Roles and responsibilities of different government levels

Australia is a Federation. In other words, the country is co-governed by the State and Federal Governments, which have different areas of responsibility. It's important to know which government is responsible for the area that you're running a campaign in.

These responsibilities are set out in Section 51 of the Australian Constitution. The Federal government is broadly responsible for:

  • Foreign affairs
  • The defence of Australia
  • Trade and commerce with other countries, and among the states
  • Trading or financial corporations
  • Conciliation and arbitration for the prevention and settlement of industrial disputes extending beyond the limits of any one state
  • Marriage, divorce & parental rights, and the custody and guardianship of infants
  • Pensions of all kinds - maternity allowances, widows' pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental services, benefits to students and family allowances, invalid and old-age pensions
  • The people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws
  • Postal (Australia Post), telegraphic, telephonic (Telstra), and other like services (television, the internet)
  • A long list of minor matters such as bankruptcy and insolvency, naturalisation and citizenship, immigration and emigration, quarantine, the census, the mint, weights and measures, copyrights and patents, customs and tariffs, fisheries, astronomical and meteorological observations, lighthouses, lightships, beacons and buoys, and the influx of criminals.

Anything not mentioned in Section 51 is known as a "residual" power, which theoretically means that the states are responsible for it.

The reality, however, is that there's a lot of overlap between the responsibility of the Commonwealth and the states. It's also important to note that the Federal Government is generally considered to have the upper hand in this division of power.

It is generally accepted that over time the Federal Government has increased its powers. It has done this in two key ways. Firstly, it collects the vast majority of tax in the country. Under Section 96 of the Constitution, the Federal Government can use things called "tied grants" to distribute the revenue it has collected for the states; however, this money usually comes with conditions on how to spend that money, so while the states may administer that money, they do so under conditions set by the Federal Government. Very occasionally, these conditions lead to state governments refusing the money. The amount of tax collected by the Federal Government and distributed to the states has increased with the introduction of the GST.

The Federal Government has also increased its powers is through High Court decisions. The High Court decides constitutional cases, and is therefore the highest court in Australia. Its judges are appointed by the Federal Government. The High Court has ruled that the Commonwealth Government has power to legislate on anything involving corporations, which means almost everything, and Canberra is extending its claims under this head year by year to cover areas such as universities and water.

If there's a conflict between state legislation and federal legislation, federal legislation overrules state.

Local Government

The Australian constitution doesn't mention local governments. Generally speaking they're created by state legislation, but they aren't featured in, or protected by, state constitutions. This means that local governments can be changed at will by the state governments and are accountable to them. Essentially they play the role of service providers - while the state government is responsible for childcare, it's local governments that administer the childcare centres.

Local governments are generally responsible for locality-specific issues such as rubbish collection, road maintenance, beautification, and community facilities.

Advocating at the right level

With this information in mind you should now have a pretty good idea of the level of governance that you need to address when running your campaign. However, be sure to keep in mind all the conditions mentioned in this help sheet. You may be campaigning for an issue that the State Government has responsibility for, but you may know that the Federal Government is more sympathetic to your cause (or vice versa). In such a case it may be better to lobby the Federal Government to add conditions to its "tied grants" in order to achieve your aims.

To find out who represents you at the Federal, State and Local levels see the Your representatives page.

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