of the legend of the 'Aussie battler'.

Free settlers began to be attracted to Australia over the next decades, but it was the discovery of gold in the 1850s that permanently changed the colony. The huge influx of migrants and several large gold finds boosted the economy and changed the colonial social structures. Aborigines were ruthlessly pushed off their tribal lands as new settlers took up land for farming or mining.

By the end of the 19th century, many tended to idealise 'the bush' (that is, anywhere away from the city) and its people. The great forum for this 'bush nationalism' was the hugely popular Bulletin magazine. Its pages were filled with humour and sentiment about daily life and its most notable writers were bush legends Henry Lawson and 'Banjo' Paterson.

Twentieth Century History

Australia became a nation when federation of its separate colonies took place on 1 January 1901. Australian troops fought alongside the British in the Boer War and WWI. The country was hard hit by the Depression when prices for wool and wheat – two main products of the economy – plunged. In 1931 almost a third of wage earners were unemployed and poverty was widespread. By 1933, however, Australia's economy was starting to recover. When WWII broke out, Australian troops fought alongside the British in Europe, but ultimately it was the USA that helped protect Australia from the advancing Japanese air force, defeating them in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Post WWII immigration brought a flood of European immigrants, who have since made an enormous contribution to the country, enlivening its culture and broadening its vision. The post-war era was a boom time in Australia as its raw materials were in great demand. Australia followed the USA into the Korean War and in 1965 committed troops to assist the USA in the Vietnam War, though support for involvement was far from absolute. Troubling for many young Australian men was the fact that conscription (compulsory military service) was introduced in 1964.

The civil unrest caused by conscription was one factor that contributed to the 1972 rise to power of the Australian Labor Party, under the leadership of Gough Whitlam. The Whitlam government withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam, abolished national service and higher-education fees, instituted a system of free and universally available health care, and supported land rights for Aboriginal people.

The government, however, was restricted by a hostile Senate and much talk of mismanagement. On 11 November 1975, the governor general (the British monarch's representative in Australia) took the unprecedented step of dismissing the parliament and installing a caretaker government led by the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Malcolm Fraser. A conservative Liberal and National Country Party coalition won the following election. A Labor government was not returned until 1983, when a former trade union leader, Bob Hawke, led the party to victory.

Recent History & Australia Today

After 11 years in government, the Australian Liberal Party, led by John Howard, was defeated in the 2007 election by the Labor Party. Kevin Rudd was sworn in as Australia’s 26th Prime Minister on 3 December 2007.

Australia has a two-tier parliamentary system of government based on the Westminster system. There are three levels of government: federal, state and local. Federal parliament consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The party holding the greatest number of seats in the House of Representatives forms the government. For more information the website at www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-government

In the last half-century the less-acknowledged layers of Australian culture and history have begun to achieve wider recognition, in particular through art, literature and cinema; as a result, the iconic 'battler' has become less relevant. Migrants have brought their own stories, cultures and myths to combine with those of the colonial Australians. There's also a long-overdue acknowledgement that Australian Aborigines are fundamental to a true definition of the country's culture today.

The 'Great Australian Dream' of owning a house, which began in the prosperous 1950s, is ongoing and has resulted in massive suburbanisation in Australian towns and cities, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. Australian architecture today does not really have a distinctive style, and overseas trends often dominate large projects. In many cases the most interesting ‘modern’ buildings are in fact recycled Victorian or other era buildings. There are some exceptions though, the notable ones being the Convention Centre at Sydney’s Darling Harbour, the Melbourne Museum, and the Cultural Centre at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in central Australia, which was designed in consultation with the park’s traditional owners. Melbourne’s Federation Square complex, with its sharp geometric shapes, represents challenging modern architecture in the heart of the city.

The economy's current good health is evidenced by a relatively high Australian dollar, increased trade with China and some record-breaking profits for local businesses. This has been accompanied by low inflation and unemployment figures. On the downside, though, the country's trade deficit has increased to $20 billion, average household debt is soaring and the price of real estate in many urban centres is increasingly unaffordable.


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