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Federal, state, local—who's in charge of what?

Confused about who's in charge of police? recycling? buses? You've come to the right place.

Submitted 4/3/2006 By actnow Views 77289 Comments 0 Updated 10/20/2008

Photographer : Tiredcynic

Who’s in charge of what?

In Australia, there are three levels of government working for you: local, state or territory, and federal. Each level works differently, and has different responsibilities. Some responsibilities are only handled by one level of government, though often the responsibilities overlap. For example, all three levels of government manage roads, public health, education, sport, taxes, and the environment, but on different scales. So who’s in charge of what? Find out here.

Federal government

The Commonwealth (or Australian) Government (also described as the federal government) is based in Canberra and is probably the most visible of the three levels of government. Its responsibilities are written in the Australian Constitution.

The Commonwealth handles ‘big picture’ issues. These include:
  • advertising regulations
  • broadcasting
  • currency
  • defence
  • immigration
  • international treaties and policy
  • marriage
  • quarantine
  • telecommunications
  • trade.

When Commonwealth responsibilities overlap with those of state or territory and local governments, the Commonwealth usually takes a national role. For example, it handles:
  • roads by managing national highways
  • public health by managing Medicare and drug control
  • education by funding universities and the National Library
  • sport by supporting national teams
  • taxes by collecting income tax and various levies and excise (such as tobacco, alcohol, fuel)
  • environment by enacting policies regarding large environmental and pollution issues.

State or territory government

All the responsibilities not explicitly given to the Commonwealth Government in the Constitution are given to state or territory governments. These governments are based in state and territory capitals, and handle issues like:
  • agriculture and fishing
  • law enforcement
  • state planning
  • policing
  • power, gas, water and sewerage
  • prisons
  • public transport.

They also share responsibilities with the other levels of government, but concentrate on a state level. For example state and territory governments handle:
  • roads by managing major state roads
  • public health by managing hospitals and ambulance services
  • education by funding public primary and secondary schools, as well as public state libraries
  • sport by managing major events (like the Commonwealth Games)
  • taxes by collecting GST, payroll tax, land tax and stamp duties
  • environment by enacting policies that protect the environment on a state level, as well as waste management and recycling.

Local government

Your local government is based in your city, municipality or shire, and works with issues at a community level. The power of local governments is controlled by Acts of state or territory parliaments such as the Local Government Acts.

A local government is responsible for handling local issues like:
  • building approvals
  • car parks
  • community facilities (like toilets)
  • domestic animals
  • restaurant health inspections
  • town planning
  • trees and footpaths.

Local governments also handle:
  • roads by managing local bus stops and street signs
  • public health by managing local services such as Meals on Wheels
  • education by funding local kindergartens and preschools, as well as local libraries
  • sport by managing local playgrounds and sporting fields
  • taxes by collecting rates depending on the value of your property
  • environment by enacting policies protecting the local environment, as well as garbage collection.