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Naturalisation ceremony at the Northam Town Hall, 1955  SLWA BA1728/165

Photo: Naturalisation ceremony at the Northam Town Hall, 1955 SLWA BA1728/165

From humble beginnings, essentially starting from scratch with limited revenue, infrastructure and capacity, local government has developed over those 150 years to be an integral part of contemporary community life, employing thousands of people and providing vital and valued services to the community.

The needs of the developing colony of Western Australia for some form of localised government was first recognised in the 1838 ‘Act to provide for the Management of Roads, Streets, and other Internal Communications, within the Settlement of Western Australia’.

This was the first in series of legislative experiments in how roads should be funded and provided in the colony. There were town trusts and a general road trust, the forerunners of our first councils, but these were heavily constrained and had limited success.

They were replaced in 1871 with eight municipalities and 21 road districts, overseen by an elected council or board. Municipalities had broad responsibilities while the role of the roads boards was rather limited: ‘the conservation, improvement, and making of all roads, and the erection, preservation, and repairs of new or existing bridges’.

On 24 January 1871, the District Roads Act, 1871 came into effect in January 1871, and 18 road districts were formally established covering the whole colony.

On 21 February 1871, the Municipal Institutions’ Act, 1871 came into effect creating six original municipalities (additional to Perth): Fremantle, Guildford, Bunbury, Busselton, Albany, and Geraldton.

From 25 local governments in 1871, the number expanded dramatically with the development of the colony during the Gold Rush era to 138 by 1902. The first amalgamation was in 1911 (Bulong), as the number of Goldfields councils reduced just as local government in the Wheatbelt started to expand. Councils have come and gone over the years but today there are still 137 in WA despite previous attempts to reduce the number.

Local government has changed dramatically over the years in terms of funding, role and function. The first District Roads’ Act, 1871, was very much a ‘lite’ form of local government running to just 12 pages.

Voting and representation has changed as well, from exclusively male property owners in the beginning to a more diverse constituency based on a universal franchise.

Dr Chris Berry’s book, ‘To Dwell in Unity: A history of local government in Western Australia’, will be released later this year. It has been supported by the department, and WALGA.


Page reviewed 06 May 2022