Capital city: Canberra
Population: 23.5 million (ABS)
Government: Federal parliamentary democracy, constitutional monarchy
Currency: Australian dollar (A$, AUD)
Main languages: English
Main religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam
The Commonwealth of Australia is made up of six states: New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, and the island state of Tasmania. Each has its own constitution and the power to pass laws, although in the event of legal conflict state law is superseded by Commonwealth law. In addition, there are ten territories which have differing degrees of autonomy, but only two of them (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory) are on the mainland.
Australians have a reputation for being very laid back, and the country’s naturally temperate weather and outdoor lifestyle certainly help to encourage a relaxed atmosphere which values good work/life balance. With a diverse mix of cultures from the indigenous aboriginal people to the early European settlers and the more recent Asian migrants, modern Australia is very much multicultural. This is reflected in the country's pastimes, lifestyle and customs.
It is estimated that over 85% of people in Australia live within 50 kilometres of the coast, and the beach is certainly central to social life across the country. Surfing and other water sports are particularly popular, and the beach is also a great place to meet up with friends. Rightly considered to be sports-mad, Australians are characteristically active and sports clubs are easily found in most areas. Gym training, cycling and golf are among the top pastimes. Watching sport is also a cultural fixture, with the performance of the Australian cricket and rugby teams a particular source of national pride.
Food and drink
Think of Australian cuisine and immediately you get an image of beers and barbecues. It’s a stereotype, but the ‘barbie’ remains a cultural icon. Restaurants draw on the cosmopolitan nature of the population for influences and fusion cuisine is a growing trend. As such a large island nation, Australia produces a huge amount of seafood. Traditional ‘bush tucker’ influences are also becoming more mainstream, with kangaroo, emu and crocodile meat growing in popularity. Braver tourists may wish to sample a bogong moth or a witchetty grub, although in reality these are yet to catch on with modern Australians!
With every state home to vineyards, Australia is among the world’s top wine producers. It also has a real coffee culture, believed to originate from the large numbers of Greek and Italian immigrants who settled in Australia in the early part of the twentieth century.
Australia does not have an official language, but the vast majority of people speak English. However, census data from 2011 showed that only 76.8% of households spoke English as the sole language, again demonstrating the multicultural nature of the country. Mandarin, Italian and Arabic ranked among the most spoken minority languages. It is estimated that there were once over 400 aboriginal languages spoken in Australia, but just 15 survive in active use today.
Compared to British English, there are relatively few variations in the Australian accent. These differences tend to be dictated more by social factors than geography, although there are some regional characteristics too. Linguists categorise the Australian accent into three types:
- General – the most commonly occurring accent, typified by someone like Hugh Jackman
- Broad – widely spoken in rural areas, with Paul Hogan a good example
- Cultivated – less common among younger Australians; Geoffrey Rush speaks with a cultivated accent
True to its sunny reputation, the majority of Australia experiences temperate weather for most of the year. The north is warm virtually all the time, while the southern states are cooler in winter but rarely reach freezing temperatures. Surprisingly, Australia does have snowfall on higher ground in winter, meaning that there is skiing on offer in the mountainous areas of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.
Safety and security
Australia is generally a safe place, with low crime rates compared to other developed countries. Petty criminals such as pickpockets and thieves may target tourists, particularly in urban areas, so remain alert to the possibility.
The wildlife of Australia has a famously deadly reputation, with varieties of spiders, snakes, jellyfish and sharks all reported as capable of killing humans. In reality the risk from these creatures is very low – just make sure you follow advice when walking in the outback or swimming in the sea.
The extremes of Australian weather are probably a greater danger than its wildlife. In the heat of summer it’s important to stay hydrated, to carry water when travelling and to keep applying sun block. Wildfires are also a potential hazard in hot periods, while in the cyclone season from November to April the north of the country can also experience floods.