Why do local elections count?
Local government is an
integral part of the system of government both in Western Australia and
nationally. It is also an economically crucial sector as local
governments in Western Australia spend close to five billion dollars
Local government is the “grass roots” level of
government in Australia. Its council members are ideally placed to
monitor the changing needs of local communities, to plan and implement
strategies to meet those needs, and to bring local concerns to the
attention of the State and Commonwealth Governments.
government’s strength is its closeness to the community and its ability
to take account of, and to respond to, local views and ideas.
The Western Australian picture
State is divided into districts, each with its own local government.
Currently, there are 137 local governments in Western Australia. The Local Government Act 1995
and its regulations also apply to the Commonwealth Indian Ocean
Territories comprising the Shires of Christmas and Cocos (Keeling)
Islands. Local governments vary greatly in their characteristics.
Recent statistics indicate that:
- the size of local governments ranges from less than 1.5 to over 370,000 square kilometres;
- the populations of local government areas range from just over 100 to more than 220,000;
- the number of staff employed in each local government varies from less than 10 to over 1,000; and
2017-18 total revenue for local governments in Western Australia ranged
from just over $2 million to just under $225 million.
governments are defined in three categories – Shires, which are
generally local governments with mainly rural populations; Towns, which
are generally small (mainly urban) population centres; and Cities, with
larger urban population centres.
Local governments’ power under legislation
powers of local governments to provide services and facilities, and
make local laws, are derived from legislation passed in the State
Parliament. The principal Act from which local governments gain power is
the Local Government Act 1995 (the Act).
provides for a system of local government by creating a constitution for
elected local government in the State. It describes the functions of
local governments, how elections should be conducted and establishes a
framework for the administration and financial management of local
governments, including the scrutiny of their affairs.
Local governments also derive powers from numerous other Acts. Of these, the most prominent are the Public Health Act 2016, which vests wide ranging powers in local governments to ensure the health of each community is safeguarded, and the Planning and Development Act 2005, which gives local governments the power to prepare local planning schemes and ensure orderly development.
Other important statutes include the Bush Fires Act 1954, the Cemeteries Act 1986, the Dog Act 1976, the Cat Act 2011 and the Environmental Protection Act 1986.
General power to provide good government
Under the Local Government Act 1995,
local governments have the general power to provide for the good
governance of people in their district. This means that local
governments can make decisions if the Act or any other written law does
not prevent them from doing so. A local government can make local laws
(legislative function) and provide services and facilities (executive
A local government can
make a local law for the good governance of the people in its district.
However, a local law will be inoperative to the extent that it is
inconsistent with any other written law (for instance, because there is
already a similar State law covering the same area).
governments can make local laws about health and safety, street trading,
reserves and foreshores, signs, parking, cats and dogs, and much more.
executive functions of local government include the administration of
local laws and the provision of services and facilities. A local
government can provide any service or facility that is necessary or
convenient for the good governance of the people in its district or for
the performance of any other function under the Act.
before commencing a service or providing a facility, a local government
must satisfy itself that the service or facility it provides integrates
with State or Commonwealth services, does not duplicate inappropriately
any State, Commonwealth or private service, and is managed efficiently
The Local Government Act 1995
gives local governments freedom to make decisions for their
communities, promotes public participation, and demands accountability,
efficiency and effectiveness in local government. This requires
strategic thinking by local government, including how to:
- best respond to community needs;
- ensure public participation and accountability in local government processes;
- respond to the growing demand for more efficient and effective local government.
addition to dealing with constantly changing legislative requirements
and reforms, local governments are asking themselves, “What is the best
way to organise physical, financial and human resources to achieve a
competitive and productive organisation that meets the needs and desires
of the community we serve?” Reform can involve changes to the
boundaries of local governments, resource sharing, and competitive
tendering to name but a few.
Revenue of a local government
To undertake activities, local governments need revenue, which is acquired from a variety of sources.
Rates are a tax on property and forms the principal source of revenue for many local governments. The Local Government Act 1995 and the Valuation of Land Act 1978
prescribe the methods for assessing the rateable value of property and
the types of rates which can be levied. Each local government then
determines the amount and type of rate to levy.
Commonwealth Government financial assistance
local government in Western Australia receives an annual grant from the
Commonwealth Government. This money is allocated and distributed to
local governments by the Western Australian Local Government Grants
Local governments can borrow
money. They may take up loans to embark on large scale capital
activities for which normal rates and other sources of revenue are
Fees and charges
Most local governments
receive a small percentage of their income from fees and charges. Local
governments can impose a fee or a charge in a range of circumstances.
These circumstances include:
- use of, or admission to, facilities owned, managed or maintained by the local government;
- supply of a service or work at a person’s request;
- supply of goods;
- provision of information from records;
- receiving an application for approval, inspecting or issuing a licence or permit.
local government can also impose a service charge on owners or
occupiers of land within the district or a defined part of the district.
A common example of a service charge is to meet the cost of placing
Local governments have some scope for being involved in commercial enterprises to generate revenue.
Where does council fit in? The structure of local government
A local government is made up of several components.
community comprises electors that include residents, non-resident
property owners, and non-resident property occupiers. Other members of
the community include workers, visitors, and users of facilities who
live outside the local government. All decisions made by a local
government should be aimed at meeting the needs of the community.
council is the governing body of a local government. It is made up of
councillors and a mayor or president. The number of council members can
vary from six to fifteen.
Each local government is a corporate
body. All power to act for the local community is vested in this legal
entity. It can sue and be sued.
Many local governments appoint
committees to share the decision-making work as well as using expertise
effectively. These committees can include council members, staff from
the local government and members of the public.
governments employ staff to administer the local government. The Chief
Executive Officer (CEO) heads the administration and manages the day to
day operations of the local government and implements council policies
Roles of council, mayor or president and councillor
The roles of key people within the local government structure have been carefully defined by the Local Government Act 1995.
- governs the local government’s affairs;
- is responsible for the performance of the local government’s functions;
- oversees the allocation of the local government’s finances and resources; and
- determines the local government’s policies.
Mayor or president
is the title given to the chief elected officer of a city or town
council. President is the title given to the chief elected officer of a
The role of the mayor or president is to:
- preside at council meetings (ensure meetings are conducted in a correct and orderly manner while remaining impartial);
- carry out civic and ceremonial duties (such as conducting citizenship ceremonies);
- speak on behalf of the local government as a corporate entity;
- liaise with the CEO on the local government’s affairs and the performance of its functions; and
- provide leadership and guidance to the community.
role of a mayor or president also includes the role of a councillor. A
mayor or president has no authority to make decisions as an individual
other than to authorise expenditure in an emergency.
Mayors or presidents may be elected either by the members of the
council for two years, or by the electors of the district for four
years. A mayor or president has the same ‘deliberative’ vote as other
councillors. However, the mayor or president must cast a second vote
(that is, a deciding vote) if the vote on a matter is tied.
- represent the interests of electors, ratepayers and residents;
- provide leadership and guidance to the community;
- facilitate communication between the community and the council and vice versa; and
- participate in decision making processes at meetings.
The staff of a local government
Each local government must employ a CEO and staff to:
- advise council members on matters under discussion;
- administer the day to day operations of the local government; and
- carry out the policies of council and implement its decisions.
are ultimately selected by the council and are generally employed on a
fixed term contract basis. This contract contains performance criteria
which are evaluated by the council in the CEO’s performance review on an
The CEO is the chief executive (non-elected) officer and his or her function is to:
- advise council in relation to the local government’s functions;
- ensure that information is available to council to guide decisions ;
- cause council decisions to be implemented;
- manage the day to day operations of the local government;
- liaise with the mayor or president on the local government’s affairs and performance of functions;
- speak on behalf of the local government if the mayor or president agrees;
- be responsible for the employment, management, supervision, direction and dismissal of other employees; and
- ensure that the records and documents of the local government are properly kept.
CEO acts as the conduit between the council members and the council
staff. All other council staff, including engineers, planners, financial
managers, administrators and outside workers, ultimately receive their
direction from, and are responsible to, the CEO. Council members acting
individually do not have the authority to influence the activities,
duties and operations of these staff directly.
How does it all come together?
The local government’s council and staff
local government is the corporate body. Council members are the elected
policy and decision makers. Staff provide information, advice and carry
out the council’s decisions.
electors of each district include residents and non-resident owners and
occupiers of rateable land. Although incoming workers, visitors and
tourists are not electors, it should be noted that local governments
still have a role to provide services and facilities for these people.