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States and Territories

Australia is divided into six states and two territories, plus a number of smaller islands that make up Australia’s remote territories.

Formation of States and Territories

Australia was settled by the British in 1788, when a colony was created at Botany Bay (near Sydney) for both free settlers and convicts. Over the next several decades, more and more colonies were established. These had various names but over time, many of them came to be known as the cities we know today.

However, the British didn’t just establish settlements; they also proclaimed great areas on the map. Some of these, like Van Diemen’s Land, have disappeared, but others, like New South Wales, are still with us. 

Over time, several of the territories expanded or contracted in size as new territories were created in the name of ease of governance. Australia’s first Parliament was the New South Wales Parliament, which was proclaimed in 1825. At that stage, it was appointed by the Governor. The other states (as they would become) were given their own assemblies over the next 65 years – with Western Australia being the last to appoint one in 1890.

In the last few years of the 19th Century, a group of leaders from each State (the Founding Fathers) got together to help guide these states towards creating a Federation. This finally occurred by means of referenda in 1901, when all the States were recognised in the constitution and their borders were set.

The exceptions are the two territories – the ACT and Northern Territory. The ACT was formally created in 1989. The Northern Territory was similarly created by an Act of Parliament in 1974 although it had a kind of legislature since 1947.

State Guide

New South Wales - NSW

The most populous state, NSW is where Captain Cook landed in 1770 and where settlement first began in 1788. It’s capital is Sydney – famous for its harbour, including the Harbour Bridge, and the distinctive Opera House.

It is where you’ll find Bondi Beach (which whilst beautiful with its while sand and blue waters, actually looks like most Australian beaches, only more crowded).

NSW is 809,444 kilometres square, has a population of roughly 7.3 million people – or about nine people per square kilometre. More than 60 per cent of the NSW population live in Sydney.

For more on New South Wales visit the state’s tourism website.

Victoria - VIC

Victoria is the most densely populated state and the smallest on the Australian mainland. It was first settled in 1803, at Port Phillip Bay, with it’s capital, Melbourne, first appearing in 1835.

Victoria boomed in the middle of the 19th Century thanks to the gold rush in towns like Ballarat and Bendigo. Now the capital is famous as a very liveable city with a good tram network, a magnificent restaurant scene and a health arts community. It’s also famous for being wetter than most places in Australia.

Victoria is 237,629 kilometres square with a population of 5.5 million – or about 24 people per square kilometre. About 71 per cent of the population live in the capital.

For more on Victoria, visit the state’s tourism website.

Queensland - QLD

Named in honour of Queen Victoria (much like Victoria, obviously), Queensland is also called the “sunshine state” for its reputation for great weather. Queensland’s capital, Brisbane, was declared a colony in its own right in 1859.

It’s the one place in Australia you’ll find skyscrapers beside the beach (Australia’s tallest building is there). It’s famous for surfing (there’s a place called Surfer’s Paradise), the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree rainforest, and for being one of the two states almost in a permanent state of economic boom thanks to the mining industry.

Queensland is 1.85 million square kilometres in size and has a population of 4.5 million people – or less than three people per square kilometre. About 46 per cent of the population live in Brisbane but many more live on the coastal plain.

For more on Queensland, visit the state’s tourism website.

Western Australia - WA

WA comprises the entire western third of Australia – some 2.65 million square kilometres. That makes it 10 times the size of the UK and, for the most part, there’s nothing out there. Much of it is national or state park but there are also massive pastoral leases (like big cattle ranches), mines of various sizes and remote Aboriginal communities.

The capital, Perth, was established in 1829 and it’s still where you’ll find most of the state’s 2.3 million inhabitants. Population density-wise, there’s roughly one person per square kilometre but 73 per cent of people live in the capital.

WA is famous for the Margaret River wine-growing region, Ningaloo Reef, and being the third largest iron ore producer in the world.

For more on WA, visit the state’s tourism website.

South Australia - SA

The fourth largest state in Australia, SA was established by an Act of the British Parliament in 1834. It’s famous for its wine-growing regions – including the Barossa Valley and the Clare Valley – and its capital, Adelaide, is famous for its large number of beautiful churches.

While much of the state is desert, it is also famous for stunning mountain ranges (the Flinders), beautiful farming regions and its perfect Mediterranean climate. SA is also famous for its many cultural events, including its world music festival.

SA is just over a million square kilometres in size and has a population of 1.65 million people – for a population density of less than two people per square kilometre. About 73 per cent of people live in the capital.

For more on SA, visit the state’s tourism website.

Tasmania - TAS

Tasmania is Australia’s island state. The 26th largest island in the world, it is separated from Victoria by the 240km (150mile) stretch of water known as the Bass Strait. It’s named for the seaman Able Tasman, who discovered it in 1642 – although it wasn’t settled until 1825 (when it was called Van Deimen’s land).

Much of the 62,400 square kilometre island is untouched natural wilderness and it contains several world heritage sites. Its capital is Hobart but the island is more famous for Cradle Mountain, the Tasmanian Devil, the extinct Tasmanian Tiger and being the place Princess Mary of Denmark was born and raised.

Tasmania is home to about half a million people and has a population density of just over seven people for every square kilometre – although in practice, about 40 per cent of the population live in Hobart.

For more about Tasmania, visit the island’s tourism website.

Australian Capital Territory - ACT

The ACT is, as the name suggests, where you’ll find Canberra – the national capital. It was established in 1913, in accordance with the wishes of the Founding Fathers who wrote our constitution in 1901.

Essentially, the “bush capital” was built in the middle of a mountain range (and in the middle of a sheep paddock/field) because Sydney and Melbourne couldn’t agree on which should become the capital. It was a “third way”, if you will. It’s famous for Parliament House, the Australian War Memorial, being home to many of our national institutions and being incredibly cold in winter.

The national capital is a tiny 2,358 kilometres square and has a population of 359,000. Its population density is the highest in Australia, with 157 people per square kilometre.

For more on Canberra, visit the ACT’s tourism website.

Northern Territory - NT

The NT (you might here it referred to as “the Territory”, too) is the arid central north of Australia. It’s very sparsely populated, with most people (54 per cent) living in the capital, Darwin, while others live in Alice Springs, Katherine, Nhulunbuy and Tennant Creek.

The NT is 1.4 million square kilometres in size, with a population of 230,000. It has the lowest population density in Australia, with roughly one person for every five square kilometres.

Locals call themselves “Territorians” and quite enjoy the reputation their isolation gives them. It was only given responsible government in 1978. The NT is famous as the home of Uluru (formerly called Ayers Rock), Katja Tjuta (formerly called the Olgas), Kakadu National Park (and it’s amazing wetlands) and the Todd River (which never has any water in it, but that doesn’t stop the locals holding a boat race, on foot, ever year).

For more on the NT, visit the territory’s tourism website.

You can find more information about Australian Geography or visit our Living and Working in Australia section for more articles about living in Australia.

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