POPULATION: 18 million
RELIGION: Christianity (majority); Islam; Buddhism; Judaism
Australia is relatively young as a country, but it is a very ancient land. For over 40,000 years Aboriginal people lived in harmony there with their environment. When England first settled Australia in 1788, however, and made it a penal colony for its overcrowded prison population, all that was to change.
Today, Australia is considered a "settler colony," a term used to describe countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States: countries originally colonized by the British and where the indigenous (native) peoples were almost completely wiped out.
Australia is both a continent and an island, situated in the southern hemisphere between the Pacific and Indian oceans. It measures about the same in area as the United States (excluding Alaska), yet it has a population of only 18 million people. Of those 18 million people, 80 percent live in just ten cities, all by the sea. By far the largest of these cities are Sydney and Melbourne.
Because the country was first settled by England in 1788, most Australians are of English origin. Until the end of World War II (1939–45), some 90 percent of Australians were born there, and about 9 percent were immigrants from Britain. However, after the war ended, the country took in more than 5 million immigrants from Europe. In the 1970s and 1980s, Australia was a major recipient of refugees from the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. Aboriginal Australians (native people) make up about one percent of the total Australian population.
The language of Australia is English, brought by the first English settlers.
The folklore of the Australians is essentially the same as the folklore of British colonialists everywhere. Australians see themselves as part of European culture and, because of their high standard of living, they are part of the industrialized world.
Australians describe themselves as hearty and self-reliant. This feeling comes from having conquered a sometimes brutal landscape. They also see themselves as distinct because of their history of being founded as a penal colony. This means that the first settlers were prisoners from English jails. This creates a feeling of rebelliousness. Australians have almost a sense of being the "black sheep" of the English-speaking world.
Australia is a predominantly Christian country. In the 1990s, most people were Anglican, and the second-largest number were Catholic.
Apart from those holidays celebrated throughout the Western world, such as Christmas and Easter, Australia celebrates some of its own. Anzac Day on April 25 honors Australians who died in all wars. ("Anzac" stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.) Australia Day is celebrated on January 26. This was the day in 1788 when the English soldiers raised their flag and declared Australia a new colony. Today, it is celebrated with street fairs, parties, picnics, and fireworks. It coincides with the last days of the long summer vacation from school and is a fun time for families.
Boxing Day (December 26) is also a public holiday in Australia. It is known as a traditional day to spend at the beach. In practical terms it makes for a longer Christmas break. Its name comes from the old English custom of giving boxed gifts to employees.
Many of the rites of passage among Australians center around schooling. When students are in the twelfth grade they attend a senior school dance called the formal. This is like the American tradition of prom night. Students hire limousines to attend a formal function sponsored by their school, usually held at a somewhat glamorous location.
The eighteenth birthday party is a large, peer-group party celebrating entry into the adult world. At age eighteen, the young adult is given all legal rights. The twenty-first birthday celebration, a much more traditional family-and-friend celebration party, is often held in a hotel or restaurant. Gifts are traditionally given, and this celebration often marks the time the young person leaves home to live independently.
Men shake hands when introduced to each other or to a woman. Women often greet other women with a kiss on the cheek.
Pub life—the sharing of drinks with friends at a bar—plays a large role in most Australians' social lives. When invited to dinner, guests are usually asked to come at "7:30 for 8:30." This means guests should arrive somewhere between 7:30 and 8:30 PM for pre-dinner drinks, with dinner to be served at 8:30.
Young people in Australia usually begin dating around age fourteen or fifteen. They make their own choices of friends and partners in life. They tend to marry in their mid-twenties.
Australia has one of the highest levels of home ownership in the world. The most popular home is the freestanding brick house with a red tiled roof, a front lawn, and a back garden. Australia does not have the extremes of wealth and poverty that the United States does. There are few extravagant mansions or slums. Instead, homes tend to be more like those found in a typical American middle-class suburb. Young people in cities live in flats (apartments) or townhouses close to the inner city, where there is a great deal of nightlife.
Australia has a national health service called Medicare, under which medical and hospital treatments are free to all.
Family life in Australia is changing. The nuclear family unit of two parents and two children, with the father in the workforce and the mother at home, is becoming a thing of the past. Today, more than half of the adult female population works outside the home, though many work part-time. The divorce rate is also on the rise. There are more single-parent families today than in the past. Relationships within the family are relaxed, with everyone helping with chores. However, most of the household responsibilities still fall upon the woman.
Australia's temperatures are generally far warmer that those found in the United States. Australians favor easy-to-wear, light clothing in the summer. To stay cool, many Australians wear long socks and long tailored shorts instead of slacks. This is acceptable apparel even in the workplace. Clothing styles are a mixture of European and American fashions. People tend to dress stylishly in the city and at the office but wear jeans and sneakers on the weekends.
All school children wear uniforms. School caps are now standard. These are usually "legionnaire"-style cloth caps with a flap covering the back of the neck for protection from the sun.
Good seafood is abundant along Australia's coastline and is very popular. Australians also eat a lot of meat, especially beef or lamb roasts. The influx of European and Asian immigrants over the past twenty to thirty years has led Australians to enjoy foods from all cultures. Australian families now incorporate Chinese, Thai, or Indian foods into their weekly meal planning. European foods, particularly Greek and Italian, have always been favorites.
One food remains an Australian tradition—a black spread called Vegemite. This is made from yeast extract and salt, and is spread on toast with butter for breakfast or is eaten in sandwiches for lunch. All children are brought up eating Vegemite from infancy. The other famous Australian food is meat pie. Approximately 260 million meat pies are eaten by Australians every year.
Favorite desserts include the Australian Pavlova—a cake-sized, soft meringue filled with fruits and cream. Also popular are small treats called Lamingtons. These are sponge-cake cubes coated with chocolate and grated coconut.
School children enter kindergarten at about age five. Primary school covers grades one to six. High school consists of middle school (grades seven to ten) and senior school (grades eleven and twelve). School is mandatory through the tenth grade.
At the end of the twelfth grade, when students are about eighteen years old, they take a public exam called the Higher School Certificate. From this exam alone, the student is ranked amongst all others in the country. The results of this test determine which university, if any, the student may enter. The results also determine which course of study to follow.
If the student does not plan to enter a university, he or she needs the exam to enter any other higher education institution or to get a job. This is a very stressful exam for the student.
University entrance is extremely competitive. Fees are very low by U.S. standards. Until the 1980s all university courses were free.
Australia has an important film industry. In the 1980s and 1990s it produced such hits as Babe , Muriel's Wedding , Mad Max , and Crocodile Dundee. Sydney's Opera House is world-famous, designed by the Danish architect Utzen to resemble sails on the ocean. It houses the Australian Opera Company, theaters, concert halls, and restaurants, and attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
The country has wonderful wildlife and many natural attractions. The Great Barrier Reef, an underwater coral ridge, is one of these. It is the longest and most complex living system in the world. Another natural attraction is the beautiful Kakadu National Park. This park has 275 bird species and many ancient examples of Aboriginal folk art. It is classified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world heritage area.
Also classified as a world heritage area is Ayers Rock—a giant, red rock sacred to the Aborigines. The rock stands majestically in the middle of the desert.
In the 1990s, the average working Australian earned $525 a week. Full-time workers usually receive four weeks' annual vacation. They belong to investment plans that will give them income when they retire.
The working week is Monday to Friday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM . Workers' rights are protected by numerous laws, and Australia has an active union system. As of the late 1990s, there is an unemployment rate of 10 percent, which is of great concern to the government.
Australians love sports—both playing and watching them on television. The all-time favorite is football (soccer). Australians follow three different types, depending on which part of the country they come from. Another sport played by many children and adults is cricket, brought to Australia in the 1800s by British settlers.
Other popular sports include swimming, tennis, surfing, and sailing. However, the fastest-growing new sport in Australia today is baseball. Some players make it into the American major leagues.
In the cities, many forms of entertainment are offered. Theaters, movies, bars, and discos, plus every type of restaurant imaginable, are common. Australians enjoy a pub life similar to that found in England. But mostly they enjoy the ocean. On summer weekends the beaches are packed with surfers, and the harbors are full of boats of all types.
Sunday afternoon barbecues at home are very popular. Traditionally, friends arrive around 2:00 PM for a barbecue lunch. The host cooks steaks, sausages, or seafood on a grill; friends talk, eat, and drink into the evening. Entertainment in Australia is mostly relaxed and informal. Of course, there is television. Statistics for 1993 showed that most Australians spent twelve hours per week watching TV.
Many Australians enjoy gambling, especially on horse races. The final horse race of the year—the Melbourne Cup—takes place on the first Tuesday of each November, at exactly 3:00 PM . This event brings the country to a standstill. It is even broadcast live over loudspeakers in most offices. Almost everyone has a small bet on the outcome.
Australian hobbies are very similar to those pursued by people in the United States, and are just as varied.
Australia has yet to deal fairly with its Aboriginal population, whose standard of living is far lower than that of the rest of the population, and whose infant death rate is very high. The Aborigines have been victims of neglect by the authorities, though efforts are finally being made to improve Aboriginal life.
As Australia moves toward the year 2000, the question of when and how to become a republic (an independent parliamentary democracy without a royal head of state) is constantly debated. Australia is still part of the British Commonwealth, but by popular demand it may eventually break all formal ties with England and become a republic.
Immigration is a further concern. Many people feel that Australia cannot support too many more people, because of the nature of the land. Others are concerned that the country is becoming multicultural too fast. It is an issue that divides the country.
Coppell, Bill. Australia in Fact and Fiction. Sydney: Penguin Books, 1994.
Cue, Kerry. Australia Unbuttoned. Sydney: Penguin Books, 1996.
Dale, David. The 100 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Australia. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 1996.
Roberts, A., and C. P. Mountford. Legends of the Dreamtime. Sydney: International Limited Editions, 1975.