Australia has been called “the Oldest Continent,” “the Last of Lands,” and “the Last Frontier.” Those descriptions typify the world’s fascination with Australia, but they are somewhat unsatisfactory. In simple physical terms, the age of much of the continent is certainly impressive—most of the rocks providing the foundation of Australian landforms were formed during Precambrian and Paleozoic time (some 4.6 billion to 252 million years ago)—but the ages of the cores of all the continents are approximately the same. On the other hand, whereas the landscape history of extensive areas in Europe and North America has been profoundly influenced by events and processes that occurred since late in the last Ice Age—roughly the past 25,000 years—in Australia scientists use a more extensive timescale that takes into account the great antiquity of the continent’s landscape.
Australia has a federal form of government, with a national government for the Commonwealth of Australia and individual state governments (those of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania). Each state has a constitution, and its government exercises a limited degree of sovereignty. There are also two internal territories: Northern Territory, established as a self-governing territory in 1978, and the Australian Capital Territory (including the city of Canberra), which attained self-governing status in 1988. The federal authorities govern the external territories of Norfolk Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Christmas Island, Ashmore and Cartier islands, the Coral Sea Islands, and Heard Island and McDonald Islands and claim the Australian Antarctic Territory, an area larger than Australia itself. Papua New Guinea, formerly an Australian external territory, gained its independence in 1975.
Historically part of the British Empire and now a member of the Commonwealth, Australia is a relatively prosperous independent country. Australians are in many respects fortunate in that they do not share their continent—which is only a little smaller than the United States—with any other country. Extremely remote from their traditional allies and trading partners—it is some 12,000 miles (19,000 km) from Australia to Great Britain via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal and about 7,000 miles (11,000 km) across the Pacific Ocean to the west coast of the United States—Australians have become more interested in the proximity of huge potential markets in Asia and in the highly competitive industrialized economies of China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Australia, the continent and the country, may have been quite isolated at the beginning of the 20th century, but it entered the 21st century a culturally diverse land brimming with confidence, an attitude encouraged by the worldwide fascination with the land “Down Under” and demonstrated when Sydney hosted the 2000 Olympic Games.