There are three levels of government in Australia:
- federal government;
- state (or territory) government; and
- local government.
These three levels developed at different times.
Colonial governments, which later became state governments, were the first level of government to be established after the British began settling on the continent in 1788.
Throughout the 1800s, local governments were progressively created by the six self-governing colonies. Later, following a series of referendums held in the 1890s, a federation was created under the Australian Constitution—in 1901, the six colonies became states to form the new nation of Australia with a national, or federal, government.
The two territory governments (the Australian Capital Territory [ACT] and the Northern Territory [NT]), were created by legislation of the Federal Parliament—the NT in 1978 and the ACT in 1988.
Under the constitution, the state/territory governments and the Federal Government have different powers and responsibilities. Local governments are not mentioned in the Constitution.
The Federal Parliament has four main functions:
- a legislative function (making laws);
- a representative function (representing the interests of voters and citizens);
- forming a government to administer laws and managing the affairs of the Commonwealth; and
- a scrutiny and accountability function (questioning the government to see if it is doing a good job).
The powers of the Federal Parliament are listed under Section 51 of the Australian Constitution and include responsibility for foreign policy, defence, income taxation, social services, migration, trade and currency. The Federal Parliament is bicameral, which means it has two houses:
- The House of Representatives, also called the ‘lower house’, is made up of 150 members elected from individual electorates all around Australia.
- The second house—the Senate or ‘upper house’—has 76 elected representatives elected by voters from each state and territory. Each state has 12 elected senators, and the territories each have two senators representing them. One of the reasons the constitution created an upper house was to ensure the interests of the states, particularly the smaller states, were adequately represented in the Commonwealth Parliament.
In bicameral parliaments (federal and state), legislation has to pass with a majority vote in both the lower and upper houses before it becomes a law.
State/territory government responsibilities include everything not listed as a federal responsibility in the Constitution, including:
- hospitals and schools;
- emergency services;
- law and order;
- public transport; and
- the distribution of water, gas and electricity.
State governments raise revenue through indirect taxes such as banking and gambling taxes and by charging for services such as public transport. They are not permitted to raise other taxes such as income taxation but they do receive federal funding to help pay for the services they deliver.
Just like the Federal Parliament, all the state parliaments except Queensland, are bicameral. The lower houses in these parliaments are called either the Legislative Assembly or House of Assembly, and upper houses are named Legislative Councils. The parliaments of Queensland, Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory are unicameral—they only have one house called the Legislative Assembly.
The Legislative Assembly for the ACT is the only parliament with responsibility for both state/territory and local government functions.
Every state/territory, except the ACT, has a separate system of local government. States and territories have local government regions are known as councils, shires, boroughs, or municipalities. Each is administered by a council (or equivalent) which makes decisions on local, town or city matters. In addition to receiving federal and state grants, local government authorities also raise money from their residents, usually through rates and other fees and charges. Local governments do not have the power to raise taxes.
In the ACT, the Legislative Assembly is accountable for local government functions (for example: garbage collection; looking after parks and gardens; libraries; and maintaining drains, roads and footpaths), as well as all the normal state responsibilities.
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