Monday, June 14, 2010

Diversity— Land and People

To have any basic understanding of Australia’s history, events in time and place must be put into their proper context. This chapter provides a brief overview of the land upon which generations of Australians have made their mark and some of the most important demographic features of today’s population.


Australia is the world’s sixth-largest country by territory, more than 2.9 million square miles (7.6 million sq. km) in size. In addition to the mainland and island-state of Tasmania, about 155 miles (250 km) apart at their closest points, Australia controls 8,222 other islands, from the well-known tourist destinations of Kangaroo Island and Fraser Island to the uninhabited Nepean Island, just off the coast of the more famous Norfolk Island, site of one of Australia’s most brutal penal colonies. Similar in size to the continental United States, Australia measures about 2,300 miles (3,700 km) from Cape York in far north tropical Queensland to South East Cape in Tasmania, and 2,485 miles (4,000 km) from Byron Bay, New South Wales, to Steep Point, Western Australia. The total length of Australia’s coastline is 37,118 miles (59,736 km), about 60 percent of which is the mainland and 40 percent islands. Since 1936, Australia has also held a large amount of the Antarctic territory but without the possibility of sovereignty with the implementation of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.

Politically, Australia is divided into six states, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia, and two territories similar to Washington, D.C., in the United States: the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory, both administered by the Commonwealth government from Canberra in the ACT. The island-continent is also divided into three time zones: eastern, central, and western.

Within these various natural and political boundaries, Australia encompasses a wide variety of landscapes and forms; even within states and territories, deserts and rain forests exist within fairly close proximity of each other. The average rainfall for the country as a whole differs from year to year but ranges from just 6.5 inches (165 mm) to slightly more than 11.8 inches (300 mm) per year. Across all years, the driest region in the country is Lake Eyre in South Australia with just five inches (125 mm) per year, while the wettest is at Bellenden Ker, Queensland, with more than 157 inches (4,000 mm) of rain per year (Geoscience Australia 2008a).

This vast variation, however, masks the fact that the continent is dominated far more by its lack of water than by the few areas with an abundance of this resource; Australia is the second driest continent on Earth after Antarctica. About 35 percent of the Australian continent can be classified as desert because of lack of rainfall, while a further 35 percent receives less than 20 inches (500 mm) of rain per year and is thus classified as arid or semiarid. The largest desert is the Great Victoria Desert in South Australia and Western Australia, at 134,653 square miles (348,750 sq. km), or about 4.5 percent of the Australian mainland (Geoscience Australia 2008b). An interesting feature of Australian deserts is that they do not resemble the Sahara or high deserts of California and Nevada. Because of the great antiquity of Australian deserts, plants have had time to adapt to the arid conditions and thus in most places where rabbits, camels, or cattle have not overgrazed the land, they are covered with grasses, shrubs, and even trees.

While the desert regions in Australia have been expanding for hundreds if not thousands of years, especially in the western plateau and central lowlands, the area covered by rain forest has been shrinking precipitously. According to the Australian Rainforest Foundation, since the start of the 18th century the continent has lost at least three quarters of its tropical rain forest and nearly as much of its subtropical forest to the logging industry. As a result, today rain forest makes up just 0.5 percent of Australia’s mainland. Many of the remaining 16,216 square miles (4.2 million ha) are located in state and national park reserves and thus are protected; however, in some areas, logging continues to threaten their existence.

The age of the Australian desert means that a plethora of plants have adapted to the dry conditions; newer deserts, such as the Sahara, have far less plant life. (Robyn Mackenzie/ Shutterstock)

Australia is also currently experiencing severe degradation of some of its most important river systems. The country’s largest system, the Murray-Darling, which covers about 386,102 square miles (1 million sq. km) in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT, and Queensland, is experiencing such stress that areas near its mouth in South Australia are under immediate threat of permanent degradation due to high acidity and salinity. The Macquarie River system in New South Wales is under similar stress, as are many others in southern and central Australia, resulting in vociferous debate between environmentalists and irrigators over the amount of water that can be taken from these rivers each year.

In the early 1980s another of Australia’s river systems, the Franklin- Gordon in the island state of Tasmania, was the site of the fiercest environmental battle the country has yet seen. From 1979, when the Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC) named the Franklin-Gordon as an appropriate place for a dam project, through the summer of 1982–83, when the Franklin River blockade saw more than 1,200 people arrested for civil disobedience in the region, the entire country focused on the battle between the state government and HEC on one side and the federal government and environmentalists on the other. Eventually, in July 1983 a narrow, one-vote victory in Australia’s highest court put a permanent stop to the dam project. The region was then able to move forward as the Western Tasmanian Wilderness National Parks World Heritage Area, having been accepted as a heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in December 1982, saving one of the country’s last wild river systems (Wild Rivers 2008).

As is the case with its wet and dry areas, Australia is also a land of contrasts in elevation, though it contains no mountains equivalent in size to the Rockies, Alps, or Andes. The Great Dividing Range, which runs from Australia’s top end in the Cape York Peninsula all the way south to the Grampians in Victoria, with an eastern spur that reemerges from Bass Strait to form the highlands of Tasmania, never rises to even half the height of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak. Nonetheless, from its highest point at 7,310 feet (2,228 m) at Mount Kosciuszko in New South Wales to the lowest, at Lake Eyre in South Australia, at 49 feet (15 m) below sea level, Australia encompasses significant plateaus, highlands, and lowlands. If Australia’s offshore islands are counted in this statistic, there is even greater variation as Mawson’s Peak, located on Heard Island near Antarctica, is taller than Kosciuszko, at 9,006 feet (2,745 m) (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008, “Geography”). At the low end, Lake Eyre is a massive salt sink with 3,741 square miles (9,690 sq. km) of surface area and draining about one sixth of the mainland in a catchment area of 440,156 square miles (1,140,000 sq. km). Despite receiving water from such rivers as the Diamantina, Warburton, Macumba, and Cooper’s Creek, Lake Eyre is often totally dry and has filled to capacity only three times in more than 150 years, the last in 1984 (Geoscience Australia 2009, “Largest Waterbodies”).

In conjunction with these extremes in elevation, Australia exhibits great variation in average temperatures. The extremes range from 123.6°F (50.7°C) at Oodnadatta, South Australia, in 1960 to -9.4°F (-23°C) at Charlotte Pass, in Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales, in 1994. The hottest place in the country is Marble Bar, Western Australia, with an annual mean temperature of over 99.5°F (37.5°C), while Collinsvale, Tasmania, a suburb of Hobart, is the coldest place with an annual mean temperature of just 45.5°F (7.5°C) (Geoscience Australia 2010, “Climatic Extremes”).

While most of these figures set Australia apart from other countries in the world, perhaps the most dramatic of all concerns the relative age of the land upon which its people have made their home. In contrast with much of North America’s landscape, which dates from the last ice age about 20,000 years ago, most of Australia’s geographic features were formed millions of years ago and have not been significantly altered by glaciation for about 290 million years (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008, “Geography of Australia”). Virtually the only relatively new feature of Australia is its coastline, which came into being about 12,000 years ago, when rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age separated Tasmania, the Torres Strait Islands, New Guinea, and thousands of other, smaller islands from the mainland. At the other end of the spectrum, some sands in Western Australia have been found to be 4.25 billion years old (Geoscience Australia 2007), almost a billion years older than the first bacterial life that emerged in the world’s oceans. Since that time long ago, the Australian landmass has moved around the Earth and has been attached to all the other landmasses in two supercontinents, Rodinia and Pangaea, and to South America, Africa, Antarctica, and India in Gondwana.

Despite the millions of years during which Australia was connected to other landmasses, in the past 50 million years or so the continent has been adrift in the ocean, completely separated from any other land formation. As a result of this long separation, more than 80 percent of Australia’s mammals, reptiles, frogs, and flowering plants are unique to the continent, along with half of its bird life and most of its freshwater fish (About Australia: Flora and Fauna 2008). Among the most famous of this animal life are the world’s only two monotremes, or egg-laying mammals, the platypus and echidna; a variety of marsupials or pouched mammals, including kangaroos, koalas, and wombats; deadly funnel-web spiders; and frilled neck lizards. Another Australian animal icon, the dingo, is actually a fairly recent import from Asia, having arrived from there between 6,000 and 15,000 years ago (Australian Fauna 2007).

In addition to its unique animal life, Australia is the source of a vast amount of mineral wealth, including 50 percent of the world’s titanium, 40 percent of its bauxite, 33 percent of its diamonds, 22 percent of its uranium, 20 percent of its zinc-lead, 12.5 percent of its iron ore, and 95 percent of its opal. Australia is also among the world’s leading sources of copper, nickel, silver, and gold (Geoscience Australia 2009a, “Minerals Factsheets”). As a result of this wealth, while the U.S. economy struggled with debt and recession in the early years of the 21st century, Australia was on an economic boom, with sales of primary resources to India and China leading the way until about the middle of 2009. In fact, in early 2010 Australia was the only G-20 country that had not experienced recession as a result of the global economic downturn.