Three levels of government in Australia

There are 3 levels of government in Australia. They all have the power to make laws.

Federal Parliament

The Federal Parliament is the most powerful of all the governments. It is located in Canberra, Australia.

Power to Make Laws

Parliaments are law-making bodies (legislatures). Section 1 of chapter 1 of the Australian Constitution defines the federal Parliament’s power to make laws: ‘
The legislative power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a Federal Parliament’.
The section continues and defines the parliament as consisting of the Queen and two houses—thus a bicameral system:
‘ … which shall consist of the Queen, a Senate and House of Representatives’
. Finally this important first section names the Parliament:
‘and which is hereinafter called ‘The Parliament’, or ‘The Parliament of the Commonwealth’.
Section 51 of the same chapter lists 40 areas in which the federal Parliament is entitled to legislate. These law-making areas relate to matters of national interest such as: trade and commerce; postal, telephonic and like services; foreign relations; taxation; quarantine; fisheries; currency; copyright; marriage; immigration; defence etc.

State Parliaments

Australia has six parliaments at the state level and two territory parliaments. State and territory parliaments are located in each of Australia’s eight capital cities:

*Parliament of New South Wales located in Sydney
*Parliament of Victoria located in Melbourne
*Queensland Parliament located in Brisbane
*Parliament of Western Australia located in Perth
*Parliament of South Australian located in Adelaide
*Parliament of Tasmania located in Hobart
*Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly located in Canberra (and separate to the federal *Parliament)
*Northern Territory Legislative Assembly located in Darwin.

Power to Make Laws

State parliaments make laws that are enforced within the state of origin. In drafting the Australian Constitution the Founding Fathers defined federal powers under section 51, reserving most other law-making powers to the states. Generally speaking, if it is not in the Constitution, it is an area of state responsibility.

State laws generally relate to matters of state interest such as: schools and hospitals, roads and railways, utilities such as electricity and water supply, mining and agriculture.

State Parliaments are restricted to making laws in communication and defence areas.

On other matters the federal and state parliaments have concurrent powers. This means that both the Parliament of Australia and the state parliaments may make laws about the same things e.g. roads and health. However, section 109 of the Australian Constitution states that if a state law conflicts with a federal law then the federal law will prevail.

Local Councils

There are over 650 councils across Australia. The elected members of local councils are usually called councillors or aldermen while the chair of the council is usually called the mayor or president. These smaller legislative bodies make by-laws which relate to matters of local interest such as: local roads, parks and playgrounds, rubbish collection, library services, sporting fields, street signage and domestic animal regulation.

These bodies are funded through state parliaments by Acts of state parliaments.

Number of Members in Federal Parliament

There are currently 226 members of the Federal Parlaiment. 42 of those members are part of the executive government.


Until the 1850s, the six Australian colonies were run by a non elected governor appointed by the British government in London. After 1851, the British government began to hand over selected powers to the colonial governments in each colony. These governments evolved a system based on the British system which included elected members of parliament, an executive and a court system. During the 1890s the colonies’ people voted to hand over some rights and power to a central executive government, creating the Australian federation. In 1900 the Australian Constitution was agreed and in 1901 Australia’s federal and state parliaments began writing laws and their executive governments began administering them.

In 1911 the Australian executive passed laws to create the Northern Territory (NT) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). These territories are not yet states and are still partly controlled by the federal government. The ACT is unique in Australia because it has amalgamated local and state functions.


Australia is like other federations such as the United States, Canada, Germany, India and Malaysia all of which have three levels of governance at local, state and federal levels.

However, as law and law administration become more complicated the members of the federal, state and local executive are required to work cooperatively in order to solve problems. For example, road funding and construction might require funds from all levels even though the state owns the finished road. And of course executive government can only administer law according to the written word as passed by the parliament or council.

So if you:

*watch an interview with the minister for foreign affairs or defence, for example, you will be watching the federal Executive explain how its actions and decisions are consistent with federal law.
*discuss the services provided in schools or hospitals or housing you will be discussing the role of the state executive in implementing state law.
*receive a rates notice or your dog is impounded you will be seeing your local council by-laws being implemented by the council executive.
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