Facts and figures: Australia
- There are 537 councils in total across Australia as shown in this map. Of these, around 55% are regional, rural, or remote councils.
- 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, an area larger than Germany or Japan, 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 194 000 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?
In Australia there are three tiers of elected government – local, state and federal. Statutory responsibility for local government lies with a State or Territory Government, and thus the roles and responsibilities of local councils vary from state to state.
Local governments are not in the Federal constitution as a separate level of government and exist due to local government acts created by state governments, which dictate their role, powers, size and electoral rules. There have been a number of proposals for local governments to be recognised under the Australian Constitution, including two failed referendum, in 1974 and 1988.
Despite the designation of local councils as “Shire” “Borough” “Town” or “City”, almost all local councils have the same administrative functions and similar political structures, regardless of their naming.
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.
How representative is Australian local government?
Whilst local government has achieved higher rates of women’s representation than national parliaments, in 2010 the proportion of women in local government hovered around 27 per cent, with only 20 per cent of senior council managers and 5 per cent of chief executive officers containing women. It is estimated that gender equality would boost Australia’s GDP by 11 per cent and the economy would gain $8 billion if women transitioned from tertiary education into the workforce at the same rate as men.
Following the council elections in October 2020, Victoria leads the country in terms of the proportion of female councillors, representing a total of 43.8 per cent of councillors. This is a marked increase from the previous high of 38 per cent. Of the 76 councils that went to election, 47 now have a majority of women councillors or gender parity. Moreover, in the country’s most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), the results of local government elections in December 2021 present signs of progress in diversifying councils.
In terms of Indigenous representation, local governance remains unrepresentative. For example, in Brewarrina Shire, north-western New South Wales, despite a population that is 60% Indigenous there is only one Indigenous councillor.
Making efforts to address this issue, the ALGA published a report to accelerate efforts to provide greater opportunities for Indigenous Australians at the local community level. Action has also taken place at the level of councils, with the city Sydney publishing a Reconciliation Action plan which aims to build and strengthen meaningful relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
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 forums 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 when 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.
Financing local governments
- In 2018 local government’s total annual expenditure totalled $38.8 billion.
- The sector’s major expenditure items include:
- Transport (22.4%), and recreation, culture, and religion (16.6%) and environmental protection (14.8%).
- Local roads add up to around 662,597km in length (2019). This is approximately 75% of the total national road length – enough to circle the earth 16.5 times.
- Local government revenue comes from three main sources – taxation (rates), user charges and grants from Federal and state/territory governments.
- The sole source of taxation revenue for local governments is taxes on property – known as rates. Collectively, councils raise more than 80% of their own revenue with rates accounting for about 38% of this revenue. In South Australia, Council rates represent less than 4% of the total taxes paid by Australians, and South Australian households pay on average around $29 per week in council rates.
- A fourth source, categorised as ‘miscellaneous’, consists of revenue raised through the likes of investment interest, dividend interest, income from public enterprise and fines.
Local government facts
Australia has had four Prime Ministers who served on local councils.
- John Gorton (Kerang Shire Council)
- Ben Chifley (Abercrombie Shire Council)
- Earle Page (South Grafton Council)
- Arthur Fadden (Townsville City Council)