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Located between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean, Australia is the world’s smallest continent, but its sixth largest country. The process of gaining formal independence from the British Empire was gradual throughout the 20th century, but the country’s stable democratic government has been long established. The State has been widely criticised for its practice of detaining children in immigration facilities as well as persisting discrimination against children from aboriginal backgrounds.
Australia is the world's smallest continent but its sixth-largest country. It lies between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean.
The island continent combines a rich variety of landscapes, although it is comprised of mostly low plateau with deserts. Isolated from other continents, Australia has an abundance of unique plant and animal life.
Population and Language
About 21.5 million people live in Australia. Most of the population is concentrated along the eastern and southeastern coasts. Modern Australia was colonised by European settlers about 200 years ago. Today, just over 90 per cent of the population are of European descent, while less than three per cent descended from the indigenous. Migration, particularly in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries have continued to alter the demography of Australia and it is now home to a number of people from Asian backgrounds (around seven per cent) as well as ethnic Arab, Polynesian and other communities.
The major language is English. Some 150 aboriginal language remains and are spoken but often only by isolated communities, with only a few having more than one thousand speakers and almost none having more than three thousand.
History and Politics
Prior to European colonisation, Australia was home to about 250 aboriginal nations, largely living a nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyle, though with occasional semi permanent settlements. British colonies were established in the late 18th century, initially as site for the deportation of convicts but later as self sustaining communities. The arrival of European settlers triggered a great decline in the aboriginal populations, in part through exposure to unfamiliar diseases, but also through violent dispossession of food sources and other vital resources, along with killings by armed colonists and government troops. Later, the process of decline would be further accelerated by policies of forcibly removing aboriginal children from their communities, particularly those of mixed race parentage, usually on the pretexts of child welfare, racial supremacist ideology or religious missions.
Australian colonies gradually developed more elements of self government and, by 1910, had developed into a federation which transitioned from a British dominion to an independent member of the Commonwealth through the early twentieth century. Australian troops fought alongside Britain in the First and Second World Wars, notably at Gallipoli in 1917 and across the Pacific and South East Asia against the threat of Japanese invasion after 1942. Post war, with the collapse of the British presence in the Pacific, Australia formed strong bonds with the United States, including sending troops to fight in the Vietnam War, as well as becoming an increasingly influential regional power in its own right. During the post-war period of prosperity, Australia underwent numerous social and political changes, including winding down the previous policies that favoured white European immigration to the exclusion of others. At the same time, the rights of the indigenous aboriginal population, long neglected, were also undergoing reform, with an expansion of civil rights, recognition on the census and the beginning of acknowledgement of native title to land. The policies of separating aboriginal children from their families finally ceased in 1969, though the effects of this policy still haunt many communities and the degree to which it has been acknowledged and addressed by Australian society remains debatable. Immigration, once actively encouraged, has become an increasingly politicised issue in Australia with a variety of widely criticised responses. Recently, this has included attempts to use detention camps in other countries as temporary holding facilities for migrants, even though these countries may not meet minimal human rights or security standards and the camps themselves might keep detainees in poor conditions. Though ruled illegitimate in its original form by the Australian courts, plans are currently underway to resume this programme.
Australia is a federal parliamentary democracy and a Commonwealth realm. The head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, represented by a governor-general, though this role is largely symbolic. Elected governments have, since 2007, tended towards instability with party infighting being a leading cause of government collapse. Prime minister Julia Gillard took the reigns as Australia's first female head of government in June 2010 after Kevin Rudd was ousted from office by his own party. Gillard was in turn forced to step down in 2013, with Rudd restored briefly to power before his defeat a month later by Tony Abbot.
The legal system is based on English common law
The country has taken advantage of its array of natural resources to rapidly develop agricultural and manufacturing industries. Australia also has a large services sector and is a significant exporter of natural resources, energy, and food. While not entirely insulated from the global financial crisis of 2008, Australia has performed better than many countries in recent years due to rising mineral prices, which has attracted a great deal of investment to the mining sector, particularly from China.
Media and Civil Society
Australia's media scene is creatively, technologically and economically advanced. There is a tradition of public broadcasting, but privately-owned TV and radio dominate the viewing figures. Four major media groups own 80 per cent of newspaper titles. While Australia lacks strong legal protections for freedom of speech and assembly, in practice these are well respected and there is very little government restriction or interference, except in cases related to terrorism. Australia enjoys a very active civil society with a number of domestic and international NGOs operating from their and involved with both government policy and wider regional issues.
Human Rights and Children's Rights
The government has been criticised by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD Committee) for the continued discrimination against indigenous peoples and the high level of disadvantage they face. It has also faced extensive criticism for the manner in which it detains refugees and asylum seekers. After a high court ruling declared that the initial "Pacific Solution", whereby asylum seekers would be housed in extra-territorial detention centres, was illegitimate, Australia established alternative camps on its own outlying islands. Conditions in these have been widely condemned - violence, suicide by detainees and outright riots have all been reported. In 2012, the Australian government announced the resumption of the Pacific Solution. Disturbingly, rather meeting their legal obligation to ensure adequate standards of treatment would be available in the countries hosting detention centres, the Australian government has circumvented the previous high court ruling by abolishing this obligation entirely.
Australia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 17 December 1990, the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict on 30 September 2005, and the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography on 8 January 2007.
- BBC: Australia Country Profile
- Amnesty International, "Annual Report 2011: State of the World's Human Rights: Australia
- United Nations Treaty Collection
- UNICEF: Australia Country Page