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The establishment of a British settlement at Sydney Cove in 1788 was the beginning of one era and the end of another. For more than 50 000 years the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had lived on the continent in a materially simple, but socially complex and environmentally friendly culture. Some living in the north of Australia had links with the peoples of Papua New Guinea and with sailors from Macassar in the Celebes, but most had lived in peaceful isolation until European explorers began, perhaps as early as the 16th century, to search for what was then called "the great southland".

When Britain established Australia as a penal colony in January, 1788, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were dispossessed of their land and quickly became a dispersed and depressed minority group. Their population at first contact has been estimated at levels of up to 750 000. By the beginning of the 20th century it had fallen to fewer than 100 000. It was not until the 1960s that government policies took into account the uniqueness of Aboriginal cultures and began to plan strategies to bring the original Australians into the mainstream of national life. The Australian Government has now established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission to give indigenous Australians a measure of self government in their communities. It has also enacted legislation to give effect to a recent decision of the High Court of Australia giving Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders the right to claim title to land with which they have a traditional connection and which has not been set aside by a valid act of government. It has also established an Aboriginal Land Fund to acquire land on behalf of indigenous people. However, these initiatives are still in their early stages and the Aboriginal population, now standing at an estimated 257 000, is still relatively deprived.


Developments in the colonial period and in the first half century of independence generated trading and population trends which stamped Australia as a European nation, and for most of that period still linked to its British beginnings. Those links, and particularly the way in which the developing Australian nation implemented political reforms still under discussion in Britain and Europe, were instrumental in founding a strong and continuing political tradition stressing equal rights and opportunities for all citizens. By the end of the 1850s all but one of the Australian colonies had introduced the secret ballot. Women gained the right to vote in 1908, and the early payment of salaries to politicians encouraged the growth of an egalitarian parliamentary representation which has placed its stamp on all aspects of Australian democracy.

Australian participation in World War I, and particularly the performance of its troops in the Gallipoli campaign, sparked a latent Australian nationalism, but did not affect traditional links with Britain. It was World War II, and the threat of Japanese invasion, which first prompted the Australian Government to question seriously the practicality of relying on Britain for security support.


The continuing immigration program after World War II has had a significant impact on the Anglo-Celtic tradition. The infusion of non-English speaking people from Europe and the Middle East in the surge of new settlers that followed the end of World War II produced a more diverse population. The abandonment in 1973 of the White Australia policy which had been followed by successive governments since federation has resulted in a smaller, but significant, intake from Asia. The national census of 1966 listed 1.3 per cent of those born overseas as coming from countries of South-East, North-East and South Asia and the islands of the Pacific. The 1991 census listed 27.7 per cent from these sources, and showed that more than 150 nationalities are now represented in the 3.7 million residents born overseas. Half of Australia’s immigrants now come from Asia.

Australia is now a truly multicultural society, with 40 per cent of the population migrants or their children. Successive Australian governments have introduced measures to cater for the diverse population. The Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) provides a multilingual television and radio service across Australia. In 1989, the Government outlined its National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia to provide a $20 million program aimed at acknowledging the cultural diversity of the Australian community, strengthening support measures such as English language programs for those of non-English speaking background, and improving processes for recognising overseas qualifications in the workplace. It also introduced a range of initiatives in the areas of community services and health, local government, consumer education and issues affecting migrant women.

Speaking to the Global Cultural Diversity Conference in Sydney in April 1995, the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, said that the experience of multi-culturalism had taught Australians much about the management of cultural diversity. "We like to think," he said, "that we might have in our modern nationhood at least some of the elements of a 21st century model - diversity, tolerance, openness and worldliness within the boundaries of national purpose and cohesion."


Australia has been a pioneer in social security measures, introducing old-age and invalid pensions in 1910 and maternity allowances in 1912. Today, the social security system provides a wide range of services for those without an adequate income on account of age, disability, unemployment or sole parenthood. It also provides training for those who are unemployed, but with the ability to participate in the workforce.

About five million Australians have social security entitlements, and expenditure on social security and welfare programs in 1994-95 was $15.10 billion, representing approximately 36 per cent of the Federal budget outlay. Age pensions at the single rate of almost 25 per cent of average weekly earnings are provided for men at age 65 and women at 60, and are subject to a means test. A family allowance is paid to the majority of families with children, with a supplement to assist low-income families. The universal health care system, Medicare, provides subsidised services for the general community, and free services for those on pensions.


The Australian Constitution has little to say about the rights of its citizens, but the necessity to encompass many ethnic, cultural and religious strands in the community has generated special legislation and institutions for the protection of human rights.

Racial prejudice and sex discrimination are banned by The Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, established in 1986, administers these Acts and the Privacy Act which came into force in 1988, as well as other matters in relation to human rights, equality of opportunity and treatment in employment and occupation. It also monitors Australia’s compliance with a number of international agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation.

This document has been prepared by Australia's International Public Affairs branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The help received from Australian government departments, associated organisations and other authorities is gratefully acknowledged. Information is current to April 1995. Money values are in Australian currency, weights and measures in Metric.