Facts and figures: Australia

Quick facts

  • There are 537 councils in total across Australia
  • There is no federal constitutional provision for local government – it sits under the jurisdiction of each state and territory government where it is provided for in all constitutions
  • Local government’s total annual expenditure is $36 billion (2017)
  • In the 1970s the level of funding to councils was expanded beyond grants for road construction and general purpose grants become available for the first time
  • At 379,571 square kilometres, the Shire of East Pilbara Council in Western Australia is Australia’s largest local government area
  • At 1.4 square kilometres, and with 1524 residents, the smallest local government area is the Shire of Peppermint Grove Council, Western Australia
  • With a 1.2 million residents, Australia’s largest local government area by population is Brisbane City Council
  • The first council established in Australia was what is now Adelaide City Council in 1840
  • The local government workforce consists of around 187,600 people
  • Nationally, women account for around 32% of councillors
  • The youngest councillor in Australia is currently Luci Blackborough of Campbelltown City Council in South Australia who was elected in 2018 age 18
  • In 2016 Victoria’s Darebin City Council was the first council in Australia – and indeed the first local jurisdiction in the world – to declare a climate emergency.

Structure and responsibilities

How is Australian local government structured?

Local governments are subdivisions of the states and the Northern Territory. The Australian Capital Territory [ACT] has no separate councils, and functions in Canberra and the surrounding area which would usually be the responsibility of state and local governments are undertaken by the territorial government of the Australian Capital Territory.

What are the responsibilities of Australian local government?

It varies between the states and territories, but councils in Australia generally have a statutory mandate for providing the following:

  • local infrastructure
  • water and sewerage services
  • community services such as childcare
  • health services such as food inspection, immunisation services etc
  • care and recreation facilities for the elderly
  • cultural and educational establishments
  • commercial establishments including parking, cemeteries etc.

Who does what in a council?

What do councillors do?

  • Decision making: councillors attend full meetings of the council, and some hold executive posts.
  • Facilitation of communication between the community and the council.
  • Scrutiny of decisions: councillors may serve on scrutiny panels, responsible for the scrutiny of existing policies and service delivery.
  • Represent their ward: councillors represent and meet with residents and groups within their ward, and address the issues that they raise.
  • Councillors can sometimes be involved in other areas, such as the development of new policies for the council. They may also sit on the boards of other organisations whose remit is related to that of the council.

What other roles are there in a council?

  • Administration: a group of councillors within a council who are able to command majority support and thus control the running of the council.
  • Mayor/Leader: the mayor is generally elected by the council and is empowered to carry out civic and ceremonial functions of the Mayoral office, which include presiding at meetings of the council.
  • Chief Executive/General Manager: the council’s chief executive is normally the head of its paid staff, employed by and responsible to the council.
  • Officers: staff of the council who work to carry out its various functions, such as social workers and planning officers.

How did local government evolve in Australia?

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.

Significant reforms took place in the 80s and 90s where state governments took metrics and efficiency analysis developed within the private sector and applied them to 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 merged some councils. The main purpose of amalgamating councils was for greater efficiency and to improve operations.