Australia is a land of contrasts and diversity. Its landscape ranges from desert and bushland in the central areas, to rainforest in the North, to snowfields in the South East. It is situated in the Southern Hemisphere and flanked by the Southern, Indian and South Pacific oceans.
Despite being the sixth largest country in the world, Australia's land mass is approximately the same size as continental United States (excluding Alaska) and twice the size of Europe (excluding the former USSR) - it has the lowest population density of approximately 2.9 people per square kilometre. A key attributing factor to this is that almost 20% of Australia is classified as desert. Approximately 70% of Australians live in one of the eight state capital cities being: Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra (Australia's capital), Darwin, Hobart, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.
Some facts on Australians you may not be aware of
- About one in four Australians were born in another country
- Approximately one in four Australians have one or both parents born overseas
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up approximately 2% of the population
- Approximately 17% of Australians speak a language other than English at home
- There are 170 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages
- There are more than 100 different ethnic groups.
For more quick facts on Australia see the Australian Government website.
Climate & Weather
There are generally no great extremes of climate in Australia - variations in climate are due to the size of the continent. You will find tropical rainforest in the northeast of the country, more temperate areas to the south, and desert areas in the interior.
The weather during these seasons can be very different to northern hemisphere weather patterns and varies across the country. Australia is an arid continent, and summers can be very hot (above 30°C). The pattern of rainfall is also distinct - the northern regions have a wet season during which random torrential downpours are common. During the wet season, humidity is very high and the temperatures moderate. However, in the southern regions it can get quite cold during winter but there is less precipitation. Many groups of indigenous peoples in Australia have their own seasonal periods depending on predominant weather patterns affecting their lands.
The Aboriginal people of Australia have lived on this land for over 60 000 years. They do not have 'one' culture or history; before colonisation, more than 600 groups inhabited, travelled, fought and traded here. Dreamtime stories, cave paintings and etchings reveal cultures remarkable in their complexity and richness. Subsistence was based on hunting, fishing and seed gathering.
The colonisation of Australia by Anglo-Saxon settlers officially began in 1788. Anglo settlers included a mix of British and Irish convicts, British military guards, and free settlers.
The presence of Anglo settlers in Australia from this date has impacted greatly on the lives of the Aboriginal population. The University of Adelaide acknowledges the impact that dispossession, alienation and impoverishment has had on the Indigenous peoples of Australia as part of our Reconciliation Statement.
Australia's identity and population makeup has developed throughout the twentieth century, influenced by two world wars, the British Commonwealth, and its emerging Asia-Pacific and global partnerships and responsibilities. Non-indigenous Australian culture was originally British-influenced, but is now one of the most ethnically diverse cultures in the world.
Adelaide was settled in 1836, and South Australia was a free-settler colony. Today, Australia continues to operate as an independent democratic country under a British Head-of-State, but its future lies increasingly in its geographical location, and its links with the nations of the Asia-Pacific region.
Head of State: H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth II (British monarch and Queen of Australia), represented in Australia by the Governor General.
Head of Government: Prime Minister, as leader of the party or coalition of parties holding a majority in federal parliament.
Composition: Australia is a federation of six states with two internal federal territories (Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory).
Australia uses a three-tier system of government:
Federal Government: Australia's federal parliament is based on the British Westminster system with a prime minister and cabinet (inner council). It is responsible for matters of national interest, including: defence, external affairs foreign trade, treasury, communications, immigration, etc. Federal government comprises two houses - the House of Representatives (lower house) and the Senate (upper house, or house of review).
State Government: Administration areas including education, health, law enforcement etc. Each state has a Premier who leads the party majority in state parliament.
Local Government: Responsible for their local areas (for town planning, parks etc). The mayor or president is the leader of a local government.
Voting: Voting is compulsory for all registered Australian citizens over 18 years. Voting is by secret ballot, and Australians commonly have a number of different individuals and political parties to vote for. Voting systems vary between states, and between houses of parliament.
CustomsAustralia is a young and diverse nation and Australian people come from many different cultural backgrounds. As you settle in and meet the locals you will find that there is no such thing as a 'typical' Australian. You will encounter a wide range of social customs, habits and perspectives on life that may be new and different from what you have experienced before. This section may help you to prepare for some of these new experiences.
GreetingsAustralia is considered to be a relaxed, informal society. When greeting others in most situations, students and young people say 'Hello' or 'Hi'. Sometimes they will say 'How's it going?' or 'G'day'. In more formal situations they usually shake hands the first time they meet. 'Good morning', 'Good afternoon' or 'Pleased to meet you' are formal greetings.
When you say goodbye to someone informally, 'See you later' or 'See you around' are common. In a more formal situation you could say: 'It was a pleasure to meet you' or 'It was nice to meet you'.
First names are used more frequently in Australia than in some other countries. Australians will often greet their friends and even people they don't know (both male and female) with 'Hey mate' or 'How's it going guys?'. An Australian may encourage you to use their given name (eg: 'Call me Susan'), in which case you will not need to continue to use their formal title. Often, Australian academics will encourage you to use their given name. The use of 'nicknames' (or pet names) is also common. A nickname is usually used among friends, and is a sign of acceptance and friendship.
The formal title or family name is usually only used in formal situations, when meeting someone for the first time, or when speaking to someone in a professional situation such as a medical doctor, politician or VIP. Titles such as Mr, Mrs, Ms or Dr are used with the surname or family name (eg: Graham Williams is Mr Williams).
In Australia it is customary to look someone in the eye when you are talking to him/her. It is not considered insulting to do this, but instead reflects that you are sincere and interested in what is being said. Australians will make direct eye contact with everyone, whether the person is an equal or of different status or social position. Children are taught to look directly at adults to show they have heard and understood what they are told. In Australia, there is no protocol or meaning behind giving a person something with your left hand. Australians typically 'shake hands' with their right hand.
One problem commonly faced by people new to Australia is the use of slang. Slang is used unconsciously by many Australians and can sometimes sound like a completely new language. Here are some common examples and their translations:
If someone says to you, 'G'day mate, how you going?' they are actually using a common greeting and asking after your welfare - although they may not expect an answer. It's more like a friendly remark.
Australians also have a tendency to run words together. You may also find that Australians speak quickly and abbreviate or shorten words. For example, 'University' becomes 'uni', 'breakfast' becomes 'brekkie', 'tutorial' becomes 'tute'.
You may find the Australian pronunciation of many familiar English words is quite different from what you are used to or expect - with time the language will become more familiar, and listening and speaking will become easier. If you don't understand what people are saying, please ask them to explain - they won't mind.
Unlike some cultures, Australians are often very direct and open in their speech and mannerisms. While some people may feel at first uncomfortable, it is important to understand that Australians are not deliberately trying to be offensive.
Australians are renowned for having a 'dry' sense of humour. Humour is often based on self-deprecation or criticism of others in jest, sometimes called 'stirring' or 'rubbishing'. This is largely due to the Australian pre-disposition to 'tall-poppy syndrome', a kind of anti-snobbery born from rejection of the English class system and the colonial ideal of the fresh start for settlers and convicts. A commonly heard Australian term the 'fair go' refers to equal opportunity for all people - every should get a chance to prove themselves valuable.
Accordingly, humour is also often focused on people who give the impression that they consider themselves superior, or who are different. You may find people will joke about your accent, clothes or habits. In the majority of cases it is not intended to attack your character, but is a form of social acceptance, so try not to take offence at this teasing.
It may take you some time to understand Australian humour, and when people are being serious or joking. As your knowledge of the language and culture improves, you will find you are increasingly able to join in the laughter!
Read more about Australian humour on the Australian Government's culture and recreation website.
If you receive a formal written invitation that is accompanied by the letters RSVP you are being requested to make a prompt response, either by accepting or declining the invitation.
If a person offers to 'take' you to dinner or 'shout' you a drink, they intend to pay for it. When you are asked to 'join' or 'go with' someone or a group of people for a meal or to an entertainment venue, this suggests that you will be expected to pay your own expenses.
If you are invited to a home for a meal it is polite to ask if you can bring something with you. This will usually be something simple like a bottle of wine or soft drink, or a plate of food. Occasionally you may be asked to a social gathering where you are asked to 'bring a plate', meaning to bring a plate of food for people to share. Some parties will be BYO (bring your own) which means everyone brings what they would like to drink and/or eat. This is especially common at casual social events such as barbecues, (very popular in Australia, particularly in summer). It is standard practice to bring your own meat or meat alternative for grilling. If you have special reasons for not eating particular types of food, let your hosts know, so that they can make special arrangements for you.
It is not necessary to take a gift if you only go for dinner or a short stay - but do so if you wish to. If you are invited to join a celebration such as a birthday or for Christmas, take a small gift or a bunch of flowers.
In most urban areas it is an offence to make loud noise after 11.00pm. Try to avoid telephoning Australians between 9.00pm-9.00am unless it is unavoidable or an emergency.
Punctuality is important when attending meetings or appointments. If you have to cancel an appointment or will be late, it is courteous to call and explain to the person waiting for you.
Smoking is not permitted in University buildings, public transport, government offices, restaurants and shopping centres. If you want to smoke, you will usually have to go outside. Also do not assume that it is acceptable to smoke in someone else's house or car - always ask first.
Bargaining and Tipping
Bargaining (also known as 'haggling') is not practised in Australian shops and shopping centres. The prices marked are generally the prices at which products are sold. It is often acceptable to bargain when purchasing second hand goods, particularly at 'garage sales' or through classified advertisements in the daily newspaper.
Tipping is not a general practice. Australians receive award wages that are not reduced to take into account any tips that may be received. Australians will generally only leave a tip in a restaurant, when they have received very good service. Taxi (or 'cab') drivers in Australia should not expect a tip, though it is common to leave small change, or to 'round up' the fare (to the nearest dollar). It is important you don't offer to tip a public official in Australia, including police officers or any Government employees. It is illegal, and may be considered as an attempt to bribe a person.
Australians tend to dress casually in almost all situations. There are very few occasions when you will need to wear formal clothes.
In the workplace, it is expected that you dress in clean, pressed clothing, such as pants, jeans (no holes or rips), shirts, skirts (not too short), dresses, t-shirts (no slogans) and jackets.
If you receive an invitation to a more formal occasion the mode of dress will often be indicated on the invitation. If you are unsure of how to dress in a particular situation ask either your host or friends what they would consider appropriate.