Stone objects that were found in 1978 but are still only tentatively dated suggest that human beings may have inhabited what is now Australia as long as 100,000 years ago. The Aboriginals migrated to Australia from Southeast Asia at least 40,000 years before the first Europeans arrived on the island continent. In 1999, scientists estimated a male skeleton found at Mungo Lake in 1974 to be between 56,000 and 68,000 years old. Covered in red ochre, this skeleton presents the first known use of pigments for religious or artistic purposes. Living as hunters and gatherers, roaming in separate family groups or bands, the Aboriginals developed a rich, complex culture, with many languages. They numbered approximately 300,000 by the 18th century; however, with the onset of European settlement, conflict and disease reduced their numbers.
Although maps of the 16th century indicate European awareness of the location of Australia, the first recorded explorations of the continent by Europeans took place early in the 17th century, when Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish explorers sailed along the coast and discovered what is now Tasmania. None took formal possession of the land, and not until 1770, when Capt. James Cook charted the east coast and claimed possession in the name of Great Britain, was any major exploration undertaken. Up to the early 19th century, the area was known as New Holland, New South Wales, or Botany Bay.
The first settlement—a British penal colony at Port Jackson (now Sydney) in 1788—was soon enlarged by additional shipments of prisoners, which continued through the mid-1800s, until approximately 161,000 convicts had been transported. With the increase of free settlers, the country developed, the interior was penetrated, and six colonies were created: New South Wales in 1786, Van Diemen's Land in 1825 (renamed Tasmania in 1856), Western Australia in 1829, South Australia in 1834, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859.
Sheep raising and wheat growing were introduced and soon became the backbone of the economy. The wool industry made rapid progress during the period of squatting migration, which began on a large scale about 1820. The grazers followed in the wake of explorers, reaching new pastures, or "runs," where they squatted and built their homes. Exports of wool increased from 111 kg (245 lb) in 1807 to 1.1 million kg (2.4 million lb) in 1831. With the increased flow of immigrants following the Ripon Land Regulations of 1831, the population grew from about 34,000 in 1820 to some 405,000 in 1850. The discovery of gold in Victoria (1851) attracted thousands, and in a few years the population had quadrupled. Under the stimulus of gold production, the first railway line—Melbourne to Port Melbourne—was completed in 1854. Representative government spread throughout the continent, and the colonies acquired their own parliaments.
Until the end of the 19th century, Australia's six self-governing colonies remained separate. However, the obvious advantages of common defense and irrigation led to the federation of the states into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. (The British Parliament had approved a constitution in the previous year.) The Northern Territory, which belonged to South Australia, became a separate part of the Commonwealth in 1911. In the same year, territory was acquired from New South Wales for a new capital at Canberra, and in 1927, the Australian Parliament began meeting there. Liberal legislation provided for free and compulsory education, industrial conciliation and arbitration, the secret ballot, female suffrage, old age pensions, invalid pensions, and maternity allowances (all before World War I). Child subsidies and unemployment and disability benefits were introduced during World War II.
Australian forces fought along with the British in Europe during World War I. In World War II, the Australian forces supported the UK in the Middle East between 1940 and 1942, and played a major role in the Pacific theater after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, a period of intense immigration began. The Labour government was voted out of office in 1949, beginning 23 years of continuous rule by a Liberal-Country Party (now known as the National Party) coalition. During that period, Australian foreign policy stressed collective security and support for the US presence in Asia. Australian troops served in Vietnam between 1965 and 1971.
When Labour returned to power in December 1972, it began the process of dissociating Australia from US and UK policies and strengthening ties with non-Communist Asian nations; in addition, it established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. In 1975 a constitutional crisis resulted when Senate opposition successfully blocked the Labour Party's budgetary measures, thereby threatening the government with bankruptcy. The governor-general dismissed the Labour Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and called for new elections. The Liberal-National Party coalition swept back into power, where it remained until 1983. The Australian Labour Party (ALP) returned to power in 1983, following a campaign in which such economic issues as unemployment and inflation predominated.
In 1993, the Mabo Ruling on Native Title recognized the land rights of the indigenous people (Aborigines) inhabiting Australia prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The Mabo Ruling did not void existing leases, but could allow the Aborigines to reclaim land when the leases granted by the national or state governments expired. The Mabo Ruling applied only to non-pastoral leases, but the Wik Judgment of 1996 extended the land rights of indigenous people to include their use of pastoral land for religious purposes.
In the March 1996 elections, the ALP was unseated by a coalition of the Liberal Party and the National Party, who chose Liberal MP John Howard to be Prime Minister. The newcomer Howard pledged to change the government, to make it more "rational." To that end, he cut ministries and cabinet posts, made budget cuts affecting higher education, Aborigine affairs, and jobs, and instituted an A$15 billion privatization program. Many government employees opposed these changes; violent demonstrations took place when the budget was made public. While the revised budget was less radical, social unrest continued through 1997–1998, and the October 1998 election found Howard's coalition party's majority greatly reduced, while the ALP gained in influence, winning 18 more seats than it did in the 1996 election.
In July 1998, after twice being rejected by the Senate, the government passed amendments to the 1993 Native Title Act. The amendments removed the time limit for lodging native claims, but weakened the right of Aboriginal groups to negotiate with non-Aboriginal leaseholders concerning land use. In 1999 the government issued an official expression of regret for past mistreatment of Aborigines, but has opposed issuing the formal national apology sought by Aborigine leaders, fearing that would encourage claims for compensation.
In September 1999, Australian troops led the United Nationssanctioned peacekeeping forces into East Timor, to protect civilians and control the militia violence following East Timor's referendum decision to seek full independence from Indonesia. Australian civilian and military personnel form part of the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET), which was established to ensure the security and stability of East Timor after it became an independent nation-state on 20 May 2002.
Parliamentary elections held on 10 November 2001 saw Howard's coalition increase its strength by over 3%. The ALP recorded its lowest primary vote since 1934. The Australian Greens recorded a substantial increase in strength. Two events stood out in the election campaign that swung the vote to the Liberal Party-National Party coalition. The first was the controversy over refugees and asylum-seekers. In August 2001, a Norwegian freighter which had rescued a boatload of asylum-seekers was denied permission to land the human cargo in Australia. The Howard government also tightened its border protection laws since then, making it nearly impossible for any asylum-seeker landing in the remote island outposts of Australia to claim refugee status. Instead, the would-be refugees are either turned back to Indonesian waters or transported to detention centers on Pacific nations such as Nauru or Papua New Guinea. John Howard declared, "We will decide who comes to this country and under what circumstances." The ALP criticized the government for this policy, which remained a major campaign issue. The terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, and the subsequent US-led bombing campaign on the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, also were issues that dominated the Australian election campaign.
On 12 October 2002, two popular nightclubs in Kuta on the Indonesian island of Bali were bombed, killing more than 180 people, 88 of them Australians. The bombings have been linked to the terrorist organization Jamaal Isaiah. They have been referred to as "Australia's September 11th."