Australia is a constitutional monarchy, and the Queen of England is still officially Australia's Queen as well. Her only role under the constitution, however, is to appoint her representative in Australia, the Governor General, which she does on advice from Australia's Prime Minister. In 1975 the then Governor General caused a political crisis when he sacked the Prime Minister and his government and installed the Opposition minority as caretaker until new elections could be held. Today the Governor General still retains that power, but his or her duties are primarily ceremonial. Australia's government is elected for three-year terms, with no limit on how many terms a Prime Minister can serve. Voting is compulsory for all citizens 18 years and older, and failure to vote can result in a fine.
Australia is a major exporter of wheat and wool, iron-ore and gold, liquefied natural gas and coal. The major industries are mining, industrial and transport equipment, food processing, chemicals, and steel manufacturing. The services sector dominates the domestic economy. Abundant natural assets and massive government spending have softened the short-term impact of the recent global financial crisis as compared with many other countries.
On- and offshore wonders, unique wildlife, beach culture, indigenous history, and multicultural cuisines help maintain Australia's multibillion-dollar tourism industry. The major challenges are keeping Australia on travelers' radars as other countries gain popularity, and protecting the most fragile attractions. Climate change has already affected the Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage site on most visitors' must-see lists, and programs are in place to try to minimize the impact of rising sea temperatures. Contentious logging of old-growth forests for pulp, particularly in Tasmania, continues, and the opening of new mines rarely fits comfortably with conservation and cultural issues.
Australia's first settlers were predominantly English, Irish, and Scottish Christians. Two centuries later, almost two thirds of Australians call themselves Christians, with Buddhism a distant second (2%), and Islam third (1.7%), however nearly a fifth of the population ticked "no religion" on the last census. Active church worship has declined over recent decades, and many religious orders struggle to attract members.
Life Down Under has bred contemporary writers who speak with distinctly Australian voices. Tim Winton's book Breath brilliantly evokes the power of surfing and the angst of adolescence. Look out for Kate Grenville, Richard Flanagan, Peter Carey, Alex Miller, and Peter Corris, among others. Morris Gleitzman and Paul Jennings write (mostly) laugh-out-loud books for children and the young at heart.Updated: 07-2013
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