Local government in AustraliaAustralia
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Local government in Australia is the third tier of government in Australia administered by the states and territories, which in turn are beneath the federal tier. Local government is not mentioned in the Constitution of Australia and two referenda in the 1970s and 1980s to alter the Constitution relating to local government were unsuccessful. Every state government recognises local government in their respective constitutions. 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. In August 2016 there were 547 local councils in Australia.
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 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.
Local government in Australia is subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the states or territories. The functions and practices of local government councils are similar throughout Australia, but may vary to some degree between jurisdictions.
- Local government areas of New South Wales
- Local government areas of the Northern Territory
- Local government in Queensland and Local government areas of Queensland (list)
- Local government areas of South Australia
- Local government areas of Tasmania
- Local government in Victoria and Local government areas of Victoria (list)
- Local government areas of Western Australia
The Australian Capital Territory is not divided into territory and local government.
State departments oversee local government councils and may intervene in their affairs, subject to relevant legislation.
Local governments by type and state
As of January 2017, the following table provides a summary of local government areas by states and territories by local government area types:
Local government area types NSW Vic Qld WA SA Tas NT Total Boroughs 1 1 Cities 28 33 7 29 21 6 2 126 Councils 28 15 23 66 District councils 25 25 Municipalities 6 3 9 Regional councils 8 4 12 Rural cities 6 1 7 Shires 58 39 27 104 3 231 Towns 1 8 2 11 Aboriginal councils 5 5 Aboriginal shires 12 12 Region 31 9 40 Sub-total 128 79 78 141 73 29 17 545 Unincorporated 2 10 1 5 18 Total 130 89 78 141 74 29 22 563
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. The classification, at the two-digit level, is:
- RA – Rural Agricultural
- RS – Rural Significant
- RT – Rural Remote
- UC – Urban Capital
- UD – Urban Developed
- UF – Urban Fringe
- UR – Urban Regional
There is no mention of local government in the Constitution of Australia, though it is mentioned several times in the Annotated Constitution of Australia 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.
The first official local government in Australia was the Perth Town Trust, established in 1838, only three years after British settlement. The Adelaide Corporation followed, created by the province of South Australia in October 1840. The City of Melbourne and the Sydney Corporation followed, both in 1842. 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. Council representatives attended conventions before Federation, however local government was unquestionably regarded as outside the Constitutional realm.
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.
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. In the early 1990s, Victoria saw the number of local councils reduced from 210 to 78. 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.
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.
The growth of the Regional Organisations of Councils has also been a factor in local government reform in Australia. In 1995, there were 50 such agreements across the country. A 2002 study identified 55 ROCs with the largest involving 18 councils.
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 renamed ‘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. 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 as well as community safety and accessible transport. The changes in services has been described as a shift from ‘services to property’ towards ‘services to people’. 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.
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.
Unlike many other countries, Australia has only one level of local government immediately beneath state and territorial governments. Aside from very sparsely populated areas and a few other special cases, almost all of Australia is part of a local government area. Unincorporated areas are often in remote locations, cover vast areas or have very small populations.
Australian Capital Territory
The Australian Capital Territory has no municipalities and is in some sense an unincorporated area. The ACT government is directly responsible for matters normally carried out by a local government.
New South Wales
New South Wales has 2 unincorporated areas:
- Unincorporated Far West Region, located in the far north west of the state is sparsely populated. A civil servant in the state capital manages such matters as are necessary.
- Lord Howe Island.
In the Northern Territory, 1.45% of the total area and 4.0% of the population are in unincorporated areas, including Unincorporated Top End Region (, the largest), areas covered by the Darwin Rates Act—Nhulunbuy, Alyangula on Groote Eylandt in the northern region, and Yulara in the southern region.
In South Australia, 60% of the state’s area is unincorporated and communities located within receive municipal services provided by a state agency, the Outback Communities Authority.
Victoria has 10 unincorporated areas, which are either ski resorts or small islands:
- Falls Creek Alpine Resort
- French Island and Sandstone Island 
- Elizabeth Island
- Gabo Island
- Lady Julia Percy Island
- Lake Mountain Alpine Resort
- Mount Baw Baw Alpine Resort
- Mount Buller Alpine Resort
- Mount Hotham Alpine Resort
- Mount Stirling Alpine Resort
Western Australia has 3 unincorporated areas:
- Abrolhos Islands, which are officially uninhabited and controlled by the WA .
- A-class reserves either in, or close to, the Perth metropolitan area, namely Rottnest Island (controlled by the Rottnest Island Authority) and Kings Park (Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority).
- Government of Australia
- Australian Local Government Association
- List of the 25 largest Local Government Areas by population
- Australian Local Government Fossil Fuel Divestment
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- Australian Bureau of Statistics: Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ASGC) 2005
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- Local Government Focus (newspaper)
- Local Government and Planning Ministers’ Council
- Local Government & Municipal Knowledge Base