Australia's economy is dominated by its services sector, yet it is the agricultural and mining sectors that account for the bulk of Australia's exports. Australia's comparative advantage in the export of primary products is a reflection of the natural wealth of the Australian continent and its small domestic market; 23 million people occupy a continent the size of the contiguous United States. The relative size of the manufacturing sector has been declining for several decades, but has now steadied at around 8.5% of GDP. The global recovery is putting upward pressure on prices for Australia's commodity exports, which caused a substantial rise in the terms of trade in 2011.
Since the 1980s, Australia has undertaken significant structural reform of its economy and has transformed itself from an inward-looking, highly protected, and regulated marketplace to an open, internationally competitive, export-oriented economy. Key economic reforms included unilaterally reducing high tariffs and other protective barriers to free trade, floating the Australian dollar, deregulating the financial services sector, including liberalizing access for foreign banks, increasing flexibility in the labor market, reducing duplication and increasing efficiency between the federal and state branches of government, privatizing many government-owned monopolies, and reforming the taxation system, including introducing a broad-based Goods and Services Tax (GST) and large reductions in income tax rates.
Australia enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the G7. Australia's economic standing in the world is a result of a commitment to best-practice macroeconomic policy settings, including the delegation of the conduct of monetary policy to the independent Reserve Bank of Australia, and a broad acceptance of prudent fiscal policy where the government aims for fiscal balance over the economic cycle. Economic recovery is strengthening, with GDP forecast to grow by 3.25% in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. The success of monetary and fiscal stimulus is projected to return the budget to surplus in 2012. Net debt is forecast to peak at 8.9% of GDP in 2011-2012.
The unemployment rate was 5.3% in November 2011. Labor market participation has remained at around 65%. Both the federal and state governments have recognized the need to invest heavily in water, transport, ports, telecommunications, and education infrastructure to expand Australia's supply capacity. The largest river system in Australia, the Murray-Darling, and related coastal lakes and wetlands in South Australia are threatened, although the long drought has broken, and the government has developed a plan to improve irrigation infrastructure and efficiency and buy back unused water allocations along the river.
A second significant issue is climate change. A report commissioned by Prime Minister John Howard recommended a domestic carbon emissions trading scheme and that Australia take an active role in developing a future global carbon emissions trading system. The Gillard government has passed legislation to price carbon at a rate of A$23 (about U.S. $24) per ton from July 2012, with free carbon credits provided to many companies.
The Australia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) entered into force on January 1, 2005. The AUSFTA was the second free trade agreement (FTA) the United States concluded with a developed economy, following the U.S.-Canada FTA in 1988. Australia also has FTAs with New Zealand, ASEAN, Singapore, Thailand, and Chile, and is pursuing other FTAs, including with China, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea. Australia is also involved in ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations.
Sources:CIA World Factbook (January 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( January 2012)