Maybe it has something to do with the way that I learned maps and geography (way back in the day…) but acknowledging Australia as both a continent and a country has always thrown me for a loop. Similarly, there are quite a few people who are always asking about that very same subject—what continent is Australia actually in, and is the answer as simple as it sounds? Of course, the easiest answer is usually the simplest, and we do have a simple answer to this question. But there’s a lot more to learn about the country of Australia and the continent, and why one can’t necessarily be substituted for the other.
As is often the case, the borders that we draw around continents don’t necessarily have anything to do with the borders of the countries that reside within them. Read on, to learn more!
Continents of the World
Whenever we take a look at the planet’s continental landmasses—or the countries that reside in them—we usually have to take a cursory glance at the different continental models that are used throughout the world. Among the three that are used most prevalently, the seven-continent model (likely the one you’re most familiar with) is the one that is used most frequently. It recognizes each of the separate continents of Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and Antarctica.
Among these, it’s probably obvious that Australia is the one that we’re going to be focusing on, today. Out of the seven continents recognized in this model, it’s the only one of them that is also recognized as a country, too—even though they’re actually quite different, both in boundaries and significance across a global stage.
First, let’s address the continent of Australia, which is decidedly a different concept in many ways from the country of Australia. However, there’s a very obvious and explainable reason that they share many of the same borders and territories. But since it doesn’t help to oversimplify things, we’ll start out with the basics.
When Australia was first discovered by the British Empire, it was something of a unique find—a continental landmass that was virtually an island, not connected to any other landmass by visible means. Though the continent had already been inhabited by indigenous peoples for thousands of years, the Anglo discovery of this continent brought it into a global scale of recognition—none of the other continents were so cohesive in territory that they eventually became their own countries. Even though several other countries and territories are part of the Australian continent, it remains a unique thing on Earth.
There is no country of North America. There is no country of Asia, or of Africa. The closest comparison that you could probably make is Antarctica, but since it’s in no way a sovereign nation with any permanent population, even that comparison falls far short.
Countries in Australia
Apart from Antarctica, each of the other six continents contains several different countries. Even thought the country of Australia is quite obviously named after the continent where it’s located, that doesn’t mean you won’t find other countries and territories there, as well.
In addition to the country of Australia in the mainland of the continent (obviously) the continent also consists of Tasmania (an island state of the Commonwealth of Australia), New Guinea, Seram, Timor, and several neighboring Indonesian islands.
The issue of countries and nationalism isn’t quite so clear-cut in Australia as it is in many other continents. Though the countries we’ve mentioned—especially Australia, of course—are certainly recognizable, with defined borders and all of the rest, there are other issues to consider. What about the Aboriginal Australians who lived on the continent far before any Europeans “discovered” it? Though decades of mistreatment were inflicted upon these cultures, steps have been taken in more recent years to rectify some of the wrongs and harm inflicted upon Aboriginal groups. Their nationality isn’t necessarily in line with the Anglo-centric Australia that grew out of its early British colonialism.
Of course, the most prominent country on the Australian continent is Australia, itself. We’ve gone down the list of other territories that share the same tectonic plate, but mainland Australia is a country in its own right. And it’s a prosperous one, too, with massive population centers around the coast and a wild interior that has a renowned reputation worldwide, for consisting of unique biomes.
After all, you have heard of the Australian Outback, right?
The current population of Australia (the country) is approximately 24,500,000 strong, and most of it is congregated near the mainland’s coast. Because the interior of the continent is less hospitable to human habitation, the population tends to dwindle as you look further and further inland. We’ll take a look at some of those population centers shortly, but first, it’s also helpful to know the surface area of this country, which happens to cover most of the continent that it’s named after.
It’s an impressive landmass, even though it’s technically the smallest of the seven continents. It covers approximately 7,617,930 square kilometers (2,941,300 square miles.) Don’t place too much stock in comparisons with the size of other countries or continents; Australia is large enough to host several vastly different biomes, from the arid interior to the mountainous east and southwest. The country of Australia also has areas covered by rainforest in the northeast, indicative of those regions that receive far more rainfall than others.
Much of Australia’s population resides on the eastern seaboard–it’s less arid than the rest of the country, and proximity to the ocean affords more available resources for human habitation.
- Sydney (New South Wales): 5,005,358 people
- Melbourne (Victoria): 4,641,636 people
- Brisbane (Queensland): 2,349,699 people
- Perth (Western Australia): 2,066,564 people
- Adelaide (South Australia): 1,326,354 people
- Gold Coast–Tweed Heads (Queensland/New South Wales): 638,090 people
Take a look at some of the maps that we’ve included in this article, and you’ll be able to get a feeling for how Australia’s population is spread between these cities. It’s a country with a significantly lower population-per-area than other countries in the world, but this is largely because so much of the population resides in one portion.
Sydney, for example, holds over 20% of Australia’s national population, while Melbourne holds just over 19%. That’s nearly 40% of the country’s total population living within two cities!
What About New Zealand?
When people think of New Zealand, they almost inevitably think of Australia. The two landmasses are relatively close to one another, and foreigners that aren’t familiar with the numerous differences between Aussie and Kiwi culture often mistake the two for one another.
Helpful hint—don’t do this, if you can help it! Australia and New Zealand—as well as their respective peoples and cultures, are quite different!
But because of their proximity, many people automatically assume that New Zealand is part of the Australian continent when this is not the case at all. There’s a reason that we haven’t mentioned it in our list of countries in Australia, after all! In actuality, New Zealand is simply the portion of a submerged continental landmass of its own, referred to by geographers as Zealandia. Millions of years ago, this part of a plate tectonic shelf was very likely attached to the Australian continent, but after separating—as well as rising sea levels—it was almost entirely submerged. What remains above is New Zealand, and this is the reason that it is not considered a part of the greater Australian continent (or a part of the country of Australia!)
However, that judgment can change depending on who you consult. Some geographers and geologists do consider that Australia and New Zealand both share a larger area called Oceania, regardless of how they might have been separated or broken by relatively recent plate tectonic activity (within several million years.) This will mean that some consider New Zealand to be part of the continent of Australia. But as we’ve said several times throughout this article, the boundaries of continents don’t have much of any influence on the countries within them—be they excluded or included within certain continents by cartographers and geologists.
Interestingly, there’s even more depth to this rabbit hole of continental boundaries, but none of it will change the rather simple answer to our original question. Australia (the country) resides entirely within Australia (the continent), but that doesn’t mean that the two should be considered exactly the same. The boundaries of the Australian continent don’t dictate the borders, politics, government, or economics of the country of Australia. Moreover, the continental boundaries that we draw help us to better understand the landmass in relation to its tectonic plate and are the product of the work of geological historians and present-day geographers.
Since we’ve answered that question fairly succinctly, be sure to let us know if the topic piques any further curiosity! Australia is both a continent and a country, but many of the tertiary details about Australian territories and its surrounding isles can be very interesting!