The groups comprising the aborigines are thought to have migrated from Southeast Asia. Skeletal remains indicate that aborigines arrived in Australia more than 40,000 years ago, and some evidence suggests that they were active there about 100,000 years ago. The aborigines spread throughout Australia and remained relatively isolated until the arrival of the Europeans. Genetic evidence suggests that c.4,000 years ago there may have been an additional migration of people related to those now found in India.
Australia may have sighted by a Portuguese, Manuel Godhino de Eredia, in 1601 and by a Spaniard, Luis Vaez de Torres, around 1605–6, but Dutchman Willem Janszoon is the first European confirmed to have seen (1606) and landed in Australia. Other Dutch navigators later visited the continent, and the Dutch named it New Holland. In 1688 the Englishman William Dampier landed at King Sound on the northwest coast. Little interest was aroused, however, until the fertile east coast was observed when Capt. James Cook reached Botany Bay in 1770 and sailed N to Cape York, claiming the coast for Great Britain.
In 1788 the first British settlement was made—a penal colony on the shores of Port Jackson, where Sydney now stands. By 1829 the whole continent was a British dependency. Exploration, begun before the first settlement was founded, was continued by such men as Matthew Flinders (1798), Count Paul Strzelecki (1839), Ludwig Leichhardt (1848), and John McDouall Stuart (first to cross the continent, 1862). Australia was long used as a dumping ground for criminals, bankrupts, and other undesirables from the British Isles. Sheep raising was introduced early, and before the middle of the 19th cent. wheat was being exported in large quantities to England. A gold strike in Victoria in 1851 brought a rush to that region. Other strikes were made later in the century in Western Australia. With minerals, sheep, and grain forming the base of the economy, Australia developed rapidly. By the mid-19th cent. systematic, permanent colonization had completely replaced the old penal settlements.
Confederation of the separate Australian colonies did not come until a constitution, drafted in 1897–98, was approved by the British parliament in 1900. It was put into operation in 1901; under its terms, the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania, all of which had by then been granted self-government, were federated in the Commonwealth of Australia. The Northern Territory was added to the Commonwealth in 1911. The new federal government moved quickly to institute high protective tariffs (to restrain competition to Australian industry) and to initiate a strict anti-Asian "White Australia" immigration policy, which was not lifted until 1956.
Australia fought alongside Great Britain in both world wars. During World War I, the nation was part of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac), which fought bravely in many battles, notably in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. During World War II, Darwin, Port Jackson, and Newcastle were bombed or shelled by the Japanese. The Allied victory in the battle of the Coral Sea (1942) probably averted a full-scale attack on Australia. After the war Australia became increasingly active in world affairs, particularly in defense and development projects with its Asian neighbors; it furnished troops to aid the U.S. war effort in South Vietnam. At home, from 1949 to 1972 the government was controlled by a Liberal-Country party coalition with, until 1966, Robert Menzies as prime minister.
In 1983, Bob Hawke won his first of four terms as prime minister against a coalition of the Liberal and National parties. In 1991, as Australia foundered in a deep recession, Hawke lost the prime ministership to fellow Laborite Paul Keating. Keating led Labor to its fifth consecutive electoral victory in 1993. In the Mar., 1996, elections, however, 13 years of Labor rule were ended by a Liberal-National party coalition led by John Howard, who promised deregulation, smaller government, and other conservative economic reforms. Howard's coalition was reelected, although by a smaller margin, in 1998.
In a 1999 referendum, voters rejected a plan to replace the British monarch as head of state with a president elected by the parliament. In Nov., 2001, after a campaign dominated by issues of nonwhite immigration and national security, Howard's government was returned to office for a third term. In 2002–3, Australia experienced one of the worst droughts of the past 100 years, and wildfires scorched some 7.4 million acres (3 million hectares) of the bush. After Great Britain, Australia was the most prominent supporter militarily of the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003, sending a force of about 2,000 to the Persian Gulf, and the country has taken an increasingly interventionist role in surrounding region, sending forces to the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor to restore law and order.
Benefiting from a prosperous economy, Howard led his coalition to a fourth consecutive term, winning a strong mandate in the Oct., 2004, national elections. In Jan., 2005, the country again experienced deadly bush fires, in South Australia. The Sydney area was stunned by several days of ethnically-based mob violence (between Australians of European and Middle Eastern descent) in Dec., 2005. A scandal involving kickbacks paid under the oil-for-food program to Saddam Hussein's Iraq by AWB Ltd. (the private Australian wheat-exporting monopoly that formerly was the Australian Wheat Board) threatened in 2006 to entangle Howard's government. The government admitted in March that, despite previous denials, it was aware there were charges that AWB was paying kickbacks, but said officials had received assurances from AWB that no payments had been made. Late in 2006 the commission investigating AWB cleared government officials (but not AWB officials) of criminal activity.
Relations with the Solomon Islands became tense in 2006 when Australia criticized a Solomons investigation into the post-election unrest there in April as a potential whitewash. The appointment as Solomons attorney general of Julian Moti, an Australian of Fijian descent who was wanted in Australia on child sex charges, further strained relations. Australia sought Moti's extradition from Papua New Guinea, where he was arrested (Sept., 2006) but managed to flee with apparent help from the Solomons embassy; Australia continued to seek Moti's extradition after he illegally entered the Solomons and was held there. Moti was ultimately deported (2007) to Australia, but in 2009 the charges against him were permanently stayed.
By late 2006, Australia was experiencing its sixth dry year in a row, and many observers termed the worsening "Big Dry" as the worst in the nation's history; 2003 and 2006 were especially dry years. In 2007 and especially 2008 there was improved rainfall in parts of E Australia, but drought conditions continued in many areas. Parliamentary elections in Nov., 2007, brought the Labor party into office; party leader Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat, became prime minister. The Rudd government embarked on significant reversals of Howard's policies, promising to withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq, moving to adopt the Kyoto Protocal on climate change, and apologizing to the aborigines for Australia's past mistreatment of them.
Australia experienced several severe natural disasters in early 2009. Queensland suffered from significant and widespread flooding due to cyclone rains in Jan. and Feb., 2009; additional significant coastal flooding occurred in Queensland and New South Wales in May. In Feb.–Mar., 2009, SE Australia suffered the worst outbreak of bushfires in the nation's history; more than 1 million acres (400,000 hectares) were burned and some 170 people died, with the worst devastation NE of Melbourne, Victoria. Rudd lost popularity in 2010 over his backdown on carbon trading and his support for increased mining taxes, and in June Julia Gillard, his deputy, mounted a leadership challenge, leading him to step aside. Gillard succeeded Rudd as Labor party leader and prime minister, becoming Australia's first woman prime minister.
In early elections that Gillard called for Aug., 2010, neither of the main parties won a majority. Although the Liberal-National coalition narrowly won a plurality of the seats, Gillard and Labor secured the support of enough independents in parliament to cling to power. In 2010 significant rains finally ended drought conditions in most areas of Australia (except SW Australia). Areas of E Australia were flooded in late 2010 and early 2011 due to heavy rains; the floods were especially devastating and extensive in E Queensland. In Feb., 2012, and again in Mar., 2013, Gillard survived leadership challenges from Rudd, but in June, 2013, she lost the party leadership to Rudd (who now was regarded as more popular than her) and he succeeded her as prime minister. In the Sept., 2013, general election the Liberal-National coalition soundly defeated Labor, and Liberal leader Tony Abbott became prime minister.
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