Flora and fauna
Although most of Australia is semi-arid or desert, it covers a diverse range of habitats, from alpine heaths to tropical rainforests. Because of the great age and consequent low levels of fertility of the continent, its extremely variable weather patterns, and its long-term geographic isolation, much of Australia's biota is unique and diverse. About 85% of flowering plants, 84% of mammals, more than 45% of birds, and 89% of in-shore, temperate-zone fish are endemic. Many of Australia's ecoregions, and the species within those regions, are threatened by human activities and introduced plant and animal species. The federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is a legal framework used for the protection of threatened species. Numerous protected areas have been created under the country's Biodiversity Action Plan to protect and preserve Australia's unique ecosystems, 64 wetlands are registered under the Ramsar Convention, and 16 World Heritage Sites have been established. Australia was ranked thirteenth in the World on the 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index.
Most Australian woody plant species are evergreen and many are adapted to fire and drought, including many eucalyptus and acacias. Australia has a rich variety of endemic legume species that thrive in nutrient-poor soils because of their symbiosis with Rhizobia bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi. Well-known Australian fauna include monotremes (the platypus and echidna); a host of marsupials, including the kangaroo, koala, wombat; and birds such as the emu, and kookaburra. The dingo was introduced by Austronesian people that traded with Indigenous Australians around 4000 BCE. Many plant and animal species became extinct soon after human settlement, including the Australian megafauna; others have become extinct since European settlement, among them the Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger).
Australia has a prosperous, Western-style mixed economy, with a per capita GDP slightly higher than the UK, Germany and France in terms of purchasing power parity. The country was ranked third in the United Nations' 2005 Human Development Index and sixth in The Economist worldwide quality-of-life index 2005. In recent years, the Australian economy has been resilient in the face of global economic downturn. Rising output in the domestic economy has been offsetting the global slump, and business and consumer confidence remains robust. Current areas of concern to some economists include Australia's high current account deficit and also the high levels of net foreign debt owed by the private sector.
In the 1980s, the Labor Party, led by Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating, started the process of economic reform by floating the Australian dollar in 1983, and deregulating the financial system. Since 1996, the Howard government has continued the process of micro-economic reform, including the partial deregulation of the labour market and the privatisation of state-owned businesses, most notably in the telecommunications industry. Substantial reform of the indirect tax system was implemented in July 2000 with the introduction of a 10% Goods and Services Tax, which has slightly reduced the heavy reliance on personal and company income tax that still characterises Australia's tax system.
The Australian economy has not suffered a recession since the early 1990s. As of January 2006, unemployment was 5.3% with 10,034,500 persons employed. The service sector of the economy, including tourism, education, and financial services, comprises 69% of GDP. Agriculture and natural resources comprise 3% and 5% of GDP but contribute substantially to Australia's export performance. Australia's largest export markets include Japan, China, the United States, South Korea and New Zealand.
Traditionally, the absence of an export oriented manufacturing industry has been considered a key weakness of the Australian economy. More recently, rising prices for Australia's commodity exports and increasing tourism has to some extent alieviated this criticism. Nevertheless, Australia has developed the world's third largest current account deficit in absolute terms (in relative terms over 7% of GDP). This has been considered problematic by some economists, especially as it has coincided with high prices for Australia's exports and low interest rates which keeps the cost of servicing the foreign debt unusually low.
Most of the estimated 20.6 million Australians are descended from nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigrants, the majority from Great Britain and Ireland. Australia's population has quadrupled since the end of World War I, spurred by an ambitious immigration program. In 2001, the five largest groups of the 23.1% of Australians who were born overseas were from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam and China. Following the abolition of the White Australia policy in 1973, numerous government initiatives have been established to encourage and promote racial harmony based on a policy of multiculturalism.
The indigenous population — mainland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders — was 410,003 (2.2% of the total population) in 2001, a significant increase from the 1976 census, which showed an indigenous population of 115,953. Indigenous Australians have higher rates of imprisonment and unemployment, lower levels of education and life expectancies for males and females that are 17 years lower than those of other Australians. Perceived racial inequality is an ongoing political and human rights issue for Australians.
In common with many other developed countries, Australia is experiencing a demographic shift towards an older population, with more retirees and fewer people of working age. A large number of Australians (759,849 for the period 2002–03) live outside their home country. Australia has maintained one of the most active immigration programmes in the world to boost population growth. Most immigrants are skilled, but the immigration quota includes categories for family members and refugees.
English is the official language, and is spoken and written in a distinct variety known as Australian English. According to the 2001 census, English is the only language spoken in the home for around 80% of the population. The next most common languages spoken at home are Chinese languages (2.1%), Italian (1.9%) and Greek (1.4%). A considerable proportion of first- and second-generation migrants are bilingual. It is believed that there were between 200 and 300 Australian Aboriginal languages at the time of first European contact. Only about 70 of these languages have survived, and all but 20 of these are now endangered. An indigenous language remains the main language for about 50,000 (0.02%) people. Australia has a sign language known as Auslan, which is the main language of about 6,500 deaf people.
Australia has no state religion. The 2001 census identified that 68% of Australians call themselves Christian: 27% identifying themselves as Roman Catholic and 21% as Anglican. Australians that identify themselves as followers of non-Christian religions number 5%. A total of 16% were categorised as having "No Religion" (which includes non theistic beliefs such as Humanism, atheism, agnosticism and rationalism) and a further 12% declined to answer or did not give a response adequate for interpretation. As in many Western countries, the level of active participation in church worship is much lower than this; weekly attendance at church services is about 1.5 million, about 7.5% of the population.
School attendance is compulsory throughout Australia between the ages of 6–15 years (16 years in South Australia and Tasmania, and 17 years in Western Australia), contributing to an adult literacy rate that is assumed to be 99%. Government grants have supported the establishment of Australia's 38 universities, and although several private universities have been established, the majority receive government funding. There is a state-based system of vocational training colleges, known as TAFE Institutes, and many trades conduct apprenticeships for training new tradespeople. Approximately 58% of Australians between the ages of 25 and 64 have vocational or tertiary qualifications and the tertiary graduation rate of 49% is highest of OECD countries. The ratio of international to local students in tertiary education in Australia is the highest in OECD countries.
The primary basis of Australian culture up until the mid-20th century was Anglo-Celtic, although distinctive Australian features had been evolving from the environment and indigenous culture. Over the past 50 years, Australian culture has been strongly influenced by American popular culture (particularly television and cinema), large-scale immigration from non-English-speaking countries, and Australia's Asian neighbours. The vigour and originality of the arts in Australia — films, opera, music, painting, theatre, dance, and crafts — achieve international recognition.
Australia has a long history of visual arts, starting with the cave and bark paintings of its indigenous peoples. From the time of European settlement, a common theme in Australian art has been the Australian landscape, seen in the works of Arthur Streeton, Arthur Boyd and Albert Namatjira, among others. The traditions of indigenous Australians are largely transmitted orally and are closely tied to ceremony and the telling of the stories of the Dreamtime. Australian Aboriginal music, dance and art have a palpable influence on contemporary Australian visual and performing arts. Australia has an active tradition of music, ballet and theatre; many of its performing arts companies receive public funding through the federal government's Australia Council. There is a symphony orchestra in each capital city, and a national opera company, Opera Australia, first made prominent by the renowned diva Dame Joan Sutherland; Australian music includes classical, jazz, and many modern music genres. Australia has also produced many popular musicians, such as AC/DC, The Easy Beats, Midnight Oil, Powderfinger, Silverchair and Wolfmother.
Australian literature has also been influenced by the landscape; the works of writers such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, captured the experience of the Australian bush. The character of colonial Australia, as embodied in early literature, resonates with modern Australia and its perceived emphasis on egalitarianism, mateship, and anti-authoritarianism. In 1973, Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the only Australian to have achieved this; he is recognised as one of the great English-language writers of the twentieth century. Australian English is a major variety of the language; its grammar and spelling are largely based on those of British English, overlaid with a rich vernacular of unique lexical items and phrases, some of which have found their way into standard English.
Australia has two public broadcasters (the ABC and the multi-cultural SBS), three commercial television networks, three pay TV services, and numerous public, non-profit television and radio stations. Australia's film industry has achieved critical and commercial successes. Each major city has daily newspapers, and there are two national daily newspapers, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review. According to Reporters Without Borders in 2005, Australia is in thirty first position on a list of countries ranked by press freedom, behind New Zealand (9th) and the United Kingdom (28th) but ahead of the United States. This ranking is primarily due to the limited diversity of commercial media ownership in Australia. Most Australian print media in particular is under the control of either News Corporation or John Fairfax Holdings.
Sport plays an important part in Australian culture, assisted by a climate that favours outdoor activities; 23.5% Australians over the age of 15 regularly participate in organised sporting activities. At an international level, Australia has particularly strong teams in cricket, hockey, netball, rugby league, rugby union, and performs well in cycling, rowing and swimming. Nationally, other popular sports include Australian rules football, horse racing, soccer and motor racing. Australia has participated in every summer Olympic Games of the modern era, and every Commonwealth Games. Australia has hosted the 1956 and 2000 Summer Olympics, and has ranked among the top five medal-takers since 2000. Australia has also hosted the 1938, 1962, 1982 and 2006 Commonwealth Games. Other major international events held regularly in Australia include the Australian Open, one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, annual international cricket matches and the Formula One Australian Grand Prix. Corporate and government sponsorship of many sports and elite athletes is common in Australia. Televised sport is popular; some of the highest rating television programmes include the summer Olympic Games and the grand finals of local and international football competitions.