Local government in Australia

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Local government in Australia is the lowest tier of government in Australia administered under the states and territories which in turn are beneath the federal tier. While local government is not initially mentioned in the Constitution of Australia, it is mentioned several times in the Annotated Constitution of Australia[1][2] namely where "Municipal institutions and local government" appears in Annotation 447. "Power of the Parliament of a Colony" under "Residuary Legislative Powers" on pages 935 and 936.

Every state government also recognises local government in their respective constitutions.[3] Unlike Canada, or the United States there is only one level of local government in each state, with no distinction such as cities and counties.

The local governing body is generally referred to as a council, and the territories governed are collectively referred to as "local government areas"; however, terms such as "city" or "shire" also have a geographic interpretation. There are currently 565 local councils in Australia.[4][5]

Despite the single level of local government in Australia, there are a number of extensive areas with relatively low populations which are not a part of any local government area. Powers of local governments in these areas may be exercised by special purpose bodies established outside of the general legislation, as with Victoria's alpine resorts, or directly by state governments.

The area covered by local councils in Australia ranges from as small as 1.5 km2 (0.58 sq mi) for the Shire of Peppermint Grove in metropolitan Perth, to the Shire of East Pilbara in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which covers 380,000 km2 (150,000 sq mi), an area larger than Germany or Japan.

State controlled

The existence of local government in Australia is an exclusive "power of the states or territories" and therefore the precise nature of councils referred to as local government can differ between each state or territory. Despite this, they occupy a similar role in each state.

The remaining territories are not divided into territory and local government.

State-based departments oversee local council and often intervene in their affairs.[6]

Local governments by type and state

Local government areas in Australia
Offices of the City of Sydney council, a local government area within Sydney

As of May 2016, the following table provides a summary of local government areas by states and territories by LGA type:

Type NSW Vic Qld WA SA Tas NT Total
Boroughs 1 1
Cities 30 33 7 22 21 6 2 121
Councils 28 23 51
District councils 35 35
Municipalities 6 6
Regional councils 8 29 11 4 52
Rural cities 6 1 7
Shires 58 39 24 107 10 238
Towns 1 12 2 2 17
Community government councils 2 2
Aboriginal shires 12 12
Island councils 1 1
Unincorporated 2 10 1 5 18
Total 132 89 74 152 64 29 21 561

Australian Classification of Local Governments

The Australian Classification of Local Governments (ACLG) categorises Australian local governing authorities using the population, the population density and the proportion of the population that is classified as urban for the council.[7] The classification, at the two-digit level, is:


The first official local government in Australia was the Adelaide Corporation which was created by the province of South Australia in October 1840. The City of Melbourne followed in 1842.[8] All of these early forms failed; it was not until the 1860s and 1870s that the various colonies established widespread stable forms of local government, mainly for the purpose of raising money to build roads in rural and outer-urban regions.

In the 1970s, the Whitlam Government expanded the level of funding to local governments in Australia beyond grants for road construction. General purpose grants become available for the first time.[9]


Significant reforms took place in the 1980s and 1990s in which state governments used metrics and efficiency analysis developed within the private sector in the local government arena. Each state conducted an inquiry into the benefits of council amalgamations during the 1990s.[10] In the early 1990s, Victoria saw the number of local councils reduced from 210 to 78.[10] South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland saw some reductions in the number of local governments while Western Australia and New South Wales rejected compulsory mergers. New South Wales eventually forced the merging of some councils. The main purpose of amalgamating councils was for greater efficiency and to improve operations, but forced amalgamation of councils is sometimes seen as a dilution of representative democracy.[10]

An increase in the range of services offered by councils, but only minor cost savings of less than 10% have been noted by academics as outcomes after mergers. The council mergers have resulted in widespread job losses and lingering resentment from some whose roles have experienced a larger workload.[10]

The growth of the Regional Organisations of Councils has also been a factor in local government reform in Australia.[10] In 1995, there were 50 such agreements across the country. A 2002 study identified 55 ROCs with the largest involving 18 councils.[10]

Types of local government

Local governments are subdivisions of the states and the Northern Territory. The Australian Capital Territory has no separate local governments; and functions in Canberra and the surrounding area normally performed by state and local governments are performed there by the territorial government of the Australian Capital Territory.

Although they are all essentially identical in function, Australian local governments have a variety of names. The term "local government area" is used to refer collectively to all local governments regardless of status, whilst the local governing body itself is generally known as a council. Today, the styles "borough", "city", "district", "municipality", "region", "shire", "town", "community government", "Aboriginal shire" and "Island" are used in addition to areas/councils without a specific style.

In general, an urban or suburban LGA is called a city, as in the City of Canada Bay or City of Bunbury, and is governed by a City Council. A rural LGA covering a larger rural area is usually called a shire, as in Shire of Mornington Peninsula or Lachlan Shire, and is governed by a Shire Council.

Sometimes words other than "City" or "Shire" will be used in the names of LGAs. The word "Municipality" occurs in some states: in New South Wales, it is typically used for older urban areas and the word is also used for several rural towns in South Australia. Some rural areas in South Australia are known as "District Councils", while larger rural towns and small metropolitan centres in Queensland and Western Australia simply use the term "Town". New South Wales and Queensland have introduced a new term, "Region", for LGAs formed by the amalgamation of smaller shires and rural cities. Historically, the word "Borough" was common for small towns and metropolitan areas in Victoria, but only the Borough of Queenscliffe remains. In New South Wales, where the Local Government Act does not require a designation, some local governments are legally known simply as "Councils", such as Port Macquarie-Hastings Council, Inner West Council, or Federation Council. All the LGAs in Tasmania that were previously 'Municipalities' have been rename 'Councils.'

Almost all local councils have the same administrative functions and similar political structures, regardless of their naming, and retain a particular designation ("Shire", "Borough", "Town", "City") for historical reasons only. They will typically have an elected council and usually a mayor or shire president responsible for chairing meetings of the council. In some councils, the mayor is a directly elected figure, but in most cases the mayor is elected by their fellow councillors from among their own number. The powers of mayors vary as well. In some states such as Queensland, the mayors have broad executive functions, whereas in New South Wales mayors are essentially ceremonial figureheads who can only exercise power at the discretion of the council.

Most of the capital city LGAs administer only the central business districts and nearby central suburbs. A notable exception is the City of Brisbane, the most populous LGA in the country, which administers a significant part of the Brisbane metropolitan area. In most cases, when a city's population statistics are used, it is the statistical division population rather than the local government area.

Constitutional position of local government

Local government powers are determined by state governments, and states have primary responsibility for funding and exclusive responsibility for supervision of local councils.

Local government is mentioned in the annotated Australian constitution, as a department of the State Governments, and they are mentioned in the constitutions of each of the six states. A 1988 referendum sought to explicitly insert mention of local government in the federal constitution but this was comprehensively defeated. A further referendum was proposed in 2013, but was cancelled due to the change in the election date.

Federal government interaction with local councils happens regularly through the provision of federal grants to help fund local government managed projects.

Powers and functions

All local governments are approximately equal in their theoretical powers, although LGAs that encompass large cities such as Brisbane and the Gold Coast command more resources due to their larger population base. Unlike local governments in many other countries, services such as police, fire protection and schools are provided by state or territory government rather than by local councils.

The councils' chief responsibility in the first half of the 20th century was the provision of physical infrastructure such as roads, bridges and sewerage.[11] From the 1970s the emphasis changed to community facilities such as libraries and parks, maintenance of local roads, town planning and development approvals, and local services such as waste disposal. Child care, tourism and urban renewal were also beginning to be part of local governments' role. These are financed by collection of local land taxes known as "rates," and grants from the state and Commonwealth governments. They are caricatured as being concerned only with the "three Rs": Rates, Roads and Rubbish.

However, the roles of local government areas in Australia have recently expanded as higher levels of government have devolved activities to the third tier. Examples include the provision of community health services, regional airports and pollution control[11] as well as community safety and accessible transport.[6] The changes in services has been described as a shift from 'services to property' towards 'services to people'.[6] Community expectations of local government in Australia has risen in the 21st century partly as a result of wider participation in decision making and transparent management practices.[11]

Recent years have seen some State governments devolving additional powers onto LGAs. In Queensland and Western Australia LGAs have been granted the power to independently enact their own local subsidiary legislation, in contrast to the previous system of by-laws. Councils also have organised their own representative structures such as Local Government Associations and Regional Organisations of Councils.

Doctrines of new public management have shaped state government legislation towards increased freedoms aiming to allow greater flexibility on the part of local governments.[6]

See also


  1. "The annotated constitution of the Australian Commonwealth (1901)". Retrieved 9 August 2014.
  2. "The annotated constitution of the Australian Commonwealth (1901)" (PDF). Retrieved 9 August 2014.
  3. "Appendix G Local government in State constitutions". Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Local Government. Australian Government. December 2011. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  4. Pete Ross. "Local Government Contacts".
  5. "Local Government". Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport. 16 June 2012. Retrieved 29 July 2012.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Dollery, Brian E.; Lorenzo Robotti (2008). The Theory and Practice of Local Government Reform. Edward Elgar Publishing. pp. 93–96. ISBN 1781956685. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  7. "Local Government National Report 2013–14" (PDF). Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development. July 2015. p. Appendix F. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  8. "Council history". City of Melbourne. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  9. Dollery, Brian E.; Neil Marshall (1997). Australian Local Government: Reform and Renewal. Macmillan Education AU. p. 4. ISBN 0732929040. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Dollery, Brian E.; Joseph Garcea, Edward C. Lasage, Jr. (2008). Local Government Reform: A Comparative Analysis of Advanced Anglo-American Countries. Edward Elgar Publishing. pp. 18–19. ISBN 1782543864. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  11. 1 2 3 Brunet-Jailly, Emmanuel; John Francis Martin (2010). Local Government in a Global World: Australia and Canada in Comparative Perspective. University of Toronto Press. pp. 82–84. ISBN 0802099637. Retrieved 1 July 2013.

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