An introduction to local government

An overview of how local government works.

Why are local government elections important?

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 each year.

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.

Local government’s strength is its closeness to the community and its ability to take account of, and to respond to, local views and ideas.

Local government in Western Australia

The 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 associated 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:

  • The size of local governments ranges from less than 1.5 to over 370,000 square kilometres.
  • The populations of local government districts 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 1000.
  • In 2019-20 total revenue for local governments in Western Australia ranged from just over $2 million to just over $225 million.

Local governments are categorised as either:

  • shires, which are generally local governments with mainly rural populations;
  • towns, which are generally small (mainly urban) population centres; or
  • cities, with larger urban population centres.

Local governments’ power under legislation

The 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 their power is the Local Government Act 1995 (the Act).

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 other Acts, including 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 Act, 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 function).

Legislative function

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). Local governments can make local laws about health and safety, street trading, reserves and foreshores, signs, parking, cats and dogs, meeting procedures, and more.

Executive function

The 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 provision of a service or facility, a local government must satisfy itself that the service or facility integrates with State or Commonwealth services, does not inappropriately duplicate any State, Commonwealth or private service, and is managed efficiently and effectively.

Contemporary issues

The Act 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; and
  • respond to the growing demand for more efficient and effective local government.

In addition to dealing with 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?”

Revenue of a local government

To undertake activities, local governments need revenue. This is acquired from a variety of sources.

Rates

Rates are a tax on property. They form 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 that can be levied. Each local government then determines the amount and type of rate to levy.

Commonwealth Government financial assistance

Each 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 Commission.

Borrowings

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 insufficient.

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, including for services such as waste collection, providing security and for hire of facilities.

Council

The role of the Council, as prescribed by the Act, is that it:

  • 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

Mayor 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 shire council.

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;
  • liaise with the CEO on the local government’s affairs and the performance of its functions; and
  • provide leadership and guidance to the community.

The 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.

Note: 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.

Councillors

The role of each councillor, as prescribed by the Act, is to:

  • represent the interests of electors, ratepayers and residents;
  • provide leadership and guidance to the community;
  • facilitate communication between the community and the council;
  • participate in decision making processes at meetings; and
  • perform such other functions as are given to a councillor by the Act or any other written law.

Note: A councillor is a member of a team, shaping the district’s future in consultation with the community. Councillors represent the interests of all electors and residents. A councillor should consider the varying views of the community and then make decisions in the best interest of the whole district.

Councillor represent the community’s interests in many ways. They can pass on electors’ views, support initiatives, and report complaints and problems.

The representation of electors’ views is complicated in councils that operate under a ward system. A ward system occurs when the district is divided into sections for electoral purposes. For example, in the district of Ashburton there are six wards: Ashburton, Onslow, Pannawonica, Tableland, and Tom Price. A councillor has a duty to present the views of electors in his or her ward and to consider the good of the district as a whole when making a decision.

The values, characteristics, and commitments that are expected of a councillor include:

  • openness and transparency
  • honesty and integrity
  • tolerance and respect
  • equity and fairness
  • a commitment to attend meetings and be fully prepared to participate in the decision-making process
  • a collegiate approach to serving the community
  • a commitment to networking and community consultation
  • a willingness to listen to and consider other peoples’ views
  • awareness and management of conflicts of interest
  • preparedness to share the workload with other councillors.

CEO

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.

CEOs are selected by the council and are employed on a fixed term contract basis. This contract contains performance criteria which are evaluated by the council in the CEO’s performance review.

The CEO is the chief executive (non-elected) officer. 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.

The CEO acts as the conduit between council members and 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.

Page reviewed 30 August 2021