The Commonwealth of Australia is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the world's smallest continent and a number of islands in the Southern, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Australia's neighbouring countries include Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea to the north, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia to the northeast, and New Zealand to the southeast.
The continent of Australia has been inhabited for over 40,000 years by Indigenous Australians. After sporadic visits by fishermen from the north and by European explorers and merchants starting in the 17th century, the eastern half of the continent was claimed by the British in 1770 and officially settled as the penal colony of New South Wales on 26 January 1788. As the population grew and new areas were explored, another five largely self-governing Crown Colonies were successively established over the course of the 19th century.
On 1 January 1901, the six colonies federated and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed. Since federation, Australia has maintained a stable liberal democratic political system and remains a Commonwealth Realm. The current population of around 22.6 million (as at 19 May 2011) is concentrated mainly in the large coastal cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.
The Australian states and territories are:
- New South Wales
- South Australia
- Western Australia
- Northern Territory
- Australian Capital Territory