The world’s smallest continent but sixth-largest country, Australia is a globally competitive, advanced market economy. Australia was one of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s fastest growing economies during the 1990s, a performance that continued into the 2000s, aided by burgeoning demand from China and other markets for its enviable resource endowment. In earlier decades, Australia had proven itself able to harness its natural resources to develop internationally competitive primary industry, but starting in the 1980s it added a new layer of competitiveness by floating its currency and introducing a range of reforms, allied with a shift in emphasis from traditional ties to Europe in favor of growing trade and other relations within the Asia-Pacific, symbolized by its role in the founding of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings. While Australia was not immune to the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent economic downturn, it again outperformed many of its industrialized counterparts, benefiting in part from growing trade with China. Current long-term concerns include pertinent climate-change issues such as the depletion of the ozone layer and more frequent droughts and the preservation of its coastal areas, especially the Great Barrier Reef.
Australia enjoys impressive political stability, with just five prime ministers in the last 30 years (compared with five Japanese premiers in little over three years). Power has tended to change hands every five to ten years between the center left Labour Party and the center right Liberal Party, with both parties since the 1980s favoring a policy of economic reform and growth. Allied with low inflation, a housing market boom, and resources demand from huge markets like China and Japan, this has given Australia a prosperous and stable economy.
Australia is an active participant in the international community. It was one of the founding members of the United Nations, and as one of the drafters of the UN Charter, has given solid support to the organization and its subsidiaries. The country was also a founding force behind the South Pacific Commission and the Colombo Plan. With the United States and New Zealand, Australia signed the ANZUS Treaty in 1951, which remains the nation’s pre-eminent formal security treaty alliance.
As part of its commitment to its security alliance with the United States, and reflecting the very close relations conservative Prime Minister John Howard (in power from 1996 to 2007) enjoyed with US President George W. Bush, Australia has played an active role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the unpopularity of the latter with the Australian public. Critics have claimed that Australia’s role has made it a terrorist target, an argument that appeared to gain credence in 2002, when 88 Australians were killed in the Bali bombings linked to Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah.
Another important area of contention within Australia over the past decade has been its handling of illegal immigrants, especially asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia’s north. This debate peaked in 2001 with the so-called Tampa Affair, which become an important election issue, but it has reemerged in 2009 under the government of ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
The Australian international aid program is currently concentrated in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, with Papua New Guinea and Indonesia as the primary recipients. Selected aid flows are designated also to Africa, South Asia and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Australian government plans to increase its overall development assistance fund to 0.5% of its gross national income by 2015-2016. Moreover, since the end of World War II, Australia’s population has more than doubled, and continues to grow with immigration from Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Australia’s humanitarian and refugee program accepts about 13,000 per year, in addition to other immigration programs.
On the domestic level of Australia’s human rights effort, since the end of World War II, the Australian government and the public have made efforts to be more responsive to aboriginal rights and needs. Recently the Australian government’s formal and historic apology to the indigenous people made world news. Despite reform in this area, Indigenous Australians still suffer high rates of unemployment, imprisonment and drug abuse.
Australia still faces some current economic challenges following a period of inflation through mid-2008 and the loosening of a yen-based carry trade in late 2008 that has contributed to a weakening of the Australian dollar.