01/26/2012 12:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Australia: The Only Western Nation With an Intact Mojo

Today, the 26th of January, is Australia Day. It's currently summer down there, which gives you some idea just how weird the place is. The also have mammals that lay eggs, and various other animals that look like they were dreamed up during a bad acid trip. Most importantly though, it's the only Western nation that hasn't lost its mojo.

And no wonder: Australia is the only nation on Earth that's also a continent. It's truly massive: At 7.8 million square kilometers in area, it's almost the same size as the continental United States. Yet it has only 22 million inhabitants. It also controls various Pacific islands as well as a huge proportion of Antarctica.

It was first inhabited by humans about 60,000 years ago, long before the first Europeans began to explore "terra Australis incognita" in the 17th century. Originally known as New Holland, it was claimed for the British Crown by Captain James Cook in 1770.

Australia Day commemorates the anniversary of the day in 1788 when the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson comprising 11 ships and some 1,500 souls, half of whom were convicts. They set up a colony in the harsh and alien terrain. It might as well have been Mars, from an 18th-century perspective.

Port Jackson is now the site of Australia's largest city, Sydney. It has a population of 4.5 million, which makes Sydneysiders as numerous as Irish people. It has come a long way since its dusty early days as a ramshackle colony and is one of the most stunning cities in the world, one with great, if somewhat shark infested, beaches.

Six colonies were created in the late 18th and 19th centuries. These federated and became the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. According to The CIA World Factbook: "The new country took advantage of its natural resources to rapidly develop agricultural and manufacturing industries and to make a major contribution to the British effort in World Wars I and II."

Indeed, in both wars, as soon as Britain declared war, it was simply assumed that Australia was also at war. No declaration was necessary, so British were the Queen's Australian subjects. On Sept. 3, 1939, then Prime Minister of Australia Robert Menzies announced:

"Fellow Australians, It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war."

This shows that Australia did not regard itself as a truly independent nation at that time, but very much as subject to the will of London. In fact, Australians retained the legal status of "British subject" in Australian law until 1987. War, however, is often regarded as what truly unified Australia. The concept of a federated Australia seemed abstract to the various colonists until they fought together as ANZACs in the First World War, most famously at Gallipoli.

Yet, for all their historic attachment to Britain, Australians are fiercely independent and proud of their nation, and with good cause: It is one of the most advanced, most prosperous countries in the world and is consistently rated as having amongst the highest quality of life.

The story of Australia was a triumphant one, at least for the settlers; and even (eventually) for the convicts transported there, most of whom were freed after serving their sentences.

The experience of colonization was not so positive for the aboriginal peoples. Witness an 1824 Tasmanian law which authorized settlers to shoot Aboriginal people on sight. By persecution, disease and neglect many tribes were completely decimated and have long-since disappeared. Aboriginals were not granted full citizenship until a referendum was conducted in 1967, which was approved by 90.77 percent of the (white) population. This recognition came during Australia's much derided White Australia policy, which only ended officially in 1973. There is now a huge popular Australian movement to express sorrow and make amends for the wrongs done to the aboriginal peoples in the past. With typical Australia straightforwardness, it is called "Sorry Day."

It has -- so far at least -- not followed Europe and the U.S. into a morass of debt, economic decline and self-doubt. It's a nation that hasn't lost its swagger -- in a good way. With a rapidly growing population and economy it remains, in every sense, a vital nation -- one the demographically and economically declining nations of Europe would do well to emulate.

Australia is famous for its sporting prowess, generally beating everyone at everything. However, it has also made a large impact in the worlds of film, literature and art. Wikipedia even has a non-ironically named section "Culture of Australia" which includes references to Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Neighbours, Dame Edna and Kylie; as well as writers like Thomas Kennealy, who wrote Schindler's List.

Regarding music, Australia may be famous for its iconic Opera House, but less so for actual opera. The national character is better suited to stuff like this, by the very Australian AC/DC:

Fair Dinkum all round. Happy Australia day!