About local government

There are three tiers of government in Australia:

  • Local (also known as your council)
  • State
  • Federal (also called Commonwealth)

Although each tier of government operates differently and has different powers, each has an important role. They work together to govern and provide services to the community.

Local government is the level of government closest to you and your community. For this reason, it is often referred to as the ‘grass roots’ level of government.

The role of local governance

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the first peoples of Australia. First Nations people were custodians of the land for tens of thousands of years, prior to colonisation.

Australia was a land of many nations, each with its laws, traditions, art, culture, and spirituality. First Nations people have continuing relationships and contribution to local communities.

Local government, as we know it today, has been an important part of our community since the colonisation of South Australia.

The Adelaide Corporation, formed in 1840, was the first elected council in Australia.

In 1887 the Parliament of South Australia introduced the District Councils Act. This set up local governments across the state.

The South Australian Constitution Act 1856 provides for a system of elected local government bodies.

The Local Government Act 1999 sets up the constitution, system, and operational framework for local government in South Australia.

The Local Government (Elections) Act 1999 contains the requirements for council elections. It sets out how the elections are to be conducted, who can nominate, who can vote, and how the votes are counted.

Councils in South Australia

There are 68 councils in South Australia. Each council covers a geographic area that varies in size, population, and environment. All councils have the same general powers and responsibilities. Where they differ is in the services they choose to provide.

Council responsibilities

Legislated responsibilities

The  Local Government Act provides the framework that guides how councils are established, their role and function.

Section 6 and 7 in the Local Government Act sets out the role council. This includes:

  • Being a representative, informed, and responsible decision-maker in the interests of the community.
  • Providing and coordinating services and facilities to develop its community and its resources in a socially just and ecologically sustainable manner.
  • Representing the interests of its community to the wider community and to other tiers of government.
  • Planning at the local and regional level for the development and future needs of its area.
  • Providing for the welfare, wellbeing, and interests of individuals and groups within its community.
  • Managing, developing, protecting and conserving the environment.

By law, councils must provide regulatory services defined by the Local Government Act and other legislation. Examples include:

  • waste collection
  • zoning, planning, and building safety
  • fire prevention and hazard management
  • dog and cat management and control
  • parking control
  • public health and food inspection.

Other services offered by councils

These are the services that your council chooses to provide. Examples include:

  • street lighting
  • library and information services
  • parks, ovals, and sporting facilities
  • swimming pools and leisure centres
  • community facilities and halls
  • coastal care
  • support services for elderly people and people with a disability
  • tourism initiatives
  • wetlands and water resource management
  • promoting economic development.

These vary from council to council, and depend on the:

  • size and geographic location of the council area
  • number of people living in the area
  • physical environment
  • needs of the local community
  • resources and funding available.

Councils today are complex businesses, with diverse roles and responsibilities.

Council members are making decisions not just for today but into the future. Councils set strategies to make a difference for the long term, balance competing demands, and consider the best use of public funds.

Understanding Councils role, as its defined by the Local Government Act and learning how it works in practice, does take time. As a councillor, having a strategic mindset, broad interests, and being able to see the bigger picture are all qualities that can help you.

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