Three levels of government in Australia

Australia’s remarkably vibrant democracy has three levels of government. The three levels of government work collectively to provide citizens with the services they need.

The three levels are:

  • federal Parliament—makes laws for entire Australia
  • 6 state and 2 mainland territory parliaments—make laws for their respective state or territory
  • over 500 local councils—make by-laws (local laws) for their region or district.

How the federal and state parliaments work collectively is at times referred to as the division of powers. Each level of government has its own duties, although in some cases these duties are shared. Australians aged 18 years and above vote to elect representatives to territory, state and federal parliaments, and local councils for decision making on their behalf. This means Australian democracy is vibrant and citizens have someone to represent them at each level of government.


The instituting of the three levels of Australian government was a result of Federation in 1901, when the 6 British colonies –Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania – unified to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Till 1850s each colony was run by a non-elected governor, a British Parliament appointee.

By 1860 all the colonies except Western Australia, had been granted partial self-governance by Britain (Western Australia became self-governing only in 1890). Each had separate written constitution, parliament and laws, even though the British Parliament retained the power to make laws for the colonies and had the power to over-rule laws passed by the colonial parliaments. By 19th century end, many colonists felt the need for a national government to deal with issues such as trade, defence and immigration.

For Federation to take shape, it was essential to find a way to bond the colonies as a nation with a central or national government, while letting the colonial parliaments to maintain their authority. The Australian Constitution, which establishes the legal framework by which Australia is administered, resolved this issue by giving Australia a federal system of governance. This means power is shared between the state governments and federal Australian government.

Making laws

Federal Parliament

The Constitution instituted an Australian – federal – Parliament. The 227 members of the Australian Parliament –151 in the House of Representatives and 76 in the Senate – have the responsibility of making federal laws.

Description about the law-making powers of the federal Parliament is contained in Sections 51 and 52 of the Constitution. Section 51 lists 39 areas over which the federal Parliament enjoys legislative – law-making – power. These include:

  • international and Australian trade and commerce
  • defence
  • banking and insurance
  • postal and telecommunications services
  • foreign policy
  • taxation
  • citizenship
  • census and statistics
  • pensions
  • welfare payments
  • currency
  • national employment conditions
  • Medicare
  • marriage and divorce
  • immigration

Under section 51 of the Constitution, state parliaments are allowed to refer matters to the federal Parliament. That is, they can request the federal Parliament to enact laws about an issue that is otherwise a state responsibility. Any federal law then enacted about the issue only applies in the state or states who referred the matter to federal Parliament or who resolve to adopt the law.

Some powers listed in section 51 are shared by the federal Parliament with the state and territory parliaments. These powers are called concurrent. Some of the powers in section 51 are exclusive powers of the federal Parliament. Exclusive powers of the federal Parliament are also encompassed in sections 52, 86, 90, 114, 115 and 122.

State and territory parliaments

Australia has 6 state parliaments. 2 territory parliaments known as legislative assemblies are also prsent. These parliaments are present in Australia’s 8 capital cities. Each state except Queensland, has a parliament with 2 houses. The Queensland Parliament has solitary house – the Legislative Assembly – making it unicameral house. The Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory parliaments are also unicameral—both have one house termed the Legislative Assembly. The Australian Capital Territory is unique because its parliament combines the responsibilities of both a state and local government.


There are over 500 local government bodies across the nation. They are usually called councils, municipalities or shires. Local governments consist of 2 separate groups who serve the needs of local communities:

  • elected members, who usually have 4-year terms
  • staff who work for the council.

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