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The Commonwealth of Australia is composed of the continental mainland, the large island of Tasmania, Melville Island, Kangaroo Island, Groote Eylandt, Bathurst Island, Fraser Island, Flinders Island, King Island, and Mornington Island, as well as more than four hundred smaller islands. Australia is the largest country in Oceania, but it also the earth's smallest, driest, and flattest continent. Half of Australia is arid and about a fifth of it is a desert. Droughts have been known to last for years. Its forests have been largely depleted in the past couple of centuries, and the overstocking of animals by settlers have left bare landscapes in the Australian outback. Bush areas are still common, including the wooded Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and the rainforests of Tasmania. Large portions of inland Australia is uninhabited flat land. Much of Australia's soil is unsuitable for agriculture.

Feral cats have been blamed for the extinction of several of Australia's native species. Once home to many giant emus and large kangaroos, these populations have been greatly reduced. These creatures do exist, however, along with koalas and wombats. The dingo has come to be associated with Australia, but these canines were actually introduced to Australia around 3000 BC. Australia is host to some of the most dangerous creatures in the world, including some of its most venomous snakes. Australia has more venomous than non-venomous snakes. Other venomous creatures in Australia are the platypus, spiders, scorpions, octopi, jellyfish, mollusks, stonefish, and stingrays.

The population and economy of Australia reflect the geographic and climatic realities of the continent, including the results of the use of the land by the Aboriginal people and the Europeans who came later. It has been the tradition of historians to begin a nation's history with the arrival of Europeans. However, the history of Australia is more than the history of the white people who have lived there. Australia was inhabited for about fifty-thousand years before the first British settlement was made there in the late 1700s. Only China, Java, East Africa, and parts of the Middle East are thought to have had human populations before that time. The ancient Aborigines were largely nomadic, moving from one fertile area to another with no concept of individual ownership of land. The Aborigines probably rejected agriculture because of the undependability of rainfall in Australia, choosing to survive by gathering food on a daily basis and moving to wherever it was available. While there were connections between various Aboriginal groups, there was no Aboriginal nation. The Australian Aborigines spoke a variety of languages and dialects, including a sign language counterpart that was used at a time when speech taboos were in place. They had no written language prior to the arrival of Europeans on the continent. Too often, the indigenous record is ignored by historians.

On the other hand, the influence of the British on Australia's institutions, politics, social life, and economy cannot be easily denied, despite their comparatively brief tenure. The contrast with Australia's indigenous people and its white settlers couldn't be greater. Europeans came to Australia thousands of years after the Aborigines, and they arrived with European ideas of private property, agriculture, national rivalry, and domination, as well as religion. The white settlers needed written laws, orders, and treaties, all of which they imposed upon the Aborigines. Devoid of any spiritual connection with the land, the Europeans settled along the coasts of Australia, particularly in the southeastern part of the continent. Even today, nearly half of the country's population is in Sydney and Melbourne.

The government of Australia has changed in scope since the early days of white settlement. In 1788, New South Wales was administered by a governor sent by Britain who had sole responsibility for decision making, although he was bound by instructions from the Colonial Office. Other Australian colonies followed suit. In the 1850s, Britain granted self-government to the Australian colonies, and in 1901 Australia became a sovereign country governed as a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy with the Queen of England as its apex, but as more of a figurehead than a ruling authority. Governmental decisions are made by the Australian Prime Minister and the Federal Executive Council. The federal government is comprised of the legislature, executive branch, and judiciary. Voting is mandatory for enrolled citizens. The country's indigenous population only recently won full voting rights. Australia has six states: New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia. Additionally, there are two mainland territories: the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. In most cases, the territories function as states.

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