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The Economic History of Australia from 1788: An Introduction

Bernard Attard, University of Leicester


The economic benefits of establishing a British colony in Australia in 1788 were not immediately obvious. The Government’s motives have been debated but the settlement’s early character and prospects were dominated by its original function as a jail. Colonization nevertheless began a radical change in the pattern of human activity and resource use in that part of the world, and by the 1890s a highly successful settler economy had been established on the basis of a favorable climate in large parts of the southeast (including Tasmania ) and the southwest corner; the suitability of land for European pastoralism and agriculture; an abundance of mineral wealth; and the ease with which these resources were appropriated from the indigenous population. This article will focus on the creation of a colonial economy from 1788 and its structural change during the twentieth century. To simplify, it will divide Australian economic history into four periods, two of which overlap. These are defined by the foundation of the ‘bridgehead economy’ before 1820; the growth of a colonial economy between 1820 and 1930; the rise of manufacturing and the protectionist state between 1891 and 1973; and the experience of liberalization and structural change since 1973. The article will conclude by suggesting briefly some of the similarities between Australia and other comparable settler economies, as well as the ways in which it has differed from them.

The Bridgehead Economy, 1788-1820

The description ‘bridgehead economy’ was used by one of Australia’s foremost economic historians, N. G. Butlin to refer to the earliest decades of British occupation when the colony was essentially a penal institution. The main settlements were at Port Jackson (modern Sydney, 1788) in New South Wales and Hobart (1804) in what was then Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania). The colony barely survived its first years and was largely neglected for much of the following quarter-century while the British government was preoccupied by the war with France. An important beginning was nevertheless made in the creation of a private economy to support the penal regime. Above all, agriculture was established on the basis of land grants to senior officials and emancipated convicts, and limited freedoms were allowed to convicts to supply a range of goods and services. Although economic life depended heavily on the government Commissariat as a supplier of goods, money and foreign exchange, individual rights in property and labor were recognized, and private markets for both started to function. In 1808, the recall of the New South Wales Corps, whose officers had benefited most from access to land and imported goods (thus hopelessly entangling public and private interests), coupled with the appointment of a new governor, Lachlan Macquarie, in the following year, brought about a greater separation of the private economy from the activities and interests of the colonial government. With a significant increase in the numbers transported after 1810, New South Wales’ future became more secure. As laborers, craftsmen, clerks and tradesmen, many convicts possessed the skills required in the new settlements. As their terms expired, they also added permanently to the free population. Over time, this would inevitably change the colony’s character.

Natural Resources and the Colonial Economy, 1820-1930

Pastoral and Rural Expansion

For Butlin, the developments around 1810 were a turning point in the creation of a ‘colonial’ economy. Many historians have preferred to view those during the 1820s as more significant. From that decade, economic growth was based increasingly upon the production of fine wool and other rural commodities for markets in Britain and the industrializing economies of northwestern Europe. This growth was interrupted by two major depressions during the 1840s and 1890s and stimulated in complex ways by the rich gold discoveries in Victoria in 1851, but the underlying dynamics were essentially unchanged. At different times, the extraction of natural resources, whether maritime before the 1840s or later gold and other minerals, was also important. Agriculture, local manufacturing and construction industries expanded to meet the immediate needs of growing populations, which concentrated increasingly in the main urban centers. The colonial economy’s structure, growth of population and significance of urbanization are illustrated in tables 1 and 2. The opportunities for large profits in pastoralism and mining attracted considerable amounts of British capital, while expansion generally was supported by enormous government outlays for transport, communication and urban infrastructures, which also depended heavily on British finance. As the economy expanded, large-scale immigration became necessary to satisfy the growing demand for workers, especially after the end of convict transportation to the eastern mainland in 1840. The costs of immigration were subsidized by colonial governments, with settlers coming predominantly from the United Kingdom and bringing skills that contributed enormously to the economy’s growth. All this provided the foundation for the establishment of free colonial societies. In turn, the institutions associated with these — including the rule of law, secure property rights, and stable and democratic political systems — created conditions that, on balance, fostered growth. In addition to New South Wales, four other British colonies were established on the mainland: Western Australia (1829), South Australia (1836), Victoria (1851) and Queensland (1859). Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania after 1856) became a separate colony in 1825. From the 1850s, these colonies acquired responsible government. In 1901, they federated, creating the Commonwealth of Australia.

Table 1
The Colonial Economy: Percentage Shares of GDP, 1891 Prices, 1861-1911

Pastoral Other rural Mining Manuf. Building Services Rent
1861 9.3 13.0 17.5 14.2 8.4 28.8 8.6
1891 16.1 12.4 6.7 16.6 8.5 29.2 10.3
1911 14.8 16.7 9.0 17.1 5.3 28.7 8.3

Source: Haig (2001), Table A1. Totals do not sum to 100 because of rounding.

Table 2
Colonial Populations (thousands), 1851-1911

Australia Colonies Cities
NSW Victoria Sydney Melbourne
1851 257 100 46 54 29
1861 669 198 328 96 125
1891 1,704 608 598 400 473
1911 2,313 858 656 648 593

Source: McCarty (1974), p. 21; Vamplew (1987), POP 26-34.

The process of colonial growth began with two related developments. First, in 1820, Macquarie responded to land pressure in the districts immediately surrounding Sydney by relaxing restrictions on settlement. Soon the outward movement of herdsmen seeking new pastures became uncontrollable. From the 1820s, the British authorities also encouraged private enterprise by the wholesale assignment of convicts to private employers and easy access to land. In 1831, the principles of systematic colonization popularized by Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862) were put into practice in New South Wales with the substitution of land sales for grants in order to finance immigration. This, however, did not affect the continued outward movement of pastoralists who simply occupied land where could find it beyond the official limits of settlement. By 1840, they had claimed a vast swathe of territory two hundred miles in depth running from Moreton Bay in the north (the site of modern Brisbane) through the Port Phillip District (the future colony of Victoria, whose capital Melbourne was marked out in 1837) to Adelaide in South Australia. The absence of any legal title meant that these intruders became known as ‘squatters’ and the terms of their tenure were not finally settled until 1846 after a prolonged political struggle with the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps.

The impact of the original penal settlements on the indigenous population had been enormous. The consequences of squatting after 1820 were equally devastating as the land and natural resources upon which indigenous hunter-gathering activities and environmental management depended were appropriated on a massive scale. Aboriginal populations collapsed in the face of disease, violence and forced removal until they survived only on the margins of the new pastoral economy, on government reserves, or in the arid parts of the continent least touched by white settlement. The process would be repeated again in northern Australia during the second half of the century.

For the colonists this could happen because Australia was considered terra nullius, vacant land freely available for occupation and exploitation. The encouragement of private enterprise, the reception of Wakefieldian ideas, and the wholesale spread of white settlement were all part of a profound transformation in official and private perceptions of Australia’s prospects and economic value as a British colony. Millennia of fire-stick management to assist hunter-gathering had created inland grasslands in the southeast that were ideally suited to the production of fine wool. Both the physical environment and the official incentives just described raised expectations of considerable profits to be made in pastoral enterprise and attracted a growing stream of British capital in the form of organizations like the Australian Agricultural Company (1824); new corporate settlements in Western Australia (1829) and South Australia (1836); and, from the 1830s, British banks and mortgage companies formed to operate in the colonies. By the 1830s, wool had overtaken whale oil as the colony’s most important export, and by 1850 New South Wales had displaced Germany as the main overseas supplier to British industry (see table 3). Allowing for the colonial economy’s growing complexity, the cycle of growth based upon land settlement, exports and British capital would be repeated twice. The first pastoral boom ended in a depression which was at its worst during 1842-43. Although output continued to grow during the 1840s, the best land had been occupied in the absence of substantial investment in fencing and water supplies. Without further geographical expansion, opportunities for high profits were reduced and the flow of British capital dried up, contributing to a wider downturn caused by drought and mercantile failure.

Table 3
Imports of Wool into Britain (thousands of bales), 1830-50

German Australian
1830 74.5 8.0
1840 63.3 41.0
1850 30.5 137.2

Source: Sinclair (1976), p. 46

When pastoral growth revived during the 1860s, borrowed funds were used to fence properties and secure access to water. This in turn allowed a further extension of pastoral production into the more environmentally fragile semi-arid interior districts of New South Wales, particularly during the 1880s. As the mobs of sheep moved further inland, colonial governments increased the scale of their railway construction programs, some competing to capture the freight to ports. Technical innovation and government sponsorship of land settlement brought greater diversity to the rural economy (see table 4). Exports of South Australian wheat started in the 1870s. The development of drought resistant grain varieties from the turn of the century led to an enormous expansion of sown acreage in both the southeast and southwest. From the 1880s, sugar production increased in Queensland, although mainly for the domestic market. From the 1890s, refrigeration made it possible to export meat, dairy products and fruit.

Table 4
Australian Exports (percentages of total value of exports), 1881-1928/29

Wool Minerals Wheat,flour Butter Meat Fruit
1881-90 54.1 27.2 5.3 0.1 1.2 0.2
1891-1900 43.5 33.1 2.9 2.4 4.1 0.3
1901-13 34.3 35.4 9.7 4.1 5.1 0.5
1920/21-1928/29 42.9 8.8 20.5 5.6 4.6 2.2

Source: Sinclair (1976), p. 166

Gold and Its Consequences

Alongside rural growth and diversification, the remarkable gold discoveries in central Victoria in 1851 brought increased complexity to the process of economic development. The news sparked an immediate surge of gold seekers into the colony, which was soon reinforced by a flood of overseas migrants. Until the 1870s, gold displaced wool as Australia’s most valuable export. Rural industries either expanded output (wheat in South Australia) or, in the case of pastoralists, switched production to meat and tallow, to supply a much larger domestic market. Minerals had been extracted since earliest settlement and, while yields on the Victorian gold fields soon declined, rich mineral deposits continued to be found. During the 1880s alone these included silver, lead and zinc at Broken Hill in New South Wales; copper at Mount Lyell in Tasmania; and gold at Charters Towers and Mount Morgan in Queensland. From 1893, what eventually became the richest goldfields in Australia were discovered at Coolgardie in Western Australia. The mining industry’s overall contribution to output and exports is illustrated in tables 1 and 4.

In Victoria, the deposits of easily extracted alluvial gold were soon exhausted and mining was taken over by companies that could command the financial and organizational resources needed to work the deep lodes. But the enormous permanent addition to the colonial population caused by the gold rush had profound effects throughout eastern Australia, dramatically accelerating the growth of the local market and workforce, and deeply disturbing the social balance that had emerged during the decade before. Between 1851 and 1861, the Australian population more than doubled. In Victoria it increased sevenfold; Melbourne outgrew Sydney, Chicago and San Francisco (see table 2). Significantly enlarged populations required social infrastructure, political representation, employment and land; and the new colonial legislatures were compelled to respond. The way this was played out varied between colonies but the common outcomes were the introduction of manhood suffrage, access to land through ‘free selection’ of small holdings, and, in the Victorian case, the introduction of a protectionist tariff in 1865. The particular age structure of the migrants of the 1850s also had long-term effects on the building cycle, notably in Victoria. The demand for housing accelerated during the 1880s, as the children of the gold generation matured and established their own households. With pastoral expansion and public investment also nearing their peaks, the colony experienced a speculative boom which added to the imbalances already being caused by falling export prices and rising overseas debt. The boom ended with the wholesale collapse of building companies, mortgage banks and other financial institutions during 1891-92 and the stoppage of much of the banking system during 1893.

The depression of the 1890s was worst in Victoria. Its impact on employment was softened by the Western Australian gold discoveries, which drew population away, but the colonial economy had grown to such an extent since the 1850s that the stimulus provided by the earlier gold finds could not be repeated. Severe drought in eastern Australia from the mid-1890s until 1903 caused the pastoral industry to contract. Yet, as we have seen, technological innovation also created opportunities for other rural producers, who were now heavily supported by government with little direct involvement by foreign investors. The final phase of rural expansion, with its associated public investment in rural (and increasingly urban) infrastructure continued until the end of the 1920s. Yields declined, however, as farmers moved onto the most marginal land. The terms of trade also deteriorated with the oversupply of several commodities in world markets after the First World War. As a result, the burden of servicing foreign debt rose once again. Australia’s position as a capital importer and exporter of natural resources meant that the Great Depression arrived early. From late 1929, the closure of overseas capital markets and collapse of export prices forced the Federal Government to take drastic measures to protect the balance of payments. The falls in investment and income transmitted the contraction to the rest of the economy. By 1932, average monthly unemployment amongst trade union members was over 22 percent. Although natural resource industries continued to have enduring importance as earners of foreign exchange, the Depression finally ended the long period in which land settlement and technical innovation had together provided a secure foundation for economic growth.

Manufacturing and the Protected Economy, 1891-1973

The ‘Australian Settlement’

There is a considerable chronological overlap between the previous section, which surveyed the growth of a colonial economy during the nineteenth century based on the exploitation of natural resources, and this one because it is a convenient way of approaching the two most important developments in Australian economic history between Federation and the 1970s: the enormous increase in government regulation after 1901 and, closely linked to this, the expansion of domestic manufacturing, which from the Second World War became the most dynamic part of the Australian economy.

The creation of the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901 broadened the opportunities for public intervention in private markets. The new Federal Government was given clearly-defined but limited powers over obviously ‘national’ matters like customs duties. The rest, including many affecting economic development and social welfare, remained with the states. The most immediate economic consequence was the abolition of inter-colonial tariffs and the establishment of a single Australian market. But the Commonwealth also soon set about transferring to the national level several institutions that different the colonies had experimented with during the 1890s. These included arrangements for the compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes by government tribunals, which also had the power to fix wages, and a discriminatory ‘white Australia’ immigration policy designed to exclude non-Europeans from the labor market. Both were partly responses to organized labor’s electoral success during the 1890s. Urban business and professional interests had always been represented in colonial legislatures; during the 1910s, rural producers also formed their own political parties. Subsequently, state and federal governments were typically formed by the either Australian Labor Party or coalitions of urban conservatives and the Country Party. The constituencies they each represented were thus able to influence the regulatory structure to protect themselves against the full impact of market outcomes, whether in the form of import competition, volatile commodity prices or uncertain employment conditions. The institutional arrangements they created have been described as the ‘Australian settlement’ because they balanced competing producer interests and arguably provided a stable framework for economic development until the 1970s, despite the inevitable costs.

The Growth of Manufacturing

An important part of the ‘Australian settlement’ was the imposition of a uniform federal tariff and its eventual elaboration into a system of ‘protection all round’. The original intended beneficiaries were manufacturers and their employees; indeed, when the first protectionist tariff was introduced in 1907, its operation was linked to the requirement that employers pay their workers ‘fair and reasonable wages’. Manufacturing’s actual contribution to economic growth before Federation has been controversial. The population influx of the 1850s widened opportunities for import-substitution but the best evidence suggests that manufacturing grew slowly as the industrial workforce increased (see table 1). Production was small-scale and confined largely to the processing of rural products and raw materials; assembly and repair-work; or the manufacture of goods for immediate consumption (e.g. soap and candle-making, brewing and distilling). Clothing and textile output was limited to a few lines. For all manufacturing, growth was restrained by the market’s small size and the limited opportunities for technical change it afforded.

After Federation, production was stimulated by several factors: rural expansion, the increasing use of agricultural machinery and refrigeration equipment, and the growing propensity of farm incomes to be spent locally. The removal of inter-colonial tariffs may also have helped. The statistical evidence indicates that between 1901 and the outbreak of the First World War manufacturing grew faster than the economy as a whole, while output per worker increased. But manufacturers also aspired mainly to supply the domestic market and expended increasing energy on retaining privileged access. Tariffs rose considerably between the two world wars. Some sectors became more capital intensive, particularly with the establishment of a local steel industry, the beginnings of automobile manufacture, and the greater use of electricity. But, except during the first half of the 1920s, there was little increase in labor productivity and the inter-war expansion of textile manufacturing reflected the heavy bias towards import substitution. Not until the Second World War and after did manufacturing growth accelerate and extend to those sectors most characteristic of an advance industrial economy (table 5). Amongst these were automobiles, chemicals, electrical and electronic equipment, and iron-and-steel. Growth was sustained during 1950s by similar factors to those operating in other countries during the ‘long boom’, including a growing stream of American direct investment, access to new and better technology, and stable conditions of full employment.

Table 5
Manufacturing and the Australian Economy, 1913-1949

1938-39 prices
Manufacturing share of GDP % Manufacturing annual rate of growth % GDP, annual rate of growth %
1913/14 21.9
1928/29 23.6 2.6 2.1
1948/49 29.8 3.4 2.2

Calculated from Haig (2001), Table A2. Rates of change are average annual changes since the previous year in the first column.

Manufacturing peaked in the mid-1960s at about 28 percent of national output (measured in 1968-69 prices) but natural resource industries remained the most important suppliers of exports. Since the 1920s, over-supply in world markets and the need to compensate farmers for manufacturing protection, had meant that virtually all rural industries, with the exception of wool, had been drawn into a complicated system of subsidies, price controls and market interventions at both federal and state levels. The post-war boom in the world economy increased demand for commodities, benefiting rural producers but also creating new opportunities for Australian miners. Most important of all, the first surge of breakneck growth in East Asia opened a vast new market for iron ore, coal and other mining products. Britain’s significance as a trading partner had declined markedly since the 1950s. By the end of the 1960s, Japan overtook it as Australia’s largest customer, while the United States was now the main provider of imports.

The mining bonanza contributed to the boom conditions experienced generally after 1950. The Federal Government played its part by using the full range of macroeconomic policies that were also increasingly familiar in similar western countries to secure stability and full employment. It encouraged high immigration, relaxing the entry criteria to allow in large numbers of southern Europeans, who added directly to the workforce, but also brought knowledge and experience. With state governments, the Commonwealth increased expenditure on education significantly, effectively entering the field for the first time after 1945. Access to secondary education was widened with the abandonment of fees in government schools and federal finance secured an enormous expansion of university places, especially after 1960. Some weaknesses remained. Enrolment rates after primary school were below those in many industrial countries and funding for technical education was poor. Despite this, the Australian population’s rising levels of education and skill continued to be important additional sources of growth. Finally, although government advisers expressed misgivings, industry policy remained determinedly interventionist. While state governments competed to attract manufacturing investment with tax and other incentives, by the 1960s protection had reached its highest level, with Australia playing virtually no part in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), despite being an original signatory. The effects of rising tariffs since 1900 were evident in the considerable decline in Australia’s openness to trade (Table 6). Yet, as the post-war boom approached its end, the country still relied upon commodity exports and foreign investment to purchase the manufactures it was unable to produce itself. The impossibility of sustaining growth in this way was already becoming clear, even though the full implications would only be felt during the decades to come.

Table 6
Trade (Exports Plus Imports)
as a Share of GDP, Current Prices, %

1900/1 44.9
1928/29 36.9
1938/38 32.7
1964/65 33.3
1972/73 29.5

Calculated from Vamplew (1987), ANA 119-129.

Liberalization and Structural Change, 1973-2005

From the beginning of the 1970s, instability in the world economy and weakness at home ended Australia’s experience of the post-war boom. During the following decades, manufacturing’s share in output (table 7) and employment fell, while the long-term relative decline of commodity prices meant that natural resources could no longer be relied on to cover the cost of imports, let alone the long-standing deficits in payments for services, migrant remittances and interest on foreign debt. Until the early 1990s, Australia also suffered from persistent inflation and rising unemployment (which remained permanently higher, see chart 1). As a consequence, per capita incomes fluctuated during the 1970s, and the economy contracted in absolute terms during 1982-83 and 1990-91.

Even before the 1970s, new sources of growth and rising living standards had been needed, but the opportunities for economic change were restricted by the elaborate regulatory structure that had evolved since Federation. During that decade itself, policy and outlook were essentially defensive and backward looking, despite calls for reform and some willingness to alter the tariff. Governments sought to protect employment in established industries, while dependence on mineral exports actually increased as a result of the commodity booms at the decade’s beginning and end. By the 1980s, however, it was clear that the country’s existing institutions were failing and fundamental reform was required.

Table 7
The Australian Economy, 1974-2004

A. Percentage shares of value-added, constant prices

1974 1984 1994 2002
Agriculture 4.4 4.3 3.0 2.7
Manufacturing 18.1 15.2 13.3 11.8
Other industry, inc. mining 14.2 14.0 14.6 14.4
Services 63.4 66.4 69.1 71.1

B. Per capita GDP, annual average rate of growth %, constant prices

1973-84 1.2
1984-94 1.7
1994-2004 2.5

Calculated from World Bank, World Development Indicators (Sept. 2005).

Figure 1
Unemployment, 1971-2005, percent

Unemployment, 1971-2005, percent

Source: Reserve Bank of Australia (1988); Reserve Bank of Australia, G07Hist.xls. Survey data at August. The method of data collection changed in 1978.

The catalyst was the resumption of the relative fall of commodity prices since the Second World War which meant that the cost of purchasing manufactured goods inexorably rose for primary producers. The decline had been temporarily reversed by the oil shocks of the 1970s but, from the 1980/81 financial year until the decade’s end, the value of Australia’s merchandise imports exceeded that of merchandise exports in every year but two. The overall deficit on current account measured as a proportion of GDP also moved became permanently higher, averaging around 4.7 percent. During the 1930s, deflation had been followed by the further closing of the Australian economy. There was no longer much scope for this. Manufacturing had stagnated since the 1960s, suffering especially from the inflation of wage and other costs during the 1970s. It was particularly badly affected by the recession of 1982-83, when unemployment rose to almost ten percent, its highest level since the Great Depression. In 1983, a new federal Labor Government led by Bob Hawke sought to engineer a recovery through an ‘Accord’ with the trade union movement which aimed at creating employment by holding down real wages. But under Hawke and his Treasurer, Paul Keating — who warned colorfully that otherwise the country risked becoming a ‘banana republic’ — Labor also started to introduce broader reforms to increase the efficiency of Australian firms by improving their access to foreign finance and exposing them to greater competition. Costs would fall and exports of more profitable manufactures increase, reducing the economy’s dependence on commodities. During the 1980s and 1990s, the reforms deepened and widened, extending to state governments and continuing with the election of a conservative Liberal-National Party government under John Howard in 1996, as each act of deregulation invited further measures to consolidate them and increase their effectiveness. Key reforms included the floating of the Australian dollar and the deregulation of the financial system; the progressive removal of protection of most manufacturing and agriculture; the dismantling of the centralized system of wage-fixing; taxation reform; and the promotion of greater competition and better resource use through privatization and the restructuring of publicly-owned corporations, the elimination of government monopolies, and the deregulation of sectors like transport and telecommunications. In contrast with the 1930s, the prospects of further domestic reform were improved by an increasingly favorable international climate. Australia contributed by joining other nations in the Cairns Group to negotiate reductions of agricultural protection during the Uruguay round of GATT negotiations and by promoting regional liberalization through the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

Table 8
Exports and Openness, 1983-2004

Shares of total exports, % Shares of GDP: exports + imports, %
Goods Services
Rural Resource Manuf. Other
1983 30 34 9 3 24 26
1989 23 37 11 5 24 27
1999 20 34 17 4 24 37
2004 18 33 19 6 23 39

Calculated from: Reserve Bank of Australia, G10Hist.xls and H03Hist.xls; World Bank, World Development Indicators (Sept. 2005). Chain volume measures, except shares of GDP, 1983, which are at current prices.

The extent to which institutional reform had successfully brought about long-term structural change was still not clear at the end of the century. Recovery from the 1982-83 recession was based upon a strong revival of employment. By contrast, the uninterrupted growth experienced since 1992 arose from increases in the combined productivity of workers and capital. If this persisted, it was a historic change in the sources of growth from reliance on the accumulation of capital and the increase of the workforce to improvements in the efficiency of both. From the 1990s, the Australian economy also became more open (table 8). Manufactured goods increased their share of exports, while rural products continued to decline. Yet, although growth was more broadly-based, rapid and sustained (table 7), the country continued to experience large trade and current account deficits, which were augmented by the considerable increase of foreign debt after financial deregulation during the 1980s. Unemployment also failed to return to its pre-1974 level of around 2 percent, although much of the permanent rise occurred during the mid to late 1970s. In 2005, it remained 5 percent (Figure 1). Institutional reform clearly contributed to these changes in economic structure and performance but they were also influenced by other factors, including falling transport costs, the communications and information revolutions, the greater openness of the international economy, and the remarkable burst of economic growth during the century’s final decades in southeast and east Asia, above all China. Reform was also complemented by policies to provide the skills needed in a technologically-sophisticated, increasingly service-oriented economy. Retention rates in the last years of secondary education doubled during the 1980s, followed by a sharp increase of enrolments in technical colleges and universities. By 2002, total expenditure on education as a proportion of national income had caught up with the average of member countries of the OECD (Table 9). Shortages were nevertheless beginning to be experienced in the engineering and other skilled trades, raising questions about some priorities and the diminishing relative financial contribution of government to tertiary education.

Table 9
Tertiary Enrolments and Education Expenditure, 2002

Tertiary enrolments, gross percent Education expenditure as a proportion of GDP, percent
Australia 63.22 6.0
OECD 61.68 5.8
United States 70.67 7.2

Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators (Sept. 2005); OECD (2005). Gross enrolments are total enrolments, regardless of age, as a proportion of the population in the relevant official age group. OECD enrolments are for fifteen high-income members only.

Summing Up: The Australian Economy in a Wider Context

Virtually since the beginning of European occupation, the Australian economy had provided the original British colonizers, generations of migrants, and the descendants of both with a remarkably high standard of living. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, this was by all measures the highest in the world (see table 10). After 1900, national income per member of the population slipped behind that of several countries, but continued to compare favorably with most. In 2004, Australia was ranked behind only Norway and Sweden in the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Economic historians have differed over the sources of growth that made this possible. Butlin emphasized the significance of local factors like the unusually high rate of urbanization and the expansion of domestic manufacturing. In important respects, however, Australia was subject to the same forces as other European settler societies in New Zealand and Latin America, and its development bore striking similarities to theirs. From the 1820s, its economy grew as one frontier of an expanding western capitalism. With its close institutional ties to, and complementarities with, the most dynamic parts of the world economy, it drew capital and migrants from them, supplied them with commodities, and shared the benefits of their growth. Like other settler societies, it sought population growth as an end in itself and, from the turn of the nineteenth century, aspired to the creation of a national manufacturing base. Finally, when openness to the world economy appeared to threaten growth and living standards, governments intervened to regulate and protect with broader social objectives in mind. But there were also striking contrasts with other settler economies, notably those in Latin America like Argentina, with which it has been frequently compared. In particular, Australia responded to successive challenges to growth by finding new opportunities for wealth creation with a minimum of political disturbance, social conflict or economic instability, while sharing a rising national income as widely as possible.

Table 10
Per capita GDP in Australia, United States and Argentina
(1990 international dollars)

Australia United States Argentina
1870 3,641 2,457 1,311
1890 4,433 3,396 2,152
1950 7,493 9,561 4,987
1998 20,390 27,331 9,219

Sources: Australia: GDP, Haig (2001) as converted in Maddison (2003); all other data Maddison (1995) and (2001)

From the mid-twentieth century, Australia’s experience also resembled that of many advanced western countries. This included the post-war willingness to use macroeconomic policy to maintain growth and full employment; and, after the 1970s, the abandonment of much government intervention in private markets while at the same time retaining strong social services and seeking to improve education and training. Australia also experienced a similar relative decline of manufacturing, permanent rise of unemployment, and transition to a more service-based economy typical of high income countries. By the beginning of the new millennium, services accounted for over 70 percent of national income (table 7). Australia remained vulnerable as an exporter of commodities and importer of capital but its endowment of natural resources and the skills of its population were also creating opportunities. The country was again favorably positioned to take advantage of growth in the most dynamic parts of the world economy, particularly China. With the final abandonment of the White Australia policy during the 1970s, it had also started to integrate more closely with its region. This was further evidence of the capacity to change that allowed Australians to face the future with confidence.


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Citation: Attard, Bernard. “The Economic History of Australia from 1788: An Introduction”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL