1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2001  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2001   
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This article reviews Australia's merchandise trade between 1900 and 2000, drawing on official statistics beginning in 1900. Comparing data over such a long time period makes it necessary to include particular caveats:
  • prior to 1950-51 the terminology Merchandise trade was not used. Publications show Australian produce and Other produce. To maintain broad equivalence between data compiled under the different definitions, Australian produce data are used for the earlier periods;
  • between 1906 and 1982 ships' stores were excluded from Australian produce and merchandise trade data; and
  • data used for analysis are expressed in the prices prevailing in the reference time period. No attempt has been made to remove inflationary effects from the data analysed.

In 1900 Australia exported goods valued at 40m and imported goods valued at 38m; the trade surplus, although small, was significant for the period. A century later Australia exported goods valued at $97,255m and imported goods valued at $110,083m, a trade deficit of $12,828m. Graph 30.29 shows the balance of trade as a percentage of total trade (i.e. imports plus exports) over the 20th century. On average there has been a surplus of approximately 7% of total trade over the century.

The largest percentage surplus (31%) occurred in 1931-32, shortly after the Wall Street crash in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Trade surpluses continued in every year of the 1930s. Australia's largest trade surplus (in percentage terms) occurred in 1942-43, during the Second World War, at 33% of total trade. Two further years of large surpluses, 25% and 16%, occurred in 1943-44 and 1944-45. International trade in these years was, of course, at a low level because of dangers to shipping.

Australia's greatest period of trade volatility occurred in 1951-52 and 1952-53, when the balance of trade changed from a deficit of 21% to a surplus of 26% of total trade, the latter in the year in which wool achieved the all-time record price of 'a pound a pound'. The longest period of trade stability has occurred since 1982-83. Over this period the balance of trade (surplus or deficit) has not exceeded 7% of total trade, and has tended to be a deficit in most years.


In 1900 the United Kingdom was Australia's primary trading partner. Total trade with the UK was over five times greater than the total trade with Australia's second largest trading partner, the United States of America. With the exception of the USA, the other major trading partners were either European countries or members of the British Empire, reflecting Australia's close historical association with the UK in its developing trading relationships.

By 1999-2000, the balance of Australia's trading relationships had changed significantly. Our trade focus is now firmly on the members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC). Nine of Australia's ten major trading partners are members of APEC; the UK now ranks sixth.

The USA is currently Australia's major source of imports. As graph 30.30 shows, through the century the share of Australia's total imports coming from the USA trended upwards until 1930s, and then fell back in the last years of World War II. There was strong growth in the US share of Australian imports during the 1950s and 1960s; since then the US share has remained roughly stable.

The share of Australia's total imports coming from the UK declined steadily to the end of the 1940s, and then recovered some lost ground until the mid 1950s. The UK share fell away sharply during the 1960s and 1970s (graph 30.30). The share of Australia's total imports coming from New Zealand has remained steady through most of the century, but has been rising slowly since the 1970s. The Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement (CER) came into effect on 1 January 1983, providing each country with easier access to the other's markets. The share of Australia's total imports coming from Japan rose rapidly from the early 1960s until the mid 1980s, but has declined slowly since.

The share of Australia's total exports going to the USA rose significantly through the mid 1930s, reaching a peak in the mid 1940s (graph 30.31). From the 1950s the US share of Australian exports was fairly steady in trend terms, but has fallen in recent years. At the turn of the century, the UK was by far Australia's major export destination, receiving nearly 60% by value of total Australian exports, rising to 70% during the 1930s. It fell sharply during World War II, recovering somewhat in the post-war years and in the 1950s. It has trended down since then.

The share of Australia's total exports going to NZ has been increasing slightly over the century. In 2000 Japan is Australia's major export destination. The share of Australia's total exports going to Japan grew strongly from the 1950s, peaked in the early 1980s, and has been declining slowly since.


Sea freight

In 1904, it is recorded that 1,873 vessels carried 3.4 million net tons of goods from Australian ports. Of those vessels, 48% were steam ships, the remainder sailing ships. The majority of ships entering Australian ports were registered in the UK (42%) and Australia (19%). In 1924-25, 1,723 vessels departed Australian ports carrying 5.6 million net tons of goods. Of these vessels, 97% were steam ships. Again UK registered ships made up the majority of vessels clearing Australian ports (23%).

By 1949-50, the 1,965 vessels that departed Australian ports carried 8.7 million net tons of goods. UK registered ships still comprised the greatest share (53%) of vessels entering Australian ports, but there were also ships registered in Norway, New Zealand and the United States. In 1974-75, 6,254 vessels departed Australia carrying 80.3 million net tonnes of goods. The largest proportion (21%) of vessels were Japanese. Significant proportions of UK, Liberian and Greek registered ships also entered Australian ports.

In 1999-2000, total exports by sea freight weighed 463 million tonnes. The majority of vessels were registered in Panama (24%) and Japan. Other significant sources of registration included Liberia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. The majority of vessels were destined for Japan.

Air freight

In 1949-50 a small volume (and proportion) of overseas exports and imports was moved by air. Official statistics record four aviation companies involved in overseas freight in this early period: British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines, Qantas Empire Airways Ltd., British Overseas Airways Corporation and Tasman Empire Airways Ltd. Common destinations included the South Pacific islands, Vancouver, Tokyo, Hong Kong and London. In that year, 797 tons were flown out of Sydney.

By 1974-75, 27 million tonnes of exports from all States were carried by air, the largest proportion (8 million tonnes) going to New Zealand.

In 1999-2000 air freighted exports weighed 1,770 million tonnes. For the majority of these exports the initial destination was Singapore.


Australian Bureau of Statistics publications:
Australian Exports, Country by Commodity, 1974-75 (5411.0).
Australian Imports, Country by Commodity, 1974-75 (5414.0).
Commonwealth Trade, 1924-25 (5409.0).
Commonwealth Trade, 1949-50 (5409.0).
Exports by Mode of Transport, 1974-75 (5415.0).
Overseas Shipping, Cargo, 1974-75 (9207.0).
Overseas Trade Part 1, Exports and Imports, 1974-75 (5409.0).
Trade and Customs Returns, 1903 (5409.0).
Year Book Australia 1988 (1301.0).

Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics publications:
Transport and Communication, 1906 (CS 385.0), CBCS, Canberra.
Transport and Communication, 1924-25 (CS 385.0), CBCS, Canberra.
Transport and Communication, 1949-50 (CS 385.0), CBCS, Canberra.

Other publications:
Lougheed, A. 1987, "International Transactions and Foreign Commerce", in Wray Vamplew (ed.), Australians: Historical Statistics, Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, Sydney.

Wilson, R. 1931, Capital Imports and the Terms of Trade: Examined in the light of sixty years of Australian borrowings, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.