European settlers arrived in Australia about 200 years ago, but the continent’s original inhabitants, the Aborigines, have lived there for tens of thousands of years. Capt. James Cook occupied Australia for Great Britain in 1770. The first settlement was established in 1788 and was called Sydney. A number of the original settlers were convicts. The discovery of gold in the mid-19th century brought other free settlers. The British established six colonies in the late 18th and 19th centuries, but all were combined in a federation and the Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901.
Australia assisted the British during the two world wars. Since the end of the World War II, Australia has been more aligned with the US in its foreign policy. In the past 20 years Australia’s focus has also shifted to its Asian neighbors. Australia has assisted in the crisis between opposing groups in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and provided peacekeeping troops to control the post-independence turmoil in East Timor.
Australia has a highly competitive market-driven economy. According to the OECD, Australia had one of the fastest growing economies in the 1990s. Australia is a member of APEC and plans to establish free trade agreements with China and other ASEAN countries.
After the World War II, Australia gradually dropped its “White Australia” policy, and instead adopted a mass immigration program. This has resulted in major demographic, cultural and social changes. The country still takes a tough stance against illegal and unauthorized immigration, but it has discontinued the controversial policy of keeping asylum seekers in detention centers until their cases are heard.
In 2008 the Australian government formally apologized to the indigenous population for past wrongs. There were a few hundred thousand Aborigines in Australia when the Europeans arrived. But discrimination and expropriation led to a decline in the Aboriginal population – at one point down to 60,000, among whom there remain high levels of unemployment, imprisonment and drug abuse.
Sources: BBC, The Economist, International Crisis Group, CIA World Factbook.