Local Government in Australia


Town halls, along with post offices, are probably the most prominent buildings in Australian towns and cities. Their erection was a matter of popular interest for residents, who were often involved in the selection of the site. They were designed by private architects, not by the Government Architect, but their style usually followed the features which had come to distinguish Town Halls as a genre. On 11 June 1887, the Australasian Builder and Contractor’s News reported on the progress of the Town Hall in Maryborough, Victoria:

Owing to the steady increase in population of the town and its growing importance as a mining, agricultural and commercial centre, the need of a suitable building in which public meetings, entertainments, &c., might be held, and municipal business transacted, has been keenly felt for some time past. True, Maryborough has not been without a town hall, but it was one erected to meet the requirements of the place in its primeval days as a goldfields township, and has long since been inadequate for the requirements of an advancing borough...The ground floor of the building consists of offices for the clerks and rate collectors, hall, committee room, Mayor’s room, council chambers, ladies’ retiring room, strong room, lavatories, &c. From the entrance hall and vestibule a grand blue stone staircase leads to the balcony of the main hall and council chamber...All modern improvements in ventilation are to be introduced, and illumination will be assisted by two sunlights set in the roof of the building. The hall will afford sitting accommodation to about 1,500 people.1

The illustration, bearing the signature of George Johnston, shows an impressive two storied building of classical design with a central clock tower. It is in buildings such as this that the business of local government has been conducted, although since the 1980s, some municipalities have chosen to build new complexes.

Origins of Local Government

In the early years of Australia’s colonisation, the British government provided all the services required by the convicts and military staff. However, once convicts were emancipated and free settlers arrived, the structure of society changed; areas of settlement expanded, and thriving communities developed. Although pioneers were prepared to live under primitive conditions, growing communities expected basic services, particularly adequate roads, drainage and bridges. Initially citizens’ agitation for these amenities was directed to the governor’s secretary or the Secretary of State for the Colonies, but, as representative government developed, legislative councils in each of the colonies dealt with the issues.

Despite its long tradition of local institutions, Britain itself was experiencing great social changes: the populations of its cities were expanding rapidly as a result of the industrial revolution, and services were required which had never before been dreamed of. Living conditions became dangerously overcrowded and urban planning became a necessity. In the first half of the 19th century, many European cities were being remodelled to provide a more healthy and operable environment. Parisians could boast of their new boulevards and Londoners of Regent Street; slum dwellings were demolished and replaced by residences which met basic health and safety requirements. New cities were being planned in Britain and Europe as well as in the developing settlements of North America. Not only were engineers and surveyors planning roads, building lots, drains and bridges, but philosophers were theorising on the human response to the environment. This was the time in which enterprising settlers were looking to realise their dreams of a new world in Australia.

Because Australia’s development had been directed by government initiative, it was not surprising that settlers expected the government to continue to provide basic services. They were fully occupied in establishing their properties or commercial ventures and did not expect to build roads and bridges. Labour for public works was scarce because many free settlers were attracted by the promise of land ownership. Convict labour was very important; this was one reason why Western Australia requested the introduction of convict labour even though it had been established as a free colony.

Finding the Funds

Although the colonial governments traditionally met the costs of public services, their funds were limited. They looked for ways to devolve responsibility to the community and naturally referred to the mother country for models. These models did not necessarily suit the Australian situation, so the colonies responded in their own ways, with variations on the theme of their common heritage. In 1833 the Legislative Council of New South Wales passed the Parish Lands Act giving the governor the right to distinguish those roads to be financed by the general fund from those financed by local residents, but unfortunately nothing was achieved. Eventually Parish Road Trusts were established but their effectiveness was limited because their formation was voluntary. They were empowered to raise funds by taxation or subscription and administer toll bars. Further changes were attempted unsuccessfully in a District Councils Act passed by the British parliament in 1842.

Eventually local communities were given the right to create their own municipalities, provided that a specified number of residents signed a petition to the government. Acts enabling this were passed in all colonies: South Australia in 1849, Victoria in 1854, New South Wales and Tasmania in 1858, Queensland in 1864 and Western Australia in 1871. Meantime the system providing for voluntary incorporation of towns and the establishment of Road Boards continued with varying degrees of success in different areas. By 1871, there were eight municipalities in Western Australia, 82 in South Australia, and by 1878, 18 in Queensland. As early as 1865, Victoria could boast of 62 urban Boroughs, 53 Road Boards and 45 Shires. However, by 1870 only two percent of New South Wales was incorporated. It was not until 1887 that a Local Government Bill, dividing the colony into Districts was presented to the Legislative Assembly. The Australasian Builder and Contractor’s News reported on 1 October :

An outline of the provisions of the Local Government Bill was given to the Legislative Assembly by Sir Henry Parkes. The colony is to be divided into districts, in which will be established local governing bodies possessing large powers of taxation, and the power to carry out all works now carried out by the central government with the exception of railways, telegraph lines, or important bridges. It is practically intended also to hand over to these bodies the whole of the roads of the colony, and, with the exceptions above mentioned, communication generally. They will be able to construct wells, tanks, and other works for the conservation of water. For these purposes they will be endowed from the consolidated revenue on such a scale as may seem advisable under the circumstances peculiar to the different districts, and they will be able to borrow money at low rates of interest.2

Tasmania showed remarkable participation in early local government in relation to its population: a wide range of authorities were created with elected members controlling matters ranging from roads to rabbits. The Act of 1858 provided for the establishment of rural municipalities in country areas in response to petitions signed by more than fifty owners or occupiers of property. Provision was made for six councillors, one of whom would be elected as warden to perform the duties of police magistrate, and the council would be responsible for roads and the police force.

Who Was First?

Several states lay claims to the first step towards municipal government - all valid in their way. In Western Australia, following an Act of 1838 which required the government of towns to provide for the control of roads and streets in the colony, the Town Trust of Perth was formed, and as early as 1839 it was empowered to raise funds through rate levies. The members appointed to the Trust were required to be Justices of the Peace and proprietors of land held in fee simple, and it was not until 1842 that they were chosen by election. When a bishopric was established in Perth in 1858, the town of Perth was declared a city and the Perth City Council was established.

South Australia established the first municipality in Australia in 1840 under guidelines drawn up by a Colonisation Commission in Britain who recommended that a town be incorporated when its population reached 2000. This benchmark was reached by Adelaide in 1839, and an Act granted it municipal status in 1840. All adult males who had lived in the colony for six months and owned or rented property with an annual value of twenty pounds could vote for the nineteen councillors who then selected the mayor and three aldermen. Sydney and Melbourne followed suit in 1842 when their City Councils were incorporated.

Perhaps because of its small area and compact nature of settlement, Victoria was the first colony to provide local government systematically for its entire area. The Local Government Act of 1874, not only abolished the old Roads Districts and provided regular income for councils in the form of rates and government grants, but also divided the whole colony into local government areas, thus facilitating the evolving process of municipal responsibility. Following separation from New South Wales in 1850, communities had been able to establish councils with responsibility for roads, tolls, rates and the formation of schools. The Municipal Institutions Act of 1854 had empowered local councils to provide museums, libraries, gardens and other places of recreation.

How They Have Grown!

The following anecdotes give an insight into the processes and issues involved in the development of local government in seven areas of settlement.

Goulburn, New South Wales:

Newly developing towns, which were fortunate enough to have a police presence and a magistrate, used these officials to deliver the services which today are the responsibility of local councils. Ransome Wyatt in the History of Goulburn, NSW recounted that in 1838 the dog nuisance was so bad that the Governor of New South Wales modified the Dog Act to include Goulburn. Ten years later, when dog catching was still the responsibility of the police, the local community was asked to subscribe towards a solid silver plate as a trophy to be presented to the constable who returned the most dog tails. The Goulburn Municipal Council, elected in 1859, was responsible for an area of 8230 acres with a revenue of 1316 pounds. Its formation heralded the demise of the pre-existing District Council and Market Commission.

Warrnambool, Victoria:

The story of Warrnambool in southern Victoria is told by Richard Osborne, the proprietor of the Warrnambool Examiner from 1851 to 1880. Crown lands in the Warrnambool area were first sold in 1847 in Melbourne, and expansion was rapid during the 1850s and 1860s when Warrnambool developed as an important port, and the area became one of the main grain growing centres in Victoria.

As early as 1850 the local residents convened a public meeting and appointed nine members to a Public Wants Committee, whose task was to keep pressure on the government particularly in relation to the provision of police protection. Agitation concerning the state of the roads resulted in the appointment of seven local citizens to form a Local Roads Committee. The Central Roads Board in Melbourne set aside 5500 pounds for construction work which was to be supervised by the committee. The local paper objected to the fact that residents had no say in the appointments, and in 1854 a public meeting created the Warrnambool District Roads Board. An Engineer/Secretary was employed in a salaried position and meetings held, first in a weatherboard house, then at Dooley's Telegraph Hotel. The first task was to cut a road through the hill between the town and the jetty. By 1866 the Board had an overdraft of 7800 pounds, so toll gates were introduced on major roads, but these lasted only three years because of public opposition.

Meanwhile the citizens campaigned for the establishment of a Municipal Council for which elections were held in 1856. The newly appointed Surveyor and Town Clerk was prepared to work for a year without a salary and allowed his office to be used by the Council. The Council returns to the government for 1858 listed the population at 1700 and the area of the Municipality at 3262 acres with 500 as disposable public land. Grants received to 1858 totalled 10,613 pounds, and rates contributed 2850 pounds, while 10,701 pounds had been spent on the construction and repair of streets.

Harbour improvements, a tram to run goods from the jetty, and the establishment of botanical gardens were on the Council’s agenda. The encroachment of sand on the town was becoming a major problem because of the destruction of coastal vegetation, and in response the Council undertook a vigorous re-vegetation program. Lengthy discussions were held at meetings about a suitable water supply for the town. Gas lighting was also on the agenda: despite agitation as early as 1859, it was not until 1875 that gas lighting was introduced by a private contracting company, which was taken over by the Council in 1881.

Lismore, New South Wales:

In the Australian Handbook and Almanac of 1875, Lismore is described as a money order village on the north arm of the Richmond River, a mainly pastoral area, with agriculture producing sugar, maize and potatoes, and a thriving timber industry exporting the plentiful cedar. Lismore, the Story of a North Coast City, records the proclamation of Lismore as a Municipality in 1879 following two years of fierce debate on the advantages of the move. Many residents opposed the expense of the rates which they would be required to pay, but others supported the prospects of improving the roads and decreasing the area’s reliance on individuals’ generosity. The community at large resented the lack of interest by the government, indicated by the fact that the local member for Clarence visited in 1879 for only the third time in 30 years. The move towards a municipality was supported as a means of increasing the prestige of Lismore as a centre for the Richmond River district, and the necessary petition was signed by 50 people who were likely to become rate payers. The Council was duly proclaimed and met in Dean's Hotel, the Commercial School and the School of Arts until the Council Chambers were completed in 1887. The first activities of the Works and Finance Committee were to level and gravel the roads, establish a free library, plan a park, and determine a site for a hospital. Drains were dug, and kerosene lamps provided for the town's streets, with aldermen, (councillors), often supervising the work themselves because of limited funds. A gas plant was installed in 1888, and the first gas lamp was lit on the corner of Woodlark and Molesworth Streets. Of course the rate-paying farmers gained no immediate benefit from this urban improvement.

The town had been waiting for two years for a government report before the Mayor moved in 1891 for the introduction of a sewerage system, but despite an outbreak of typhoid the following year the Council was reluctant to go further into debt. Constant efforts were made to have the size of the Municipality reduced, but an act of parliament would have been required, and the necessary co-ordination was lacking at this time. Issues, which highlighted the need for this co-ordination with adjoining councils, were the eradication of noxious weeds, and disposal and treatment of sewage.

Tenterfield, New South Wales.

In his book Call of the Highlands, the Tenterfield Story, Ken Halliday explains that Tenterfield was originally a station homestead around which a sufficient community congregated to warrant the establishment of a Court of Petty Sessions in 1847. Government policy allowed a town to be officially laid out once a court presence existed, so lots were surveyed and a plan submitted by the Surveyor General's office. The first land sales were held on 9 March 1854. Public meetings in 1868 and 1871 considered the proposal for incorporation of the town into a municipality and the first council was elected at the end of 1871. Road making was a top priority for the new council, especially the repair of a deep gully, which ran to the creek via Manners Street, and was nearly ten feet wide in sections of its course.

Guildford, Western Australia:

Guildford developed as a port and trading centre at the junction of the Swan and Helena Rivers. It serviced the settlements along the Swan Valley and its importance increased with the arrival of the railway in 1881. It was a prosperous agricultural and wine producing area: the first grapevine was said to have been planted as early as 1829. The Town Trust was established according to government requirements and road making took top priority. On 28 December 1863 the Trust applied to the Colonial Secretary's office for a party of prisoners to quarry stone for Guildford’s streets and requested that revenue from the licenses to cut timber in the Swan district be used to improve the town.

York, Western Australia:

The complex nature of early local government administration is illustrated by York, also in the Swan Valley. As early as 1843 a Roads Committee had supervised the area. It was replaced by a Roads Board which continued until 1961. The Municipality of York was formed in 1871. Those lucky enough to own a car in the early days could register it with either the Municipality of York or the Roads Board. The municipality became the Town of York in 1961. The Town Council, consisting of a Mayor and nine Councillors, controlled eighteen square kilometers; the Shire, consisting of a President and six members, controlled 2270 square kilometres. They amalgamated in the early 1960s to form the York Shire Council.

Perth, Western Australia:

Perth provides an interesting example of a city council's efforts to address the issues of water supply, drainage and sewage disposal. The government of the colony confined its efforts at water supply to the provision of wells at strategic points along public roads. It ensured the delivery of water to ships in port, and kept prisoners gainfully occupied in carting water from wells into the prisons. There its responsibility ceased. In 1869, the Perth Council appointed an Inspector of Nuisances who reported defective drains and cesspits in many of those areas fortunate enough to have them. Often cesspits and domestic wells, shared by several households, were situated in the same area. Small reticulated water systems were operating in Geraldton, Carnarvon and Fremantle by 1889. In that year the government passed the Water Works Act which gave local councils the power to construct waterworks and contract for a water supply. In response to this the Perth Council contracted with a private firm, and the city enjoyed reticulated water by 1891.

How the System Works

Although local government is important in the provision of services to all households, its adoption in remote, sparsely populated areas, has been much slower than in more densely settled areas. As late as the mid 1970s, 85 per cent of the area of South Australia was not incorporated. There are many more country municipalities than city ones, but they serve a smaller population and extend over wider areas. The smaller the population, the less income is generated, but all municipalities manage to provide basic recreational and community facilities, particularly libraries, although services sometimes depend on the contribution of voluntary community groups. Some municipalities manage to stretch the budget to animal pounds and car parks. In rural areas with substantial towns, facilities are more diverse, extending to immunisation services and subsidies for theatres. Priorities differ between states as well as between municipalities, with Queensland traditionally concerned with the availability of public works and Victoria with welfare services. All municipalities, however, are involved in road construction and maintenance, sewerage, drainage, and building permits.

In the case of expensive specialised services which are beyond the capacity of a municipality, a council may undertake to supervise the work on behalf of the state or Commonwealth government which provides the funds and the expertise. When the delivery of a service extends over several municipalities, the government often administers it through a larger body on which councils are represented.

The terms used to describe local government authorities differ from state to state, as do the qualifications for incorporation. The term ‘City’ is used in all states, but it does not necessarily imply that all cities have reached the same population or rate revenue threshold. The term ‘Town’ is used in half the states, and in Victoria a small town is known as a ‘Borough’. South Australia gives the name ‘District’ to its country municipalities, while the others call them ‘Shires’, with the exception of Tasmania. Here all areas are referred to as ‘Municipalities’, with the exception of the three major ‘Cities’.

The councils, which control the local government authorities, are elected by the residents but compulsory voting is not enforced in all states. The number of councillors and their terms of office vary: most councils average around ten representatives and they usually sit for three years. They have the power to pass by-laws which require the approval of the state government.

The council employs permanent staff to handle administration and enforcement procedures under the supervision of a Chief Executive Officer. A large council might have several departments such as Health, Welfare, Parks and Gardens, Building and Planning. It may also use committees to examine and report on particular issues.

The council’s existence is dependent on state legislation, and the state government of the day may dismiss a council if it is dissatisfied with its performance. The appointment of a commissioner is an option in some circumstances; in some states residents have the right to choose to have a commission instead of a council for a period of time.

Political Implications

Some councils are more influenced by political parties than others, especially those in the inner city suburbs where the Labor Party is active. In Brisbane, which is the largest municipality in the southern hemisphere, serving a population larger than that of the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory and Tasmania combined, political parties are involved in the campaigns for the City Council. Prospective councillors and mayoral candidates are elected along party lines, but this is not typical of the system generally. In September 1996, when television coverage was given to the South Australian government’s dissatisfaction with the Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Councillor Jim Soorley, Lord Mayor of Brisbane, responded that ‘It would be a brave government which sacked the Mayor of Brisbane’. He took the opportunity of the television exposure to reaffirm the importance of the institution of local government, expressing the view that ‘The states are not delivering! We need strong national government and expanded local government responsibility.’

The issue of the balance of power between the three tiers of government in Australia continues to be debated. Until Federation in 1901 each colony operated under a two-tier system of government, and a third tier was established at the top in the form of the Commonwealth government. The Australian Constitution, proclaimed at Federation, gave the Commonwealth prescribed powers. Many people consider that Australia is over governed: some would support the abolition of state governments, others regard local government as impotent; and yet others would be happy without the interference of the Commonwealth government, which they see as an isolated and high-handed bureaucracy. The balance between the three is an issue for judges and legislators, but also for all of us who put out our garbage bins each week.

Particular issues hit the headlines from time to time, for example, occasional moves by the federal government to increase the influence of local government at the expense of the states through special grants, and moves to make local government more professional, businesslike and cost effective. State governments in the 1990s required the amalgamation of numbers of municipalities in order to deliver services more efficiently, a move which aroused dissatisfaction and considerable opposition in those areas which were protective of their local identity and heritage.

When the fog clears from the debates and rhetoric, the people’s view of local government is certainly important. This is the mechanism which provides facilities for the cultural and recreational enjoyment of local communities and delivers our basic everyday services to the standards which our society expects. Australians have always appreciated the need to get in and ensure the job is done, and are rightly proud of what local government has achieved.


1 Australasian Builder and Contractor’s News, June 11, 1887, p. 79.

2 Australasian Builder and Contractor’s News, October 1, 1887, p. 333.


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