Western Australia, the largest state in Australia,
in the western part of the continent. The state has an area of 975,101
square miles (2,525,500 sq km), almost one third of Australia's total area.
Western Australia is bounded on the north by the Timor Sea, an arm of the
Indian Ocean; on the south and west by the Indian Ocean; and on the east
by the Northern Territory and South Australia. The coastline is 4,350 miles
(7,000 km) long but lacks harbors providing easy access to the interior.
Large tidal ranges and treacherous currents hamper harbor development and
shipping in the north. The western bays and inlets are shallow. Their use
is also restricted by offshore reefs, bars, and islets.
Most of Western Australia is a vast plateau
that does not rise above 1,500 feet (460 meters). However, in the northwest
Mount Bruce, in the Hamersley Range, reaches 4,052 feet (1,235 meters).
The northwest coast has several large river systems, including the Murchison, Gascoyne, Ashburton, Fortescue, and De Grey, all of which flow only during the wet season. The Fitzroy and Ord rivers, in the north coastal Kimberley district, provide water for irrigating croplands.
Western Australia consists of six major natural regions. Swanland, in the extreme southwest, has a moderate climate, with warm dry summers and cool rainy winters. A series of dams and reservoirs stores water used for irrigation. The region has forests of marketable timber, mainly the jarrah and karri varieties of eucalyptus, and the best agricultural soils of the state. North of Kalgoorlie is the Salt Lake region, with moderate to hot temperatures, light winter rainfall, saline soil, and steppe vegetation. In the southeast is the flat Nullarbor ("treeless") Plain, hot and arid, with sparse plant cover and thin stony soils. The northwest, in the tropics and subtropics, has a moderate winter and persistent heat the rest of the year, with light summer rainfall. The three great deserts, the Great Sandy, the Gibson, and the Great Victoria, have narrow coastal zones that broaden out inland. The deserts have extreme temperatures, scant rainfall, and little vegetation on the expanses of rock and sand. In the northeast is the Kimberley region, crossed by sandstone ranges with thin soil except for black heavy clay loams along the Ord River. High average annual temperatures are moderated by rainfall of the monsoon type in the summer. Attempts to introduce irrigation in the region were largely unsuccessful.
Over much of the state, land settlement and agricultural and mining development depend markedly on water piped overland for long distances and at great cost, or on abundant but sometimes salty artesian water supplies.
According to the 1991 census, the population of Western Australia was 1,586,393, or 9.4 percent of Australia's total. About 72 percent of the state's population lived in the urban area of Perth (1,143,265), the state capital, on the southwest coast. Other urban centers include Rockingham, a port south of Perth, with 41,897 inhabitants; Bunbury, another port south of Perth, with a population of 25,662; Kalgoorlie, a mining center lying inland in the south-central region, with 26,079 inhabitants; and Geraldton, on the coast north of Perth, with 20,590. In 1991 the Aborigine population of Western Australia was 41,792.
Executive and administrative powers are exercised by a cabinet of ministers headed by a premier, who normally represent the majority party in the lower house of the state legislature, to which they are responsible. The nominal chief executive is the governor, appointed by the British Crown on the advice of the cabinet.
The state parliament consists of two houses: a 34-member legislative council, the upper house, and a 57-member legislative assembly. Both chambers are elected by universal adult suffrage. The franchise became universal for the legislative assembly in 1908, when women were allowed to vote, and for the council in 1964, when property qualifications were removed. Members of the assembly are elected for a four-year term. Council members are also elected for four years. Western Australia's political history has been marked by frequent partisan reversals. The Labor Party held power for about half the years under responsible government, alternating with conservative parties comparable to the present Liberal, National, and National Country parties.
In the 1989-1990 fiscal year, revenue was A$4,839 million (U.S.$3,781 million), and expenditures A$4,838 million (U.S.$3,780 million). The major sources of revenue were Commonwealth grants, taxation, and earnings of the state-owned railroads. The major expenditures were for the railroads, education, and servicing of the state debt.
Western Australia has an abundance of minerals,
extensive ranchlands, and fertile fisheries. These resources support an
economy that is almost as productive, in proportion to population, as that
of the Commonwealth as a whole.
About one third of Australia's minerals are mined in Western Australia. In terms of value, iron ore surpassed gold as the state's leading mineral product in the 1960's, but gold again led in the late 1980's. The state still produces about half of Australia's gold, and in addition it accounts for almost all of the country's iron and more than half of its bauxite. The principal goldfield is the Golden Mile just south of Kalgoorlie, mined since 1893. The Pilbara district, inland from Port Hedland on the northwest coast, became Australia's main source of iron ore in the 1960's, and in 1980 produced about 10 percent of the world supply of iron ore. Major bauxite deposits were discovered in the Darling Range early in the 1970's, and the ore, processed at nearby Pinjarra and Kwinana, accounted for about 12 percent of world production of alumina in 1980. In the 1980's petroleum and natural gas were in production near Barrow Island, in the Indian Ocean west of Port Hedland. This offshore field supplements deposits that have been piped from Dongara on the southwest coast to Perth since the 1970's. Nickel and diamonds are other important mineral products of Western Australia.
Wheat and sheep are the principal agricultural products. Only 2.5 percent of the state's land is tillable, and about 70 percent of the cropland is planted to wheat. Nevertheless, three eighths of Australia's wheat is grown in Western Australia. The other main farm crops are oats, barley, and apples. Far more land is pastoral, raising sheep for wool and cattle for beef and dairy products. One quarter of Australia's wool is clipped in Western Australia. A catch of more than A$200 million annually, three quarters in rock lobster, makes Western Australia the Commonwealth's leading fishing state.
Manufacturing includes industries for the local market, such as factories that produce machinery, construction materials, foodstuffs, clothing, and household appliances. There are also large-scale operations, mostly in the vicinity of Perth, such as oil refineries, ore-processing plants, and integrated industrial complexes.
The productivity of the economy enables Western Australia to surpass all other states except New South Wales in the value of its exports. Those exceeding A$100 million annually in the late 1980's were iron ore, wheat, wool, petroleum and its products, meat, gold, salt, and lobster. Japan received the bulk of these exports, followed by the United States, and, far behind those two, China, the Republic of Korea, and the Soviet Union.
The economy is served by a modern transportation system. The railroads run on about 4,650 miles (7,482 km) of track, all owned by the state except for short privately owned lines in mining areas and the section of the nationalized Trans-Australian line between Perth and the South Australian border. There are more than 88,000 miles (142,000 km) of roads, of which about 60 percent have improved surfaces. Perth is served by several international airlines. The local air network, which includes a Royal Flying Doctor Service to extend medical care throughout the vast state, has the use of about 50 aerodromes and more than 1,000 airstrips.
School attendance is compulsory in Western Australia between the ages of 6 and 14. In 1990 there were 761 government schools with 217,400 pupils and 249 private schools with 69,500 pupils. There is also a broad program of technical and vocational education. Higher education is provided at the University of Western Australia, Murdoch University, and Curtin Institute of Technology, all at Perth. Combined enrollment in 1989 was 32,000.
Although Dutch explorers had reached the
northwest coast in the early 17th century, the first European settlements
in Western Australia were not made until the 19th century. Fears of French
aims in the uninhabited western parts of the continent led to the dispatch
of a small group of soldiers and convicts from New South Wales in 1826,
and a garrison was established at Albany, on King George Sound, at the
southwestern corner of what was then called New Holland. In 1829 the British
government founded a second colony where the city of Perth developed, near
the mouth of the Swan River. The few colonists, largely farmers and livestock
raisers, struggled to maintain themselves until the 1850's and 1860's,
when some 10,000 convicts were sent to the area from Britain. The convicts
provided labor for farms and public works projects.
Livestock raisers moved into the northwestern districts during the 1860's and 1870's, and in the 1880's pushed into the Kimberley district in the far northeast. Prospectors had been systematically searching for gold in the arid inland plateau area, and in the 1880's important strikes were made in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of the north and in the Yilgarn area of the east.
Western Australia achieved self-government under a parliamentary system on the British model in 1890, and population growth was spurred by major gold discoveries at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in the south. By 1901, when Western Australia federated with the other Australian colonies to form the Commonwealth of Australia, the population was close to 200,000. Most of the people had come from the older settlements of eastern Australia.
Determined efforts were made by the state government to develop a wheat belt between Perth and Kalgoorlie, and with the help of government credits and British immigrants considerable progress was made. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Western Australia was an exporter of wheat as well as of wool and timber. During the 1920's returned soldiers and new immigrants consolidated settlement in the wheat belt and helped develop dairying in the heavily timbered southwestern corner of the state, where lumbering, fruit growing, and coal mining were concentrated.
Following World War II, Western Australia shared in the Commonwealth government's large-scale immigration programs that brought new settlers to the country. The most rapid population growth, from about 763,000 in 1961 to about 1,043,000 in 1971, was accelerated by immigrants from Europe. The state's economy was diversified, and manufacturing and services, especially, underwent great expansion. Mining intensified in the 1980's after further finds were made of diamonds, oil, and natural gas. Population grew faster than the national average throughout the period.