Our Three Spheres of Government

Our Three Spheres of Government

If we accept governments are necessary in order for us to live harmoniously as a community, why does Australia have three separate kinds of spheres of government?

We have one Commonwealth Government, six State Governments and over 700 Local Governments. In addition, we have two Territory Governments, the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory, which have similar roles as the State Governments. The reason why we have the three spheres is largely due to our historical development.

Constitutional Development

European settlement of Australia was by the British with the establishment of the Colony of New South Wales at Botany Bay. Shortly after colonies were established in Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. The Colony of New South Wales was originally the whole of the east coast of Australia but later Victoria and Queensland seceded as separate colonies.

During the 19th century , the six colonies won self government. Following the British system of government, they established Local Governments. In New South Wales, most of the metropolitan councils and larger country towns were established between 1859 and the turn of the century.

As the colonies developed and increased in population, people began to recognise a growing number of areas of common concern. Issues such as trade between the colonies, the need for a common immigration policy, and the desire for such questions to be decided by those they affected, not the British Government on the other side of the world, led to a call for the young colonies to join together as the one nation.

After lengthy discussions involving the six colonies and the British Government, the Colonial Governments agreed to give up some of their powers seen to be of common or national interest to a new Federal Government. The Colonial Governments, at the time of Federation in 1901, became known as State Governments. The State Governments retained most of the powers they had as Colonial Governments including Local Government.

Division of Powers Between the Spheres of Government

The establishment of our federal system of government is embodied in the Australian Constitution Act (1900). Known as the Australian Constitution, this document sets out the division of powers between the Federal and State Governments.

In joining together as the one nation the colonies, which became State Governments after Federation, handed very few powers to the new Federal Government. Those they did relinquish were matters seen to be of common interest, such as relations with other nations, immigration, the minting of money and defence.   

Some powers are shared by the two spheres of government. However, if differences arise then Federal Government law prevails over State law. Any powers not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, called residual powers, are under the control of the States. Any disputes between the Federal and State Governments over areas of responsibility are decided by the High Court.  

As a number of the powers are shared, duplication and overlap occurs. In addition, over the years, the Federal Government has been able to increase its powers at the expense of the States. This has largely been due to its superior position in regard to revenue raising. The States rely heavily on their finances from the Federal Government. Quite often the Federal Government provides the finances while the States administer the service.

Areas of State Government responsibility generally include its police force, hospitals, public transport, education system and road laws.

State/Local Government Relations

Local Government is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution so as a residual power it belongs to the State Government. Local Government in Australia derives its authority from a State Government Act. The relevant State Government has ultimate power over all councils in that State. In New South Wales this is the Local Government Act (1993). A total overhaul of this Act was recently carried out resulting in extensive reforms to Local Government. This legislation took effect on 1 July 1993.

So long as councils act within the provisions of the Local Government Act, the State Government would be unlikely to interfere. But if things go wrong in an individual council, such as allegations of corruption or gross mismanagement, the State Government may dismiss the elected councillors and appoint an administrator to sort out the problem. Such action usually occurs following a legitimate complaint by residents to the State Minister responsible for Local Government.  

Under the Local Government Act (1993)and other State legislation, such as the Public Health Act, Environment Assessment and Planning Act, the Bushfire Act and the Dog Act, councils are empowered to look after local matters, such as local roads, footpaths, garbage collection, parks and gardens, libraries and swimming pools. Councils also have a planning and coordinating role in the provision of community services.

Across Australia there are over 700 separate Local Governments. In New South Wales, we have 177 councils. These vary in both area and population. Local Governments are generally referred to as a council.

Things for further investigation

Under the Local Government Act, councils have regulatory functions and service functions. Explain the difference and find examples of each.

How does the relationship between the Federal and State Government differ to that of the State and Local Governments?

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